Weekly MVP poll: It’s Anthony Davis, then who?

      
 

 

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Duke Already Proving It’s Much More Than Just the Jahlil Okafor Show

The thing that Duke was missing last year was a true rim protector on defense and a low-post scorer on offense.

Jahlil Okafor has brought both of those things to the table, and he’s made Duke a much more complete team than a year ago. But what stuck out in two days in Brooklyn at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic was not Okafor’s ability—he wasn’t close to the best version of himself—it was how the pieces around Duke’s star fit better than a season ago when Jabari Parker had his run as Duke’s go-to guy.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has built his offense around funneling the ball to Okafor—much the same way he did the same with Parker last year—but the results don’t depend on his production.

Okafor has proved to be a much better decoy and doesn’t need to score for his team to dominate.

Through the first two weeks of the season, this Duke team has proved to be incredibly selfless. It helps that the Blue Devils are a really good passing team and willing to move the ball until a good look emerges.

Stanford’s game plan on Saturday night was to surround Okafor whenever he got the ball and try to take away his touches deep. The Cardinal did a great job doing that, but the attention he was paid helped open up both Duke’s perimeter shooters and the offensive glass.

Even though Okafor was just so-so offensively—scoring 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting—his hidden value could be found all over the place.

Duke grabbed 16 of 41 available offensive boards, and Amile Jefferson has become an elite offensive rebounder because of the attention paid to Okafor. He’s averaging 3.8 offensive boards per game.

And typical of Krzyzewski teams, the bigs have also been willing to pass out their offensive rebounds for three-point looks—two of their nine threes came on such plays against Stanford.

Okafor has also realized that if he’s a willing passer and gets the ball to his shooters when double-teams come, he’s going to eventually benefit. His teammates will return the favor when defenses start to run them off the perimeter.

If there was any bad news for Duke in Brooklyn, it was that the book has been started on how to defend Okafor. Both Temple and Stanford did a good job of taking away scoring angles, staying between him and the basket when he got the ball and then forcing him to take shots over length.

Even when this is the goal, the benefit that Okafor has is his team moves the ball too well to keep him from getting good looks. He’s not going to have many off nights because Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook will get better and better at knowing where to get him the ball in his scoring spots.

As good as the offense looked, it will really be humming when Okafor is at his best, and perimeter shots are falling.

The good news for the Blue Devils is that when they are off, they can actually lean on their defense this season.

“We can shoot better than that,” Krzyzewski said in his Tru TV postgame interview. “But it didn’t affect our defense, which is kind of a mature thing.”

That defense is solid and less gimmicky than it had to be last year when Parker played the 4 and Jefferson was at the 5. Jefferson has been able to slide back to his preferred position of power forward, and that’s helped him on both ends. The Duke guards can apply more ball pressure knowing that they have a rim protector behind them.

Krzyzewski also has one of the best defenders he’s had in years in Justise Winslow, who can guard multiple spots and is playing with an energy that has been contagious. Winslow plays beyond his years and is the type of guy who will work his butt off and do everything asked of him even if he’s not getting his shots.

I saw it firsthand this summer at the FIBA Americas U-18 Championship. He was the best and most consistent player for the Americans on a team that included other hotshot freshmen Stanley Johnson, Myles Turner and Jones. He’s been the same for Duke thus far. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman noted Winslow has impressed NBA executives: 

Much like Winslow, Jones has also embraced his role. He’s been willing to just be the facilitator and not worry about points.

And what we’ve learned from John Calipari‘s experiments with young rosters is that it helps to have a veteran or two around to show the young guns the way. Cook is thriving as that guy and even better because of the freshmen.

Cook has moved from point guard to shooting guard because of Jones, and a lot has been made about his willingness to do so, but it’s actually a better role for him. Cook is a great spot-up shooter—he’s shooting 48.6 percent from beyond the arc so far—and he’s always been more of a scoring point guard than a facilitator.

Everything just seems to fit together. And that’s a big reason why the Blue Devils look the part of a team that is a couple of months into the season. Coach K may have to do some tinkering here and there, but roles have already been determined and embraced.

