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Three questions the San Antonio Spurs must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 61-21, advanced to the Western Conference Finals, where Kawhi Leonard rolled an ankle (thank you Zaza Pachulia) and they got swept by the Warriors.

I know what you did last summer: They kept the status quo going. The Spurs re-signed Patty Mills (probably overpaying, but they had to with Tony Parker injured to start the season). Pau Gasol opted out and re-signed, again for maybe more than the market would have given him. The Spurs brought back Manu Ginobili. They signed Rudy Gay, who is coming off an Achilles injury. The losses were solid bench players Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons.

THREE QUESTIONS THE SPURS MUST ANSWER

1) Is Kawhi Leonard healthy, and can he stay that way? We saw in the playoffs last season what happens to this team when Leonard goes down, and it’s not pretty. Leonard is a top five NBA player who is both the focal point of the Spurs offense and the best perimeter defender in the NBA (that’s not just my opinion, the NBA GMs voted him that). The Spurs ask a lot of Leonard and he answered last season with an MVP-level performance.

That’s why it raised a few eyebrows that Leonard is sitting out the preseason to rest his right quadriceps tendinopathy (an inflammation of the tendon just above the kneecap in the thigh), especially after Gregg Popovich said it was something he battled last season. Is Leonard going to miss time at the start of this season because of it? Will it require him getting more rest days during the season?

We know what the Spurs are going to do — defend well, move the ball, not beat themselves. San Antonio is going to have a hard time getting near that 61 win total of a year ago in a loaded West, but without the full Kawhi Leonard treatment they could slide a little further down the board. Nobody is betting on the Spurs to collapse, but did the Rockets and Thunder pass them by?

2) Is playing big the antidote to a league going small? It seems like the entire NBA is going smaller, trying to emulate the Warriors and their death lineup. Cleveland will be starting Kevin Love at the five this season. Houston will play fast and small.

“Golden State is an anomaly, with the group of players they have,” Popovich said last preseason. “And they’re a monster. Definitely the toughest team in the league to guard. But the rest of us poor fools, 29 of us, are kind of a hybrid. Everybody tries to be flexible. Not team is going to be all big or all small. Every game, teams play small for a while, they play big for a while. That’s the way it is. That’s the truth.”

The Spurs zigged when the league zagged — they are a big team that starts Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge up front and have real size in their defenders such as Leonard or Danny Green. This is not an accident. The Spurs have some versatility, but they want a lineup that can give small lineups trouble and push them around a little. It worked last regular season, and we didn’t get a real chance to see how it would have worked against the Warriors in the playoffs. But as those big men age and get a little slower, will going big still work as well.

3) Can the Spurs bench again be the NBA’s best? Or, to put that another way, what guy we don’t recall them drafting is going to come out of nowhere and impress us this season?

Once again last season the Spurs bench was the best in the NBA, outscoring teams by 8.9 points per 100 possessions over the course of the season. That is a key reason they win 55+ games every season — their bench comes in and executes at a high level, extending leads.

This season that bench will be a little thinner without Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons, two guys who brought real athleticism off the bench. Still they have the legend that is Manu Ginoboili, Rudy Gay (who is playing in the preseason but may be slowed for a bit coming off an Achilles injury), plus guys like Dejounte Murray, Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans, and now Joffrey Lauvergne. For the Spurs to keep on winning like we expect, Popovich needs to work his magic and turn these guys into one of the league’s most formidable benches. Again.

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

Have people around Bulls turned Gar Forman’s name into slang for bad GM moves?

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Let’s run through the series of moves that got us here. During the 2014 draft, Bulls GM Gar Forman traded two picks to the Denver Nuggets — picks that became Gary Harris and Josef Nurkic — to move up so they could select Doug McDermott. That didn’t work out. Last February, Forman and the Bulls sent McDermott and Taj Gibson to Oklahoma City for Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne, and Anthony Morrow. Lauvergne is now with the Spurs, Morrow remains unsigned.

That means Payne is all that is left from those two first-round picks, and he is out at the start of this season due to another foot injury. Beyond that, Payne just hasn’t been good. At all. During the playoffs last season Rajon Rondo got hurt Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg played Isaiah Canaan, Michael Carter-Williams and Jerian Grant in front of Payne.

Which led to this comment in the Chicago Sun-Times (hat tip Ball Don’t Lie).

“We knew the second practice [after he was acquired] that he couldn’t play at [an NBA] level,” the source said. “The only reason it took two practices was because we thought maybe it was nerves in the first one…

“Any [Bulls] coach who says differently is lying. … We got ‘Garred’ on that one.”

We got Garred?

Ouch. Although Bulls fans have felt that way for years now.

It’s going to be a rough season for Bulls fans.

Report: Spurs signing Joffrey Lauvergne

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The Spurs’ big-man situation is murky.

LaMarcus Aldridge was on the trade block. Pau Gasol, Dewayne Dedmon and David Lee are free agents. Davis Bertans is the most stable, though Gasol – after opting out to create cap flexibility – seems likely to re-sign.

Now, Bertans and Aldridge have company on the roster – Joffrey Lauvergne.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The 25-year-old Lauvergne has a nice variety of offensive skills – finishing outside and in, driving and passing. But none of them are elite, and he hasn’t learned how to harness all those tools into an effective package.

His defense is far more problematic. He’s neither strong nor bouncy enough to play inside and protect the rim. Lauvergne is reasonably mobile, but his defensive awareness lags far behind.

I’d be surprised if Lauvergne gets much more than minimum.

The Spurs got good mileage out of Lee, who fits a similar mold. Perhaps, they’ll also maximize Lauvergne’s abilities.

Report: Taj Gibson ‘absolutely’ would’ve left Bulls in free agency if they didn’t trade him

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Last year, the Bulls kept Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol – both on expiring contracts – past the trade deadline with the apparent intent of re-signing them. Noah (Knicks) and Gasol (Spurs) walked in free agency, leaving Chicago with no return.

The Bulls didn’t fall into the same trip this year. The traded their veteran big man on expiring contract, Taj Gibson, to the Thunder.

Why the different approach?

Gibson was clearly headed in a different direction.

Ken Berger of Bleacher Report:

Gibson, 31, was absolutely going to leave as a free agent this summer, league sources say. The Bulls were not going to re-sign him.

There are numerous possible reasons Gibson would have been intent on leaving Chicago. But, even though Gibson was Fred Hoiberg’s most vocal public supporter in the locker room, this will only intensify questions about how much veterans respect Hoiberg. Jimmy Butler keeps saying he wants to stay with the Bulls, and even that invites questions about his relationship with his coach. Hoiberg just hasn’t inspired much confidence.

This could also be about the Bulls. How interested were they in keeping Gibson? They have semi-interesting young bigs in Cristiano Felicio, Bobby Portis and maybe still Nikola Mirotic (and Joffrey Lauvergne, acquired in the Gibson trade). It could be time to test them.

Chicago’s direction is unclear, and perhaps Gibson saw the writing on the wall. He’ll turn 32 before free agency, the clock on his remaining productive years winding down. His fit with the Bulls was no longer great, and apparently that was realized already.