This preseason inspired a feeling Celtics fans have not had in a very long time, a belief better, happier days are here. There is no looming sense of dread if any obstacle happens to land in their road back to decency. This assembled cast of characters are even-keeled, cool, selfless personalities who mesh extremely well considering they don’t know one another all that well.
For all the bright spots, there is one murky figure that still resides. A reminder of what the franchise ultimately lost since his signing. The once rising star of Gordon Hayward undoubted cratered through no fault of his own (the fault lies with Kyrie Irving). Five-minutes into his Celtics tenure, his apprehended was supposed to usher in an era where Boston graduated a step above from scrappy contender status, to title favorites. Quite possibly, the 2017-18 Celtics are the greatest squad you’ll never have gotten to see full strength considering all they’ve accomplished losing Hayward – and later Irving to season ending injuries. I’ll go to my grave believing that was a championship team.
While the good vibes have seemed to also effect Hayward looking to recapture what made him an All-Star in Utah, his remaining in Boston reminds me of what should have been, but never will be. His contract is a hefty sum with two-years, a player-option for 2020-21. If he does return to his pre-injury form the Celtics likely will lose him to free agency this upcoming summer. Jaylen Brown‘s rookie contract will expire at the end of the season and Jayson Tatum is due for an extension at the same time. These pressing issues lingering on the horizon is why Ainge carefully constructed his title window for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. Unforeseeable circumstances destroyed any chances of lasting success and Ainge is in a position many GMs are of running on the treadmill of not mediocrity, but constantly reshuffling the decks to sustain a good, but not great team. While the Toronto Raptors were in a similar position prior to trading for Kawhi Leonard, Masai Ujiri had to wait a long time for the superstar to become available on the market and had to endure multiple seasons of the Kyle Lowry/DeMar DeRozan duo getting emasculated annually in the playoffs.
The Raptors have just extended Lowry for another season and are probably looking to maximize their chances in a wide open conference despite lacking the caliber of star Leonard was that put them over the top. If Hayward resembles his old self, it’s smart to consider a simple swap of Hayward for Marc Gasol. The Celtics cannot reasonably hope to contend for a title against the likes of Joel Embiid with Daniel Theis, Robert Williams and Enes Kanter. The Raptors are deathly shallow at the wing and Hayward can become rejuvenated in a new city clearly still high off the fumes of their title.
The loss of Al Horford could be blamed solely on Irving’s antics. His grandstanding, preaching empty sentiments of leadership and promises to flip the switch in the postseason drove the reliable Horford into the arms of dreaded rival Philadelphia. It is likely that if Horford learned not only Irving was destined for Brooklyn, but he was being replaced by Kemba Walker that he’d return to the Celtics on a new contract. But timing is everything and that factor has rarely played in the favor of Ainge.
Gasol is sitting on the last year of his max contract worth $25 million. A straight up swap leaves just $606,000 to be filled in salary to make the numbers work. He’s slowed down a step and it showed during his half season in Toronto, averaging a unspectacular 9 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists line. But in the final 23 games after the All-Star Break, Gasol sported an offensive rating of 119.6 and a positive net rating of 17. It isn’t hyperbole to suggest Toronto doesn’t win the title without Gasol’s subtle contributions.
The in-house solutions aren’t very much solutions. Theis is limited athletically, Williams cannot so much beyond just block, and Kanter is, sadly, unplayable in most scenarios. It’s amazing Terry Stotts managed to coach around Kanter’s limitations on defense as well as he did.
Unless Hayward is a top-15 player by the All-Star Break, this is the trade every Boston fan should be praying to become reality.
What is compelling about the San Antonio Spurs is they essentially morphed from the gold standard of egalitarian basketball, to almost the exact opposite. Gone are Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and their steadfast leadership. In their place the isolation-heavy LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. Neither could be perceived as Spurs-type players prior to their arrival in San Antonio both have gone through the Greg Popovich car wash and come out more complete.
DeRozan led the Toronto Raptors to multiple 50-win seasons by the side of Kyle Lowry being his yin to his yang. Lowry would move the ball, do the dirty work and DeRozan would shoulder the majority of the scoring burden. For years pundits wondered why someone so athletic and talented would not try to add a reliable jump shot to his game. DeRozan never really had to do anything beyond his comfort zone because he was so good at driving to the basket and beating defenders off the dribble.
Heading to San Antonio after being traded abruptly in the middle of the summer, DeRozan did not do what we all expected and suddenly become a sufficient defenseman and shoot more three-pointers. Instead, the Spurs car wash took in DeRozan and he came out a superior facilitator, averaging a career high in assists; generating 14.7 points per game thanks to his passing. In the last five-seasons in Toronto DeRozan averaged 10.3.
His previous career-high in defensive rebound rate was 13.6 percent, this season DeRozan sits at 16.7 percent. Throughout his career DeRozan’s been on the negative side of defensive box score plus minus, this is his first season on the plus side (0.3).
What’s outstanding is you would never have guessed this by watching DeRozan. He moves and plays seemingly the same way he did in his Toronto-days.
The Spurs this season aren’t impressive. Their roster is immensely underwhelming and lacking in what made them so special in the stays of Duncan. In the advanced metrics department DeRozan appears to be more of a hinderance on the Spurs; his mere existence costs them more games than he wins. Yet, advanced stats aren’t everything. They do not tell the whole story. Neither does the old-fashioned eye test. Sometimes the value of the simple box score tells more about a player than any complex metric you can find on NBA.com.
The Spurs are in a no-win situation with Kawhi Leonard, the relationship was too toxic to rebuild no matter how much trust we had in their infrastructure to find their way back to sunset. Turns out nobody held all the cards in the tug of war between player and organization. Both possessed a sense of entitlement, Kawhi felt he earned the right to be traded to one or the two teams in Los Angeles despite being under contract. The Spurs, feeling betrayed by Leonard’s seemingly out of the blue demands, wanted to stick it to their former franchise cornerstone like Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard did to All-Star Paul George last summer when he sent him to Oklahoma City.
Well, the Spurs won the war of pettiness, sending Kawhi to the 59-Win Toronto Raptors in exchange for superstar DeMar DeRozan and prospect Jakob Poeltl. An irrelevant, heavily protected 1st round pick was tossed in, top-20 for 2019, will convert to second-round picks if not conveyed. Overall, for what the Spurs wanted to accomplish with this transaction they made out as well as you possibly could when given a bad hand. San Antonio didn’t capitulate to the demands of Leonard’s camp, nor did they talk themselves into a three-quarters for a dollar trade that’d surely send them backwards. Most teams when trading a superstar like Kawhi wish to turn the dire situation into a time to rebuild, but seeing as 69-year-old Gregg Popovich is nearing the end of his run he likely wants to take two more shots at contention before riding off into the sunset. It’s his right after all to dictate how he’ll leave the Spurs organization.
Last year, DeRozan was somewhere between top-11 and 15 on my rankings for the 2017-18 season when doing my All-NBA ballot (I don’t have an official vote). He’s a second-tier star, someone under the right circumstances can lead you to 50-plus wins, not somebody you can count on to take you to the promise land. Like Bradley Beal, Victor Oladipo and Paul George, they’re hard workers and are A-pluses at specific facets of their respective games. However, you’ll feel when they have hit the brick wall as opposing teams in a seven-game set tend to figure out the one-trick ponies such as DeRozan. Self-proclaiming his game is descendent from an older, simpler time, where cutting to the basket and mid-range shots ruled the NBA. Though an unwilling to shot from three-point range, DeRozan is hardly unable to make it from long distance. His 21.4% 3Prate is among the lowest in his position. Offensively, DeRozan’s found ways to improve on yearly basis, being only 29 I am hopeful Pop can unlock a new part of the All-Stars game we haven’t seen.
Given the lack of spacing on the Spurs roster DeRozan will likely have to venture outside of his comfort zones to produce. LaMarcus Aldridge, while great, is a mid-range savant and will need space to do his work, as will DeMar. Unless Patty Mills takes a leap or Dejonte Murray discovers his jump shot they’ll be little to no spacing on this Spurs team. Rudy Gay is likely to become the team’s de factor starting small-forward with the loss of Kyle Anderson in free agency to the Memphis Grizzlies. Not only does the loss of Kawhi shrink the spacing on the floor, it robs San Antonio of their defensive identity. Their two best players couldn’t defend traffic cones in isolation.
Danny Green may not be a knockdown shooter, but he could still defend his position and beyond. His loss hurts the Spurs more than Kawhi.
This is why I believe we’ll see DeRozan at the three, given he’s a liability against the likes of James Harden and Jrue Holiday in the backcourt, hiding DeRozan on non-scorers like P.J Tucker and Solomon Hill is doable given his 6-7 stature and 6-9 wingspan.
