Growing Pains

I suppose the biggest difference in this version of Pop than the one from 20 years ago is that he does not have pressure on him. He is more mellow, obviously, and some of that is age and maturity, but some is life experience. He lost his wife last year and that can certainly put a perspective on things that makes the daily investment in basketball seem even more silly.

Gregg Popovich had never been one to lose sight of the situation: this is a game that is ridiculously well-paid, but if you are going to play it you might as well play it the right way.

There is a delicate balance to it all, and that is much like life.

This week DeMar DeRozan mused that he thought this recent swoon would have brought more fire from Pop, but he was “more patient than I expected”. Pop has always been good at picking up a struggling team and being a taskmaster when it is going well.

The good and bad feelings from wins and losses do enough, and the competitors that are NBA players will put in the appropriate level of work. The coaching staff is there as a check, and an external motivator, mostly.

In this tough conference, the Spurs sit just outside of the playoff picture having benefitted from beating a hurt, and struggling Warriors team. As Pop said, “no one cares”. He is right. Much like no one really cared that Kawhi and Tony were injured in the 2016 WCF, no one cares that the Spurs got a win over a Steph-and-Draymond-less GS team.

DeRozan repeats that the Spurs are getting a “little better” every game and every week. This has been true. There are a lot of moving parts and it has only been just over a month of real basketball to play. Derrick White came back and struggled but then also shone brightly in the win over Houston.

LaMarcus is struggling offensively, but is still a force defensively — an underrated part of his game — and as recently as Nov 3rd he bulled Anthony Davis all night. When things are going for the Spurs, they have a nice little combination that can beat near any team on the schedule.

They do not have an otherwordly athletic force like Kawhi, Giannis, Bron, or KD but right now that is not the focus.

Smooth DD, and Assists

DeMar DeRozan is averaging a career-high in assists — 8.0 per game. His previous career high came last year at 5.2. 

On NBA Game Time, Isiah Thomas said, “We didn’t know he had this type of playmaking in his game” — or something to that effect. 

The thing about assists is, that you need the pass recipient to score after you give it to them. In Toronto, Kyle Lowry was the assist man, and also a good individual scorer in his own right. 

You can see glimpses of DeRozan’s passing ability in highlight reels. His teammates don’t exactly help him out all the time.  His potential assists are markedly higher than his actual total, suggesting that his teammates are helping him out in San Antonio. Compare that to Chris Paul and James Harden, who are creating far more potential scoring opportunities than are being converted. 

nba.com 10/30

For what it is worth, DeRozan’s potential assist rate was not high in Toronto, but as we can see, his teammates would often receive the pass to give it back. Another interesting thing is that the Spurs have never had a guy average this many assists since Tony Parker, and even then he was not exactly Chris Paul.

I think we are seeing the benefit of a playmaking guard that can get into dangerous positions finding other smart, capable, basketball players who can score. 

DeMar is most dangerous because he can score — he had 34 last night on Wes Matthews, a capable defender. He can get those 34 because of his 9 assists, keeping the rest of the Mavericks honest. Look at these next screenshots to see what I mean. The first two show the Mavericks having to stick close to the rest of the roster while DeMar operates on Wes Matthews for two of his biggest buckets of the game.

This final one is of last year’s duel between the Spurs and Raptors. This was a decidedly different kind of situation, but you get my meaning. 

Pau sinking

The Spurs sank into the paint based on the lineups here. No need to guard non-threats from outside. 

The current Spurs, however, do not have obvious non-threats aside from perhaps, Dante Cunningham. He does a great job of playing the other forward spot, flashing in the post for easy 10-15 foot jumpers or as a high-low option to dump the ball down to Aldridge. He also has been great flashing from the weak side for easy dunks — something OKC’s Andre Roberson does on occasion. 

This led to a Rudy Gay 3pt make

The above is mostly a mistake on Luka Doncic’s part, as he doubles needlessly. DeMar finds Rudy Gay for a wide open three. Notice, however, the rest of the Mavericks spread out in stark contrast to the previous Toronto-era DD screenshot. 

This led to a Rudy Gay pull-up jumper. This is also 4-down

Finally, we see the classic Spurs look: 4-down look. This led to a Rudy Gay pull up jumper. One concern everyone had about the Trade was that LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan like to occupy the same space and take similar shots. The solution, it turns out, is that DD has been taking the Pau Gasol post-ups. 