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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It’s Time for the Utah Jazz to Prioritize Dante Exum over Trey Burke

To say Trey Burke‘s in a sophomore slump would almost be an insult to the phrase.

His numbers have tragically bottomed out through roughly one-fifth of the season, and he’s been thoroughly outplayed by backup Dante Exum, who’s already proven he deserves the bulk of the minutes at the point.

It’s been tough to watch Burke this season, and not just from the standpoint of a writer or fan. He’s gone from savior to scapegoat for this franchise in just over a year.

This was the general sentiment when he was drafted in the summer of 2013.

This is now.

And the change didn’t come without reason. Through just over one season’s worth of games, he’s barely looked like an NBA player. The eye test says he’s too small and not athletic enough.

Friday night, the Golden State Warriors trounced the Jazz, 101-88. In a 13-point loss, Burke was a team-worst minus-28. Exum was plus-15.

Golden State did what almost every other opponent has: Put Burke on an island—in the post, on the perimeter, whatever—and go to work.

And that’s just on defense. The numbers tell the story on the other end, where he’s rarely able to create an even decent look for himself.

In his first season, the numbers were rough (as you just saw), but there were at least flashes of solid IQ and playmaking ability. Maybe he could one day morph into a pass-first 1 like Andre Miller or Kendall Marshall.

But in year 2, Burke is still trying to be a scoring guard. And the picture gets even uglier when compared to what Exum‘s doing.

In all honesty, this is what should be happening. Exum is clearly the higher-upside asset. It’s unquestionable. Tune into any Jazz game and you’ll see it for yourself. Exum is taller, longer and more athletic. Plus, his vision and IQ are way ahead of schedule.

Obviously, there are still things to work out with Exum. His catch-and-shoot game has been better than expected, but his dribble pull-up is a mess. He’s yet to make a single shot off the dribble outside of 10 feet.

He gets out of position at times defensively, but he has the length and quickness to recover. Just imagine what he can do once he irons out those fundamentals.

He can also tighten up his handle a bit, even though he’s figured out that keeping things simple generally helps him stay out of trouble.

Thing is, the learning process could be accelerated by playing Exum more minutes with the first unit. There’s a theory in basketball that’s akin to exposure therapy. Just like you can help people with a fear of heights by taking them to the Empire State Building, a basketball player can adapt in difficult circumstances.

The skyscraper is a controlled environment. There are security guards and really tall fences. You’re not going to fall off. While playing with the starters, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors can be Exum‘s safety net as he truly adapts to the speed of the NBA.

The move is starting to come up among experts all over the NBA, but it’s a delicate process. Basketball Insiders’ Nate Duncan is worried what it would do to Burke.

ESPN’s Chad Ford has been asked about the debate as well. Twice, actually. In his weekly Q&A with SportsNation, Ford was asked, “When does Quin Snyder move Trey Burke to the bench in favor of Exum?”

He responded:

Great question. Exum, who was supposed to be the rawest of the lottery guys, has really outplayed him all year. In fact, Exum ranks second among all rookies in PER right now. And he’s going to get better. A lot better. It’s hard to watch that team with an objective eye and think Trey Burke is even in the same league as Exum as far as elite potential goes. Now, the Jazz may want to keep bringing him along slowly. There’s less pressure coming off the bench. But long-term? He’s going to be the Jazz’s starting PG. Combine him with Gordan Hayward and Derrick Favors, both of who have been excellent this year and the Jazz have a scary core for the future.

The next week, he went into the specifics on why Utah is hesitant to make the move:

I mentioned this last week and feel even stronger about it this week after talking to sources close to the Jazz. They know Exum is going to be amazing and quite possibly their franchise player. He’s not ready yet. He has to get stronger to handle all the contact he gets. But he’s got the tools, has the basketball IQ, has the work ethic to be GREAT. And his jump shot is dramatically improving. Fast forward two years and he’s likely Utah’s No. 1 option. But it’s early and I think they are erroring on the side of patience right now. He doesn’t need to be, nor is he ready to be THE guy right now. I think Burke might start the whole season. But by next year, or the year after, this will be Exum‘s team to run.

The question here isn’t whether or not Exum‘s ready to be the guy this season. That’s still Hayward, and to a lesser extent, Favors.

This is about who’s the better option to help the 2014-15 Utah Jazz win games. The numbers say it’s Exum. And he fits logistically.

He’s pass-first all the way, almost to a fault. That makes more sense with Hayward, Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter, all of whom can score. With a second unit devoid of scorers, Exum‘s unselfishness can contribute to a stagnant attack.

Now, think about what the move does for Burke. Yes, there’s the fear that it negatively impacts his psyche, like Duncan pointed out, but it could also go the other way.

It could be difficult for him to accept at first. But after adapting, Burke could settle into the opportunity to be aggressive in a lineup that actually needs him to be, and against other players without top-tier physical tools.

All that said, there’s still no indication from within the organization that a lineup change is coming. So the most we can ask for now is more minutes, including some with the starters.

Exum is clearly the point guard of the future, and he’s earned more time to develop cohesion with the other core members of the team.

And if it means rewriting the next few months of Burke’s career from a tragedy to some kind of buddy-cop flick with his up-and-coming backup, even better.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats and salary figures are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com, and are current as of Nov. 22, 2014.

Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him @AndrewDBailey.

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It’s Up to the Oklahoma City Thunder to Keep Kevin Durant in Free Agency

If Kevin Durant leaves in 2016, the Oklahoma City Thunder will have nobody to blame but themselves. 

Fortunately, the Thunder have a season and a half to prove to the reigning MVP that it’s in his best interest to stick around. Unfortunately, the rest of the league has the same time frame to come up with ways to lure KD away from the only NBA team he’s ever known. 

There hasn’t been this much premature anticipation surrounding a free agent since the lead-up to LeBron James’ “decision” in 2010.  For the next two years, Durant is the prettiest girl at the bar, and every team will be putting its best pitch together. It will be like men lining up after hearing Kate Upton will be on The Bachelor. 

While a lot can change between now and 2016, Grantland’s Zach Lowe reported that the battle for the four-time scoring champion may already be a two-team race:

Some teams are optimistic it will be open season, and others have heard rumblings that Durant has already made it known it will come down to the Thunder and Wizards.”

The allure of the Washington Wizards is understandable. For starters, it’s close to home. The nation’s capital is a half hour away from Durant’s hometown of Seat Pleasant, Maryland. The Wizards also play in the weaker Eastern Conference, and have two rising stars in John Wall and Bradley Beal

Oklahoma City isn’t too shabby, either. The Thunder have two star sidekicks of their own in Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. They have also been a title contender for most of Durant’s tenure. Still, with no championship to speak of, the franchise still has work to do to retain its best player’s services. 

 

Where OKC Has Gone Wrong

In 2012, Oklahoma City was faced with a very tough choice. With the finances of a small-market team limited, the franchise had to choose between paying big money to a blossoming shot-blocker in Ibaka or a potential star in key reserve in James Harden.

Inevitably, the club picked Ibaka, and the move to trade Harden to the Houston Rockets prior to the 2012-13 season is one of basketball’s greatest “What if?” debates. 

What if the Thunder chose to wait another year to move their star sixth man and made one last run with Harden, Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka? At the time, the team was coming off its first Finals appearance, losing in five games to the Miami Heat

Would the Thunder have won a title if they kept the band together for one more season? Who knows. 

However, the decision to deal Harden doesn’t haunt this franchise as much as the return. In exchange for “The Beard,” Oklahoma City received Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and a 2013 lottery pick that became center Steven Adams. 

Martin would eventually bolt for the Minnesota Timberwolves after a modest lone season with the Thunder (14 points, 45 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from three). Lamb has been slow to develop, while the jury is still out on Adams. 

As for Harden, he hit the ground running in Houston. He’s averaged at least 25 points per game in his first two seasons with the Rockets and has blossomed into the league’s best shooting guard. 

The Thunder find themselves in a similar situation this year. Like Harden heading into 2012, Reggie Jackson is a starter-quality sixth man angling for a new deal. Unlike with Harden, the team is letting Jackson play out his walk year. 

