New Season: New Problems

Dejounte Murray is out for the season, probably. This comes after an offseason of stories about his transition into the engine of the team. Pop said everyone was going to have to run with DJ if they wanted the ball. Now? Well, without Tony Parker, Hornet, the Spurs are going to have to rethink things.

This has been the worst offseason in a long while, and it got a little worse. Despite all that, there were some good feelings. Everyone is happy to be done with the robot problem that is Kawhi Leonard. Eventually, we all may reconcile with the KL and learn why, exactly, he hated being a Spur. For now, we all are very disappointed with the way it happened. 

Tony and Manu’s final season together was a valiant effort but it should have been as a contender — even if only in their own minds — instead of just as filler in the West. 

DeMar DeRozan is hungry, not as good as Kawhi, and yet perfect for the Spurs this season. Yes, he disappeared in the playoffs much like LaMarcus Aldridge did in years past and we all would rather someone who does not backdown from the moment. Every team wants that. As it is, the Spurs have two go-to guys and that is still very rare. 

Dejounte Murray was going to be a big part of this team, and probably the real determinant of the ceiling of this team. Now, the Spurs likely are going to be very good, but just not quite good enough. Compared to last year, that still will be so much more fun to watch. 

The Continuing Saga of Kawhi Leonard

It very well could be that playing for Pop is an extremely awful experience that only a handful of people can abide. Mostly, it does not matter, as for about 20 years the one person that could abide it was extremely talented and had a lot of other characteristics that made playing for Pop secondary to Playing With Tim.

So it goes. Few know what it is like to work along side Kawhi Leonard and fewer still know what it was truly like to carry the burden of the franchise after Tim Duncan retired. It is not for everyone, and injury diagnoses aside, living in San Antonio is not the greatest thing for young black men in their 20s. I do not blame the guy for his rumored desire to live back in sunny, beach-having, Los Angeles.

Everyone has to make the best choice for themseleves — that is the biggest takeaway from Adam Smith’s work, remember? — so if Kawhi determines his best work location is in LA then he can communicate that to the Spurs and the Spurs will then work the better their position.

The bad feelings around this are not really whether or not Kawhi wants to leave. Again, that is the most understandable part of all this. The worst part is that all of this seems to be ending in the worst possible way for the franchise. I do not mean that for the staff and coaches and others in that vein. They are all highly paid and will get along fine. I care about we, the people. If the Spurs front-office is really and truly bungling the handling of MVP-calibre players then it is a bad thing for our enjoyment in the long term.

That said, I have been around long enough to remember that Tim thought about Orlando, and Derek Anderson feigned feeling disrespected, and Stephen Jackson complained, and Robert Horry went on to bitch after the fact. No one aside from fawning media says that Spurs HQ is a utopia. The Spurs have famously kept the uglier side — the distracting side? — under wraps and private.

That this is so public is unfortunate, but not unusual. If Kawhi wants to go I am not mad. I wish he — and the Spurs — handled things a bit differently but you cannot change the past.

Inevitable End

Some part of every one of us believes in the possibility of winning this series. The easy story, the one where the Spurs team won game three for Pop, was set up. The Spurs gave a good effort. It was not enough. The Spurs are down 3-0. Teams are 127-0 with a 3-0 lead and have two more chances to add to that tally in this year’s playoffs.

The thing about those odds and history stacking against you is that the underdog had to fail dozens of times to make it special when they overcome. UMBC beat Virginia this season and part of what made that special was all of the other losses by 16-seeds before.

This Spurs team is missing about $35 million worth of production on the floor each night. While the Warriors are missing the same, they also have an underpaid HOFer in Kevin Durant to help ease that loss. Tony Parker’s performance is not really worth the value he is bringing to the court. That $10 million could be better spent on more scoring, and younger, more talented legs.

The playoffs make your failings clear and unmistakable. Look at Portland, a team that rode a talented backcourt and an overpriced, ill-fitting roster to the third seed on the strength of that backcourt’s ability to take over games. They are exposed as ill-fitting and overpriced in the face of a super star with a roster perfectly suited to complement him.

This Spurs team is a suite of complementary pieces without the star center piece. That SA cannot compete with the greatest collection of current-prime talent in league history is unsurprising. All we had was belief in the improbable and hope in the unlikely.

I have no idea what will happen with Kawhi Leonard in the offseason. Life is ugly and messy sometimes and people fight and make bad decisions. There are hundreds of ways to compile a successful basketball team and the current managment of Spurs, Inc has a good track record for doing so.

