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Spurs muck up flexibility to keep aging team intact

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Spurs have an in-his-prime superstar capable of leading a team a championship.

They’re making it much harder for Kawhi Leonard to do so – not just in 2018, but in 2019 and even 2020, as well.

The dream of Chris Paul invigorating a team that might have already peaked? Poof. San Antonio’s Paul pursuit blew up before free agency even began, Paul opting in for a trade to the Rockets. No other star free agent appeared close to joining the Spurs, either.

The backup plan of rolling over cap space to next summer, maybe even having enough to lure two max players to join Leonard? San Antonio didn’t even appear interested.

A a 37-year-old Pau Gasol, who opted out of a $16,197,500 salary when it appeared the Spurs could lure an upgrade with cap space, was rewarded with $39.5 million guaranteed when they struck out. Franchise icon Tony Parker, 35 and injured, stays on the books at his $15,453,126 salary – potentially a complicating factor all along in San Antonio’s ability to clear max cap space for Paul. Even 29-year-old Patty Mills (four years, $50 million) could wind up hurting flexibility more than he helps on the court as he ages.

It’s difficult to judge the Spurs, who kept their primary plan – assuming there was one better than this – close to the vest. What if they had a 90% chance of landing Paul and promising Gasol such a large raise in the event Paul signed elsewhere was the only way to get Gasol to opt out? Gasol’s new contract would just be the unfortunate cost of a savvy gamble.

But it seems unlikely Paul was anywhere near that certain. And did Gasol really require such a big raise to opt out and give San Antonio a chance to add talent, especially in such a tight center market?

Making him whole with an identical 2017-18 salary on a one-year contract seemed fair. Adding a second season at $16.8 million is shockingly bad. Guaranteeing $6.7 million of $16 million in 2019-20 is nearly beyond belief.

Plenty of people believe Gasol could be moved next summer if necessary to sign a major free agent, and he could be. But I’d be shocked if it’s at value, and there’s little virtue in signing expensive contracts that will require significant sweeteners attached to be dumped. I’d also be surprised if paying Gasol $16 million 2019-20 is appealing, though it’s not as if paying him $6.7 million not to play is ideal, either.

This is simply an awful contract – maybe one offered out of necessity after bad luck, though I doubt it. Either way, I’m grading the team’s situation change, not the logic that got them there.

The Spurs not only whiffed this summer, whether they have any cap next summer is tied to player options for LaMarcus Aldridge ($22,347,015), Danny Green ($10 million), Rudy Gay ($8,826,300) and Joffrey Lauvergne ($1,656,092). It’ll be fascinating which of those players San Antonio wants to opt in or out.

Gay for the mid-level exception was the big outside signing this year, and he carries name recognition. But he’s 31 and fewer than eight months removed from a torn Achilles. It’d hardly be surprising if the Spurs tap his talent, but I’m skeptical – especially because they need his athleticism.

San Antonio lost a pair of athletic defenders in Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons. Neither seemed to endear himself to Gregg Popovich, but they’ll be missed.

So will Parker, at least to begin the season (probably). Mills had already become San Antonio’s best point guard, and he’ll still have Manu Ginobili (re-signed for two years, $5 million) as a passing/ball-handling crutch. But that leaves other minutes at point guard to No. 29 pick Derrick White or Dejounte Murray, last year’s first-rounder who’s even younger than White. The return of an already-declining Parker won’t necessarily fortify the position, either.

Leonard’s two-way excellence and Popovich’s coaching led a middling supporting cast to 61 wins and a 23-point lead in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals last season. Then, Leonard got hurt, and the wheels fell off in a Warriors sweep. Did Zaza Pachulia undercut a San Antonio championship? Maybe.

But that opportunity is gone, and the Spurs can’t simply recreate it. Retaining the oldest pieces from last year’s squad – the oldest to win a playoff series – won’t ensure another, ideally healthier, crack at Golden State. So much of San Antonio’s roster will decline with age.

The Spurs will probably win a lot of games again. They might even return to the conference finals. Knowing them, White and small-time signees Lauvergne and Brandon Paul will blossom into excellent rotation players.

San Antonio probably deserves the benefit of the doubt, but I’m grading what I see: A good team with a young superstar stagnating rather than building him a championship-caliber supporting cast – and inhibiting its ability to do so in future years.

Offseason grade: D

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.

