Now that the San Antonio Spurs are likely a few hours from being eliminated from the postseason, with Kawhi Leonard nowhere near the team’s bench for support and reportedly still in New York rehabilitating a quadriceps injury, the club can now ponder his future.
It’s a complicated and twisted relationship that Leonard has with the Spurs after he returned from the quadriceps injury for only nine games before returning to rehabilitate, despite being cleared by team doctors to play. The two-time All-Star and 2014 NBA Finals MVP hasn’t returned to the team and hasn’t been with his teammates during their first-round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors.
Leonard has one more season on his extension and the Spurs are eligible to offer him a five-year, $200 million deal (called the “super max”), which would keep him in San Antonio through his prime years. The Spurs have traditionally kept their most valuable players such as David Robinson, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker and then changed the roster around those cornerstones.
Leonard was next in line but his injury along with what appears to be a complete disconnect between him and the organization has created a potential for an offseason trade. The Spurs do not want to take the same chance as the Oklahoma City Thunder, who watched Kevin Durant to walk as a free agent, getting nothing in return.
The smaller-market Spurs will need a return on Leonard if he instructs the team he will not sign beyond next season. There are several teams that will clear salary cap space to trade for Leonard, including the Los Angeles Lakers.
There have been rumors that the Celtics would listen to a Kawhi deal but that would cost them a first-round pick and perhaps Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. That is too rich a price, even for Leonard. There is a growing sentiment in Celtics circles that Tatum is essentially untouchable and Brown is not too far behind.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is dealing with the death this week of his wife Erin, which caused him to miss Game 3 on Thursday and Sunday’s Game 4 against the Warriors. But he’s been rather short and abrupt when asked about Leonard, who has been advised by a team of confidants about his health and whether to return to the court.
Leonard hasn’t talked about his injury or his return since he shut himself down again after a Jan. 13 game. But the Spurs have to get some type of return on their value and the best team to deal with may be the Lakers. Leonard is from the LA area and the Lakers have enough assets to work a deal.
The Spurs have usually retained their major stars, so a megadeal such as this would be unusual. Would general manager R.C. Buford and Popovich decide to take steps back, get younger players and draft picks and rebuild if Leonard is open to being traded?
Or does San Antonio offer him that $200 million contract, cementing their marriage for several more years? It’s a difficult situation because Leonard is going against the advice of team doctors for an injury that should not have cost him an entire season.
Meanwhile, he left his teammates in a bind, forcing them to compete against the Warriors shorthanded. As expected, the Spurs lost the first three games of the series. LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, and Patty Mills are signed through at least next season while Danny Green and Rudy Gay have player options.
So it’s conceivable the Spurs could re-sign Leonard and bring back the same bunch for one more spirited run. But that would likely require some mending of the relationship between Leonard and the organization. If the Spurs decide not to offer Leonard the super max, they would almost have to deal him in the coming months.
Stackhouse builds support for job
The New York Knicks appear as if they are going to take this coaching search very seriously after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek, who didn’t have much of a chance to succeed. The Knicks brass of Steve Mills and Scott Perry are interviewing former NBA players Mark Jackson, Kenny Smith, and Jerry Stackhouse for the job as well as ex-Cavaliers coach David Blatt.
The Knicks could score big with any of these hires but Stackhouse is an intriguing choice because of his willingness to build his coaching r
ésumé in the G League and his transition from ex-player to coach.
The mistake the Knicks made with hiring Derek Fisher in 2014 was that while he had the potential to be a decent coach he hadn’t gotten the lifestyle and habits of a longtime NBA playing career out of his system. Nearly a decade ago, Doc Rivers saw a potential coach in Tyronn Lue and added him to his staff as an assistant.
Lue, who still had aspirations of continuing his playing career, got that itch out of his system in his Celtics years and then joined Rivers in Los Angeles and eventually became associate head coach and then head coach in Cleveland. Hiring recently retired players to coach can be a difficult endeavor if they still haven’t completely viewed themselves as a coach.
