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Misadventures stall progress for 76ers

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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.

After an extended period of mediocrity then several years of tanking, the 76ers won 52 games and reached the second round, their best season since Allen Iverson led them to the 2001 NBA Finals.

But Philadelphia sure didn’t get the typical stability that follows a breakthrough like that.

The 76ers experienced plenty of disorder this offseason – some welcomed, some not, some between and most of it in service of adding another star.

The Process was always built on the understanding that acquiring multiple stars is both extremely difficult and all but necessary to win a championship. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, a combination many teams would envy, aren’t enough for Philadelphia.

That’s a reason the 76ers ousted Sam Hinkie, who drafted Embiid and positioned Philadelphia to make the easy call of drafting Simmons. Hinkie executed his vision smartly, but also callously. It’s hard to tank for that long without upsetting people, and the perception he turned the franchise into an embarrassment only grew. So, the 76ers turned to an executive with a more acceptable reputation around the league.

That decision that came home to roost this summer, as Bryan Colangelo’s tenure ended in a scandal far more tawdry than anything under Hinkie.

We still don’t know precisely what happened with those burner Twitter accounts, but the 76ers determined Colangelo’s wife, Barbara Bottini, ran the accounts and he mishandled private and sensitive information. The 76ers didn’t find proof he knew about the accounts, and he denied prior knowledge. But it shouldn’t be lost the team’s investigation was impeded by Bottini deleting the contents of her cell phone. Also remember: Two days after news broke of the accounts’ existence, Colangelo was still denying any knowledge of anything about them. In the midst of the biggest scandal of his career, his wife never came clean to him? That is the most unbelievable part of this saga.

So, the 76ers rightfully dumped Colangelo, even though it left them without a general manager for the draft and free agency. With that void in leadership, LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard all ended up elsewhere.

Unable to get that additional star via trade or free agency, Philadelphia used most of its cap space on J.J. Redick and Wilson Chandler.

Re-signing Redick (one year, $12.25 million) was especially important given Ersan Ilyasova’s and Marco Belinelli’s departures in free agency. Ilyasova (two years, $14 million guaranteed from the Bucks with an unguaranteed third season) and Belinelli (two years, $12 million from Spurs) were important cogs on last year’s team due their shooting. The 76ers were +42 in the playoffs when Ilyasova and Belinelli shared the court and -3 otherwise – a remarkable split for a pair of reserves.

But Philadelphia clearly didn’t want to limit its long-term star-acquiring flexibility. So, matching multi-year contracts for Ilyasova and Belinelli was a no go.

That’s why trading for Chandler was at least logical. Though overpaid, he’s on an expiring contract can can still pay. The 76ers also got second-round consideration for taking him from the tax-avoiding Nuggets.Still, it seems Philadelphia could have gotten a better free agent for that money, someone good enough to justify passing on the Denver picks.

Keeping a theme, the 76ers lost Nemanja Bjelica when he determined the one-year room exception didn’t provide him enough stability. Why he didn’t figure that out before agreeing to the deal with Philadelphia is on him, but the 76ers paid the price for his defection to the Kings on a multi-year deal.

So, still in need of a stretch big with Ilyasova and Bjelica out of the picture, Philadelphia traded Justin Anderson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot for the Hawks’ Mike Muscala, who, naturally, is on an expiring contract. Because Muscala is a four/five (to Bjelica’s four/three), the 76ers dumped reserve center Richaun Holmes for cash. They also re-signed backup center Amir Johnson to a minimum contract for – you guessed it – one year.

Not only are the 76ers preserving 2019 cap space, they’re also stockpiling assets for their star search. On draft night, they traded No. 10 pick Mikal Bridges – who profiles as a solid role player and would have acclimated nicely to Philadelphia, where he grew up and played collegiately at Villanova – to the Suns for No. 16 pick Zhaire Smith and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. That Miami pick has major upside and could be valuable in a trade with a team moving its star and rebuilding.

Philadelphia left the draft with Smith, No. 26 pick Landry Shamet and No. 54 pick Shake Milton. The 76ers also signed last year’s second-rounder Jonah Bolden to a four-year contract. It’s a nice haul of young talent to add to Philadelphia’s stockpile.