At the very least the Spurs should be competitive again next season. As we have seen with the Jazz (lost Gordon Heyward and thought they were in for a long rebuild only to get Donovan Mitchell and not lose a step), and Pelicans (lost Demarcus Cousins and thought they were in the toilet only to look like contenders).

The Spurs still have a better-than-zero shot at signing the second-best SF in the league, add a first round pick, and develop Dejounte Murray while pairing them with LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the game’s better big men. There is enough roster flexibility to add pieces and make some moves to put this team in at least a position to benefit from other squad’s bad luck.

Right now this awful season sure looks bad, but as the Zen proverb goes: “We’ll see.”

Outmatched Again

Sam Amick wrote about the strange Kawhi situation in which the Spurs have taken on the complete underdog, overlook-able status of also-rans. The team is not good and the only thing holding the hopes up of San Antonians and even talking heads, is that Pop is still coaching and Tony and Manu are still on the team.

Whereas the sweep last season was respectable and even noble, this version is troubling and hard to watch. This team is not good on offense, and overreliant on LaMarcus Aldridge for whatever creatitity can be had. The defense is mistake-prone and there are no real hopeful options anywhere. Pop was coaching up Bryn Forbes and Derrick White, the presumed future of the team who right now seem to have complemetary piece potential.

Dejounte Murray is good, and looks promising, but he is a ways away from being a center piece. Even then, he looks like the 2018 version of George Hill, long and athletic, and a Pop favorite. The Spurs even considrered flipping him for a future Hall-of-Famer this summer ( that Kyrie thing ) so the parrallels are strong.

It is ugly, and it was not supposed to be. There is good reason to think that Kawhi can lift this team to NBA-title challenger by playing as he has the last two seasons. Just like LeBron can lift also-rans and career second-teamers to lofty heights.

This situation does not look good for anyone. Some day we will learn a version of the truth with more details and we will know why Kawhi is spending time in New York and why the Spurs are leaking information to the press. We will find out why Jalen Rose has thought Kawhi wants to go to LA but also does not realize that he could make bank while being in San Antonio if he would just compromise on his personality a bit.

San Antonio has never been a media capital, but neither has OKC and yet look at LA-born Russ Westbrook showing out and making money. He is famously quiet and reserved but yet also willing to show his personality to make a little cash on the side.

This has only been an issue because Kawhi has made it one. He and his “group” do not think he is getting paid enough and that he needs a bigger city to draw teammates and cash. They are not controlling the narrative, and are making things worse for everyone. He is rich enough to hire a guy to make statements for him and to make it less awkward.

Meanwhile we all are left in a strange scenario. Everyone wants Kawhi to come back, but his absence makes it hard to root for him. Of course, no one really knows a player but this entire wink-wink thing works on an understanding that the players will act like someone you want to root for while also playing good basketball. Right now it looks like he is abandoning his teammates and working out alone while he waits for his big ass contract.

It is bad PR. It might be that he is trying to do right by his teammates. They could have talked it over and he could be simply removing a distraction by being away. But the questions are being asked. The national broadcast spend air time discussing the strangeness of it all. They hinted at the frustration on the part of the organization. If his absence was strategic it is a failure.

The Lingering Kawhi Situation

As the Final Four and all the associated stuff left the city, every sports person turned their attention to the Spurs’ Kawhi situation. There are only a handful of games left, and it does not look like he will play in any of them, which means that he likely will not play in the postseason, which puts everything into question.

Kawhi has not said much beyond the expected aphorisms. Instead we have guys like Nate Robinson “reporting” that he hears Kawhi “wants to be closer to home“. We have Brian Windhorst saying that “GMs are going to call and ask about him”. The local talking heads are grumbling about Kawhi being a crybaby and fans are taking sides.

It doesn’t look good. The Spurs were a 60-win team with Kawhi and LaMarcus on the court. They are a 45-win team (as of today). Few thought the Spurs had a chance to beat Golden State or Houston as currently constructed, but when the Spurs blow leads to the Clippers, there is no reason to think there is even a chance to get one game.

Is He Injured?

The Spurs say ‘no’. The Kawhi doctors say ‘he’s not 100%’. There can be earnest, respectful disagreement here. There can be frustration. Even if Kawhi wanted to leave San Antonio, he can’t want to not play the game he loves if he can do it. Therefore he must not really believe he is ready.

Does He Want Out?

San Antonio is not as great of a city as Los Angeles. Sure, it is more affordable, sure you met your wife or husband here, sure you can save a little money etc. Southern California is not only a really attractive place to live, but it is also home.

The Spurs have long had a couple of things on their side: Tim Duncan and Gregg Poppovich. That has turned into Gregg Poppovich and a little mystique. Even this year without a whole lot of luck, the Spurs have 45 wins and still can make the playoffs in a competitive league.

But Pop cannot coach forever and seeing some uncertainty on the wall does not make a guy want to sighn on for long term. It would be nice if there were some other assurances — a coach, another top-10 player or something?

Will He Sign?

This is predicated on the above. If he does not sign the Spurs will look at options. The return will not be 100% value for him, but it will be better than letting him walk. RC Buford and the rest of the Spurs front office has been great for a long time but — just like with Pop — they will not be around forever. All things being equal — and that is what happens when Manu and Tony retire, the prospect of building something at home vs building something in San Antonio looks more appealing.

That said, the Spurs organization is good and he has seen it firsthand. If the concern is about doctors or diagnosis, that can be addressed in contract talks.

Will He Play This Season?

It does not look like it. The Spurs have a protocol for returning. Based on the various hints from various reporters talking with their insidery friends, the Spurs need to see Kawhi in five straight 5-on-5 practices and look good doing it. Time is running out on the perfect stretch to get him right for the playoffs. I cannot imagine that there will be time or mental energy to try to put him in the postseason.

Leonard’s trip to New York might even be based on conversations they had with Pop about his chances of playing.

How Should We Feel?

Kawhi is a great player. If he feels like his career would be better served in Los Angeles, then so be it. If he feels like he needs to get his body right to play at a high level, then we should let him be.

Basketball is such a mental game that if Kawhi doesn’t think he feels right — no matter what the doctors say — he is not going to play right.

This entire ordeal is built on the frustration over the disagreement of the state of the injury and the ticking clock. For Manu and Tony, the clock is of even more importance. Manu came back for one more run. Tony fought back to get back to where he was before the leg injury.

It is okay to feel bad for Manu and Tony, but this rollercoaster of emotion and drama is part of sports. This is why we love basketball so much. If we had not seen the LaMarcus Aldridge drama last offseason, I would not be as chill as I am now. Pop and LaMarcus turned an ugly situation into a man-management example for every franchise with a disgruntled star.

I am sure there is a way to do something similar in this scenario.

Other Kawhi Thoughts

His “group” means his uncle/business manager according to various sources. There is nothing wrong with having someone looking out for your best interests independent of what a team organization is setting up. Kawhi has much more leverage as a player than he did in 2011, and there is nothign wrong with him using that to get what is in his best interest. The question, of course, is what is in the best interest?

Apparently Kawhi’s representation feels like he should be getting more shine in his endorsement deals. If they think the only way to do that is to move to LA, then that idea is from 1998 and not 2018. LeBron James is an superstar in part because of his ability to market himself and not because he lives in New York or something.

Being a star means acting like a star. That means doing some more things beyond HEB commercials. It does not take a home in LA to make that happen.

Playoff Race

Every so often — maybe once every two months now — Manu Ginobili produces a game that awes the crowd and makes you think “We couldn’t have won without him. He still has it.” Then sometime in the playoffs he produces a dud, and you think “He’s done.”

This is a little ritual Manu and we Spurs followers have played for a decade or so now. He’ll even sneak one of each of those games in the playoffs — against Miami in Game 5 if the 2013 finals, then the awful games in 6/7, the incredible game against Memphis, the awful games against Memphis, the great game against Houston, etc — and the other night against New Orleans was yet another example.

I tell myself to remember these games so that I do not throw my remote in the playoffs, wondering why we cannot get a guy in his early 20s instead of his late 30s to play backup SG for this team. Against the Pelicans, in a must-win game, he was incredible.

These past weeks have been odd for we Spurs fans. I cannot imagine what it is like for the teens and tweens who have known nothing but years of plenty from this team. I came of Spurs fan age when D-Rob was called a choke artist and the Spurs would lose to the Jazz every year. I was a kid when the Spurs last missed the playoffs but I distinctly remember looking at my Sports Illustrated for Kids and thinking that just maybe we could get Tim Duncan.

It was then that my dad wised me up to the ways of tanking. “It is not so bad if the Spurs lose,” he said, “because we get a better draft pick.” That blew my mind. Pointing to my SI for Kids article, I asked “Like this guy?” He chuckled. “No, there’s no chance of that happening. He’s too good. The Spurs won’t get the first pick.”

I held out hope, as kids do. The rest is legend, of course.

