Sports from the Basement

San Antonio Spurs Ready For Another Run

With a blue collar mentality and a sense of humility that stands out in a sport that highlights individual accomplishments; the San Antonio Spurs have set a standard of excellence like no other in the NBA. Consider their franchise resume: 5 NBA Championships (4th all-time), 20 division titles, 16 straight seasons of 50+ wins, and since the ’89-’90 season they’ve made the playoffs 24 out of 25 seasons.

While Tim Duncan has been the cornerstone of the franchise’s success since 1997, the Spurs have been a model of consistency by playing team basketball without a marquee “highlight” player. When it comes to free agency, they’ve never put the full-court press on to pursue a player the way many franchises have. The offseason management of the team is very much like the regular season on the court management. Everybody comes to work ready to play, knowing he has a role to fill, with no one individual being greater than the sum.

Understandably, it came as a pretty big shock when San Antonio managed to secure some of the best offseason signings of any team. And those additions (specifically LaMarcus Aldridge and David West) come at just the right time, when the Spurs may be poised for one last title run.

Key Additions Help Bolster a Strong Roster

David West signing for the veteran minimum had to make some heads scratch. But here’s a guy who admits he’s made a ton of money already and knows what he’s missing.

The “I just want to win a championship” mantra is one that’s grown cliche with NBA veterans, especially because so few back it up with their actions. Yes, some will renegotiate their deal or take slightly less to add other key pieces to the franchise (ex. see Dwayne Wade when the Heat added Bosh and LeBron). But in the end, most players grab their money first and if they manage to get on a winning team as well … so be it.

West’s actions are so clearly countercultural to the NBA norm, they’re hard to ignore. He declined to exercise a $12 million player option with Indiana in order to sign the veteran minimum deal with the Spurs. His decision to pursue a championship first and foremost comes with a fixed cost — about $10 million in salary he left on the table.

“My whole career, I’ve been very strategic about what I’ve done with my money and how we’ve invested,” West said. “The future is very bright, so when it came down to this basketball decision, I was saying, ‘Well, it’s not about money at this point, it’s about finding … a good basketball environment where I might learn and ultimately compete at the very top. These guys (the Spurs) are there every year. The organization, there’s like a mythological lore about them and the way people talk about them.

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Money is not the only sacrifice West is making by joining San Antonio. As a still productive forward in the league, he could easily start for many teams. However, with addition of LaMarcus Aldridge to the team, it’s very possible West will come off the bench. This is another sacrifice West has already made peace with. The Spurs signing Aldridge was a critical factor in helping him choose the Spurs. He knows this only makes the team more competitive in the very tough Western Conference.

As for forward LaMarcus Aldridge, he was one of the most sought after free agents in the offseason. At least five other teams were actively pursuing him. But in the end, like West, Aldridge was drawn in by San Antonio’s winning tradition and culture.

While his choice to join the Spurs shocked many observers, it shocked many of the Spurs as well. “This is kind of the first time we’ve got a guy of (Aldridge’s) caliber,” said Spurs star Tim Duncan. “Honestly, I was betting against us. ‘He’ll choose someone else.’ Right up to the end.”

And the Spurs front office is due a lot of credit as well.  It took a lot of creative accounting to be able to get Aldridge over on a max deal worth $80 million over 4 years. With that, the Spurs made the biggest free agent acquisition in team history and reloaded a roster ready to make another title run.

Will Popovich Being Coaching Two Teams?

Much to the chagrin of the NBA powers-that-be, Gregg Popovich has introduced a philosophy into the league that preserves star players (especially veterans) for long playoff runs. The Popovich Way = don’t run your veteran stars down by overplaying them in a needlessly long regular season. Of course, playoff seating does matter but why grind your key players down with unnecessary minutes that compound over the months of the season.

