Rudy Gay

Gregg Popovich gets ejected, Tim Duncan takes over coaching, Spurs still fall to Trail Blazers

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SAN ANTONIO — Tim Duncan was back in charge in San Antonio and the Spurs were flourishing under his leadership again.

Duncan was directing players on defensive assignments, encouraging them and providing needed leadership. But in the end, he couldn’t provide the same late-game heroics from the bench that he long did on the court.

CJ McCollum scored 32 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Spurs 121-116 on Saturday night to spoil Duncan’s first shot at coaching following Gregg Popovich’s ejection.

Duncan took over just 13 games into his first season as an assistant coach. Popovich was ejected after walking onto the court to berate official Jason Goldenberg over a non-call. Popovich calmly walked off the court following his first ejection of the season (you can see it in the video above).

On Twitter, this led to a debate as people tried to figure out who took over as coach. Assistant Coach Becky Hammon ran one time out, but it was Duncan — the assistant coach assigned to scout Portland on the staff — who was the main man. Duncan, Hammon and Will Hardy coached by committee, but it was Duncan calling the plays and screaming out instruction.

“It was cool,” Spurs guard Bryn Forbes said. “It didn’t really feel like a huge difference. I think he did a good job. He took control. He helped lead us to a big lead.”

Popovich was asked if he considered having Becky Hammon take over to make history as the first woman to lead an NBA team.

“I’m not here to make history,” Popovich said.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 30 points and 13 rebounds but the Spurs lost their fifth straight and fell to 5-8.

Damian Lillard added 22 points and Hassan Whiteside had 21 points for Portland (5-8), which rallied from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter to snap a four-game skid in San Antonio.

“We’ve blown leads before, so we kind of know what to expect,” McCollum said. “Once you do it, you’ve got to stay grounded, focus on the little stuff.”

Before the game, Popovich said coaching could only go so far and it was up to each player to take responsibility for his own mistakes and performance during this losing streak. Popovich put that responsibility squarely on the Spurs when he was ejected early in the third quarter.

McCollum had 23 of his points in the first half.

Bryn Forbes added 17 points and DeRozan and Rudy Gay added 16 apiece.

 

Birthday boy Karl-Anthony Towns giving Timberwolves even more reason to celebrate

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Tom Thibodeau is gone. Jimmy Butler is gone. Karl-Anthony Towns has taken greater ownership with the Timberwolves.

Towns organizes team-building activities like Topgolf and a halloween party. Towns gives the pump-up speech before each game. Towns communicates more on the floor.

That’s why, Towns said, he didn’t even realize his birthday was approaching until his parents recently reminded him.

“I get caught up in work,” Towns said.

Whether or not Towns actually needed the reminder, let alone for such a flattering reason, his birthday – which is today – got him reflecting. He felt old.

So, Towns mentioned to Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders that his birthday was around the corner. Saunders had the opposite realization: Towns is turning 24 today. Just 24!

“He’s still young,” Saunders said. “As a coach, that gets me excited.”

Towns is one of the NBA’s special talents – a proven star with room to improve. Picking up the momentum he built last season, Towns appears to be really coming into his own this year.

The center is posting his usual impressive numbers (25.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), but his new attitude has stolen the show. He fought Joel Embiid and went face-to-face with Rudy Gay.

Don’t let the antics completely overshadow an impressive basketball story, though. Towns has led Minnesota to a surprising 7-4 start by revamping his game. Most of his shots are coming from beyond the arc, and his 4.2 assists per game are a career high.

By creating spacing and keeping the ball moving, Towns is contributing to a style that lifts all the Timberwolves. Perhaps, nobody has benefited more than Andrew Wiggins, who’s fitting right into this modern look.

The transformation is only the latest chapter for Towns, whose reputation has fluctuated significantly throughout his five-year career. This might explain why he already feels so old:

Minnesota drafted Towns No. 1 in 2015, and he won Rookie of the Year. In the 2016 and 2017 NBA general-manager survey, a plurality of voting executives picked Towns as the player they’d most like to start a team with. In the 2017 survey, Towns also received the most votes for league’s best center (even while getting a couple votes as league’s best power forward).

On paper, Towns delivered. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams the following season. He also reached the playoffs for the first time.

But Thibodeau and Butler butted heads with Towns, who never showed the hard edge those former Bulls tried to coax from him. After trading Butler, Minnesota went right back to losing.

In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, no general manager picked Towns to start a team with. Only a few picked him as best center.

Now, the landscape has shifted again. Anthony Davis spends a lot of time at power forward. Joel Embiid doesn’t stay as healthy. Nikola Jokic has fallen way off.

Towns is the early frontrunner for All-NBA first-team center.

“Everybody takes big steps in their growth at different times,” Saunders said, “and I think we’re seeing that from Karl.”

Towns can’t take anything for granted, and neither can the Timberwolves. But he at least has a good chance for vindication after his preseason playoff talk.

The way Towns has implemented more 3-point shooting into his game is particularly impressive. His 9.0 attempts per game lead NBA bigs, and he’s converting more than 40%. But floating on the perimeter was once a sign Towns was being too passive. Now, Towns is finding the right balance between spotting up beyond the arc and playing aggressively.

