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Spurs on precipice after losing Kawhi Leonard

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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.

Magic Johnson won NBA Finals MVP in his age-22 season, and the Lakers contended for championships for the next decade.

Tim Duncan won NBA Finals MVP in his age-22 season, and the Spurs contended for championships for the next decade and a half.

Kawhi Leonard won NBA Finals MVP in his age-22 season, and… only four years later, San Antonio is just trying to sneak into the playoffs with an old roster.

Leonard did his part, until last season at least. He grew into a perennial MVP candidate, the NBA’s best defender and an elite offensive player.

But that all came crashing down over the last year. Leonard got hurt, and a distrust between him and San Antonio grew. It’d be difficult to determine how much blame to assign each side even if we knew everything, and we certainly don’t know everything.

What’s clear: The Spurs are bearing the brunt of the breakdown.

Their trade of Leonard to the Raptors – for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a top-20 first-rounder – was a devastating sell-low. That probably wasn’t the Spurs’ best offer in a vacuum, but they were reportedly limited by their own parameters – preferring to send Leonard to the East and valuing immediate contributors.

That’s the effect of a 69-year-old coach running the front office.

Gregg Popovich is an all-time great coach, and if he wants to avoid rebuilding until retirement, he has more than earned the right. Embracing youth and accepting losing probably doesn’t appeal to him at this point.

Popovich has proven masterful at getting players to understand their responsibilities and executing them, and that’s why his teams have been so consistently good in the regular season. He’ll need another supreme coaching performance to get this squad into the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference.

The most common oversimplification of the summer is that the Spurs are basically just adding DeRozan to a team that won 47 games last season because Leonard barely played anyway. San Antonio also lost important cogs Kyle Anderson (signed unmatched offer sheet with Grizzlies), Danny Green (traded to Toronto) and Manu Ginobili (retired). Tony Parker left for the Hornets, too.

At least San Antonio got Popovich a few players familiar with his system, re-signing Rudy Gay (one year, $10,087,200), Davis Bertans (two years, $14 million) and Bryn Forbes (two years, $6 million) and signing former Spur Marco Belinelli (two years, $12 million). None of those players came cheap.

Newly signed veterans Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter could help, too.

The Spurs aren’t completely punting the future. They drafted Lonnie Walker No. 18 and Chimezie Metu No. 49. Belinelli’s and Forbes’ salaries decline in the their second seasons. Bertans’ is flat.

Teams run into trouble when they prioritize the present regardless of greater circumstance, and the Spurs did that to some degree. But they also have Popovich and LaMarcus Aldridge, both of whom will make it easier for San Antonio to win next season. Popovich doesn’t need much, and Aldridge’s interior style can prop up lesser supporting casts.

That said, I’m still not sure the Spurs have enough.

They’ve been headed for trouble for a while, as their relationship with Leonard deteriorated. That didn’t all happen this offseason, though that’s when the dam broke.

Offseason grade: D-

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

AP
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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.

Sixers hire Elton Brand as new General Manager

Associated Press
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Filling the 76ers vacant general manager position dragged out all summer for one main reason:

They liked what they already had in-house. The Sixers were an especially collegial and collaborative group with their decision making, and if they brought in a big name from the outside — former Cavaliers’ GM David Griffin, or the two guys who went deep into the interview process Utah assistant GM Justin Zanik on Rockets VP Gersson Rosas — it would change that dynamic.

Which is why they have decided to keep this in the family, and will promote Elton Brand from vice president of basketball operations to general manager. It’s a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and confirmed by NBC Sports Philadelphia’s John Clark.

Brand, a former Philadelphia player, was the general manager of their G-League team, the Delaware Blue Coats, before becoming the VP of basketball operations. He will replace Bryan Colangelo, who was forced out following a Twitter scandal involving his wife.

There were other title changes within the organization as well.

What this means on the ground is don’t expect any significant changes with the Sixers’ plans — nor should there be. They are banking on Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz — now with a functional jump shot, they hope — to be at the core of a contending team, then next summer they will go big game hunting again for an elite free agent. (There is more pressure to get a deal done this summer before the big extensions for those young stars start to really kick in.) That said, this is a team poised on the brink of a great run.

And if things are going well, why make a dramatic change? Brand can help them on the course already set.