This approach is most visible when the Spurs play teams that are clearly beatable even with the bench logging a lot of minutes. And this is not something Pops just started doing. Back on November 30, 2012 he sat 4 of his 5 starters in a game against the Miami Heat. The very next day the NBA fined the Spurs $250,000 for that move. Then commissioner David Stern was trying to make a point that every team is expected to field its best team every night. The Spurs were in the midst of a 4 games in 5 nights stretch and Pops wanted his veterans guys to get some rest.

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The fine and message from the league office did not deter the determined Popovich from continuing to employ his “rest” philosophy. He’s had to answer questions about it in each of the last two seasons as well. Gradually the league has caught up and sports science even supports the approach.

This season the Spurs have depth they haven’t had in a long time. It’s not beyond the scope of possibility that Popovich will essentially be coaching two teams during the season. His regular lineup and subs as a “Team A” and his so-called rest lineup and subs as a “Team B”. Even if he knows what that might look like, it’ll likely take a few months before the rest of us can catch up.

This approach will solve the “minutes” challenge that a lot of teams struggle with. Guys like Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw don’t have to compete for minutes with David West and LaMarcus Aldridge. Everyone will get time in the rotation and an opportunity for quality minutes (not just garbage time).

If any current coach can match the egos and expectations, it’s Popovich. These guys will be focused from the start of the regular season through the playoff run. The Spurs are a team that have a way of going about their business … and that’s not going to change because of any added new faces.

“I’ll purposely get on the big boys the most. Duncan, Parker, and Manu Ginobili will catch more hell from me than anybody else out there. You know the obvious effect of that. If you do that and they respond in the right way, everyone else follows suit. The worst thing you can do is let it go when someone has been egregious in some sort of way. The young kids see that and you lose respect and the fiber of your team gets frayed a bit. I think it has to be that way. They have to be willing to set that example and take that hit so everybody else will fall in line. It’s a big thing for us and that’s how we do it.”

At The Point

The most pivotal position for the Spurs might be at point guard where 34-year old Tony Parker will be the anchor. Parker spent the summer playing international ball for the French national team. While those extra trips up and down the court might seem to fly in the face of Popovich’s “rest” philosophy, he was actually very supportive of Parker staying engaged in competitive ball over the summer.

“It’s better if he plays. If he sits, the duck pate and foie gras adds up,” noted Popovich per the San Antonio Express-News.

While the team has to hope the summer will only help Parker get off to a quicker start this season, his endurance and durability remain big questions. After 14 seasons, he’s not the same player he once was. While that in and of itself is neither a great revelation nor out of the ordinary, the years have not only eroded Parker’s once elite skill set but also changed his game.

Bleacher report recently made some keen observations on the changes in Parker’s play. Bottom line: he’s not the drive to the basket playmaker he once was. And in the conference loaded with strong point guards, how will the cagey veteran hold up on both end of the court?  

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If Parker can’t last, Patty Mills might suddenly become the most important cog in the Spurs’ wheel. Mills is entering his fifth season in the NBA and has seen some extended time subbing for Parker in the past. The 6″0 point guard from Australia was originally drafted by the Portland Trailblazers in the second round of the 2009 draft. He’s been with the Spurs since the ’11-’12 season and knows the system well.

But is he ready to raise his game? That’s the big question coming into this season. The team now has enough legitimate scorers to have a few on the court at any given time. But someone has to get the ball to them. A combination of Parker and Mills is needed to fuel the offense that Pops wants to run.

Mills averaged about minutes a game last season. If Parker plays with like his youthful self, those minutes might decrease and that would be the best scenario for the Spurs.  If not, Mills will see more time on the court and last season in games when he got at least 20 minutes of playing time, he usually responded well.  There was a stretch in January last season, with Parker out, where Mills’ scoring went up significantly. However, his assists per game were nowhere near expectations for a starting point guard. If he’s called on again to relieve Parker, that’s a trend that has to change.

Ultimately this is a team that should be in the thick of it late into the NBA playoffs. But if the Spurs are going to overcome a highly competitive Western Conference, they’ll need a special season from their point guard(s). But if anybody can coach a few more miles (minutes) out of an old body, it’s Gregg Popovich.

 

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