While the offseason has already started for the Spurs, the NBA never rests. The lottery gave the Pelicans a respite from the Anthony Davis’ drama and the opportunity to draft Zion Williamson and showed that the flattened odds implemented recently could help curb tanking. Meanwhile, the eastern conference finals are in full swing, with former Spurs on both teams battling for a place in the finals.
There’s also been some news regarding Gregg Popovich’s and Tony Parker’s retirements. Pop has delayed his, re-signing for three more seasons, while Tony is considering calling it quits after a mostly nondescript year in Charlotte.
In this edition of our staff roundtable, In the bonus, PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos and Jesus Gomez join Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco to discuss all of these topics as they wait for the Spurs’ off-season to heat up.
Are the conference finals going as you expected?
Marilyn Dubinski: In general. The Eastern Conference Finals being tight is not surprising, although the Raptors did themselves no favors by letting the Bucks rally in Game 1. I’m not too surprised the Warriors swept the Trail Blazers, especially without Nurkic, although Damian Lillard’s disappearance on offense has been a bit surprising. I thought they would steal at least a game. The Warriors are still a step above the rest of the West, even without Durant.
Mark Barrington: I’m a bit surprised that the Raptors won a game. It took a bad game from Giannis and an unbelievably heroic effort from Kawhi and solid contributions from the Raptors supporting cast, which had been missing in the first two games, except for Lowry. I still don’t expect that series to go beyond 5 games. [Update: I was wrong when I wrote this before game 4. Kawhi is amazing.] In the west, the Warriors have found another gear now that their offense isn’t bogged down in giving Kevin Durant the ball and everyone standing around waiting for him to score. I can’t wait for a Warriors/Bucks final.
Bruno Passos: The Raptors are struggling offensively in ways I didn’t expect going into the playoffs, and I can’t decide whether Kawhi going into iso ball is a symptom or root cause of that. I predicted Bucks in 5 before the series. On the other side, pretty much. Golden State is a tier or two above Portland, and should get a better fight from the Bucks in the Finals.
Jesus Gomez: Pretty much, yes. The Warriors are just better than everyone in the West by a significant margin, so no surprises there. The numbers said the Bucks were a legitimate contender and the best team in the East. The Raptors have the talent and the versatility to bother them, but I don’t think they can actually beat them. I think we are headed for a Bucks - Warriors finals.
J.R. Wilco: I was looking forward to being surprised by Portland being better than I thought they were, but it turns out that Golden State is still the Death Star, and playing even Death Starrier than recently now that they’re without KD. After two games, I was looking forward to sweeps in both conferences (even rest for the East?) but now it’ll be at least 6 if not 7 and whoever gets to the Finals will have to deal with a fully rested juggernaut.
The Pelicans got the first pick in the draft. Do you think Zion Williamson will be enough to keep Anthony Davis in New Orleans?
Dubinski: I think too many bridges have been burned between Davis and NOLA to reconcile. He made sure of that with his “That’s all folks” t-shirt in their home finale (and then sheepishly acted like he had no say in it because someone else picks his shirts for him). I could still see the Pelicans giving it a go up until the trade deadline, but I think his mind is already made up. They might as well get some solid pieces for him in return instead of losing him for nothing, especially considering they may have to work to get Zion to eventually re-sign as well. He was visibly disappointed when the Pelicans won the lottery.
Barrington: I doubt it. If AD decides to stay in the Crescent City, it won’t be only because of Zion. They’ll have to do a lot more, and even if they completely remake the team to satisfy Davis, I don’t see it happening. I think it’s probably time for them to rebuild around Williamson.
Passos: It’s hard to see Davis walking back what he did last season, even if he’s intrigued by the prospect of playing with another potentially transcendent talent in Zion. It seems like he’s wanting to build his brand and win more urgently, two things that don’t seem likely as a marquee rookie settles into New Orleans. That said, New Orleans’ new front office may be inclined to hold onto him until at least the trade deadline to see if it can make things work.
Gomez: Maybe for one more season. I can see the front office essentially taking a chance on not trading Davis in the hopes that playing next to Zion and Jrue Holiday convinces him New Orleans could be his long term home. I doubt they’d succeed, unfortunately, but I could see them trying.
Wilco: I sure hope not. That was my initial reaction, but I’ve since been reminded, multiple times, of how fully AD burned bridges toward the end of the season — which makes me think that he’s been suffering silently in the Big Easy for a while.
