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. 

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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. 

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.

Surviving Portland

The LaMarcus show continues.

This has been the perfect season to command the spotlight with Kawhi out of commission and slowly working his way back to form. Leonard dominated proceedings last year and all but regulated the rest of the Spurs roster to Who Are They status.

LMA was famously upset by this and it turns out that was not unreasonable. He still had something left in his game and has shown himself to be the guy that SA paid for: the number 1 guy.

Unfortunately, he is not an MVP-level guy, but then again who thought he would be that?

This is about winning titles, even if the Spurs are no longer front-runners for that spot these last few Warriors-heavy years. To that end, winning regular season games while everyone sits down is imperative. Tonight, LMA did the things necessary to win. This was the typical Spurs effort involving lots of contributions that will be forgotten when the postseasons begins but upon whose foundation the postseason runs begin.

LMA blocked one of the final tying attempts and that sealed the win. It will not win him the MVP but it is what we want him to do.

The Spurs are now 22-10 and four games behind the league-leading Rockets.

LaMarcus 41

When LaMarcus Aldridge dominates proceedings as he did against Memphis I have to refrain from saying “Where was this against Memphis in the playoffs?”

The answer is that this is not the same LMA for a lot for reasons and this is definitely not the same Grizzlies squad that competed hard for six games.

Pop called him an All-Star in all phases of the game and he is right. Even when LMA had been playing in the shadow of Kawhi’s Klaw, he was playing good, underrated defense.

My — and likely your — frustrations with his postseason play remain but it is important to put those into context. Both OKC and GSW featured at least two current, very recent past, or very recent future MVP players.

Still, LMA did not impress in every game against the Grizzlies and only in one or two games against Houston. Watching him do that against the same team makes me feel better even if it isn’t proof of much of anything.

Clipper Cure All

Did San Antonio learn so this from Golden State and decide to turn it on in the third quarter?

Aldridge is steady with his 20+ ppg, and is vaguely looking like Timmy on the score sheet. Pay tossed in some threes but Rudy Gay and Dejounte Murray are battling for the Most Fun Spur to watch.

Rudy Gay can score and that is great fun to watch. He showed some extra range was fun but the he followed that with a heat check. For we playoff-minded folks, the Rudy Gay they gets into pass lanes and uses length to bother teams is the one that will change a series.

LMA and Pau were not the most highly rated defensive players coming into San Antonio yet have held their own (in spots, in Pau’s case).

As Captain Jack once said, “The Spurs staff helps you be a great defender” and all that is needed is mental and physical effort.

So far, everyone looks about where they need to be. Now that the IG rumormongering is that the Klaw will be returning next week, things are looking up.

Brace yourselves, Kawhi is coming.

Spurs Start 1-0

Expectations for this Spurs team have varied wildly from Title Contender to Also-Ran. This team is not as obviously good as the Warriors and the poor performance of LaMarcus Aldridge has colored the view of even the most fanatic Spurs follower.

Still, this team has managed to produce ever year that it is a cliché. LaMarcus Aldridge apparently had a heart-to-heart and earned more touches early. He did not, apparently, spend time at Toast Masters. On the broadcast he mentioned ‘getting touches and getting into rhythm’ 8 times or so.

The questions about this team are and were approximately these:

  1. Who carries the offense without Kawhi?
  2. Can Dejounte Murray be the starting PG for this team?
  3. Which LMA do we get?
  4. Rudy Gay? What does he have?

Given the relatively successful integration of Pau Gasol — he was a net liability defensively for much of the year but he was a reliable contributor and a good defensive player situationally — we could reasonably expect a decent integration of Rudy Gay.

And so it went — he came in with the second unit and promptly dunked on a fast break. He played solid defense on Jamal Crawford. He was good.

Gay’s line: 14 pos on .651% true-shooting, 5 rebounds, 2 assists. Good.

Meanwhile Dejounte was a little frantic early, but he was good and active. He provides a level of energy that young TP provided, even if it gets a little wild. Pop circa 2004 would have not played DM, but this one is older and wiser and has coached through the Manu years.

I mean our starting PG produced 16 points, a couple of assists, a couple of steals, five rebounds, on 7/8 shooting. That’s good in 2017.

(Manu was good by the way he will never retire, apparently).

LaMarcus Aldridge got his touches. He had 30% usage rate, which is Kawhi level (31% last year) but not amazingly higher than LMA’s 2016’s rate of 24.5%. The important thing is that LMA feels more involved and that goes a long way toward making the team better.

Danny Green was Good Danny, meaning he made his jumper. He pulled up in transition which means he is Really Good Danny.

Like the Warriors, Cavs, and Rockets, this team is going to be defined by the playoff production and so this regular season experimentation is only so interesting.

The Spurs have integrated LMA, lost Duncan, added Dejounte, played fast, played slow, all while maintaining competitiveness in the league. It is silly to think they will not be able to handle a couple of injuries at the start of the year. The Wolves are a good talented team and that win was uglier than it probably would have been had Leonard been out there.

Right now this is going to be the Aldridge show, and we know that can be successful in the regular season. