Three All-Stars must adjust to roles they aren’t ideally suited for and how they transition will define their futures.
Each NBA season is full of subplots. If you’re only focused on who wins the championship, then you’re missing most of the point. Of the hundreds of players, each has a grand story, and this year will feature many players whose careers are at a crossroads of sorts.
For the stars, one 82-game stretch rarely defines their whole career. And that will go for the following players as well. But there is a feeling that what unfolds over the next nine months will shape their days to come.
In many ways, the Spurs are still the Spurs. They probably always will be as long as Gregg Popovich, the best coach in league history, is at the helm.
But life as San Antonio has known it is almost over.
Tony Parker has been aging very ungracefully, very quickly. Tim Duncan can’t last forever. Manu Ginobili is still Manu Ginobili, but even he knows he’s running on fumes at this point. They brought in some fine pieces that will keep them contenders in the near-term — getting David West for free was a coup and re-signing Danny Green on the cheap was even better.
In a Western Conference as powerful as the one that currently exists, however, that doesn’t guarantee much. Not now and especially not when the salary cap goes up by $30 million or more in a few seasons.
Kawhi Leonard is the future. He could very well surprise people and win an MVP at some point in his career, (presuming Anthony Davis doesn’t win the next 12 straight), and he is the one who will be the face of the team if this franchise is able to continue its near-unprecedented two-decade reign of unending success.
Kawhi can’t do it alone, however. He need LaMarcus Aldridge to be his running mate, so that is what this season will show. How well can LaMarcus fit in with the tail end of the old guard while asserting himself as “next.” It’s a tricky role to fill. He has the talent, and the culture of the current organization should be accommodating.
But, as Zach Lowe of Grantland recently highlighted, there are some concerns about how the ball-stopping Aldridge might cause some stylistic complications.
"The Spurs have heard the fretting about LaMarcus Aldridge — how he holds the ball longer than any Spur is permitted to, hogs Tim Duncan’s territory on the left block, and cares in rather un-Spursy fashion about how many shots and points he averages. The Spurs got over all of that long ago. They are itching to start the mutual adaptation process. Aldridge might not be the best fit for San Antonio’s whirring equal-opportunity system, but the perfect free agent isn’t always there the rare summer you have the cap room to lift Duncan’s championship window. Sometimes, you have to nab the star who’s both available and interested, and deal with the nitty-gritty stuff later … Aldridge introduces some granular X’s-and-O’s complications, but don’t overthink this. He’s going to fit in fine, and the Spurs with Aldridge have a chance to be spectacular"
How will LaMarcus adjust?
My guess: wonderfully. And if he doesn’t, it is unlikely that he will be solely to blame. It’s possible that the older Spurs simply run out of gas and the whole system starts to look a bit off independent of any issues their new star introduces.
It will be awkward for Aldridge if that happens though, and people may start to look at his signing as less of a bridge to the future and more as a marker of the end of reign. The next 82 games will tell us a lot about what the Spurs will look like in 2017 and beyond, and how LaMarcus will be viewed during the next stage of his tenure in the league.
The good news: after returning for a horrific leg injury, Paul George says he is better than ever because, while most players only get a few months in the summer to improve their skill set, he feels like he has had a full year.
The bad: his isn’t “thrilled” to play major minutes at power forward next year, which is where the Pacers want him to log a lot of minutes now that they’ve parted ways with Roy Hibbert and David West and plan to play small.
We technically caught a quick glimpse of PG-13, post-number change, for a few games late last year. But he was hobbled and not at all confident in his body. So taking anything from those performances would be worse than putting stock in the results of upcoming preseason games.
Paul George will probably get back close to what he was before he broke his leg. He could remain on the same trajectory that he was prior to the injury. That season started with him performing like a top-five NBA player — arguably a top-two player before Christmas — then ended with him missing a lot of shots as the once-mighty Pacers squad he led fell off a cliff.
With the smallball trend in the NBA, Paul George should be a dominant offensive force at the 4. People may be underrating just how potent Indiana could be right out the gates with George Hill, Monta Ellis, C.J. Miles, and PG manning the perimeter. Those are three plus shooters from deep, two of which can handle the ball very well, next to Ellis, a very dynamic ball handler who can get to the cup easily. There are understandable questions about whether the defensive-minded Frank Vogel can put that quartet in a great position to score very efficiently, but those four players can’t be on the floor together and not put up points. There will be buckets.
The issue, then, will be whether the team is trading away something too great in order to get all these points. And for Paul George, it could be a proverbial fork in the road of his career.
While he is a top-level scorer who can get his from behind the arc, at the rim, and in the mid-range, his individual defense is what makes him special. Before his injury, he was arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA. Perhaps any or all of Kawhi, Tony Allen, or Andre Iguodala were better. And Lebron, when he tried, was still likely the most imposing. But if PG wasn’t better than all those guys, he was right there.
So if you take that job away from him — that responsibility to be a savvy, positional savant with elite discipline and uncanny understanding of how to corral players into spots he wanted them to go — what exactly is Paul George? An excellent-but-not-truly-great-or-hyper-efficient scorer who is skinny and gets overpowered and ground down while trying to check larger players?
This is a guy who first made his mark in the league by being a 6’9″ rookie forward who slowed down a then-space-age Derrick Rose in a playoff series. In subsequent years he was switching off between covering LeBron and Dwayne Wade in a high-leverage postseason series — not to mention guys like Durant and Carmelo in the regular season — as well as any human can.
When he was doing that and scoring 20-25 points per game, he was one of the most fascinating talents in the league and someone who could be the fulcrum of a franchise on both sides of the ball. Now, trying to get back to where he was physically and mentally, he will also be transitioning to a new role that negates what he’s best at.
If the Pacers stick to the plan to run him major minutes at the four, it’s hard to see PG being as important as he was before — even if he does come back better than he was before.
Watching Kevin Love last year was strange. He wasn’t the player he had been in Minnesota, when he was putting together 20/20 games regularly and often looking like the best player on the floor for either team.
In Cleveland, he became a floor spacer who didn’t touch the ball much unless it was time to shoot. He attempted just 12.7 shots per game, by far the lowest he has averaged in a season since he first rose to All-Star status in the 2010-11 season. More interesting, 5.9 of those shots — 46% of his volume — were catch-and-shoot attempts, according to NBA.com. While Love has never been one to put the ball on the floor a ton, his last year in Minnesota, just 35% of his looks were of the catch-and-shoot variety.
Does this trend continue further in 2015-16? Will Love, who re-signed but seemed to re-sign begrudgingly, start taking more than half of his shots as merely a spot-up guy? With Timofey Mozgov on the team for the whole season and Blatt finding some success last year in the playoffs with smallball lineups, does Love become even more of a safety valve to pass to behind the arc only when his man is sagging off in help?
Is Kevin Love now just a role player?
It’s a weird concept to anyone who watched him dominate the glass, and not so different to the current Paul George scenario. Cleveland took him away from the rim and his best-in-league rebounding abilities became closer to normal. On the defensive end, the drop off was slighter, but he was able to grab roughly half the number his career average of offensive boards per 36 minutes. And this mentality of not being a rebound-hound seeped over to the other end of the floor as well, with him posting the lowest rebounding percentage of his career.
Can Kevin Love be the old Kevin Love again?
The answer to that is almost certainly no. Not in the role he will be asked to continue to play in Cleveland.
There are some ways he can be more assertive, demand the ball, get to different spots on the floor when the offense is breaking down or their are broken plays. Even from his further-out position on the court, he can be more aggressive on the boards and re-find some of what made him so special before moving to Ohio.
Make no mistake, Love was overly passive last season as he seemed to mope at times rather than accept his new lot in life as an afterthought in an offense that features the best player alive and a playmaker like Kyrie Irving.
But in a more general way, he can also only do what he is told. Like with LaMarcus and PG, some of this is out of his hands. If the coach who just made it to the Finals without you tells you that your role is to just stand in the corner and wait for a pass, what else are you supposed to do?
Next: Around the Association: East