Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Unfettered Optimism: New faces and young guns

Tim Duncan retired. It's kind of the end of an era for the Spurs. Strange to say it, but essentially the Spurs are sort of officially in a rebuild phase. Yes, we still have Tony and Manu (albeit on the last legs of their careers), yes we did sign Pau (also last legs), but Timmy was the cornerstone for the franchise for arguably his entire 19 year career. Yet this is what makes the Spurs amazing. For most NBA teams the word "rebuilding" means that you're bottom feeding in the standings, looking for that lottery pick that will change your fortunes (e.g. the 76ers). It's interesting to note, that no team with a top five pick has jumped from lottery to the playoffs since 2003, no rookie has had that sort of impact since Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade (not gonna count Darko even though he technically won a championship his rookie year, because frankly, Larry Brown hated playing rookies). Currently, as stars of the early 2000s (e.g. Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and Dirk Nowitzki, sorry but Kevin Garnett hasn't really been super relevant for the better part of the last decade) begin to fade into the sunset most teams are either rebuilding (e.g. the Lakers now that Kobe is gone) or anticipating a rebuild (e.g. the Mavericks once Dirk is gone). That's what happens when you lose a pillar of the team.

The crazy thing about the Spurs, is that this is technically a rebuilding year. Which is strange, because it feels like we've almost never been there. We've never really had to start from scratch, which can all be attributed to the phenomenal good fortune of a couple of ping-pong balls bouncing the right way all the way back in 1997.  The transition from David Robinson to Tim Duncan was near seamless. While perhaps a little bumpier, I would argue that now Duncan's (and Parker and Ginobili's) transition to Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge is well underway. If we really look at it, Spurs are "rebuilding". Incidentally, they're also projected to still be the second best team in the NBA next season. That's crazy.

How are they doing this though? We can talk all we want about the Spurs way, but what I want us to look at are the ways that the Spurs have been slowly retooling their roster from old, reliable veterans to young promising prospects. The league has payed attention, garnering appropriate attention to key players like Danny Green and Patty Mills, giving contracts to other products of the Spurs' meticulous scouting and development, like Cory Joseph, Aron Baynes, and most recently Boban Marjanovic (courtesy largely of Stan Van Gundy). However, unlike Joseph, Baynes, and Marjanovic, I believe that this year's batch of youngsters host a lot of promise and a youth movement in the Spurs organization that will sustain what R.C. Buford states as the Spurs' greatest strength: continuity.

Spurs again are bringing in a lot of new faces, I won't really touch on the established veterans too much but suffice it to say that David Lee and Pau Gasol are both solid additions. While I wish Gasol were 5 years younger and Lee weren't the poster boy of bad defense (with Gasol not being much better), I believe that these can be mitigated. With a lot of the older guys, Gregg Popovich has typically been more about efficiency than necessarily raw production. Gasol and Lee were largely added for their fit in the offensive end to give them more firepower. While the defense takes a major hit because of Duncan's retirement, to me it's more of a testament Duncan's abilities than it is an indictment of Gasol's.  It's hard not to take for granted that we've had almost 30 years of Hall of Fame defensive anchoring in David Robinson and Tim Duncan, but I also think Popovich has developed enough of a defensive system that will hopefully mitigate whatever perceived weaknesses there are on an individual basis. Not everyone is going to be Kawhi Leonard or Tim Duncan, or heck even Bruce Bowen or Danny Green.

What Lee and Gasol bring to the table that excites me is the offensive flow. I loved Boris Diaw, he's a phenomenal player, but it was frustrating how passive he was at times in the game, which arguably could be something of an issue with Kyle Anderson as well. Lee and Gasol add offensive weapons that I believe fit within the Spurs' scheme perfectly. Gasol can run high-low with Aldridge as well if not better than Duncan because he's a bigger threat from further out. Similarly, I believe Lee will be a better offensive fit than David West was in the previous season.

However, honestly, it's neither Lee nor Gasol that actually excite me, it's the new faces that no one has heard of before, the youth movement in the Spurs' organization, that really excite me. For one thing, because the Spurs scout well, these players are all dripping with potential, and with the Spurs' history of player development, it's hard not to get excited about the possibilities. Now, granted not everyone pans out, we're still not 100% sure if Jonathon Simmons and Kyle Anderson will take the next step, though it looks promising (hopefully we'll find out this year). Maybe we've found another Cory Joseph or George Hill type player or maybe we've stumbled onto another James Anderson, only time will tell, but as things are, they're looking pretty rosy.