Fisher has all the attributes to become a good NBA coach, if he gets another opportunity, but he was hired far too soon after his career ended.
Stackhouse, who played his last NBA game in 2013, took a different path, leading Raptors 905 to a G League title last season and an appearance in the G League finals this year.
Stackhouse is also a candidate in Orlando, which is looking for a successor to Frank Vogel. Stackhouse is an attractive candidate because of his success in the G League, his youth (42 years old), and his no-nonsense style. NBA teams have watched the success of Lue, Brad Stevens, and other neophyte coaches and realize they can be successful in their first job.
Jackson has been waiting on another NBA opportunity for five years, since he was fired by the Golden State Warriors in 2014 because of issues with management after a first-round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Jackson seems like a natural for the Knicks job. He is a New York native and former Knick who played college basketball at St. John’s. Jackson’s team in Golden State improved in each of his three seasons and he set the groundwork for the team’s success in coaching future stars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
He has waited patiently for another chance, working for ABC/ESPN as an analyst but resurrecting the Knicks would be an opportunity that he likely wouldn’t pass on. Blatt did a solid job with the Cavaliers but he took the brunt of their underachieving in LeBron James’s second season, getting dismissed even though the Cavaliers were 30-11.
He is an underdog for the job because he didn’t leave Cleveland in the best of circumstances and he may lack the sizzle Knicks management essentially has to make with this hire. The Knicks will enter the season without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament and have two more years of the four-year, $72 million deal with Joakim Noah.
Enes Kanter has an $18.6 million player option that he must decide on this summer while Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas are still under contract for two more seasons. The Knicks have a lottery pick and could get a standout player to join Frank Ntilikina and Tim Hardaway Jr., but the club is at least a few years away from contenting unless it can sign a premium free agent and Kanter opts out of his contract.
Smith has aspirations to be a general manager, and this may just be a courtesy interview for the coaching job. His basketball knowledge on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” is well respected but Smith has never been a coach at any level.
Playoff overhaul still on the table
The Denver-Minnesota regular-season finale in which the winner got a playoff berth added some fire to the argument about reworking the playoff process. The Timberwolves won the game in overtime and earned a matchup with the Houston Rockets while the Nuggets were again left out of the playoffs.
There was increased interest in that game because of the added significance. It is uncertain how the league could arrange more play-in games, similar to baseball’s wild-card game, but it’s something that is being discussed.
Should the NBA institute play-in games for the postseason? And how would that occur? There seems to be a groundswell of support for a change in the playoff system, perhaps ditching the Western/Eastern Conference format. But until there is a better system that includes the best 16 teams without drastically increasing travel, the current system will likely remain.
“It’s continued interest in a play-in game,” Commissioner Adam Silver said recently. “There have been proposals that the league has been looking at in the last several weeks. In fact, we reviewed a play-in-type proposal with the Competition Committee recently and we discussed it in the Board of Governors meeting. I’m sure we’ll be discussing it again this summer at our next meeting. The answer is “yes” for me. It was an incredibly exciting game, and it does open up those possibilities that we can be looking at something more formalized, but certainly a play-in-type format.”
A new system is at least a year away but it is being pondered. Should teams with equal records play for playoff final playoff spots and ditch any other tiebreakers? The Denver-Minnesota game was a rarity because they had the same record and just coincidentally played each other on the regular season’s final night.
It would be a grand idea to set up at least one play-in game per year but does that mean stripping away conference affiliations?
“No formal discussions at this meeting. It’s been an ongoing issue that we’ve been discussing, both with the Competition Committee and at the board level,” Silver said. “I think we’re at the point right now where nobody has a better solution. As we’ve talked about before, it’s a balance of travel issues versus conference issues versus how the schedule should be set. You had, as you typically do, this year one team — in this case it was the Denver Nuggets — that had a better record than the [final three playoff teams] in the East. But as I said, it’s not just about that. I think it also goes to the actual seeding of the playoff teams themselves. We’re satisfied with where we are only because when we look at alternatives, it seems that the travel becomes overwhelming. And so we’re status quo for the time being, but we’re always looking to see if we can improve it.”
