With the passing of the annual trade deadline, the Spurs stood pat, but the Cleveland Cavaliers have made an overhaul heading toward their 4th attempt to the Finals. Spurs contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Jesus Gomez, Bruno Passos, Mark Barrington, and editor-in-chief J. R. Wilco discuss San Antonio’s Year of Injury, the Cavaliers’ big changes, and the stellar performance in Phoenix. With so many of the team’s best players unavailable, Spurs fans have spent this season focusing in their young players getting valuable minutes against some of the NBA’s best. Derrick White shined in Oakland, but how would the Spurs fair with a healthy Kawhi Leonard against Finals MVP Kevin Durant? And with Davis Bertans inserted into the starting line-up, Pau Gasol once again comes off the bench. Is that the best move for the Silver & Black?
Thanks for joining In The Bonus this week. For the back-to-back games in Salt Lake City and Denver, check back next Tuesday.
The Cleveland Cavaliers appear to have gutted a significant portion of their roster. How will these changes affect their postseason run and will the trades be enough to keep LeBron James in a Cavs jersey or the 2018-19 season?
Marilyn Dubinski: They all seemed like positive moves the instant they happened. George Hill seems like LeBron’s type of PG (good defender, can pass and shoot but is unselfish) while Isaiah Thomas is both not healthy and needs the ball in his hands to be effective. Basically everyone else that got traded away was under-performing, and Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. should all be nice complimentary pieces. It may not get them to the first seed, but they appear in much better position to get to the Finals again now than last week. It remains to be seen whether anything besides a championship will be enough to keep LeBron there.
Jesus Gomez: Even before they walloped the Celtics, they had overtaken them and the Raptors as the favorite to come out of the East. They needed youth, athleticism and defense and they checked all three boxes with the players they traded for. If the locker room doesn’t become toxic again — not a given, sadly — the Cavaliers should come out of the East for the third year in a row.
Bruno Passos: I heard the point made that the thinking has shifted from LeBron needing a superteam around him to be at his best to simply being surrounded by the right set of role players. That seems to be precisely what he got with the trade deadline moves, and they’re looking pretty good early on. It appears to be just what the team needed in the short term and the long term.
Mark Barrington: They look like a different team out there. I guess they are, for the most part, except for LeBron. They literally rejuvenated the roster, and they are now my favored team to win the Eastern Conference title. And Ty Lue will still have a job at the end of the year, it wasn’t looking so good for him in January.
J. R. Wilco: James + competent guys who don’t hate each other = Finals appearance — at least, that’s been the formula for the Eastern Conference over the past 11 seasons. I see no reason it won’t continue this year.
Spurs beat the Suns by 48. Was it all cylinders pumping for San Antonio or a result of the Suns injuries?
Dubinski: The Suns are a team with zero defense and will only win by outscoring an opponent who is having a bad night. Take away their best scorer(s), and it should be no sweat. It was nice to see the Spurs do their job against a team they should beat (that has been an issue at times this season), but there was really nothing else to take away from it.
Gomez: The Suns are awful. They are arguably the worst team in the league. And they were missing key players. I wouldn’t read to much into that particular win. It was fun, though.
Passos: Unfortunately, it felt like the latter. The Suns aren’t world-beaters at the best of times, but missing one of their defensive tone-setters in Tyson Chandler and their best offensive player in Devin Booker made conditions ripe for San Antonio to look great.
Barrington: Sometimes it feels good to beat up on a tomato can, and that’s all it was. The Spurs are still a midlevel playoff team without the cornrowed one, but they have plenty of firepower to beat up on the woeful Suns when they’re missing their best two players.
Wilco: I wish the Spurs could have a great night of outside shooting against a team they actually needed it for. At the end of this season, there only reason we’ll remember this game is to wonder how an NBA team could give up so many points to a team like this year’s Spurs.
With both Dejounte Murray and Tony Parker sidelined in Oakland, Derrick White got an opportunity to shine. How important was that game for him?
Dubinski: It won’t change how much time he gets as a rookie for the rest of the season, but the Spurs already know his potential. I do think more than anything it gave him a chance to show fans what type of player he is and what he can bring in the future. I can see him having a role as soon as next season and look forward to seeing if he can be our next big draft steal. It’s definitely possible, and his intriguing story makes it all the more exciting.
Gomez: In the grand scheme of things, not important at all. We likely won’t know how good White can be for a couple more seasons. It was super encouraging for fans wanting to see at least the faintest glimpse of potential from him. He’s just not played much, so watching him hold his own against Golden State is the first sign many have seen that he belongs.
Passos: I think reps like that matter a lot, especially for him. The guy spent three years of college facing D-II talent and has spent most of this season against G-Leaguers. It’s important for him to get a feel for playing against the world’s best, and for the Spurs to see how he responds to the challenge. I was encouraged by what I saw.