Oklahoma City would like to keep Jackson, but the price may be too steep. According to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, the 24-year-old could nab a deal that would pay him $13-14 million annually. 

After coming up short on the Harden trade, it’s crucial for the team to make the right move with Jackson. If he walks, you let your fourth-best player leave for nothing. If he’s traded, the return will have to be good enough to compensate for Jackson’s absence. 

If it’s not, the team’s championship window becomes even smaller, and Durant could feel compelled to chase a title elsewhere. 

 

What OKC Should Do

In his HBO documentary, The Offseason: Kevin Durant, the star small forward made it abundantly clear what he wants out of his time in Oklahoma City (h/t to SI.com’s Ben Golliver for the quotes):

“I’m in this league to win a championship,” Durant said. “I have no doubts about us getting there. I feel confident we can get there one day. … That’s the biggest thing in this league: winning a championship. It’s time to get it done.” 

For the better part of the last seven years, Durant has been the NBA’s second-best player. During that time, he’s watched James leave the team that drafted him to go make four straight trips to the NBA Finals with the Miami Heat. 

The difference between Durant now and James’ first stint in Cleveland is KD has a better core around him. When healthy, this is a championship team. While injuries have decimated the roster this season, it has also opened up opportunities for guys like Jackson and Perry Jones to step up. 

Still, the Thunder need to do whatever it takes to reinforce their standing as a title contender inside Durant’s mind. That means better coaching from Scott Brooks, who has done a masterful job rallying the troops in the face of adversity. 

It may also mean making a move or two to bring in guys who can contribute right away. Call it “The Reverse Harden.” While building for the future is always important, the next 19 months supersede that. With the clock ticking until Durant hits the market, the Thunder can’t afford to keep waiting for players to develop. 

If that means moving someone like Lamb or Andre Roberson, so be it. Earlier this week, I wrote that Oklahoma City should consider moving Jackson. With the team ill-equipped to get into a bidding war this summer, why not sell high on the 24-year-old’s hot start (team-leading 22.8 points)? 

In the past, teams have been successful in mortgaging the future to win now. In 2007, the Boston Celtics packaged young players to acquire Kevin Garnett from Minnesota. They won the title later that year. Last season, the Wizards traded a first-round pick for Marcin Gortat and ended their five-year postseason drought. 

For the Thunder, a two-way guard like the New York KnicksIman Shumpert or a veteran shooter like the Denver Nuggets‘ Arron Afflalo could come in handy. Even with the 3-6 start, the Thunder can still make a playoff run. One or two proven contributors could put them over the top. 

For the next two years, Kevin Durant’s free-agency plans will be the main narrative in Oklahoma City. Up to this point, the Thunder have done almost everything in their power to keep their star player happy. 

Except win a championship. 

With James winning his titles in South Beach, Durant now becomes the best player in the league without a championship ring. The longer he goes without one, the more nervous the Thunder and their fans should become. 

As with any human being, when you aren’t getting what you want somewhere, you’re going to look for it elsewhere. Durant wants to win it all. It’s up to the franchise to do whatever it takes to make that dream come true. 

If you’re Oklahoma City, you don’t want to look back and wonder what you could have done. There should be no more “What ifs.”

The future for the Thunder starts now and ends in the summer of 2016. 

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Cavs Party Like it’s 2013 in Loss to Portland

The kids: They’re not alright.
If there were a single sequence that provided a perfect depiction of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ trip to Portland, one that resulted in a 19-point loss, it took place mid-way through the second quarter. With new additions LeBron James and Kevin Love on the bench, point guard Kyrie Irving brought the ball up the middle of the court with shooting guard Dion Waiters standing in the right corner. It would have been natural for Waiters for put his hands up to await a crisp pass for a catch-and-shoot opportunity, but Irving never looked his way. Instead, the two-time All-Star unveiled a dizzying array of dribble moves, switching from right hand to left and back again. After a clockwise spin move, Irving hoisted what would be three-foot shot that would fall off of the rim and into the hands of Portland’s Chris Kaman. Failing to get back on defense in the open floor, Waiters was flagged for a foul—Will Barton would sink both free throws.
This play was in the midst of a four-minute

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Dwyane Wade Pulls Off Trick Shot Like It’s Nothing After a Foul Call

Stop it, Dwyane Wade. You’re embarrassing us. 