That Spurs team was very strange. It had Dominique Wilkins on the roster wearing 21. Yes, you can say the Spurs have had a HOF at that number since 1996. Monty Williams was also on that squad. But almost no one remembers it.

This Spurs team reminds me of that one, in that it is a collection of guys that are seemingly good but are clearly inferior to the rest of the league. Like then, we are waiting on the franchise player to return from a nagging injury (Dave Robinson, Kawhi Leonard). Like then, we might not make the playoffs.

Unlike then, members of this team and this coaching staff have NBA titles to their name and a better than average shot at making the postseason.

Whatever. I think this season is good for the soul. When you eat a steak dinner every night you do not appreciate it the way you do after eating Ramen for four years. You see what I mean.

Here’s to the playoff chase. In the mean time I have been asking my friends who are fans of the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets what they normally do when their squads do not play past April.

Heaves

On Saturday Slow-Mo pump-faked Kevin Durant out of the picture frame and got a lay in. It was a clever, savvy move from a guy that is more famous for his relative lack of athleticism. Kyle Anderson is famously slow, and yet is crafty enough to get a bucket in the NBA against some of the best defenders in the league.

Last night he pump-faked a Jazz defender and stepped through only to lose control of the ball and then kind of heave it at the rim. The ref saw a foul some place and rewarded him with two free throws. On the next possession, noted old person Manu Ginobili tried a step-back-into-pump-fake that was swallowed up by the Jazz defender. He handed the ball to Kyle and Kyle tried a pump-fake and the Utah-an did not flinch.

The jig, as it were, is up.

It will not break the internet to know that the really good NBA players — the ones with commercials and the shoe deals and the banners hanging in the rafters — are the ones that can get their own shot against very capable, very smart and savvy defenders.

Something like ten years ago, Manu Ginobili could get off something better than he attempted last night. In that time, a Kyle Anderson type of guy would be waiting to capitalize on his primary defender’s split attention instead of his sole focus.

This is the problem with an injured team. Kawhi will get the biggest bucks because he can get his own shot and stop guys from getting theirs. Aldridge got a four year deal because — despite his attitude and playoff performance — he can get buckets.

If and when everyone is ready and healthy to make a final playoff push, it will be extremely difficult. For all the jokes everyone had about the Cavs, the Spurs are not really in a much better position. The Cavs are hoping to get things together in time to stave off a newly rejuvenated Toronto and a tough Boston to get another shot at the Cavs.

The Spurs are hoping everyone is back and ready enough to throw off the offensive  machine that is the Rockets to prepare for the immovable object that is the Warriors.

Unlike the Cavs, however, the Spurs do get some benefit from all this. Kyle Anderson is getting huge minutes and prime opportunity to add to his crafty skill set (a la Diaw, even though Boris was a better athlete in his prime) for when it is most useful — in the playoffs against a second unit.

Last night was frustrating but there is little that can be done with so many injuries. This can be read on repeat after every shaky possession and every shaky performance.

Hurry Kawhi, you are our only hope.

Discord

The big news from ESPN was that there is ‘discord’ in the Spurs-Kawhi relationship after Leonard went back to his indefinite “recovery” mode. The Spurs are notoriously tight-lipped about these things and from all indications there is nothing more to this than frustration.

Still, the three names on the report — Adrian Wojnarowski, Michael C. Wright, Zach Lowe — are well-sourced, well-respected guys and they say there is ‘discord’. On ESPN’s Hoop Collective podcast, Ramona Shelbourne asked Wright about that word ‘discord’.

For his part, Wright said it had more to do with ‘frustration’ surrounding the healing of the injury. He hinted that the issue is Leonard’s lack of communication is part of the problem, and the lack of progress after the Spurs’ reliance on their tendon experts.

The local morning radio guy Mike Taylor has taken this and run with the thinking that Kawhi is actually upset about LaMarcus Aldridge getting this renewed love. Personally, I can see how that would be an issue Kahwi weren’t so withdrawn from the spotlight.

After all, Kawhi can adapt his game to LMA much easier than LMA can to Kawhi — this has been demonstrated over the last two seasons.

What does ‘discord’ mean? That is the real question here. It was disappointing to hear Mike Wright flail in his answer which lends me to think that the real author of the piece was Adrian Wojnarowski with help from Zach Lowe. Last season Lowe first reported the rumblings that the Spurs and Aldridge had issues and he was exactly right.

RC Buford was quoted in the report saying there was nothing to the ‘discord’:

“There is no issue between the Spurs organization and Kawhi,” Buford said. “From Day 1 all parties have worked together to find the best solutions to his injury.”