LMA is on the same post-ups-per game pace (just about 13). DeMar has 3.5, which is little more than Pau had last year. 

Both LMA and DD are getting about 60+ touches per game. That is a bit more than Kawhi/LMA’s 2016 55/57 per game.

Here, Aldridge does not quite pull DeAndre Jordan away from the paint, but he is neutralized enough that he does not interfere with the play. Also, look at Cunningham wearing Boris Diaw’s 33 in the same spot.

Everyone said the squad is still working on things and that hopefully means there will be fewer down-to-the-wire games. 

The season is young but the Rockets, Lakers, and Thunder look much worse than we thought. Houston is already changing their entire defensive scheme to compensate for Melo problems and no one can hit a shot. 

The Spurs are getting defensive contributions from Rudy Gay (six steals!) and even DeRozan (three steals!), and Marco Belinelli is an upgrade offensively over Kyle Anderson. Bryn Forbes has been so much better — he’s looking like the guy they drafted and not the gun-shy, brick layer he was early on. 

I can understand the championship-or-bust thinking, but there is very real value to fielding a competitive team every season even if the odds of winning the league are against you. These unbeatable Warriors are composed of players who competed and lost against much better teams early in their careers. 

Getting to the playoffs and losing is not without its value. Sure, for DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, there is less value than for Forbes, White, et al. The thing about going with an all-young group is that they might not even make the playoffs to learn those lesson. You need a mix, and you might as well put out the best possible combination you can — balancing future and present. 

The Spurs are much more fun to watch this season. 

Spurs 2-1, Aldridge Dominating, DD Scoring

Here is what we know: DeMar DeRozan is good at scoring the basketball. The Spurs can score, but they cannot play defense — but neither can the rest of the league. It makes sense considering the Spurs are starting defense-unaware Bryn Forbes in place of the lengthy Dejounte Murray.

DeMar did not get the calls vs the Lakers down the stretch, but he passes better than Kawhi did — DD’s 14 assists were a career high and he should have plenty more opporunities for that kind of thing.

DeRozan got a rebound early and pushed the ball. Instead of pulling up for a top-of-the-key three, he passed to Bryn Forbes who did the same. Meanwhile, earlier in the night Kawhi went 4/7 from deep on the same shot against Charlotte.

He had a hard time at the rim, not getting the calls that one gets in the first quarter. His game is more finesse than power, and late in games the power stuff is more useful when the refs swallow their whistles. LeBron, all power, takes over when that kind of game is played. 1

The Spurs jumped out to a big lead on the strength of the shooting — everyone was on and DeMar was cooking. LaMarcus had an advantage and ate up the competition, getting Javale McGee fouled out and socring 37 and grabbing 13. He was the good LMA, bullying his way to buckets.

For all the trouble — and no-calls — DD faced, his scoring early, passing late, and ball-control were huge. He took the late ball-handling role of Tony, Manu, and Kawhi late. He got a couple of huge assists to Forbes and Rudy Gay that were instrumental in the win.

He doesn’t have a bully-ball game, and that is a good reason why playoff DD is not as good  — they do not give him the same foul calls and he gets trapped the way he did tonight. If the Spurs staff can find shots for him that do not involve him attacking long-armed defenders at the rim, everything should be fine.

Elsewhere

Kawhi Leonard does not look hurt while doing Klaw things up in Canada. It hurt Spurs fans to see a double-block from Danny Green and Kawhi the other day while the Raptors beat Toronto.

I think we — I know I did — forgot that the Raptors were a well-constructed team last season and the addition of a 3-and-D guy like Danny Green, with the game’s best two-way player in Kawhi, was going to be a plus.

The Lakers are 0-3 and their flaws are evident. It is a long season and I would not bet against LeBron.

The Rockets are struggling with the new Melo experiment, while young guns Denver and New Orleans look great running up and down the floor.

Utah, an early pick to finish 2nd in the West, is 1-2, and dropped an ugly game to the Grizz, who are forever grit and grind.

How Do We Feel?

We all wanted to see DeMar go for 30 a night and he’s at 29.3 so far. LaMarcus looked good. The Spurs are scoring and playing fun basketball. Everything feels much better and less dour and depressing compared to last year.


  1. This fact makes me confident he could play in the 90s, when it was rough. It is ridiculous to think otherwise. 

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.