That’s in part his own mentality changing, in part his teammates’ mentality changing. Gone are the days when Towns could be an afterthought outside the paint.

“The ball is always going to find KAT,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “He’s the center of our offense.”

Towns’ defensive intensity still comes and goes. He still must prove himself in the playoffs, and that usually requires trials and tribulations he hasn’t yet experienced.

But at age 24, Towns is finally/already showing something special.

Kyle Kuzma signs five-year endorsement deal with PUMA

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Puma has splashed around money to get back in the basketball shoe game, signing DeMarcus Cousins, Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Rudy Gay, Kevin Knox, Terry Rozier, Danny Green, and recently Knicks rookie R.J. Barrett. It’s not a bad list, but the most popular players on there are bigs, yet it’s attacking wings (and point guards) who sell shoes.

Enter Kyle Kuzma, Puma’s newest signing. The popular Laker forward signed a five-year contract with Puma, something the shoemaker announced on Wednesday. Kuzma is getting paid to be the face of the brand.

Kuzma is a confident, attacking player (when at his best) that the Lakers are counting on to be their No. 3 after LeBron James and Anthony Davis. For Puma, this is a player that matters in the nation’s biggest spotlight, and he’s a good spokesman for the brand.

Kuzma was already rocking Pumas at Lakers’ media day last Friday, even though the deal had yet to be formally announced.

Right now Kuzma is sidelined with a stress reaction in his leg that will have him out through at least training camp with the Lakers. It came up during his time with Team USA — he said he woke up one morning after an off day and his leg hurt, so he knew something was wrong — but is not expected to be chronic (hopefully). The Lakers are wisely being cautious with the one young star who played well with LeBron last season, a guy they are banking on for big things.

So is Puma.

Spurs treading water

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NBC Sports’ 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.

Gregg Popovich is arguably the best coach in NBA history. Get him a few capable veterans, and he has guided to the Spurs to the playoffs. Every darn year.

He’s also 70 years old, which limits the value of a rebuild. Why waste seasons Popovich could prop up just to get young players he probably won’t stick around to coach? Might as well continue to enjoy the present.

So, the Spurs agreed to a contract extension with Popovich then commenced on a boring offseason – though one that included more action than desired.

The big prize was supposed to be Marcus Morris, a good forward who would’ve strengthened San Antonio’s rotation. But he reneged on his deal and signed with the Knicks. The Spurs are reportedly – and should be – pissed.

San Antonio traded Davis Bertans, a solid stretch four, to the Wizards to open money for Morris. That trade was already complete by the time Morris pulled out. Many top free agents were off the board.

The Spurs settled for Trey Lyles ($5.5 million next season, $1 million of $5.5 million guaranteed in 2020-21). He impressed a couple years ago, but he significantly regressed last season. There are reasons he was the fallback option.

At least San Antonio got a couple of more-ready forwards by re-signing Rudy Gay (two years, $29 million) and signing DeMarre Carroll (two years, $13.65 million followed by $1.35 million of $7 million guaranteed in 2021-22). Still, the plan was to get Gay, Carroll and Morris.

Mostly, the Spurs remain on the same course. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are still the headliners. All eight players who played in each of San Antonio’s playoff games return.

Still, there’s a tinge of a youth movement beneath the surface.

Dejounte Murray missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Derrick White emerged in Murray’s absence. Those rising point guards will be back next season, and it’s possible to envision a next era led by one – or if Popovich is creative enough – both.

For just the second time in the last three decades,* San Antonio picked twice in the first round. Unfortunately for the Spurs, they got those selections in a weak-looking draft. No. 19 pick Luka Samanic and No. 29 pick Keldon Johnson are fine, unspectacular prospects.

*In 2011, San Antonio traded for No. 15 pick Kawhi Leonard and drafted Cory Joseph No. 29.

The Spurs’ goal is clearly a record-breaking 23rd straight postseason appearance. That’ll be tough in a loaded Western Conference. But they’re content to try.

Offseason grade: C

Report: Rudy Gay to return to Spurs on two-year, $32 million deal

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Rudy Gay has had a bit of a career renaissance with the San Antonio Spurs. If anyone needed it in the modern era, it was Gay. The Spurs have turned him into a useful player on both ends of the floor, and a more efficient one.

The past couple of seasons have been very good for Gay, and last year he was one of the best players in spot-up situations according to Synergy. As an offensive player, Gay remains very good, and he’s a meaningful pick-and-roll, post-up, and isolation player for his position.

San Antonio is not a big free agent destination, so keeping players that work within their system is tantamount. To that end, reports surfaced on Sunday that Gay would be signing a two-year, $32 million extension to stay with the Spurs through 2020-21.

Via Twitter:

Gay also remains a useful defender, and his switchability allows him to cover both players in the pick-and-roll with adequacy. His versatility gives San Antonio some “positionless” moxie in a league where teams are moving away from just about everything else the Spurs seem to do.

RC Buford should still have the non-taxpayer exception and the bi-annual exception to utilize this summer after renouncing some other players, so the Spurs aren’t done dealing just yet.