The overall roster for the Spurs remains incomplete, the holes are glaring and are in need of addressing. As currently constructed they are a borderline playoff team, in my opinion because the players don’t fit together. I could be wrong. I’ve learned my lesson when doubting Pop in the past.
I’m excited to see DeRozan in San Antonio, I believe that he can kick his postseason woes under the Spurs tutelage. I can see this mismatch team missing the playoff, but I can also see them riding DeMar and Aldridge to nearly 50-wins and sneaking into the western conference finals by having a top-10 offense and defense, somehow.
For the San Antonio Spurs, the 1970’s was all about coming in dreadful second year after year. Lead by the prolific scorer George Gervin, the Spurs won 191 of the 328 games they’ve played from 1976-77 and 1980-81, failing to make the finals every one of those years. The closest they came was in 1979, losing a hotly contested conference finals (back when they were in the East) to the Washington Bullets, after going up 3 games to 1, the Spurs dropped three straight to the Bullets and seemingly missed their window.
The NBA of 1980 was different than in 1978. There were two big dawgs roaming the junkyard, ready to push out the old dawgs. Moses Malone, Erving “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird gunned for the likes of Gervin and Julius Erving. If the Spurs were going to change content in this new era of fast-paced, two-way basketball, they had to get clever with how they molded their roster, and general manager Bob Bass was up for that challenge. After a pedestrian 41-41 record in 1979-80, Bass needed to overhaul the defense, which gave up a league worst 119.7 points per game, ranking 22nd. He fired Doug Moe and installed Stan Albeck as head coach. Bass didn’t want to score 120 a game and hope to God the opponent didn’t get to 121. Electing not to re-sign twenty-seven year-old Larry Kennon, Bass received two draft picks in return for the five-time All-Star as compensation, one from the Bulls themselves, the other from the league. In the 1980 draft, prior, Bass selected University of Tennessee power forward Reggie Johnson to help the defensive woes in the front court. Later, he would trade for Washington Bullets center Dave Corzine and Portland Trail Blazer two-guard Ron Brewer to help shore up the bench.
The ‘Bruise Brothers’ consisted of hard nosed big men like the aforementioned Corzine, Mark Olberding, George and Reggie Johnson, they ranked first in the league in blocks per game (7.8), and helped the Spurs defense to a more respectable seventeenth in the league. Behind Gervin’s ever reliable scoring, the Spurs finished 52-30, earning a first-round bye in the 1981 postseason. A hard-fought seven game series against Moses Malone and the Houston Rockets, the Spurs ended their Cinderella run, survive small point guard Calvin Murphy’s offensive explosion for 42-points. Behind George Gervin and his selfish backcourt mate James Silas, the Spurs survived and advanced to the Conference Finals for the first time in their heartbreaking lost to the Bullets in ‘79.
The “Iceman” was eager to carve his name into the long list of champions, years spent paying his dues have lead to this moment under the bright lights of the Boston Garden. The Spurs faced the Celtics twice in the 1980-81 season, losing both times, one of those games ended in a unlikely Gervin – Robert Parish duel, Iceman finished with 40 points, the center rallied up 49 in the close Celtics win.
There wasn’t a more star studded cast of players in the East outside of the Celtics. Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Cedric Maxwell, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Larry Bird, the ‘81 Celtics could kill you in a variety of ways. The Spurs, on the other hand, in a defensive oriented league, had to hold together their core with duck tape. How were they ever going to stop the leaner, meaner Celtics? Why, George Gervin, of course. Twenty-nine points to open up the series, followed by thirty-six, then forty-one in Game 3 at San Antonio. Finally, Bill Fitch decided to double-team the electric two-guard. Fitch should thank his lucky stars the series was only 2-1 in favor of San Antonio.
Stan Albeck raised eyebrows around San Antonio shorting the playing time of point guard James Silas, a unselfish veteran that perfectly fit the shoot-first guard Gervin. Silas was benched in favor of 22-year-old Johnny Moore, who shot a respectable 47.9% from the field off of 6.3 attempts per game; Silas shoots 47.7% on 13.3 attempts per game. Still, Moore was a skilled passer and better fit the defensive identity Albeck was going for, Moore averaging 1.5 steals a game, to Silas’s 0.7.