Buford described a frustrating process of rehabilitation for what has been an elusive solution to an injury.

“This has been difficult for everyone,” Buford told ESPN. “It’s been difficult for Kawhi. He’s an elite-level player. It’s been difficult for the team, because they want to play with a great teammate. And it’s been difficult for our staff. Historically we’ve been able to successfully manage injuries. This rehab hasn’t been simple, and it hasn’t gone in a linear fashion.”

Wow said in a video report that the source used words like “disconnect, and distance” when talking about the process. That’s more vague hints.

The paper’s Jabari Young reported Kawhi’s uncle said there was “nothing to the report”.

There is no doubt that there is frustration on both sides. If it is all the frustration with the injury? That will be resolved once Leonard is back on the court and playing like his MVP-candidate self.

If the issue is indeed the coddling of LaMarcus Aldridge? Well that is a deeper issue that will be interesting. Kawhi Leonard is the franchise guy here, no matter what the Spurs say and do for Aldridge. He is younger, better, and has a higher ceiling.

None of that is to say that Aldridge is bad or not good and that this all would not be an issue if Aldridge were not so difficult to manage. Kawhi cannot win a title by himself. He needs Aldridge happy and if there is an issue Kahwi needs to squash it since his legacy can take the biggest hit.

The secret ingredient to the Warriors is that they have three or four franchise players and mix them together smoothly. Look at the Cavs and their clown show for an example of bad form.

The Spurs have been pretty good at pruning weeds in the organization. From Dennis Rodman to Captain Jack (making room for Kawhi). This week we saw Tony Parker benched for Dejounte Murray in a passing of the torch.

Things will be fine as soon as that quad heals.

Pop on Patty

Via Jeff Garcia’s Spurs Zone blog:

What most fans don’t understand is the impact a player has on a basketball game outside of the statistical categories such as points per game average or true field goal percentage.
It is the intangibles like leadership, grit and instinct that separates an average NBA player from a successful one.

He goes on to quote Pop from the ESPN article. I do not necessarily agree with Jeff here. What are “intangible” to us are measured in the proprietary analytics the Spurs have. They no doubt have numbers that tell them how valuable Patty Mills has been. They paid him in the offseason and while a good number of national pundits do not see the value, they know the Spurs do.

This is why we get the annual “Spurs are going to Spurs” knee-jerk analysis. We do not need him to score 15 a night, as for some reason Manu is anti-aging and putting on an every-other-night show, but we do need someone to competently run the other positions and Mills is doing just that.

The Frustration of Being Good

Everyone from Pat Riley to Steve Kerr has expounded publicly about the difficulties of sustaining success. After a while, the primary motivator — winning — is not enough. For a team that has achieved the highest levels of this game — the current Warriors squad — there is even less motivation to do the same.

This is partly because — as Nick Saban says(!) — sustained greatness is unnatural. People are biologically inclined to find the least amount of effort to achieve their goals. Doing just enough is normal. Doing beyond what is required is unnatural.

As a fan of the Spurs, this is evident in the excitement levels for a regular season wins. Apparently Spurs fans need a Whataburger in the arena to get hyped to go to the game. This isn’t a knock, it is just a fact. Spurs fans have seen the most regular season wins in the NBA over the last 20+ seasons. They have seen the most Finals appearances, the most titles, and have seen at least two hall-of-famers and probably one other (Manu).

When you see so much greatness you forget that it is actually unnatural. The average NBA city does not see this level of achievement.

I was thinking about this last night as I did not have frustration when the Spurs dropped a close game to the Sixers with a shortened squad. I know, from experience, that this is nothing to get too high or low about. Watching the Other Spurs battle the Sixers is good for the program in the long-term and will benefit everyone in the Playoffs. This has been the story for decades now and those mid-season losses to an East team on the second night of a back-to-back have never been important beyond what they were.

Because Kawhi has been injured (and Tony too, but really Kawhi) and slowly making a comeback, the normal regular season goals have been forgotten: Getting a 1 seed and winning individual trophies. Unless Leonard scores 50/game from here on in, there is no MVP award for him this season. Unless the Spurs go undefeated from here on in, there is no number one seed to enjoy.

The Spurs will finish 3rd in the conference and have to meet up with the Rockets or the Warriors in the second round. This was always going to be the case, and the long-term goal of preparing the squad for that series is happening now. We’ve seen it all before and so it is hard to be nonplussed about the journey to that spot.