he 2016-17 Spurs were one of the few teams to buck the small-ball trend. That should change next year.
While the league continued its march towards greater pace, space and lineup versatility, last year’s Spurs were an evolutionary atavism, the NBA’s ornery champions of the long two. They leaned on one of the deeper (and more effective) big-man rotations, ranked 27th in pace and took the 25th-most three-point attempts.
That all made sense given their personnel and the system they were moving on from, but circumstances have changed. This summer’s roster moves make a shift to small ball almost inevitable, with the team suddently short on bigs and stocked with positionless, cheap jerseys nba multi-skilled players who could be sharing the floor more than ever. There aren’t enough big men to soak up all the PF/C minutes
There are 96 total minutes between the power-forward and center positions every game. Last year, LaMarcus Aldridge averaged 32.4 minutes, and Pau Gasol averaged 25.4. It’s doubtful Aldridge’s numbers go up as he recently turned 32, while 37-year-old Gasol has at least two more years in San Antonio and will be coming off of Euro 2018 play, giving Pop all the more reason to manage his playing time. Penciling them in for 57 combined minutes seems generous for the purposes of this exercise.
Dewayne Dedmon and David Lee are both gone (although Lee still hasn’t signed anywhere), and Joffrey Lauvergne, the last big on the roster, has never even averaged 18 minutes per game. If you project him at that (again, generous), that leaves roughly 21 big-man minutes left on nights when all three suit up. Now, you could overlap those three so that the Spurs always have two traditional big men on the floor, but that would still mean 11 minutes per game where they would be rolling out someone like Kyle Anderson or Davis Bertans at center, which would seem less than ideal.
It’s likelier that Pop staggers those three out, which could mean pushing small-ball time close to that 21-minute total on many nights, with multiple wings on the floor and Bertans, Anderson, Kawhi Leonard and new Spur Rudy Gay all getting reps at the four. We saw a little of this last year
The key word here is ‘little’ and most of it involved the Latvian rookie. Almost all of Bertans’ minutes last season were as a small-ball four, whether that was because Pop valued his ability to pull power forwards away from the basket or was reluctant to have him guard threes on the perimeter. The results were largely mixed.
Offensively, Bertans looked far more comfortable than your average rookie, showing off range that extends comfortably to the BIG3 four-point spots. He fit in well with many of the bench lineups thanks to both the spacing he provided and his high basketball IQ, and good things tended to happen whether he was firing away or simply making the right play.
Defensively, though, he had trouble contesting shots without fouling, and he gave up twenty or thirty pounds to traditional bigs who regularly knocked around his Vincent Adultman-like frame. He posted the same rebound rate (6.9%) as 39-year-old Manu Ginobili and the team’s overall rebound rate dropped from 51.7% to 50.3% when he was on the floor.
Bertans may or may not end up an effective small-ball four, but where I like the idea of him the most is in positionless, three-wing lineups, where his strengths shine and his weaknesses are shored up by guys like Leonard and Anderson. Oh, the possibilities
This opens things up for some intriguing lineups that would play into San Antonio’s already-free-flowing style, and Pop may dedicate a large chunk of the season figuring out what combinations work best. Play Leonard and Gay together and you’ve got two big wings that can post up the smaller man anytime they like, or attack the rim off the dribble.
Gasol has already extended his game beyond the arc, leading the entire league in three-point percentage last season. Aldridge has that range, as well, shooting 41.1% last year on 56 attempts. If he trends away from his low-efficiency fadeaways and towards more threes, the Spurs’ offense could look as modern as any team’s. There will be new challenges
It’s known that Aldridge has (or at least had) an aversion to playing the five. But even if you get past that (the position has, after all, evolved from the days where every center was a banger that had to get X low-post touches per game), there are other obstacles the Spurs will face.
All lineups, big and small, may suffer from a lack of off-the-dribble creation with Tony Parker sidelined and swing man Jonathon Simmons in Orlando. The Spurs offense relies foremost on ball movement, but the ability to get past defenders or create when chased off the three-point line is also important to keep defenses honest.
Rebounding is another area of concern. The 2016-17 Spurs were the league’s 6th best rebounding team in both overall and defensive rebound rate, a strength which no doubt contributed to their league-best defensive rating. Dedmon was the most proficient rebounder of the group, pulling down 21.1% of all available rebounds, and Lee (16.9%) was third. New Spur Lauvergne (14.9% over his three-year career) won’t likely be a force on the boards, and could be a liability in units he’s anchoring.