After an offensive foul was called on the Miami Heat while Wade was coming off a screen in Tuesday night’s matchup with the Houston Rockets, he effortlessly pulled off a very difficult H-O-R-S-E shot, bouncing the ball from the free-throw line into the basket. 

It’s tough to decide what’s more impressive—the fact that he does it on the run and during a game or the fact that it doesn’t even hit the rim. 

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Nowitzki: Parsons to pay meal tabs, ‘it’s my money anyway’

Dirk Nowitzki has made a ton of money during his NBA career, so when the Dallas Mavericks approached him about taking a pay cut so the team could afford to be player in the free agency market, he obliged. The German superstar signed a three-year, $25 million deal with the Mavs, which turns out to…Read More
The post Dirk Nowitzki: Chandler Parsons to pay a lot of meal tabs ‘because it’s my money anyway’ appeared first on Sportress of Blogitude.

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It’s time Jennings reaches potential

Stan Van Gundy sees Brandon Jennings as key to a successful season for the Pistons.

      
 

 

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Brad Stevens says it’s possible Rajon Rondo could play opening night, Rondo isn’t so sure

Reports from the Celtics practice today in Waltham:Brad Stevens says Rajon Rondo is progressing well and could begin contact drills as early as next week.— Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 20, 2014#Celtics coach Brad Stevens: a chance Rajon Rondo could be cleared for contact by end of week, opening night still possible.— Scott Souza (@scott_souza) October 20, 2014Rondo had a scan on his hand, opening night return still a possibility, per Stevens.— Jay King (@ByJayKing) October 20, 2014Rondo won’t put timetable on his status, but ran through today’s shooting drill without any impediments.— Mark Murphy (@Murf56) October 20, 2014Rajon Rondo on potential to play on opening night: ‘I don’t know… I don’t want to set goals; I just want to go as my hand heals.”— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) October 20, 2014#Celtics captain Rajon Rondo: It ‘doesn’t bother me at all’ to catch, dribble ball with off hand right now.— Scott Souza (@scott_souza) October 20, 2014#…

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Why It’s ‘Buyer Beware’ When Dealing with the San Antonio Spurs

Warning to any NBA team thinking about pursuing a sign-and-trade deal with the San Antonio Spurs for restricted free agent Aron Baynes: Walk away.

Yahoo Sports’ Marc Spears tweeted earlier this month (h/t Air Alamo): “The Spurs are open to sign and trade offers for restricted FA C Aron Baynes, who played well for Australia at the World Cup, a source said.”

That tweet has since been deleted, but the interest and uncertainty surrounding Baynes persists.

Again, potential Baynes suitors: Just don’t do it. You’ll regret it later. It’s not worth it.

Abort.

That’s not a hit on Baynes, the Australian center who played a minimal role for the Spurs last season (but averaged 11.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.com). Nor is it a knock against the rest of the NBA’s scouts, who saw the same production and bruising play from Baynes the rest of us did during FIBA play.

His appeal isn’t hard to understand.

He’s 27, he’s got a ring and he’s got two years of Gregg Popovich’s priceless tutelage on his resume. What’s not to like?

Well, for starters, how about dealing with a Spurs outfit that, somehow, always wins the transaction game.

Sure, drafting Tim Duncan got the ball rolling, and Popovich’s leadership has been invaluable in San Antonio’s nearly 20-year run. But the Spurs have sustained their success by dominating in the draft, making smart signings and getting the most out of virtually every swap they’ve engaged in.

Basically, San Antonio evaluates talent better than anyone—to the point that any team thinking about a deal with the Spurs should probably assume it’s about to get hosed.

The list of smooth Spurs moves is far too long to catalog in its entirety, but a quick glance back over some of the most recent, notable transactions paints a clear picture: It’s best to avoid doing business with San Antonio.

Last February, the Spurs sent Nando De Colo to the Toronto Raptors for Austin Daye. De Colo played 21 pretty good games for Toronto, enjoying an increase in his assist percentage that came along with greater ball-handling responsibility. His shooting numbers took a bit of a dive outside of San Antonio’s hyper-efficient system, though.

