It’s a humid summer night in San Antonio, Texas. The date is June 8, 2014: it’s my birthday, and I’m sitting lower level at AT&T Center watching Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
During the series opener, the AC apparently busted, and I’m thanking whatever basketball Gods for fixing the air conditioning.
This is the first time I’ve seen LeBron James in person, and I’m awed by his size. The dude is built like a tank — a linebacker navigating the court like a svelte point guard, easing through the defensive unit of silver-and-black jerseys with the grace of a dancer, if that dancer was ambushed by a bunch of giant athletes on the dance floor.
I’m enamored by the whole experience, so much so that I mishear the PA announcer call for all veterans to stand for acknowledgement. San Antonio is a military city; the home-court traditionally does this, sponsored by USAA. What I heard was, “Stand in respect for their service.” I rise from my seat next to a grizzled and stern former army sergeant. Leaning over, he politely asks me if I’m a vet. I look at him confused, and bashfully answer that I’m not, but I’m pro-Military. Without warning, the man folds up his Spurs program, and begins swatting me with it, repeatedly.In that moment, I’m the kid in “A Christmas Story” falsely accused by Ralphie of dropping the f-bomb.
“What did I do?” I wail repeatedly. “What did I do?”
I reconciled with the vet later, but it’s the kind of reaction you as the reader will likely have after reading my five predictions for the 2016-2017. Especially if they don’t come to fruition or you disagree.
I’m not a basketball psychic, but I stand by these choices. I invite you all to have whatever reaction you want. Feel free to smack me with your programs, and share your own predictions below.
1. The top four seeds in the Western Conference will remain the same
Cleveland eked out a close game seven victory against a clearly exhausted Golden State roster. Spot-up jumpers that normally drained for Curry clattered off the rim — misfires annunciated by the silence of a usually boisterous Golden State home crowd.
The proposed top-16 seeding bracket concept — that would have ousted Conferences — has probably been wadded up and hurled into a garbage bin by an NBA employee that sketched it out. Despite the depth of Western Conference teams, the East won, and seems poised to become deeper over the offseason. Danny Ainge and the Celtics are anxious to poach any disgruntled player from their respective teams, the Raptors will capitalize on their Eastern Conference run with a healthy roster, the Sixers will look to bring the organization back to their gold standard with a plethora of picks and trades, and Washington and New York will make a run at prized free agents.
After this postseason — in which the Warriors equalled their nine game loss total of the entire regular season — are Golden State actually beatable? Well, not exactly.
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It’s obvious Curry wasn’t healthy since the Blazers series. Plus, the OKC Western Conference matchup was the equivalent of the Ali/Frazier’s “Thrilla In Manilla” — two heavyweights with equal championship aspirations battering the snot out of each other. Cleveland cruised to the Finals against lackluster East teams that were just stoked to be in the postseason.
The core of the Warriors will likely remain the same (with the exception of Festus Ezeli, Harrison Barnes, and assistant coach Luke Walton). OKC will probably retain Durant’s services for another year. The Clippers will only get stronger if they deal DeAndre Jordan for depth; I will never rule out a Doc Rivers fronted team, and LAC seemed like they were going to massacre the Blazers before CP3 and Griffin seasons ended during the same game.
The key for San Antonio’s offseason is to go younger and quicker. In 3-of-4 games during the regular season, the Spurs were suckered into the Warriors’ fast break offense, which ranked second in the league in PACE, compared to SA (24th).
2. Durant will not join the Spurs
Last season, analysts were confident that the league favored development over a stacked roster for championship success. Now that Cleveland — with one of the highest payrolls/deepest squads in basketball — claimed the title (seriously, the bench is a who’s-who of NBA talent, the second or third best player on a team in their prime), experts aren’t sure what ingredients creates Finals glory. The Spurs seem to be leaning towards the latter philosophy; sources claim that RC Buford and the F.O. have a laundry list of stars they are pursuing over the offseason.
At the top of the list — and every other sane franchises’ — is Kevin Durant.
It’s a possibility, as per Marc Stein with ESPN:
Sources say that the Warriors and Spurs are on the short list of teams expected to secure a face-to-face meeting with Durant when he allows a select number of teams to court him once free agency starts.
ESPN reported earlier this month that the most likely scenario for Durant, at this juncture, remains signing a two-year deal to stay with Oklahoma City that includes a player option to return to free agency in the summer of 2017 alongside Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook.
If Durant leaves, it’s difficult seeing him playing second fiddle to anyone. If he abandons the flat Oklahoma terrain, it’s to avoid fighting for the rock in the waning seconds of regulation with Westbrook. Before, the Thunder point guard stood in KD’s shadow. After Durant was injured during the 2014-15 season, Westbrook took a ravaged OKC roster, and single-handedly lead them within spitting distance of the eighth seed. They are now regarded as equals of one another in terms of talent; Westbrook ranked fourth in MVP voting this year, Durant fifth.
Besides the aforementioned franchises, Durant plans on entertaining several teams this summer; Boston has scheduled a meeting, because the Celtics are trying to sign everyone these days; Arron Afflalo and Derrick Williams just opted out of their respective contracts, clearing up 30 million in cap space for the Knicks; the Wizards secured Scottie Brooks as HC and are the hometown faves to nab the Slim Reaper.