Under new anti-tampering rules, Adam Silver empowered to suspend execs, take away picks, void contracts

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LeBron James publicly courted Anthony Davis. Many free agents seemingly struck deals before free agency even began. Kawhi Leonard‘s uncle/advisor reportedly sought prohibited extra benefits from teams.

The NBA finally reached its breaking point on tampering and circumvention.

After late apprehension, the league will enact stricter enforcement.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m not surprised this passed unanimously. NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted this to happen and wasn’t going to have owners vote unless he knew it’d pass. At that point, any protest-voting owners would just put themselves at odds with the commissioner. Not worth it.

We’ll see how long this crackdown lasts. I think that anonymous general manager represents many. If nobody is tampering, it’s fine not to tamper. But if some teams tamper, nobody wants to be at a disadvantage.

This could slowly creep back toward the old status quo. But if there’s a clear violator early, Silver will have an opportunity to send a message. We’ll see whether he takes it.

This should be less about which communication is or isn’t allowed. It’s about fairness.

That’s why it’s important the NBA has rules it will enforce and only rules it will enforce. That hasn’t been the case. If it is now, this will be a success.

Knicks’ offseason a giant flop

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

In the midst of agreeing to sign Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock, the Knicks released a statement.

“While we understand that some Knicks fans could be disappointed with tonight’s news, we continue to be upbeat and confident in our plans to rebuild the Knicks to compete for championships in the future, through both the draft and targeted free agents,” Knicks president Steve Mills said.

This is as close as we’ll ever get to a team apologizing for its transactions in real time.

What an embarrassment.

Knicks owner James Dolan went on TV in March and strongly suggested top free agents would sign with the Knicks this summer. Everyone inferred Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Instead, Durant and Irving signed with the crosstown Nets without even meeting with the Knicks. The Knicks pathetically put out word they didn’t offer Durant the max due to his injury (as if they would’ve balked had he actually wanted to come) and cancelled a meeting with Kawhi Leonard, who was never coming.

All New York’s planning – stretching Joakim Noah, trading Kristaps Porzingis to clear salary, hyping itself – went to waste on mediocre free agents.

At least the Knicks remain flexible. It’s just tough to see how they turn that flexibility into winning.

Dolan said no incumbent players will become the centerpiece. New York is already acknowledging how disappointing the newly signed free agents look.

That leaves a lot of pressure on No. 3 pick R.J. Barrett, himself a disapointment.

Despite an 86% chance of not getting the No. 1 pick, Knicks fans treated Zion Williamson as a near-inevitability. He was viewed as the rightful reward for a miserable 17-65 season.

This was the wrong lottery to slip. There’s a huge drop in prospect quality from Williamson to Ja Morant to Barrett. Barrett profiles as a leading player, and maybe he’ll be good enough to fill that role on a good team. But this draft was always going to leave the third-picking team with unreliable options.

Randle (three years, $56.7 million with $4 million of $19.8 million guaranteed in year three) was the big addition in free agency. He’ll put up numbers. He’s also only 24 and has shown improvement throughout his career. Maybe he’ll develop defensively and better contribute to winning. Still, it’ll take major modifications to their games for Randle and Barrett to flourish together long-term.

Not that this team represents much of whatever the Knicks are building toward.

Portis ($15 million), Gibson ($9 million), Ellington ($8 million), Payton ($8 million) and Bullock ($4 million) look like stopgaps. After those starting salaries, each has a barely/unguaranteed second season. They all look like trade chips, though most must exceed expectations on the court to hold more than neutral value. Ellington looks like the best deal.

Really, the short contract I like most is Marcus Morris‘ (one year, $15 million). New York signed him after Bullock failed his physical and agreed to a smaller contract. I don’t know why the Knicks prioritized so many other players over Morris, who committed to the Spurs before Bullock’s spine injury gave New York more cap space.

The Knicks could really use a young player like Porzingis now. He’d provide plenty of optimism amid their listless present.

Still, New York can still come out ahead in the Porzingis trade. He was an injury-prone player on the verge of getting a max contract. The Knicks got a couple extra first-rounders.

But clearing Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s an Courtney Lee‘s burdensome contracts was a key part of the trade. That aspect has now gone for naught.

New York is heading toward another lost season. A weak free agent class follows. It’ll take a while for the Knicks to build back up.

This summer – which the Knicks began with the best lottery position, massive cap space and a premier market – was a huge missed opportunity. Even getting past the New York noise and the misplaced expectations this franchise incites, that burns.

Offseason grade: D