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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

DeMarcus Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior is a monster jam

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LOS ANGELES — DeMarcus Cousins sure looked his hops are back on this throw down.

Cousins started for the Warriors Friday night after missing almost a full year with a torn Achilles, and on the Warriors first possession they fed him the rock in the post. Cousins faced up on Marcin Gortat, drove baseline with a nice first step, but got caught under the basket and couldn’t power it up through the Clipper big, getting his shot blocked.

Nobody was blocking his next shot.

It was a side pick-and-roll where Gortat had to cut off Durant’s drive, but Danilo Gallinari didn’t tag into the middle to cut off Cousins’ roll (or, made the business decision not to). The result was an impressive first bucket for DeMarcus as a Warrior.

Cousins’ first shift was three minutes long. He’s on a minutes restriction for a while.

D’Angelo Russell drops 40 on Magic including shot that put Nets up for good

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D'Angelo Russell is playing like a guy in a contract year. And that’s just fine with Brooklyn.

Russell tied his career best with 40 points Friday night against the Magic, including hitting the shot that put the Nets up for good on the night with 27 seconds remaining. Russell was 16-of-25 shooting, including 8-of-12 from three, and he was an analytics dream — Russell took all but one of his shots either in the paint or from three.

The Nets — now 24-23 on the season and the sixth seed in the East — came from 21 back to get the win and that included their guards hitting the big shots at the end.

First up was Spencer Dinwiddie.

Then came Russell’s shot that proved to be the game winner.

With the Nets extending Dinwiddie during the season, it’s unlikely Russell returns to Brooklyn next season, but a number of teams are interested in him as a free agent (restricted, the Nets can match if the offer is low).

Report: Isaiah Thomas could return to Nuggets right before All-Star break

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The Denver Nuggets have shown off their depth this season. Three starters — Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap — have missed a chunk of time and yet until a few days ago the Nuggets were the top seed in the West, and they are still a clear second.

And all of that without Isaiah Thomas, their biggest name reserve. He has been recovering from hip surgery last March.

The Nuggets are hoping Thomas will make his debut next month, right before the All-Star Break, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Thomas has been gathering momentum in his rehabilitation process from hip surgery in March, and there’s hope among Thomas and the Nuggets organization he could return as soon as a Feb. 11-13 homestand against Miami and Sacramento, sources said.

There’s strong confidence that he will return no later than the first game after the All Star break on Feb. 22 in Dallas, league sources said….

The final hurdle for Thomas remains playing full 5-on-5 scrimmages. He is expected to start that process soon.

Thomas was playing well and playing through pain in Boston, becoming a fan favorite and pulling that team into the postseason, before his hip injury caught up with him. He tried to recover without surgery playing for the Cavaliers and Lakers last season, but that never really worked like he hoped. He had the surgery and signed a one-year deal with the Nuggets.

Thomas could provide a playmaking guard off the bench, although Monte Morris has filled that role for the Nuggets so well he gets mentioned as a most improved player candidate. Coach Mike Malone will need to finesse the minutes to get both of them touches and involved. How much Thomas can help the Nuggets in the playoffs depends on how he recovers (he has always been a defensive liability because of his size, which factors in as well).

If Thomas can show he would have value as a bench player he will have teams calling next July about a much bigger contract. He has motivation, and he’s popular around the league — people want to see him succeed. But is he fully healthy and does he still have the lateral explosiveness that made him so hard to stop on drives to the rim? We should find out the final couple months of the season.

Report: Kings’ Buddy Hield in 3-point contest

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Players who’ve attempted more than seven 3-pointers per game while making more than 40% of them this season:

Sharing company with only the greatest shooter of all-time will earn Hield a spot in the 3-point contest.

Carmichael Dave of KHTK Sports 1140:

Sacramento getting three players into the Rising Stars Challenge for the second straight year speaks to the team’s nice collection of young talent. Bogdan Bogdanovic (who won MVP last year) and De'Aaron Fox return to the game. No. 2 pick Marvin Bagley III replaces Hield, who ages out.

Hield has a chance in the 3-point contest, though the league is better from beyond the arc than ever. He’ll certainly have plenty of competition.