Meanwhile, after a report that an NBA owner admonished his coach for winning a late-season game because it damaged the team’s lottery chances, Silver is again dealing with the issue of teams purposely trying to lose. The new lottery system gives the teams with the three worst records each a 14 percent chance of getting the top pick, decreasing the odds from the previous system by 11 percent for the worst record and 5 percent for the second-worst record.
So while the new system discourages teams from being completely noncompetitive like the 76ers in previous years, there is still much incentive for tanking because of the chances of netting a premium player in the draft.
In the season finale between the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks, both among the league’s worst teams, players such as Davon Reed, Shaquille Harrison, Danuel House, Kyle Collinsworth, Johnathan Motley, and Aaron Harrison saw considerable action. Those probably aren’t the players fans paid to see.
“I will just say we had conversations with several teams about what the product was that they were putting on the floor, and I’ll leave it at that,” Silver said.
“They were just direct conversations we had with teams. Well, let me add, I find it an incredibly difficult issue. We are changing the draft lottery for next year. That was something that had already been voted on, but we continue to look at the issue. We recognize that our goal was to put the best competition on the floor, and it’s balanced against legitimate rebuilding of some teams.
“But I know we’re not there yet, and I certainly wasn’t satisfied. There can only be so much cajoling out of the league office. It’s one of those things that the last place I want to go as the commissioner of the league office is to start dictating minutes and which particular players should be playing at what points in the game. I recognize that the incentives are not aligned right now, that there’s a huge incentive to increase your chances in the draft lottery, especially under the old system. As I said, we’re switching the system for next year. We’ll see how much of an impact that has, but my sense is we’re still going to have some work to do.”
It will be an interesting summer for former third overall pick Jahlil Okafor, who was supposed to resurrect his career after a trade from Philadelphia to Brooklyn but instead ended the season by playing in just four of the Nets’ final 24 games, and not for disciplinary reasons. Okafor was once of the No. 1-rated high school player in the country but he dropped to third in the 2015 draft behind Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell and his NBA career has been a major disappointment, as he was essentially banished in Philadelphia and the shipped to Brooklyn. Okafor is a slow-moving big man who doesn’t shoot 3-pointers and is a poor defender, essentially a dinosaur in today’s NBA. He’s an unrestricted free agent this summer and he may have to wait deep into the summer for a contract . . . A player to watch who surprisingly decided to enter this year’s draft and signed with an agent is Texas Tech swingman Zhaire Smith, who was impressive during the Red Raiders’ run to the Elite Eight. Smith is not ready to help an NBA team right now but his athleticism and defensive prowess make him an interesting prospect. Smith is likely a late first-round pick, meaning the best-case scenario for him is being drafted by a good team and allowed to develop . . . The Celtics own the 27th pick and it’s a pretty good bet they will use the pick on a legitimate center prospect who could eventually replace Al Horford. The players who could be available are Southern California’s Chimezie Metu, UNLV’s Brandon McCoy, Kentucky’s Nick Richards, and Auburn’s Austin Wiley. And don’t forget about Mitchell Robinson, who had issues gaining eligibility at Western Kentucky and decided to skip college and spend the year preparing for the draft (something that a growing number of prospects who have no interest in college are doing). Robinson has all the physical tools but is definitely inexperienced. But the Celtics, looking for a long-term answer at center, don’t need a rookie to immediately contribute . . . The Hawks allowed coach Mike Budenholzer to interview for the vacant Suns position, a sign that the Hawks wouldn’t mind getting a new coach to go with their top-5 pick as they attempt to rebuild quickly. With John Collins, Taurean Prince, Dennis Schroder, and Kent Bazemore, the Hawks could be back quickly.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.