51Q: How much will Tim Duncan’s retirement change the Spurs?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Who leads the Spurs with Tim Duncan gone?

Pau Gasol described the leadership situation he found since signing with the Spurs this summer. He talked of vocal leaders and leaders by example. He mentioned Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili by name.

“But the main leader of the team, as we all know,” Gasol said, “is Popovich.”

I was taken aback. I expected Gasol to finish that sentence with “was Duncan.” After all, Popovich has credited Duncan time and time again with running the team.

Gasol is not influenced by previous setups, though. A newcomer in San Antonio, he sees Popovich as the compass.

“He dictates the pace and the terms, and everyone kind of follows that path,” Gasol said. “And that’s just how it is. And so I think it’s a great way to be, because everyone respects him. Everyone buys in.”

Duncan and Popovich were the ultimate partnership. They worked together for 19 years, winning five championships, 35 playoff series and 1,001 regular-season games. It was a relationship of not just mutual respect, but mutual excellence.

By working hard, remaining focused and competing relentlessly, Duncan defined the Spurs’ identity. He set a tone that made it easier for Popovich to coach, setting an example for the entire team to follow.

Popovich rewarded Duncan’s devotion with supreme game-planning. It’s easier to buy into a coach who provides a strategic advantage.

I’d argue Popovich is correct, that Duncan did more for him than vice versa. But perhaps Duncan provided one final gift – leaving an imprint so deep, the culture he helped create remains in tact after his retirement with Popovich at the helm.

“I guess I’m fairly demonstrative,” Popovich said. “The guys know what I want. I’m not like the leader. I’m there to point them in the right direction if I think something is needed. But I depend on Timmy and Manu and Tony in the past to do that. Now, it’s turning into a situation where Manu and Tony are still there doing it, but they’re passing it on to LaMarcus, to Kawhi and hopefully Pau.

The torch has already been passed to Kawhi Leonard as the team’s top player, and LaMarcus Aldridge played better than Duncan last year. But Duncan still contributed dependably to last year’s 67-win team.

Duncan has often been lumped in with Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett as all-time greats who retired this year. But Duncan remained productive, ranking second in the NBA in defensive Real Plus-Minus last season. Even his postseason struggles against the Thunder were as likely due to a bad matchup as an irreversible decline. Kobe and Garnett were washed up when they hung ’em up. The Lakers and Timberwolves won’t be worse on the court due to losing either. That’s not the case with the Spurs. You can’t fret over, say, the Cavaliers losing Matthew Dellavedova and ignore the on-court effects of San Antonio losing Duncan.

Gasol will be an offensive upgrade with better touch and passing. The downturn will come on the other end. Gasol blocks shots well at the rim, but his overall defense is problematic, because he’s so stationary. He gets position at the rim only so often.

This will be an excellent test of where Duncan ended and Popovich began. Duncan’s defense remained superb late in his career, because he positioned himself so well. He didn’t need to sprint all over the court, because he knew where to go before everyone else.

If that was all Duncan’s intelligence, the Spurs will miss him greatly. But if Popovich’s system puts defenders in the right spot, Gasol could be more than adequate.

When he meets a shooter at the rim, Gasol is pretty good. He just doesn’t get there often enough.

Popovich said the defensive system will not change. It’s up to Gasol to fill Duncan’s shoes on that end the best he can.

Not that Gasol feels that burden.

“I don’t look at myself as I come here as a replacement for Tim Duncan, because no one can replace Tim Duncan,” Gasol said. “Not me, not LaMarcus, not any other talented player in the league. Tim Duncan has been icon in San Antonio, probably the best power forward to ever play the game. So, just plain and simple. Now, here, what we’ve got to do, individually and collectively, is do our best to give ourselves a chance to win a title.”

San Antonio lost its standard bearer and a pretty good player. Neither aspect should be minimized.

Can the Spurs maintain the same goal and realistically contend for a championship without him?

Though many of the pieces — Popovich, Parker, Ginobili, Leonard and Aldridge — remain in place, it’s a new era in San Antonio. Losing Duncan alone changes so much. We’ll soon see just how much.

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.

PBT Podcast: Timberwolves without KAT, get Luka some help


Minnesota has stumbled out of the gate this season, and now they will be without Karl-Anthony Towns for around a month with a calf strain. Just how much trouble are the Timberwolves in?

Corey Robinson from NBC Sports and myself discuss that and then get into Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team USA vs. Team World matchup — does Evan Fournier get the world team in trouble? Who guards whom?

From there, it’s time for Corey’s Jukebox and some New Orleans jazz for Zion Williamson. Some Mavericks’ talk follows that — Dallas has put a big load on the shoulders of Luka Doncic, and while he’s playing like an MVP it’s a long-term concern for the Mavericks and their fans.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

LeBron calls out reporters for asking him about Kyrie Irving but not Jerry Jones


Within days of Kyrie Irving being suspended by the Nets in the wake of a Tweet promoting an antisemitic film (and his initial refusal to apologize for it), Irving’s former teammate LeBron James was asked about it. He had to deal with the controversy, saying, “I don’t condone any hate to any kind. To any race.”

At the end of his press conference Wednesday night after the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers, LeBron scolded the assembled press for not asking him about the 1957 photo that surfaced of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones outside North Little Rock High School while white students protested the integration of the school when they had been quick to ask about Irving.

“When I watched Kyrie talk, and he says, `I know who I am, but I want to keep the same energy when we’re talking about my people and the things they’ve been through,’ and that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America. And I feel like as a Black man, as a Black athlete, someone with power and with a platform, when we do something wrong or something that people don’t agree with, it’s on every single tabloid, every single news coverage. It’s on the bottom ticker. It’s asked about every single day.

“But it seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation, the photo, and I know it was years and years ago, and we all make mistakes, I get it. It seems like it’s just been buried under, like, `Oh, it happened. OK. We just move on.’ And I was just kind of disappointed that I haven’t received that question from you guys.”

Irving and LeBron were teammates in Cleveland and won a ring together, there was a direct connection (plus Irving had been linked to the Lakers in trade rumors over the summer).

However, there was a connection between LeBron and the Cowboys as well. LeBron was for many years a very public Cowboys fan (despite growing up in Browns territory). It came up as recently as October, when LeBron was on Instagram Live promoting his HBO show with Maverick Carter “The Shop” and he said he had stopped rooting for the Cowboys in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests, “There’s just a lot of things that were going on when guys were kneeling. Guys were having freedom of speech and wanting to do it in a very peaceful manner…. The organization was like, ‘If you do that around here, then you will never play for this franchise again.’ I just didn’t think that was appropriate.”

When asked about the photo, Jones said he was a curious 14-year-old who was watching and didn’t understand the magnitude of the moment or situation.

Watch Russell Westbrook drain two buzzer-beaters against Blazers


The Portland Trail Blazers had to know it was not their night when Russell Westbrook knocked down a buzzer-beating step-back 3-pointer just before the half.

Westbrook wasn’t done, he had one more buzzer-beater in him at the end of the third.

Westbrook wasn’t the only guy in the building draining half-courters — for the second-straight game a Laker fan knocked down a half-court shot, this time to win $25,000.

It was a good night all around for the Lakers and their fans at home against the shorthanded Trail Blazers. They got 31 points from LeBron James, plus 27 points and 12 boards from Anthony Davis. Austin Reaves added in 22, and the Lakers took control in the third and cruised in for a needed win.