As mentioned with Bertans, the Spurs have options to shore this up. Anderson, Leonard and Gay are all strong rebounders, and Murray projects to be one as well for his position. Gay is the X factor here
The more I read about Achilles injuries, the less optimistic I am about the former King’s chances to be the kind of player many hope he can be in San Antonio. And being on the wrong side of 30 certainly doesn’t help. But the Spurs likely wouldn’t have signed him if they believed he couldn’t make an impact. He may end up minus a step, but given his transition to playing more minutes at the four, that may not be that big a concern anyway.
If health is on Gay’s side, he fixes a lot of issues the small-ball lineups and the roster in general have. He’s not only a solid rebounder, with experience playing power forward from his time in Sacramento, but he’d also be one of the better shot creators on the team. He’s a good spot-up shooter and probably undervalued as a defender (he ranked 8th among small forwards in defensive real plus-minus last year).
PATFO may have gone after Gay regardless of their wider roster plans — he is, in a vacuum, a relatively low-risk signing with high upside. But he also makes a lot of sense both on this roster and on a team that could be moving towards more dynamic, smaller lineups.
After sitting back and collecting young talent alongside an ever growing collection of assets, the Phoenix Suns are in a position to acquire a star without hurting their future. Rarely, if ever, do those opportunities come around, especially for someone who wants out with a guaranteed two years remaining on their contract.
Kyrie Irving has put my plan for Phoenix to eventually acquire that star talent into overdrive, albeit a year or two in advance. And Irving was one of the star-caliber players I outlined a few weeks ago when mentioning who they could eventually go after.
For Phoenix — who according to Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro will not include No. 4 pick Josh Jackson in any discussions for Irving — this is a risk they should be willing to take if they want to not only push their timeline forward but also be in position for attracting other stars around a 25-year-old Irving with Devin Booker and Jackson as formidable options who can grow alongside him.
Now, the question is, though, what will it take to acquire a disgruntled Irving? The end game will be a tug of war between Cleveland’s front office and whoever is interested in taking on this risk.
Cleveland believes Irving is a superstar who will be entering the prime of his career, which means obtaining him will cost more than an arm and a leg if someone complies to their high demands. However, other franchises will see this as a two-year rental opportunity trying to convince the Cavaliers’ point guard to stay on long-term.
As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst has mentioned on multiple occasions, a deal could be made with Phoenix for Irving if they wanted him. With Jackson not on the table, general manager Ryan McDonough could still offer Cleveland’s newest in command, Koby Altman, his most tantalizing offer. Out of Irving’s four preferred destinations — Miami, New York, San Antonio, and Minnesota — all encounter a possibly debilitating hurdle.
Let’s go through those four and find out where that hurdle is.
The Knicks refuse to include Kristaps Porzingis in talks, while Carmelo Anthony seems hell bent on joining Chris Paul and James Harden out west in Houston instead of getting stuck in Cleveland by himself in 2018 if LeBron James leaves for greener pastures. Minnesota, meanwhile, has Andrew Wiggins to offer in an Irving package but head coach and general manager Tom Thibodeau’s defensive philosophies might nix a possible deal. Alongside that notion, the Timberwolves signed Jeff Teague on July 1 so they would have to wait until December to include him in any deal. Gorgui Dieng would have to be moved, too, and his contract is viewed around the league as a non-desireable contract. Miami has Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow to offer for Irving, but that won’t be close to enough without giving up multiple first rounders. Compared to Dragic, Bledsoe far and away is the better option for a LeBron-led Cavs squad. San Antonio could offer a bevy of young prospects in Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, Davis Bertans, and Justin Anderson around Danny Green, for example, but, again, not close to what Cleveland is looking for in terms of value in return. And the Spurs will have a hard time finding any partner to take on Tony Parker and or LaMarcus Aldridge in a three-way deal. This leads back to Phoenix, where all roads tend to head towards when a star player is on the trading block at the moment.
As McDonough mentioned on Wednesday, they had the artillery to acquire DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George, and Jimmy Butler if they wanted to. None of those three coincided with the roster, but, with Irving, I think that mindset flips when a package around Bledsoe is what it will take to obtain one of the best 1-on-1 scorers in the Association.
Will the Suns roll the dice on trying to convince Irving on the Valley for the next two years? With the addition of Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones this month, who was Irving’s teammate from 2014-2017, alongside an extension for McDonough, shows him there is stability moving forward. That includes a roster full of youth led by Booker, Jackson, Marquese Chriss, and Dragan Bender. The security, in terms of future roster intentions and flexibility, is already set for a player like Irving to take it by the reins immediately upon arrival.