But none of those players is the star the 76ers clearly seek. After undercutting themselves, they at least did well to give themselves a chance to try again next year.

That said, maybe they already have the additional star they desire. Markelle Fultz suffered through a miserable rookie year due to the yips. Whether injury was the cause or effect barely matters now. If he finds his groove, that could swing the franchise’s fortunes for a decade. His development might be more important to Philadelphia’s offseason than any signing, trade or draft pick.

I believe Fultz has improved over the summer. But I just can’t project he’ll return to the star track that made him the No. 1 pick a year ago. That’s too big a leap of faith. Even major advances could still leave him well short of stardom.

But he is the biggest variable in offseason that saw Philadelphia lose helpful contributors, fail to maximize its ample cap space and move one year closer to Simmons joining Embiid on max contracts that will limit flexibility.

At least they’re still in strong shape for next summer.

Offseason grade: C-

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-

Manu Ginobili retires

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Devastated by the Spurs’ loss in the 2013 NBA Finals, Manu Ginobili considered retiring. But he returned to play five more seasons — including winning the 2014 title — in an incredibly fulfilling career.

Now, as increasingly expected, Ginobili is actually calling it quits.

Ginobili:

This ends an era in San Antonio. Tim Duncan already retired. Tony Parker left for the Hornets.

It’s not even just moving on from the trio that led the Spurs to the 2003, 2005 and 2007 titles. Only Patty Mills remains from even the 2014 championship team.

Ginobili will head to the Hall of Fame in a few years. He had a wonderful NBA career, making two All-NBA third teams, winning Sixth Man of the Year and earning those four rings. He also dazzled in international play with Argentina.

He was a creative offensive playmaker whose ball-handling, scoring and passing kept defenses off guard. Known as more of a flopper early in his career, Ginobili settled in as a fine team defender. His evolution from scrappy player to respected veteran was incredibly smooth.

The 41-year-old probably could have still helped San Antonio this year. If nothing else, his presence would have been welcomed in the locker room. But the Spurs seemed to be bracing for this, acquiring shooting guards DeMar DeRozan, Marco Belinelli and Lonnie Walker this offseason.

This isn’t losing Kawhi Leonard, a superstar in his prime. But factoring nostalgia, this will be a far tougher goodbye in San Antonio.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Danilo Gallinari, other NBA players skipping FIBA qualifying window

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When basketball international coordinating body FIBA came up with its ridiculous soccer-style qualifying system for the 2019 World Cup — putting qualifying windows in the middle of the seasons of the NBA and other major leagues around the world — they knew that they were essentially banning most country’s best players from competing. (The USA has used a team of G-League players, for example, but it’s harder on other nations who do not have as deep a talent pool.)

There was one exception: A September 2018 qualifying window. Games would primarily fall in mid-September before NBA training camps are open but when teams have opened their facilities to players for organized runs. (For example, the USA plays on Sept. 14 in Las Vegas against Uruguay, then in Panama on Sept. 17.)

NBA players are mostly taking a pass. In recent days the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Clippers’ Danilo Gallinari, and the Spurs Marco Belinelli have all said they would not play for their respective nations in this qualifying window. The USA didn’t even consider it and will have its G-Leaguers coached by Jeff Van Gundy.

This is not universal. Jusuf Nurkic has said he will play in the Bosnian and Herzegovinian qualifiers (although we will see if that happens, he did just sign a new four-year contract with the Blazers this summer). Jordan Clarkson is playing for the Philippines in the Asian Games and is on that squad’s roster for the qualifiers. The Serbian coach has put Nikola Jokic and four other NBA players on his potential roster submitted to FIBA, but that seems more to be him covering his bases just in case, not something likely to happen. Others might jump in.

But by and large, NBA players — and the biggest names — are taking a pass. Once again, well done FIBA on finding a way to water down the quality of the product for the second most popular sport on the planet to make more money.

Some NBA players — Evan Fournier, Timofey Mozgov, others — took part in the July qualifying window.

When the USA heads to China for the World Cup next summer (it still has to qualify, but that is highly likely) it will be a Gregg Popovich-coached team of NBA stars, 35 of whom just showed up for a USA Basketball mini-camp in Las Vegas. But that is a year away, until then enjoy most nation’s second string trying to get their country there.

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.