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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

Three Things to Know: Has 5-11 Portland fallen too far back to make playoffs?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Have the 5-11 Portland Trail Blazers fallen too far back to make playoffs? We’ve all heard a coach say it: “You can’t win a game in the first quarter, but you can lose it.”

That might apply to the Trail Blazers this season. After losing to the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday 137-129, Portland is now 5-11 and the 14 seed in the West, ahead of only the one team possibly more decimated by injuries than themselves (the Warriors). Portland has gone 2-9 in November.

This was a team with Western Conference Finals expectations before the season started, now the question has to be asked:

Has Portland’s slow start to the season dug too big a hole to climb out of and even make the playoffs?

No. But things need to turn around sooner rather than later.

On the positive side, the Trail Blazers may be six games below .500, they are also only three games back of eight-seed Phoenix and the final playoff spot. They also have a point differential that suggests the Blazers should have at least one more win, maybe two, meaning they are a little better than their record indicates. Get Damian Lillard healthy (he missed the last two games with a back issue but is expected to play Saturday against Cleveland), rack up some wins to change the momentum, and make a late push up the standings once Jusuf Nurkic returns (there is no timeline, but whispers say maybe around the All-Star break)..

Portland is not out of it.

Also on the positive side, Portland has got a run of games at home coming up. Also, the franchise has some history on their side: The 2007-08 Trail Blazers started 5-10, but went on a 13-game win streak and eventually finished 41-41 and made the playoffs.

It’s also not going to be easy to turn things around — there are no nights off in the West, no gimme wins (outside maybe Golden State, until they get healthy again). Also, unlike in 2008, 41 wins will not be enough to make the playoffs. It may not be too big to climb out of, but Portland has dug itself a hole to start the season.

One can’t mention Portland’s struggles without talking injuries, particularly along the front line. Nurkic is out, and the Blazers were counting on Zach Collins to step forward into that role, except he is now out months following shoulder surgery. Pau Gasol never got healthy from his foot injury and was waived. Rodney Hood and Skal Labissiere have both missed time with ailments. That has placed a lot on the shoulders of Hassan Whiteside, who has done what he’s always done — stuffed the stat sheet with empty calories, given inconsistent effort, and not set good picks. The injuries up front are why Carmelo Anthony was brought in. Add in a slow start to the season from CJ McCollum (who has turned it around) and Lillard’s injury, and here we are at 5-11.

Portland’s biggest issues are on the defensive end, where they are currently a bottom 10 team. Teams are running a lot on Portland, and while statistically the team has defended well in transition, teams still get too many easy buckets.

Portland was an average defensive team last season, but a top-three offense covered it up. This season we’ve seen how much Nurkic — as a strong pick setter and short-roll option who could facilitate a little — meant to the Blazers offense. Portland is 13th in offensive rating, basically league average. The Portland offense no longer can hide their defensive flaws.

Time has not yet run out on Portland, it’s still early. However, the Blazers need to find some wins. Fast. The first rule of climbing out of a hole is to stop digging.

2) Carmelo Anthony scores 18, but we need to see him next to Lillard; Giannis Antetokounmpo has career-high 15 assists, gets triple-double in win. There were some individual games worth discussing in Milwaukee’s 137-129 win over Portland Thursday.

Carmelo Anthony had 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting, and he looked better than his first game back. You can see what you want in his numbers, he took six midrange shots, but is now also 5-of-8 from three in two games in Portland.

Here’s the reality with Anthony: This is Lillard’s team and he missed the two games ‘Melo played. It’s too early to judge the Anthony gamble in Portland because we have not seen him yet next to the guy whose team this is and who runs the offense. Lillard is expected to return from his back issues Saturday against Cleveland, we need to watch Anthony in that and the next few games, then see how this marriage is working.

This is how good Giannis Antetokounmpo has played this season: He struggled against the Blazers shooting 9-of-27 (1-of-7 from three), looking a little worn having to play 37 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back.

His numbers on the “off” night: 24 points, 19 rebounds, 15 assists.

That would be the first ever 20+ point, 15+ rebound, 15+ assist game in Bucks franchise history — and that history has Oscar Robertson in it. Antetokounmpo looks every bit like an MVP player again to start the season.

