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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-

Report: Spurs signing Dante Cunningham

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The Spurs were running low on small forwards. Kawhi Leonard remains in limbo, and San Antonio let Kyle Anderson leave for the Grizzlies.

Enter Dante Cunningham.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This is probably a minimum contract. The Spurs still have whatever of the mid-level exception they didn’t give Marco Belinelli or the bi-annual exception. But that’s not way more than the minimum ($2,176,260) for Cunningham, who has nine years experience – and probably couldn’t command more, anyway.

Unlike Rudy Gay, Belinelli, Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes, Cunningham is San Antonio’s first free-agent signing this summer who didn’t previously play for the team. He’s a combo forward who will likely be needed more at small forward. He can handle larger small forwards, and Belinelli can play the three against smaller opposing small forwards in a platoon.

Cunningham is a solid defender in the right matchup, and he holds his own as a 3-point shooter. The Spurs should use him well.

Of course, the Spurs must first determine what to do about Leonard before fitting in more pliable pieces like Cunningham.

Report: Spurs re-signing Davis Bertans (for two years, $14.5 million) and Bryn Forbes

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The Spurs declined to match Kyle Anderson‘s four-year, $37 million offer sheet from the Grizzlies.

But San Antonio is keeping its other restricted free agents – Davis Bertans (though not for the initially reported terms) and Bryn Forbes.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

This is a higher annual salary, but shorter contract length, than the four years and $20 million previously reported for Bertans. I wouldn’t be surprised if both structures were seriously discussed, but I prefer this one – which has become official – for the Spurs. They’re capped out this season already and fairly limited next summer, anyway. San Antonio is paying more in the short term for more long-term flexibility with the 25-year-old stretch four.

Forbes played more than 1,500 minutes for a 47-win team last season, quite the accomplishment for someone who went undrafted a couple years ago – and a tribute to the team and coaching around him. He’s a good 3-point shooter who can’t get open for enough attempts from beyond the arc and therefore settles for too many long jumpers.

Forbes had a one-year qualifying offer worth $200,000 more than the minimum. I wouldn’t be surprised if he parlayed that into a two-year guaranteed minimum.

He’ll join Danny Green, Marco Belinelli, Manu Ginobili and Lonnie Walker at shooting guard. That’s a crowd, so expect some three-guard lineups – especially if Leonard gets dealt.

Report: Gregg Popovich wants to sit down with LeBron James, pitch Spurs

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In Cleveland, it feels like LeBron James is out the door. Maybe his family can change his mind, but it’s more likely the Summer of LeBron.

Three teams, besides the Cavaliers, have been linked to  LeBron — the Sixers, the Rockets, and the Lakers. Others, such as Miami, get mentioned at times. Beyond that, there’s a whole lot of teams that would like to get a chance, just get a sit down with LeBron and his team and make a pitch.

One who both wants to and might get that chance is Gregg Popovich of the Spurs, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times

I’ve also been advised that the ever-persuasive San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich is bound to try to force his way into the conversation to sell James on the merits of South Texas.

Is LeBron going to leave Cleveland for a smaller market? Is LeBron going to come to the West where the Warriors and Rockets already are dominant forces? LeBron will consider all his options, but the Spurs seem a longshot. That said, LeBron’s respect for Popovich could lead to a meeting — likely over dinner and a couple excellent bottles of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.

If LeBron did consider it, there would be massive advantages. And challenges.

A pairing of LeBron with Kawhi Leonard — assuming he stays and signs a super-max contract extension with the Spurs, Popovich is working on it and groundwork is already being laid on that front, according to league sources — would be one of the league’s elite one-two punches on offense. Put the two of them with Dejounte Murray and it would give the Spurs the kind of long, switchable, physical perimeter defenders needed to hang with the Warriors and Rockets.

We also know Murray wants LeBron to come.

In addition, you know the Spurs’ role players would step up, play smart, and give LeBron the kind of support he lacked this past season — San Antonio won 48 games essentially without Leonard last season. Over the final days of the playoffs, LeBron was wistfully talking about playing with high IQ players again — the Spurs can give him that. It’s easy to see guys like Manu Ginobili (he would come back for one more year if LeBron were there), Pau Gasol, and Rudy GayDavis Bertans, and others making it work with LeBron.

For the Spurs to land LeBron would mean some serious salary cap gymnastics in San Antonio. If the Spurs renounce free agent Tony Parker and if Danny Green opts out and the Spurs don’t bring him back, the Spurs still would be floating around the luxury tax line before LeBron comes in (and the Spurs, ideally, would like to have both of them back if LeBron is there). The Spurs would need to trade several big salaries — including LaMarcus Aldridge, who would be an odd fit on the court with LeBron anyway — without taking any money back to get far enough under the cap to sign LeBron to a max contract. The easier way would be for LeBron to pull a Chris Paul move and opt-in to the last year of his deal ($35 million) then force a trade to the Spurs, who would send Aldridge, Patty Mills, and some young players and picks to the Cavaliers. (Good luck convincing Cleveland to take on a $70 million or more luxury tax bill to put out a team with Kevin Love, Aldridge, Mills and the No. 8 pick — there likely would need to be a third team in this trade to make it work.)

Never say never with Popovich, he is respected enough by LeBron to get the meeting. However, it’s hard to see this coming together.

 

Kyle Anderson saves ball/throws alley-oop in one sweeping motion (video)

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I’m not sure how much of what Kyle Anderson does here – including the alley-oop to Davis Bertans – is intentional.

But the result was fun.