De Colo will play for CSKA Moscow next year, a fair indication of how valuable the Raptors believed him to be going forward.

Daye, though, looks like he may become yet another scrapheap-to-success story for the Spurs. The No. 15 overall pick in 2009, Daye flashed a tantalizing combo of shooting and ball-handling skills during summer league. At 6’11″, Daye can do just about anything on a basketball court; he’s smooth, polished and a darn good long-range shooter.

His game log from Vegas indicates he’ll be, at worst, a very good backup for Kawhi Leonard at small forward this season.

If you’re not willing to trust the long history of San Antonio rehabilitating talented players who’ve run out of chances elsewhere, or if you view all summer league numbers skeptically, that’s fine. There are other examples of San Antonio winning deals.

Take Gary Neal, a guy who scored 24 points in 25 minutes to boost the Spurs in Game 3 of the 2013 NBA Finals, as another test case.

Neal shot 39.7 percent from beyond the arc in three years with the Spurs and was a huge weapon off the bench. He seemed like the kind of high-efficiency gunner any team would want.

In a telling move, though, the Spurs decided they no longer wanted him in 2013. They withdrew their qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent and essentially replacing him with Marco Belinelli, who went on to have, easily, the best season of his career.

If you view that transaction as a Neal-for-Belinelli trade, the Spurs got the best of the bargain. But if you also take into account how Neal declined after signing with the Milwaukee Bucks (and then after being traded to the Charlotte Bobcats), the Spurs’ foresight gets another gold star.

Neal (and the Bucks, apparently) thought a bigger role would mean great things. “It was a situation I was looking forward to, coming in here and being a guy they could rely on. It was a bigger role, a (higher) level of importance. As a competitor, you look for those situations and this is the first time in the NBA I’ve had a situation like this,” Neal told reporters upon signing with the Bucks.

The Spurs knew better.

It took a while, but we eventually learned the Spurs knew better in one of their highest-profile swaps in recent memory. At the time, and for quite a while afterward, most viewed the draft-day deal that sent George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for the rights to Kawhi Leonard in 2011 as a wash.

It feels especially unfair to talk about that deal now, as Leonard is fresh off a Finals MVP award and Hill’s game fell off a cliff along with the rest of the Pacers last season. But that’s what makes this particular trade so fascinating: The Spurs ultimately dominated an exchange that seemed so reasonable when it went down.

If they don’t get you now, they’ll get you later.

Even as Leonard improved in 2011-12 and 2012-13, Hill was a key starter for the league’s best defense. And he made two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. In the end, though, Leonard has proved to be the vastly superior talent.

And that’s exactly what makes dealing with the Spurs doubly unfair.

Even if another team makes a seemingly equitable deal, San Antonio’s peerless culture and system of player development tips the scales in its favor eventually. Maybe Leonard would have developed like this elsewhere, but there’s no way to know…and it seems pretty unlikely.

Do the Spurs isolate talent more effectively than other teams? Or is their system’s capacity to nurture any talent so strong that they don’t really have to?

Yes and yes.

It’s a combination of both those things. After all, it takes a keen scouting eye (and some guts) to snatch up forgotten castoffs like Boris Diaw and Patty Mills in 2012, or Danny Green in 2011. And if you dig even deeper, you have to also include drafting Manu Ginobili (No. 57 in 1999) and Tony Parker (No. 28 in 2001). But none of those players, talented as they were when acquired, would have developed the same way outside of San Antonio.

True, some have gotten away. Goran Dragic and Luis Scola come to mind, both of whom the Spurs selected late in the second round and allowed to end up elsewhere. But by and large, San Antonio picks great players, either as signees or trade targets, and makes them even better.

Circling back, if there’s good news for the rest of the NBA in all this, it’s this latest development:

If Baynes winds up in China, at least the Spurs won’t get anything back via trade that pushes them out even further ahead of other contenders. They would, though, have an open roster spot—one they’d no doubt fill with yet another terrific talent.

Come on, Yao. You spent almost a decade in the NBA; you should know better than to deal with the Spurs.

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