Looks like the Spurs New Year’s resolutions involved continuing the solid camaraderie and team building that started with December’s big home stand and has taken them out of the hole they dug through November.
After the win over the Boston Celtics, talking about Kawhi Leonard became unavoidable as the anticipation of The Klaw’s return was all anyone in the league could seem to focus on. But just as quickly as the Raptors landed in the Alamo City, they left — and much quieter than they entered.
A standout in San Antonio’s last wins has been the impressive play of Derrick White, who shot 82.8% from the field, averaging 20 points per game over three games, a first for a Spur since 1983’s Gene Banks.
This week PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos, Jesus Gomez, and editor-in-chief J.R. Wilco discuss White, the Raptors, playing the Grizzlies twice in a week as well as what to expect from the upcoming All-Star Weekend and the unexpected firing of Timberwolves’ Tom Thibodeau.
What was your favorite part of the destruction of the Raptors?
Marilyn Dubinski: That’s a tough question since there was so much to like: Kawhi getting visibly frustrated, the Spurs looking happy and care-free, Uncle Dennis caught hanging his head...but when push comes to shove, I have to go with what the win meant to these current Spurs as a whole. It was therapeutic for DeMar DeRozan and probably the team’s biggest confidence booster yet in what is becoming a long line of them. It was a sign that the 2019 Spurs have officially found themselves, and they are a joy to watch.
Mark Barrington: I think it was how Kawhi became passive in the second half. He still made some good plays, but he showed that he didn’t have the heart to lead his team to a win.
Bruno Passos: Beyond the win, seeing Pop entrust Derrick White with the Kawhi assignment felt significant for the long term, as did White’s two-way performance. He’s made a case that he can not only guard ones and twos but also bigger threes, and he continues to push this team’s ceiling upward in ways thought impossible at the start of the season.
Jesus Gomez: My favorite part was LaMarcus Aldridge smiling at DeMar DeRozan after hitting the jumper that gave DeMar his 10th assists and his triple-double. It was a tiny moment in a night of much bigger ones, but it felt meaningful. These guys seem to enjoy playing with each other, which is great.
J.R. Wilco: I loved watching the Spurs push the pace and score on fast-breaks. For stretches of the game the defense was a brick wall, creating tons of opportunities for the team to get out and run. For the past few years San Antonio has run infrequently, and poorly at that. The Toronto game was so different, it was startling. To know this team can hit that gear is very encouraging.
Derrick White has been impressive in the past few games. If you had to guess now, what do you say his ceiling is? (Rotation guard, sixth man, starter, star, All-NBA)
Dubinski: Exciting as he has been lately, “star” or “All-NBA” seems like a big leap with still relatively little to go on. He could definitely start for any good team, but part of me still dreams he will be the Spurs’ next Manu Ginobili (a.k.a. glorified sixth man), if only because I think it will eventually be impossible not to start Lonnie Walker IV, whose ceiling is much higher. The Spurs have always prided themselves on their strong bench, and White seems like a stand-up guy who would readily accept the role of leader of that unit while still receiving starter-level minutes.
Barrington: Hall of fame? Who knows? Before the season, I thought he was going to be a solid backup for Dejounte, but he’s been incredible for the last month. Common sense says that he’s bound to come back to earth once teams see him a few times and can game plan for what he does, but that’s not something I have a lot of. I think he’s going to be coming off the bench next year, leading a killer squad of backups, but this year he’s really impressing me as a starter.
Passos: He can absolutely start on a good-to-great team. In what long-term role, it’s still hard to say, but a two-way player who can offer close to 15-5-5 with great percentages doesn’t seem unrealistic. That may not translate to your typical All-Star profile, but it’s the type of invaluable versatility that every team covets today.
Gomez: If he can become a 38 percent outside shooter, he could be a starter on a championship team. The defense is there and he does the little things on offense already, on top of being a threat on the ball. At the very least I think he can be a good sixth man, someone who comes in a changes the game with his energy and talent.
Wilco: I could see him being a starter or a sixth man, and that’s just on what he’s shown us so far. If he keeps improving (and he’s playing with such poise that it’s easy to forget he’s really in his fist NBA season) then all bets are off and we could be looking at San Antonio’s PG of the future.
The Grizzlies are on a six-game losing streak and have lost 11 of the last 13. Are they still a playoff threat?
Dubinski: Technically everyone still is except the Suns, but I put them in that group that’s starting to fall away and less likely to make the playoffs by the day. They had their early season run but have sputtered while others are rising, and as the season goes on there will be less and less room for error. They could still end up battling it out for eighth, but the roster is thin, and any injury is a big hit. As good as the core of Conley and Gasol has been for the franchise, unfortunately it appears they have already maxed out their potential and are on the down.
Barrington: I think Mike Conley is one of the most underrated players in the league, and they play a really tough and gritty style. They have a chance for the seventh or eighth seed, but it’s going to be a crowded field. If they make it, it’s going to be a tough series for the first or second seed to get past.