However, he would be sacrificing a sizable chunk of change if he left. USA Sports Sam Amick broke it down like this:
The list of potential scenarios here is long and complex, but the two aforementioned figures are prominently in play when it comes to Durant’s options. His path to maximized profits, by way of that mind-blowing $227 million figure that is known to be in line with the Thunder’s own calculations, goes like this: sign a one-year deal ($25.9 million) with a team option in the second season this summer, then opt out a year later in order to maximize the league-instituted advantages that only the Thunder possess.
That strategy… would lead to a five-year, $201 million contract in the summer of 2017 that would end with him making $45.8 million in his final season (he’s making $20.1 million this season). By comparison, a four-year deal with Durant signing elsewhere this summer would be worth $110 million.
The Thunder boasts the second best regular season record over the last six seasons and the second most Conference Finals appearance (second to only Miami). First year coach Billy Donovan has a bright future, and took the team to another level in the postseason, utilizing all components of the roster into a functioning and cohesive unit.
San Antonio can’t come anywhere close to the Benjamins OKC can cough up. Also, I can’t see Durant playing beneath the established LMA or the budding superstar in Leonard.
In all likelihood, San Antonio will acquire Al Horford. The Atlanta big comes from an identical system run by former San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, and could be a fantastic plug-and-play in the absence of Timmy. He is what the Spurs need the most: a center that can actually defend.
3. Boban will resign
The most intriguing storyline of 2015-16 season was one that nobody could have predicted preseason.
One name was constantly on the minds, dreams, and lips of the Alamo City faithful.
Boban. Boban Marjanovic.
What started the “Cult of Boban”, with the constant deafening chants for the 7-foot-3 center, regardless of the quarter or the scoreboard; regardless of a home or away game?
The hype machine began with the Spurs introduction video. Each player was presented on the jumbotron. Eyes sharp – precision and focus making their faces grim –they mentally prepared for the matchup. Suddenly, Boban appeared on the screen, a booming grin spreading over his face. The oblivious excitement penetrated the gloom of focused competition. This wasn’t the smile of joy. No. Rather the grin of a hostile and territorial animal defending his silver-and-black turf.
In fact, the rest of the roster is a blur of faces, quickly forgotten like the supporting cast overshadowed by a Leonardo DiCaprio performance. Immediately after the opening, local San Antonio Twitter and social media exploded about the Serbian.
So why the hype? When he played – despite the limited time – Boban was effective offensively.Boban ranked fifth in the entire league in terms of Player Efficiency Rating, boasting a 27.77 per, nestled between Durant and Westbrook. Per 100 possessions, Marjanovic averaged 29.9 points, 19.6 total rebounds, and 2.3 blocks. This obliterated Tiago Splitter’s tally – the big he technically replaced on the roster – who averaged 21.1 points, 13.3 total rebounds, and 1.6 blocks in career per 100 possessions with San Antonio.
With Tim Duncan’s impending retirement, San Antonio can match any offer sheet for Boban. Since the Spurs will have a gaping hole in the front court, it’s likely the Alamo City will experience even more “Boban Mania” next season.
4. Goodbye Danny Green
The former Tar Heel looked like a player being forced to compete by a hostile regime in a repressed country; if he refused, his family would face dire consequences. In other words, Green didn’t seem very happy this season. Something was wrong, and he was clearly aware of it. According to a recent interview with WOAI in regards to his poor year:
I thought it was not a good one. Obviously, percentage wise I didn’t shoot it or play as well as I have normally have done in the past. I also think it was an adjustment. Something to work on. Getting used to the system. It’s a different system in the last couple of years. This year was very different. Just move forward, don’t look back. Use it as a learning experience.
Popovich paraded him out anyway, hopeful that he could fix his shooting slump. The strategy failed miserably; Green averaged season lows in points (7.2) since his first full season with the Spurs and his 3-pointer percentage (33.2%) was the lowest since his rookie campaign with the Cavs.
San Antonio has no problem shipping out players that no longer fit the silver-and-black color scheme (see exhibit a. Tiago Splitter, exhibit b. George Hill, exhibit c. recent NBA champ Richard Jefferson).
Green’s defensive effort was still fairly consistent, but he was a liability on offense, even prompting home fans the last Spurs game I attended to groan whenever he took a shot.
It would take some Santeria to get Green back on track. And since San Antonio is a predominantly Catholic town, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
5. Kawhi will be a top three player
The KLAW ranked second in MVP voting this season (a bit generous considering the dominance of LBJ in the postseason). Regardless, Leonard improved on both ends of the floor, garnering his second consecutive KIA NBA Defensive Player of the Year award (the first non-center to win consecutive times since Dennis Rodman did it in 1989-90 and 1990-91). After his emergence as Finals MVP, Leonard is one of the game’s greats, and fortunately, pundits outside of the Alamo City took notice. As per an NBA press release:
A first-time NBA All-Star this season, Leonard contributed to a San Antonio defense that led the NBA in points allowed (92.9 ppg) and defensive rating (96.6 points per 100 possessions). The Spurs, a franchise-record 67-15 this season, were even stingier on defense with Leonard in the game: According to NBA.com/Stats, they had a defensive rating of 94.9 when the five-year veteran was on the court and 99.2 when he wasn’t — a difference of 4.3 points per 100 possessions. Leonard also averaged 1.78 steals (12th in the NBA), 5.5 defensive rebounds and a career-high 0.99 blocks to go with career highs on offense of 21.2 points and 2.6 assists.
Leonard has improved statistically in nearly every category, and is poised to continue to evolve under the tutelage of Coach Popovich.