The Spurs were still a disaster on defense in Orlando and their two wins against good opponents came against Houston and Utah while they were missing their best players. Was their performance in the bubble actually impressive or were we so desperate for hope that we made too much of it?
Michael Erler: Both, really. The wins were impressive in that it’s not like the Spurs had their full squad either, or did we forget about LMA already? I’m not overly bothered by the bad defense for two reasons. 1) It was bound to happen with a squad full of inexperienced youngsters and more importantly 2) the league has basically legislated defense out of existence. The nerds have broken the game. The combination of pace, spacing and the proliferation of all the good shooters in the league make it nearly impossible to defend. It seems like every squad has three or four guys who knock threes down at a 40 percent clip. All any team needs is one guy who can drive and kick, two or three guys who can shoot, and just enough awareness to swing the ball around past the first couple of rotations. You don’t have to be the 2014 Spurs or the Steph Warriors anymore. Everyone is the Rockets now, more or less. The only thing you can do as a defense, provided you’re not a super-smart veteran squad like the Raptors, is to have a bunch of long-limbed switchy dudes who play hard and hope for the best. And for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, rebound the ball and stop fouling.
Bruno Passos: (Wait, is this really Michael Erler. The Michael Erler? You’re still watching these guys?) I think the Bubble performance was definitely positive, but I won’t go too far beyond that. I’m throwing out the 5-3 but not some of the individual performances, and am as high on Keldon Johnson as anyone — especially when he tightens his handle. But if him showing out and Derrick White looking like Klay Thompson for stretches is what Pop needed to lean on them more next season (and I think he will be back next season), then the Bubble was most definitely worth it.
Jesus Gomez: Erler has somehow aged 30 years in the last six months and is now one of those old people who think no one plays defense in the NBA. Soon he’ll become a college basketball diehard, I’m sure. Sad times.
The reality is that “only” 10 teams did better than San Antonio on defense in the bubble, which isn’t too bad. Being mediocre on that end was probably the best case scenario for a roster that basically featured no forwards, a lot of young players and an unproven backup center. I think looking back at it, the moderate success the Spurs had probably felt like a bigger deal in the moment than it was in the grand scheme of things, but it’s fine to get a little carried away when young a team plays fun basketball.
J.R. Wilco: I’m going full-bore “the performance in the bubble was impressive,” and I don’t think there’s any reason to pretend to be cool and downplay it. Here’s the truth, this team was a chore to watch and cover all year long until the hiatus. They played defense like a delegation from the local union of maître d’s, and for every quarter of good offense they had, they’d play a quarter and a half of the most putrid brand of inefficient iso-ball San Antonio has ever seen. Watching Derrick White start games and share the floor with Dejounte Murray in Orlando while lighting it up from deep and taking more charges than a light brigade would’ve been enough to make the Spurs faithful swoon. But getting to watch Keldon Johnson’s coming out party at the same time was too much to ask for us to avoid spending the whole off-season feeling giddy.
The Spurs now have a bunch of talented young guards and wings on the roster. If you had to bet on one of them making the All-Star team at some point in their career, who would you bet on? And what would need to happen for them to get to that level?
Erler: Does Keldon Johnson count as a guard? If he does, that’s my pick. Otherwise, by default I have to go with Derrick White, though realistically I don’t think he’ll ever get there. Man, two Spurs questions and they’re both deviously designed in a way where I can’t go on any profane, unprintable Pop rants. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.
Passos: I‘ll go with Derrick White getting the coaches’ vote in his peak year in, say, 2021-22. They already have him penciled in for All-Defense and the voting catches him on a particular hot streak from three. Everyone likes what they’re seeing from Johnson and [REDACTED] who they picked up in the 2020 Draft, but they attribute more of the team’s surprising success to White.
Gomez: Derrick White, in arguably his best stretch in the NBA, averaged 19 points, four rebounds and five assists in Orlando, while playing some pretty impressive defense. Those could be All-Star numbers if they happen on a winning team. He’s the safest bet among a group that doesn’t have a lot of star potential, unfortunately. The biggest issue with White throughout his career has been consistency, but if he can make that next leap and he truly gets a chance at being a featured offensive player in the starting lineup, maybe he could one day be an All-Star.