Passos: Sadly my preseason prediction for them to squeeze into the playoffs does not look like it’ll come to fruition. They’re perpetually a Gasol or Conley injury away from falling off a cliff, and it doesn’t seem like they’re maximizing a lean roster by establishing consistent rotations or making the use of promising rookie Jaren Jackson Jr.
Gomez: I don’t think you can completely discount them because they have zero reason to tank. They are sending their pick to the Celtics unless it lands in the top eight and for that to happen they would have to go into full rebuilding more. I can see them making at least one more minor trade similar to the acquisition of Justin Holiday to stay in the hunt.
Wilco: We might be approaching a time when it’s okay to start wondering out loud whether Memphis is snake-bit. That said, no seed from 8 to 13 would surprise me.
Voting for the All-Star game has started. How many All-Stars do you think the Spurs are going to have, if any?
Dubinski: Since I can see both or neither of Aldridge and DeRozan making it, I’ll go with the average and say one. Like always there’s the deep group of guards DeRozan has to battle, but I can see the coaches voting him in. Aldridge took a little while to get going, but his numbers are way up now and his play is standing out among big men. They both deserve to make it, but whether they do or not is likely up to the coaches (and injuries).
Barrington: I think both LaMarcus and DeMar deserve to be All-Stars. But with voting based on popularity that favors big market teams, I doubt that both of them make it in the fans’ votes (Boogie Cousins will probably be voted in, and he hasn’t even played a game). Hopefully, the coaches do the right thing and add them to the roster.
Passos: I’d guess one, perhaps as an injury fill-in, but there’s certainly a scenario where the team, even seeded somewhere between 4th and 7th, doesn’t get Aldridge or DeRozan in. It wouldn’t be fair, but the West is loaded and neither player is generating that much national buzz at the moment.
Gomez: The West is teeming with stars, but if the Spurs remain among the six best teams in the conference, I think DeMar DeRozan makes it in for sure. If they keep winning and make another leap — unlikely, I know — Aldridge might get in as well.
Wilco: LMA’s play of late has been excellent, but I’d be surprised if anyone but DeRozan plays in Charlotte this February. Except maybe Bertans or Forbes in the 3-point contest.
Tom Thibodeau was fired by the Timberwolves on Monday. Any thoughts on Thibs and the situation in Minnesota?
Dubinski: First let me say I’ll be happy not to hear his deep-throat yelling over the TV mics for a while. With that out of the way, he’s a highly respected coach who did great things in Chicago and was a Derrick Rose knee injury away from a potential championship. Of course, the context of that injury — which occurred in garbage time of a blowout win when any other coach (except maybe Mike D’Antoni) would have had his MVP sitting on the bench— will always loom over Thibs’ head. He continued to overplay players in an age when the long-term health of professional athletes is becoming a focal point, and once he took over in Minnesota all he really did was try to rebuild the same Bulls roster (now several years older) around Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. He couldn’t control all the clashing egos he combined, couldn’t build a respectable defense despite his reputation, and the whole Jimmy Butler saga was embarrassing and handled about as poorly as possible. He’ll re-emerge as a head coach again someday, but he’ll need to show a willingness to adapt to today’s realities. Maybe Pop could give him a few pointers.
Barrington: I have mixed feelings about Thibs. Nobody cares more about the game of basketball than he does, and pours more of themselves into it. But he also burns out his starters with too many minutes and his voice with too much screaming. It probably would benefit him greatly to go on a retreat somewhere and take some time away from the game. I do think the Timberwolves have an odd mix of personalities and without Thibodeau’s iron hand keeping everything tamped down, there’s a real chance that things spin out of control there. I haven’t heard who’s going to replace him yet, but it’s going to be a really difficult job to get Derrick Rose, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns all on the same page.
Passos: It’s hard to find a cut-and-dry take on the Thibs Era, which has as much to do with the mixed results as it does with the line he blurred as GM and head coach. The team has undoubtedly taken a step forward from the past five years, breaking its long playoff drought and pulling off what seemed to be a perfectly reasonable move by adding another superstar in Jimmy Butler. As Spurs fans know, sometimes those situations turn sour in ways that the front office can’t really prevent. At the same time, neither Wiggins nor Towns have developed as well as their first-overall-pick pedigree would suggest, and the team has unquestionably disappointed this year. It’s a mixed bag, but when you entrust a man with the keys to the franchise (and a promising young group) like Minnesota did, that’s not good enough.
Gomez: My first thought is that no team except the Spurs should still consider handing over front office power to a coach. It’s a recipe for disaster. As for Thibs, the coach, it seems like he’s one of those guys who only wants his teams to play a certain way and is not willing to adapt or compromise. He’s a hard worker but I wouldn’t want the team I root for to hire him.
Wilco: We might be approaching a time when it’s okay to start wondering out loud whether Minnesota is snake-bit. Seriously though, the Wolves are better off without Thibs than with him.
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