The new lottery odds worked, in that the very worst teams were not rewarded. Do you think the new system can fix tanking?
Dubinski: As long as teams are desperate enough to find any kind of potential franchise player in the draft (which doesn’t always have to be the top pick but is usually within the lottery), there will still be tanking, even if it takes some teams longer in the season to reach that point. It might get less blatant, but no matter how flattened out the odds get, there will always be incentive to tank as long as the draft is based on overall record.
Barrington: There’s still a big incentive for missing the playoffs, and it’s much more than in the previous system. Teams that are fighting for the last playoff spot might not fight so hard if they don’t see a way out of the first round. But teams won’t try to be truly awful any more, just disappointingly mediocre.
Passos: You can’t quite fix tanking, because losing will always be rewarded in some way, and there will be teams that, through the course of a season, see the writing on the wall and decide to punt the playoffs.
One benefit from flattening the odds I do see, however, is less teams will probably set their sights towards the absolute bottom (and turning their rosters into dumpster fires) from day one in the hopes of a 25% chance of the number-one pick. That was always one of the worst parts of The Process. My guess is we’ll have less of that, but still a decent number of teams shift their approach as the season goes along.
Gomez: Tanking will likely be less blatant, which is all the league cares about. In that sense, changing the odds worked. There’s no reason to risk embarrassment by making sure you have the absolute worst team in the league if it doesn’t give you a huge advantage in the lottery. I can see teams still jockeying for position late in the season and the 10th best team in the conference tanking to secure a lottery spot, but the league is probably fine with that.
Wilco: I don’t know that anything will fix tanking outside of randomly assigning draft pick order, or reversing it so that the best teams pick first (!), but the new systems certainly discourages tanking and I can see it getting better over time.
Gregg Popovich has agreed to a three-year contract extension with the Spurs. Were you at all surprised by his decision?
Dubinski: Not at all. He did not look anywhere near done this season (if anything he seemed rejuvenated), and he has repeatedly said the Olympics will have no bearing on his NBA coaching decisions. My prediction heading into this summer was he’d sign a two to five-year contract (how much he fulfills is another story), so three years falls right in line.
Barrington: I’m a bit surprised by the length of it, as I thought the Olympic year might be his last, but as I understand it, he’s taking it year by year, and he could opt out at that time.
Passos: Not really. He could end up leaving after one year, or staying beyond the three for all I know. He seems to be taking it day by day and, more importantly, still enjoying what he does.
Gomez: I always thought he’d stay, but the three years were a little surprising. The fact that he thinks he might be up for coaching a couple of seasons from now is encouraging.
Wilco: I really didn’t think he was done. I’m not sure he’ll coach all three years (though I hope he does), but I’d be shocked if he didn’t coach at least two.
Tony Parker is mulling retirement. If he decides to return for one more year, would you want it to be with the Spurs?
Dubinski: I’d love to see him retire as a Spur, but not if it affects their ability to sign free agents of greater need. They already have 10 of 15 spots filled, plan on re-signing Rudy Gay (11), and currently have two first round draft picks. If they keep both and don’t use one on a draft-and-stash prospect, that’s 13 spots filled with much bigger positional needs to fill out than another point guard. I love Tony as much as any Spurs fan, and he’ll always be a Spur for life, but he passed up the opportunity to stay, and the Spurs are moving on.
Barrington: I don’t think there’s room for him on the team, as the roster is already packed with guards. I still think he can play, but not on the Spurs next year. Once Tony finally does retire, I look forward to his jersey retirement ceremony, especially to hear Tim and Manu talk about the years they all worked together. It will provide a nice closure to the big three era and the beginning of a new one.
Passos: Sure, what’s one more guard when you already have 20! If the Spurs end up shifting some guys around and he can slide in as a not-totally-superfluous backcourt piece, I’m down with it. If not, the team will probably have to slide sentimentality to the side and wait for him to retire to honor him.
Gomez: I can’t figure out a way in which it’s dignified for him. He left because he thought he still had something left in the tank and didn’t want to end his career on a mentor role. That’s exactly what he’d be doing on the 2019/20 Spurs. Unless the front office makes a huge shakeup, TP would not even be getting 10-15 minutes a night. If he’s suddenly fine with that, I’d love to see him back, but I’d be surprised if it happened.
Wilco: Why not? San Antonio could work toward being the first team in the league with a roster of nothing but guards.
Seriously though, the 15th spot on the roster is custom-made for valuable guys like Parker who have a ton of value to give just by being on the team, although not so much on the court.