Finally, CJ McCollum seems to be out of his slump and had 37 points and 10 assists.

3) J.J. Redick, Brandon Ingram lead New Orleans to win, hand Phoenix it’s third straight loss. Brandon Ingram scored 15 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter Thursday, leading the Pelicans to a 124-121 win on the road. Ingram is a restricted free agent this summer and has been putting up “pay the man his money” numbers this season.

J.J. Redick added 26 and was killing it from three.

After a hot start, the Suns have come back to earth losing three in a row and 4-of-5, and now they head out on the road to take on two teams playing well in Minnesota and Denver.

Carmelo Anthony has 18, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s triple-double leads Bucks to win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had his second triple-double of the season and the Milwaukee Bucks beat Carmelo Anthony and the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 137-129 on Thursday night.

Antetokounmpo had 24 points, 19 rebounds and a career-high 15 assists to lead the Bucks to their sixth straight victory. Antetokounmpo, who also had a triple-double in the season opener, has 16 career triple-doubles. Milwaukee is 14-2 in those games.

Eric Bledsoe added 30 points and six assists in the Bucks’ highest-scoring game of the season.

After scoring 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting in 24 minutes in his season debut Tuesday night against the Pelicans, Anthony had 10 points in the first half Thursday. The 10-time All-Star finished with 18 points (6-of-15 shooting) and seven rebounds for the Blazers, who were without Hassan Whiteside (hip), Damian Lillard (back), Zach Collins (shoulder) and Jusuf Nurkic (leg).

CJ McCollum scored a game-high 37 points and Skal Labissiere added 22 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks off the bench for Portland. The Trail Blazers lost their third straight game and seventh of the last nine against the Bucks, including sixth straight in Milwaukee.

The Bucks made their first seven shots, including three 3s, and led 17-6. Milwaukee never trailed.

The Bucks also had their highest first-half total, leading 72-58.

Report: Knicks not looking to make early-season coaching change with David Fizdale

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It didn’t take a Kremlinologist to read into what Knicks president Steve Mills said at his forced by the owner impromptu press conference 10 games into the NBA season:

Coach David Fizdale was in trouble. Big trouble.

It may not just be immediate, reports Marc Berman at the New York Post.

Mills wanted to see “consistent effort” and he’s gotten it. Indications are the coach’s hot seat is cooler halfway through this 10-game trial. Their record is 2-3 since the James Dolan-inspired conference, but could easily be 4-1 (they blew big leads to Charlotte, losing on a last-second 3-pointer, and, of course, had Philly dead in the water)…

The Knicks had to really sink south for a coaching change to be made by Game 20. Indications are it was far-fetched for a change to be made this early anyway. Was owner James Dolan, who has given Fizdale private reassurances, really going to let president Mills hire a new coach from the outside on a long-term deal with Fizdale still having at least one season fully guaranteed on his pact for 2020-21? Sources indicated the major deterrent to making a change at Thanksgiving was the sketchy alternative of promoting one of the assistants – Jud Buechler, Keith Smart or Kaleb Canales.

Good luck finding anyone who thinks Fizdale is safe long term in New York (and for the record, Smart has been an NBA head coach before, there are worse choices).

However, making a mid-season coaching change should really only happen for a couple of reasons. One is that the situation is so bad, so toxic, that it could poison the team into future seasons. The other is that there is a coach available on the sidelines that the team sees as “the man” going forward and they want to snap him up before someone else does (the Kings hiring George Karl comes to mind, although he turned out not to be “the man” they needed).

Not sure either of those situations applies to the Knicks and Fizdale. A move is more likely in the offseason.

However, predict James Dolan’s moods at your own risk.

Cavaliers’ new jerseys feature a big ol’ feather

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The Cavaliers rank near the top of the NBA by taking 19% of their total shots outside the restricted area while still in the paint. But Cleveland has converted just a middling 41% of attempts in that floater/runner range.

Maybe these uniforms will help the Cavs find a more feathery touch.

Though not in so many words, the Cavaliers actually stuck a feather on their jerseys and called it macaroni.