The first player to naturally be excited about is the one who will likely have the opportunity to make the biggest impact; Davis Bertans. A lot of people don't know who Bertans is, and that's largely because he's been spending most of his time playing overseas in Europe. Bertans comes to the Spurs as the 42nd pick of the 2011 draft, a pick that just happened to be tossed into the trade when the Spurs and Pacers essentially swapped George Hill for Kawhi Leonard. So, if this guy pans out, it makes Buford look like even more of a genius for pulling off that one. Some stuff has been written about Bertans, but most people in the States generally don't have as much visibility into the European leagues. What we do know about Bertans is that he is a 6-10 23 year old who has shot a career 40% from beyond the arc in Europe. He'll be asked to largely play PF in San Antonio, which I think works considering the small ball movement the NBA has been going in the past number of years, along with the fact that he will largely be facing up against second units. From the one Summer League game we did see Bertans playing in, we can see that he definitely has NBA range, hitting bombs from well beyond the arc, and that he has a decent motor able to dribble a little in traffic and run the floor. At worst, he'll be the next Matt Bonner, who frankly, worked out pretty well for the Spurs. Yet during that play we've seen glimpses of what might be potentially more, certainly I don't expect him to be the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki, but I think he can be a solid role player, I'm super intrigued by his mobility. With that long frame and high release, his shot is virtually unblockable. His ability to stretch the floor is already a huge asset, as he appears to be a better shooter already than either Kyle Anderson or Boris Diaw, anything else that he adds onto the game I think will just be gravy. While there might be some concern regarding his strength in defending the post and perhaps some of his rebounding numbers, I'm not overly concerned considering he'll likely play fewer minutes, but I think he adds a potent weapon to play next to some of the low post options we have in Leonard, Aldridge, and Gasol.

The next player could be the one that I'm arguably the most excited for. It's strange because while the Spurs have been largely considered a team of internationals, the team has recently been picking up a lot of US based players. Similar to 2009, when DeJuan Blair was the no-brainer pick for the Spurs, not a lot of people expected Washington guard Dejounte Murray to fall so late in the 2016 draft as to be available when the Spurs drafted. Both players were projected to be potential lottery picks. While DeJuan Blair's tenure at the Spurs was somewhat rocky and didn't end up working, the ceiling on Murray seems to be much, much higher (not to mention that the Spurs have had a better track record of developing guards and wings as opposed to bigs). Unlike most Spurs' picks and prospects, Murray is a much more flashier player, growing up in Seattle and being mentored by Jamal Crawford. What's intriguing about Murray is his potential versatility. In college he played a lot of the point, where finished his lone NCAA season averaging 16.1 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game (albeit on 3.2 turnovers). DraftExpress dubs Murray as an "incredibly aggressive player, always looking for ways to get inside the paint and get a shot off, not being afraid of contact in the least bit." The profile continues by indicating Murray's proficiency and preference of the floater (shades of Tony Parker?). While I love the prospect of potentially trotting out an athletic 6-5 point guard next to Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, Murray does have to improve his outside shooting and his decision making. Looking at his form, it doesn't seem too bad, and with Chip Engelland on hand, I'm not overly concerned with the former. The decision-making I believe is largely an issue of discipline and maturity, and I think Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are the perfect mentors for him in this regard. I think he'll probably spend a lot of time in Austin this year, but I think he has all the tools he needs to succeed. If he can develop the defensive discipline and hustle of Cory Joseph and Patty Mills, combined with his physical tools, and then reign in his high-motor offensive game to fit into the offense, I could see him either joining Green and Leonard in the starting lineup, creating a monstrous defensive perimeter, replacing Tony Parker, or being a spark plug secondary playmaker off the bench like Ginobili and his mentor, Jamal Crawford.

