Pop's Last Go-Round?
I met Pop when I was a kid. He was hosting some little basketball event, and my little brother got to compete against him in a little spider-dribble competition. I forget the details, but I think Pop let him win. Two things about that: 1) Pop was nice, and fun, and cool in contrast to his TV demeanor and 2) He had some handles.
Both my brother and I are grown, with children of our own to teach spider dribbles. Pop is has players on his roster that were not born on that day he was competing with my kid brother. He has accomplished just about all that can be done as a professional basketball coach. He has coached great players — multiple hall-of-famers, and two top-75 — won titles, and is about to become the winningest regular season coach in league history.
He is in the small club where we compare the number of titles won, and not if these coaches are good at all. Sure, the hot take merchants might fire off something like “He was always trash, he [and they usually mean Pop or Phil Jackson] was just handing the ball to a HOFer!” That kind of take is just designed to get a reaction. The facts are that coaching guys at the peak of their game is less about technique or actual basketball strategy at the pick-and-roll level and more about mental coaching.
Pop yelling “I want some nasty!” is not him just pushing his favorite button, but a way to tell high-level players that there isn’t much time to improve technique, or reconfigure offensive and defensive strategy, but just to play harder.
This season is another kind of challenge. There may be a hall-of-famer on the roster, but that isn’t readily apparent. Lonnie Walker IV is a fan-favorite, but he did not get renewed this week. That does not portend anything negative, but just a sign that the Spurs have a glut of dudes at the same level and are trying to sort them out. Keldon Johnson is good, and we all love his motor, but even if he is an athletic freak like Russ Westbrook, that is a ceiling with some clear warnings.
The roster is young, inexperienced (at high levels) but all Spurs-ian. I do not buy the “finally, we are moving forward” line of thinking. I accept the Pop statement that it was all part of the plan. The Spurs roster management plan was blown up after Kawhi wanted to be traded. He would have still been in his prime as the Spurs built and retooled around him. As it was, it meant the organization had to switch gears. We have never seen a true rebuild around here, as the one year gap was mostly an injury year, even though everyone likes to simply call it a “tank”. Letting David Robinson and Sean Elliott fully recover is in line with the kind of thinking the Spurs still show, so yeah, it came with a side effect of having the number one pick. The Spurs were not the worst team in the league that year, however.
In any case, LMA and DDR both moved on of their own accord. Patty Mills and Rudy Gay did the same. The Spurs still like having a veteran presence and just got a couple of guys on a different timeline. Thad Young and Doug McDermott bring vet experience — the kind that is useful for non-stars. They’ve been in this league a while and know what is what. Add to that the Bryn Forbes-as-Patty-Mills role and nothing has changed too much. Forbes won a title as a spot-up shooter like Mills did, and brings that shooting to the second unit the way Mills did last year.
In order of experience:
Thaddeus Young F 6’8” 14 years
Doug McDermott F 6’7” 7 years
Bryn Forbes G 6’2” 5 yrs
Jakob Poeltl C 7’1” 5 yrs
Dejounte Murray G 6’4” 4 yrs
Derrick White G 6’4” 4 yrs
Lonnie Walker G 6’4” yrs
Keita Bates-Diop F 6’8” 3 yrs
Zach Collins C-F 6’11” 3 yrs
Drew Eubanks F 6’9” 3 yrs
Keldon Johnson G 6’5” 2 yrs
Devontae Cacok F 6’7” 2 yrs
Tre Jones G 6’1'“ 1 yr
Devin Vassell G-F 6’5” 1 yr
Jock Landale C 6’11” R (in NBA)
Joe Wieskamp G-F 6’6” R
Joshua Primo G 6’6” R
A notable duo missing are Luka Samanic and Al-Farouq Aminu. The former, never played very hard and that is a no-no. The latter was never in the longer-term plans and the value that would come from trading him at the expense of a roster spot in the intermediate time was not there.
Let us put a mark in the “Draft Miss” column for the Spurs. But while we have that board pulled up, let us put a mark in the “Draft Hit” as well. Primo looks like that dude. On draft night, the Primo pick got a lot of head-scratches and the low grades. The Spurs liked what they saw and thus far he has shown more than he did in college. We have seen his vision, his shooting, and playmaking. He broke out a step-back that was nice vs Houston.
The numbers people do not like the Spurs’ chances. I don’t like the Spurs’ chances of gettin a title. Can they make the playoffs? I think that is very possible. In any season, anything can happen. One benefit to this group’s lack of star is that they don’t have to worry about load managing that star or his consistency. That all-for-one approach has worked for the pre-Superstar Nets and the pre-Kawhi Clips. A fun team can be had here, and I like what is happening.
DeMar DeRozan took about 15 shots per game last year, and that means everyone will have an opportunity to divvy that up.
My gut tells me we will see Dejounte Murray leading all scorers. Not only has he added a quality midrange game that is not subject to as many variables*, but he has experience and likes to get out and run for easy buckets. He was the second-leading scorer at 15.7 per game last season, and with another shot or two coming his way (at least) he should be in the 17-19ppg range.
*He can create his own shot, and without the space-eating LMA/DDR, he can get into that midrange as often as he likes
Keldon Johnson is the obvious candidate to take on the title of the Best Spurs Player, but he is a little raw, still. His game is hustle, and there are a lot of points available for that person. This season will see him being asked to broaden his game slightly, with some more ball-handling and we will see where that takes him. If he takes to it like Kawhi did? Well, we could see a monster. If he struggles? We still have a good player.
Also of note: Devin Vassell has been showing a ton of skills in the summer and preseason. Some of it was shaky. That’s fine, however. The more repetitions he has now, the better he will be later. DV is trying to make that same DJM leap from defense-first, to all-around player for the squad.
Again, the playoffs are a long way away but that is a reasonable goal. If winning a title with a veteran team requires luck, preparation, and hard work, so does earning a playoff spot for this calibre of team. If there are any goals for this season they are something like this:
Develop a number one. Scoring-by-committee is beautiful basketball, but crunch time needs a guy that can get a bucket when you are schemed-up hard by good coaches and prepared players.
Find your core. Someone will not be paid or a part of the future simply because of the salary cap. That is fine. Figuring out the core of the team that will be competing in the future helps you figure out who you need to bring in (Ayton? Collins?)
Win. I absolutely am disgusted at tanking. That is, losing on purpose. If you are going to lose while competing as hard as possible? I am cool with this. Losing teaches bad habits and is infectious. The Spurs have a reputation as an organization that competes, and treats players like professional adults. There will not be glitz and movie deals or 360 opportunities on the River Walk. It simply is bad business to add losing a lot to that reputation.
There will be endless frustration this year as we watch the young guys do amazing things followed up by some terrible decision-making. It will make Pop’s hair even whiter, but there is a lot of fun to be had.