If I was in McDonough’s shoes, here’s the offer I would throw at Dan Gilbert and Altman: Eric Bledsoe, T.J. Warren, Tyson Chandler, and a top five protected first rounder in 2018 (Phoenix’s original pick). If Cleveland doesn’t bite on that offer, I would counter with Chriss and Bledsoe alongside their 2018 first via Miami.
Cleveland, if they part ways with Irving, would want to obtain either a package around young prospects, preferably Jackson, and draft picks. The expectation from their side is two unprotected first rounders, at least one, according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on his podcast this week with Windhorst.
The Cavaliers hold the leverage in this situation, but if Irving sticks to his word about not wanting to play Robin to LeBron’s Batman any longer, that value Irving has will slowly depreciate the longer this drags out. Advantage, again, cheap jerseys nba toward the Suns if they want to make a move.
Another note when thinking of the value that could be sent to the Cavs in an Irving deal: Brandon Knight’s season-ending ACL tear opens up a need at the backup two-guard spot unless they believe rookie Davon Reed and Derrick Jones Jr. can split the duties. With that being said, Phoenix could include Iman Shumpert to help Cleveland shed salary which opens the door to Knight heading toward the door next summer via trade or stretch provision.
Phoenix offers Irving both stability and a roster built for contention throughout his prime. For what Irving desires, being the lead man, the Suns put forward that opportunity if he buys into their family-oriented environment and coinciding with Booker in a backcourt.
Even though McDonough, Jones, and majority owner Robert Sarver (he might be salivating at adding a star presence in Irving to the Valley again) preached patience earlier this month, they should not be when it comes to Irving. It’s a perfect storm to acquire an All-Star guard who fits into their extended future alongside a roster mimicking more of a college team at the moment in terms of youth.
Kyrie Irving’s fit in a Suns uniform Sure, the defensive fit for Kyrie alongside Booker in a backcourt would be rather abysmal, to say the least, but he comes to a franchise where their head coach already mimics what happens out in Portland with two score-first guards. Earl Watson and Terry Stotts both prioritize getting up and down and trying to win through their offensive firepower. Sliding in Irving for Bledsoe actually makes sense for Watson if they want to move even more towards a warp speed up-and-down attack.
Personally, I think Watson would welcome Irving and be better off with said addition. He’s a splendid fit for a team who needs more scoring and wants to push the pace. This roster is built to allow both Irving and Booker to get theirs respectively, in terms of touches and shots.
Irving, as we all know, is an elite guard in terms of putting the ball in the hoop. The value he’s able to add as an isolation scorer and off of pick-and-rolls is immense.
Far and away, Irving’s inclusion into PnR sets with a gifted passer such as Bender could unlock fascinating potential from him as a playmaker. Even with another above-average passer, for a wing, in Jackson should allow Irving to find openings off the ball, too. As a slasher to the rim, Irving could grow upon that if sharing touches with Booker compared to the most ball-dominant forward in recent memory, LeBron. With the way Phoenix has constructed their roster thus far, it opens up opportunities for a score-first player like Irving to develop beautiful ball movement on and off the ball.
Another positive in the Suns favor for selling Irving on staying is that the would be core five can grow together for an extended period. Irving, Booker, Jackson, Chriss, Bender, if they do a package around Bledsoe/Warren/1st, is one of the more promising cores if everything goes to plan with each prospect’s ceiling of potential.
Not only would McDonough and Co. now have five players all yet to hit their primes, four not even close to theirs, but he also would still have control over the majority of his future draft capital. Immediately, Phoenix becomes a desirable free agent destination even next summer and steadily improves as the core continues its upward trajectory.
After all of this, I would be surprised if Phoenix isn’t working to acquire Irving. They have two years to sell him on having a contender extending throughout his prime especially, and begin to make them a destination to contend for top free agents year in, year out if Irving commits to a now edited, more win very soon sort of timeline.
With reports coming out about Irving refusing to speak to Cleveland throughout this process speaks of how ugly this might get here soon if nothing happens. However, the longer it goes the more it helps a team like Phoenix as Cleveland begins losing leverage.
Even if Irving ends up in Phoenix and bolts after two years, the original four would be ready to compete for the playoffs on their own. That shows how great of a position they are in to take this shot on the Cavs’ star ready to have his own leading role. And with how flexible McDonough has made their roster now and into the future allows for them to go all-in on Irving whether he stays after the 2018-2019 season or not.
McDonough has said on multiple occasions this offseason how he would look to acquire the right player if they could “accelerate their timeline,” and Irving is one of those who could help set a new road map to a title whichever way they take.