Wilco: I couldn’t be higher on KJ, but when a question asks “what would need to happen” and the answer is “just keep playing like he did before he had that knee contusion,” then I have to also go with White. His play was inspirational, and the only reason he didn’t average 20+ points is because he played the 7th game on one leg. Since DJ came back from his ACL surgery, Derrick was tentative about taking over and looking for his shot. Well, the bubble showed that he’s capable of being efficiently productive when he’s not looking over his shoulder — something that he should be able to avoid for the rest of his career.
Which team are you rooting for now that the Spurs are out of the playoffs? And which team are you actively rooting against?
Erler: I’m actively rooting for the Clippers, as I’m a full-on Kawhi stan and he can do no wrong in my eyes. If not him though, then either their first round opponents, the Dallas Mavericks, because how can you not adore Luka Doncic and Boban Marjanovic? And if not them, then Portland, who I feel is like everyone’s second-favorite team these days. I’ve loved Damian Lillard forever and Jusuf Nurkic is really growing on me. In the East, it’s Raptors all day. I can’t even think of a close second. Miami’s kinda cool, I guess. I’m actively rooting against the Lakers, the Rockets and the Warriors.
Passos: I’m struggling with some of the Damian Lillard narrative, which is taking on a life of its own, but he’s probably become the most entertaining protagonist to get behind for those who deeply appreciated Steph Curry’s floor-bending game but bristled at some of the peacocking. In the long run, I’m probably latching onto the Raptors bandwagon more than any other team since they play such a fun style and have been such a great story being this good after losing Kawhi and Danny. Fred VanVleet is awesome.
As for who I’m rooting against, I don’t feel too strongly against anyone so I’ll default to my usual Rockets and Boston area sports team.
Gomez: I’m rooting for the Bucks, mostly because it’s been annoying to hear about Giannis’ free agency for years now. It’s a huge story so it’s understandable that it’s been covered like it has, but it feels so unfair for the poor Milwaukee fans to be unable to truly enjoy the success of the franchise. Maybe if the Bucks make it to the Finals or win it all the rumors will stop for a while. Also, the Lopez brothers seem cool and I still like Coach Bud and George Hill.
I’m rooting against the Celtics. Too much has gone right for them in recent seasons, despite the front office making some questionable decisions. It’s almost unfair how good Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have turned out to be. We’ll have to hear about how Danny Ainge is a genius for years, so if we have to deal with that pain, they can at least deal with some disappointment this postseason.
Wilco: There are so many different teams to enjoy for so many reasons: MIL for Giannis, Bud and Cubits (that’s George Hill’s old nickname for all of you who weren’t £ers back in 2009), POR for Dame’s insanely audacious awesomeness (and for the upset-LA potential), TOR for the we-can-win-without-KL comeuppance, but most of all (it’s so hard to admit this, but some things are bigger than petty in-state rivalries) DAL and the wonder that is Doncic’s basketball brain. I don’t favor any of them over the rest just yet, but the first round’s barely begun. Give me some time, ok?
Prolly the only team I’m rooting against already is LA, but not because of any of their players — it’s Frank Vogel I can’t seem to stand. Look, when your team is bullying the opposition while only getting called for one out of every eight over-the-back violations they commit, the coach jumping all over the sidelines and calling Pop’s patented “this timeout is only for the express purpose of chewing you out” is just unbecoming. Frank, elite coaches yell. They don’t have conniptions. Also, I don’t want them to win because it’s been almost 15 months since the NBA has had to deal with a champion supported by insufferable fans, and I’d like to make it at least another 10.
Which playoff series are you not interested in at all, either because of the style of play of the teams or because the result is too obvious?
Erler: It’s hard to get up for the 1-8/2-7 matchups in the East, and despite the Madge throttling the Bucks in Game 1 this afternoon they’re gonna have to whup up on ‘em once more before I get drawn in. Also, no Mike Conley or Bojan Bogdanovic has taken some juice out of the Denver-Utah matchup. Can’t the league just put Bogdan Bogdanovic from Sacramento on the Jazz roster? Would anyone object to this?
Passos: The Bucks are down 1-0 as a 1 seed when I’m writing this and I’m still not likely to turn it on. The Magic did this to us last year when they stole Game 1 against the Raptors and then turned into a pumpkin — why should this year be any different?