I've actually been pretty excited about this next player since he was drafted way back in 2013. I love his size, his athleticism, his hustle. Livio Jean-Charles (or LJC amongst the Spurs' bloggers) had been playing the past few years in Europe on ASVEL, a French team, incidentally, owned by Tony Parker. Unfortunately, an injury from playing for the national team hindered some of his development, but what we liked about about LJC remains true today. First off, he's only 22, so he still has a good amount of time to develop his game. While his play in Summer League and the Euroleague aren't blowing us out of the water, we know the potential is there as he was awarded the Most Outstanding Player (over players like Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, and Karl-Anthony Towns) in the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit after dropping 27 points and grabbing 13 rebounds against the US Junior Select Team. While I don't see him becoming much more than a role player, I certainly expect that rebounding aggressiveness to come into play. Additionally, I believe he has the tools to become a good to great defender. At worst I see him as a more explosive DeJuan Blair, crashing the glass and grabbing rebounds. However, I think he already has some of the skills (a developing jumper) necessary to make him another one of those diamond-in-the-rough picks that the Spurs seem to consistently find. Again, with Engelland on the staff, I don't really anticipate a huge issue in developing his jumper and improving his free throw percentage. Like Murray, or perhaps even more so, I see LJC spending a lot of time in Austin, where, the hope is that he will continue to develop his game and play aggressively, maximizing that 7-2 wingspan. While he may not have the court savvy, play-making, or superb passing of Boris Diaw that Kyle Anderson does, the athleticism and motor of LJC makes him as versatile defensively as Diaw (something that was often underrated), giving him the potential to guard 4 positions. While he probably (like Anderson) will have to continue to develop his strength to guard bigger NBA players, I think he can develop into a defensive minded 3-and-D PF.

The fourth and final new player (sorry NCAA fans, I don't think Bryn Forbes and Ryan Arcidiacono are making the cut after training camp, I could be wrong) that I'm pretty excited about is the Argentine, Patricio Garino. After graduating from George Washington University averaging 14.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.4 steals shooting 43% from beyond the arc in his senior year, Garino signed a 2 year contract with the Spurs, then proceeded to represent his native country of Argentina (alongside Manu Ginobili) in the Olympics, averaging 6.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1 steal and 33% from beyond the arc during Argentina's run in the tournament. Just one year prior in the 2015 Olympic Qualifying Tournament he averaged 7.7 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.5 assist, and 1.2 steals shooting 42% from beyond the arc. Standing 6-7 with a 6-10 wingspan, Garino is touted to be a superior defensive player who is smart and hard-working, and has significantly improved his spot-up 3 point shooting over the past year. A lot of people peg him to be similar to Danny Green, and I understand that of the contemporary players, I think he could be a good comparison, both in terms of length and size, but I think the way he plays and the hustle he brings reminds me a bit of Bruce Bowen. Now, I'm not saying he'll be the second coming of Bruce Bowen, but the skill-set of scrappy, in-your-face defense and spot up three point shooting is there. He could become the prototypical 3-and-D type player now so coveted by the NBA. Maybe he won't develop the chops and reputation of the likes of Bowen or his contemporaries in Raja Bell or Shane Battier, but I think he could become at the least one of the better 3-and-D players we've seen, and some of those guys are getting paid. Maybe he could become like the next DeMarre Carroll or Khris Middleton type of player (at worst like Matt Barnes). I think defensive discipline and instinct, especially on the perimeter is one of those things that will translate well into the NBA. I think he's got the size and the strength to stick with most players. Maybe he's not as athletic as say a LeBron James, but I think he can definitely begin to build a strong defensive reputation.

There is one more player I'd like to talk about, who doesn't quite fall in the same bucket as the Bertans, Murray, Jean-Charles, or Garino, and that's because he's not a rookie. He's also not a high-profile player like David Lee or Pau Gasol. However, many well-informed Spurs pundits believe that Dewayne Dedmon could be the most important addition that the Spurs made this off-season. Dedmon went undrafted in 2013 and began his career bouncing back and forth between Santa Cruz and Oakland in the Warriors' D-League program. After a brief stint in Philadelphia, Dedmon ended up in Orlando where he spent the better part of the last 3 seasons. A legitimate 7 footer, Dedmon sizes up as a defensive-minded, rim-protecting center. He has the speed and athleticism to keep up with today's NBA pace and is young enough to continue to be developing. While he averaged a promising 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes in his tenure in the NBA, he also averages a distressing 5.9 personal fouls per 36 minutes. His rebounding efficiency numbers are above average, and one has to think that if he can develop the defensive discipline of the Spurs' system and stay on the floor, he would be an ideal defensive big man option to pair next to either Gasol or Aldridge.

Overall, despite the sadness of losing Tim Duncan, these players are helping transition to a new phase for the Spurs franchise. Coupled with the continued development and emergence of Kawhi Leonard, the growing comfort and familiarity of LaMarcus Aldridge, and hopefully a return to hot-handed shooting for Danny Green (and Patty Mills), I can still say, I'm excited for the Spurs next year.

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