Barrington: He looked great, and he has tons of potential. But like every other rookie, he’ll also have bad games and games where he doesn’t have a lot of impact. I’m glad that he’s getting some real game time, but I have zero confidence that he will have any significant playoff time this year. But I’d like to see him hit the rotation regularly as soon as next season.
Wilco: It was a nice chance for him, and maybe it was the high point of his season, but based on the games I’ve seen him play with the Austin Spurs this season, he’s still so much a work in progress that I can’t see what he’s going to be yet. Besides a bit player on next year’s team, that is.
With full healthy rosters, Kawhi Leonard would be defending Kevin Durant. With Kyle Anderson backing Leonard, is it possible to severely limit Durant’s importance over a seven game series?
Dubinski: His importance will never be limited. Durant will get his points and make an impact on defense because he’s that good, so it’s matter of making him inefficient in doing so while also limiting what the rest of his superteammates can do. It will take full health and near perfection to beat the Warriors in a playoff series, but making their best player work hard is a good place to start.
Gomez: Not really. Players of that caliber are always going to be important. No matter how good the defense is, Durant can still score. No matter how talented his assignment, he can still make an impact on defense. That’s why he’s an all-time talent. Having Leonard back will be huge because he’s also a superstar. His value is only partially defined by how he impacts how opponents play. He makes his mark on both ends no matter who he plays against, just like KD. The Spurs need someone who can do that.
Passos: Durant is basically as unguardable as it gets, although having someone with Kawhi’s combination of length, strength and anticipation can force him into more mistakes than he’d otherwise have. In that respect, I think Anderson fulfilled his role perfectly. The greater value in having Kawhi back is that Durant has to work on both ends of the floor, and that kind of strain can take its toll over a long game and over a seven-game series.
Barrington: Kyle is becoming a very good defensive player. He’s always in good guarding position and he uses his length to make up for what he lacks in speed. He’s really not that much worse than Kawhi would be defending Durant than you might think. Durant is a great player and he will score no matter who is defending him, and Kyle will do a fine job on defense. But the difference on offense between SloMo and the Klaw is immense and it’s costly to the team as Durant can lay off Kyle and peel off to block shots.
Wilco: Making it difficult for star players to do what they like to do: that’s how you defend the elite. Kawhi can make the incredible recoveries that make for highlight blocks against the league’s best, Kyle had a good showing but it’s not the kind of thing I’d expect to see from him many times over a playoff series.
How does Davis Bertans starting in place of Pau Gasol improve the Spurs starting line-up?
Dubinski: He definitely adds some movement and flare to a starting line-up that can get sterile at times. His defense and rebounding is improving as well, which helps offset concerns about throwing him into the fire. I’m intrigued to see what Bertans will bring once Kawhi returns and he’s the third or fourth target on offense. If nothing else he can help space the floor more and give Kawhi and LaMarcus Aldridge more room to operate.
Gomez: It gives them mobility on both ends. Pau can hit three-pointers, but he has to be stationary to be effective. He’s at his best on offense in general when he has time to find his place. Bertans moves constantly. That’s not always smart, as he sometimes gets in his teammates’ way, but it makes the defense work harder. He can also switch onto perimeter players and hold his own better than Pau can. I like what I’ve seen so far from the starters + Bertans. Hopefully, we’ll get to see more of it.
Passos: It means more activity in the Spurs attack and more mobility on defense if opponents are playing multiple floor-spacers in the frontcourt. You won’t see many 6’10’’ guys that can race from one side of the court to the other and immediately launch a three right off the catch, like Bertans can. You lose a bit of passing and rim protection with the trade-off, but it’s something Pop seems prepared to live with.
Barrington: I think ‘improve’ is the wrong word here. It’s better against some teams where athleticism and shooting matter more and worse against teams where more length and better post passing is more important. Even though Davis is 6’ 10”, he plays smaller and when he’s starting, it’s going to be a small ball lineup. I expect the starters to continue to change depending on matchups. But since the most challenging potential playoff confrontations involve a lot of small ball, I expect Bertans to start most of the games that matter. Pau will still get a lot of important minutes as a backup.
Wilco: Just making defenses think about a deep threat like Bertans is enough for me. Pau has long-distance shooting in his repertoire, but he doesn’t look to shoot them — in fact, he often doesn’t shoot them even when they’re available and he’s wide open. Davis wants to shoot threes. He looks to shoot them, and he shoots them well. That means the defense has to account for him, and an offense can distort a defense with a threat like that, which opens up things and makes it easier for everyone to score.
Opposing defenses can essentially ignore Pau at the three-point line for the entire game because he’s not going to shoot more than a couple threes, but if you ignore Bertans he could get hot and the next thing you know he’s taking them off the dribble and shooting them half-blind immediately after coming around a screen. You don’t want that, so you have to guard him. That makes him valuable.
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