For Boston, Bird struggles forced the veteran forward Cedric Maxwell to pick up the slack on offense. The task with guarding Gervin on one end of the floor drained the second-year pro from Indiana State of his energy. “Just when you think you’ve got him where you want him, he rises above you and drains a jump shot without breaking a sweat.” Bird said after Game 2. Fitch adjusted, placing Bird on the offensively challenged Olberding, and placing twenty-five-year-old Gerald Henderson on Gervin, after veteran guard Chris Ford fell to injury. The change proved unsuccessful, Gervin still thrived as the finesse of the San Antonio Spurs backcourt proved too much for the grisly Celtics to overcome. The series ended in six, a rowdy Spurs crowd charges the court, mobbing hero George Gervin after a 51-point performance to close the series out.
“I told you Ice had them on the run!” George howls to reporters on the way to the locker room to get a the traditional championship champagne shower. “They didn’t want any part of Ice!” Gervin waited a long time for the chance to redeem himself for his past failures, he relished pointing out which reporter doubted him and his abilities to take a team to the next level. Gervin’s line was what you’d expect out of a All-NBA First Team player, 28.5 points on a cool 49% shooting, while the rebound and assists were low, the Spurs didn’t need Gervin to do anymore than he was comfortable with.
Bob Bass graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, credited as the man who “Saved the Spurs”, a moniker that bothered Gervin as it did others on the Spurs. But Bass was a courteous fellow, throwing water on the smoke before it became a fire. “It all starts with Gervin” he said proudly. “A GM is only so lucky to walk into a situation with a cornerstone like George already in house. Corzine, the Johnson Boys anchored our defense and helped us get passed the Malone’s of the world. That’s no easy feat.”
Quick question: name the second and third best players on the San Antonio Spurs. No. Don’t say, “Kawhi Leonard” because he’s only been available for nine games this season. And it doesn’t look like he’s coming back anytime soon. Is it Patty Mills? A decent point guard, averaging below 10 points a game this season? Or how about Tony Parker, currently averaging his lowest assists per game in his seventeen-year career. From top to bottom the Spurs roster is made out of… ok NBA players, largely ineffectual and wouldn’t move the needle for most franchises. After striking out in last summer, signing extension contracts to both aging big men Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, many were perplexed as to why the Spurs tied themselves to this current core who clearly maxed out their potential the year prior.
It felt as if the sun set on the Spurs Empire. Twenty-years of excellence wasn’t enough to woo Chris Paul into coming. Aldridge made his displeasures towards the organization known, asking to be traded. Humbled by this, Popovich did what most coaches would never even consider: he apologized to Aldridge, taking full responsibility for his down-year in 2016-17, where Aldridge fell from a 3rd Team All-NBA player, to looking like a complete has-been. Yet, it hasn’t been fun to watch as the Spurs have been even more uninteresting then they’ve been stereotyped to be in the past. An unfamiliarity with the players on the court, the ability of Popovich to get just enough out of these no-names to squeak by is nothing short of magnificent.
Instead of going in the tank (like I advocated, earlier in the season) they stayed the course and are 43-31. Aldridge carries a team of net zeroes, he’s fifth in two-point field goals made (588), 12th in points per game (23.2), 18th in usage% (29.2), 7th in win shares (9.8) and a 6.2 net rating. Enjoying a career-high in effective field-goal percentage (51.9), offensive rating (117), P.E.R (24.8), this is Aldridge most productive season as the vocal point of the entire offense since his last season in Portland. The year he made All-NBA Second Team. The moment Aldridge got on my radar was the dynamic performance against Utah – the best defensive in the NBA. Raining mid-range jumpers over Rudy Gobert without any regard for him as a human being. Twenty-eight of his forty-five points coming at Gobert’s expense. Playing mostly an old school style, using his elbows to back down his defender, letting loose a beautiful tear drop finger roll, or a mean step back.
Since the All-Star break, Aldridge’s been cranking out 26 points, off of 53.3% shooting, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and an ORtg Of 122 in thirteen-games.
Yet, the Spurs are still not remotely interesting. This season is very reminiscent of the 2006 Patriots, when the best days of the initial run of dominance is coming to a close and a revamping of the roster should be imminent. Just like Brady, Aldridge is given nothing to work with, the infrastructure of Popovich leading to many victories that shouldn’t be. Outside of San Antonio, this season won’t be fondly remembered. The drama off the court surrounding Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs team doctors garners the most attention of the media, me, and fans.