Gomez: I can’t imagine watching even one game of Pacers - Heat. The stars are just not entertaining. Jimmy Butler is too similar to DeMar DeRozan on offense but without the pretty footwork and Victor Oladipo is not himself yet after an injury. The most interesting player in the series is Bam Adebayo, and there’s a better version of him in Toronto. On top of that, the Pacers take even fewer threes than the Spurs and play slower. There’s just nothing there for me.
Wilco: I can’t seem to get into ORL-IND for some reason. Besides Nikola Vucevic, I don’t really care about any player on either team. Do I need to apologize for that? I feel like maybe I should.
Let’s talk about some former Spurs. What is more likely to happen, Brett Brown gets fired after losing in the first round, Kawhi wins another title or Mike Budenholzer proves he’s not just a regular season coach by making the Finals with the Bucks?
Erler: Gordon Hayward’s fragile body might be the gift that keeps giving for both Brown and Budenholzer. If Gordo was healthy, I had Boston coming out of the East. Now it’s entirely possible they don’t even make it past the Sixers and that the Bucks could sneak into the Finals, even though I’d have the Raptors as slight favorites at the moment. I’ll tell you this much: Brown doesn’t deserve to be the coach anymore. He’s a great guy by all accounts, but what more do we need to see there? Bud at least has some excuse that he’s never really had the kind of talent you win in the playoffs with. He didn’t in Atlanta, certainly, and the Bucks are still a team that’d be more at home in the 80s or 90s than the modern day. I thought they had a better shot last year when they had Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill was playing out of his mind. Hill’s never gonna be that good in a postseason again and they wasted it. Now they really need Khris Middleton to play like a legit second banana when I’m not even convinced you can win with him as your third-best guy let alone your second. I’ve got even less faith in Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton and guys like that. I was seduced by Donte DiVincenzo and wanted the Spurs to draft him, and good thing he didn’t make it to them, because he doesn’t have the goods.
Anyway, to answer your question, even though all three could happen, the likeliest is Kawhi winning another chip. I’ve had them as the favorites from the outset and nothing has happened to change my mind. Barring injury or some unfortunate Covid unpleasantness, the only thing standing in their way is another former Spur —Danny Green— having the series of his life, like something similar to Games 1-5 of the 2013 NBA Finals for him, before regression smote him but good in Games 6 and 7. In fact, if you’re in the mood to cringe about something besides . . . you know /gestures at everything, check out Danny’s stats in closeout games of the Finals. It’s remarkable, really. The Lakers are built like a fantasy team where somebody had the second overall pick and then the dude with the fifth pick said “I’ll trade you this if you give me your second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth and seventh round picks,” so here they are, trying to pretend that Kyle Kuzma is a thing.
Passos: Kawhi winning a championship. I’m not sure that it’s Bud that I don’t trust about the Bucks (I’ve heard the criticisms about his playoff struggles but not looked into them), but between Giannis’ jumper and Milwaukee’s willingness to cede three-point looks, they still seem too primed for trouble against smart, versatile teams like Toronto, who’d I probably take to win the East. Brown doesn’t seem to be in a winnable situation relying solely on Joel Embiid with a handful of overpaid non-stars trying to make up for the absence of Ben Simmons. Him getting fired seems very possible if unjust in the classical way that many coach firings are.
Kawhi on the other hand operates in a realm outside of just or unjust; he just is. The Clippers are one of the big winners of moving into the Bubble and not having to worry about a Lakers series where their opponent has home-court advantage for 7 games, and have both their killer wings healthy and poised for a run.
Gomez: Brett Brown getting fired seems like a pretty good bet right now, unfortunately. It’s not his fault that the front office completely mismanaged the roster and that Ben Simmons got injured at the worst possible time, but he’s going to get the blame if they don’t beat the Celtics, which is looking likely. What a weird ride it has been for Brown in Philadelphia. Maybe it would actually be a good thing for him to just start over somewhere else.
I can see both Kawhi winning another title and Bud making it to the Finals, but there are too many factors at play in both scenarios that could derail their runs. Will Kawhi stay healthy? Do the Clippers have the right chemistry yet? Can the Bucks get away with allowing so many threes? Who creates if Giannis is contained? Both teams are fantastic, but if one thing goes wrong, their seasons could unravel fast.
Wilco: Please let it be either the Brown or Bud things. I mean, I rooted for KL last year. I admit it. But that was against the Dubs and I don’t know if I have another Finals of largesse in me this year.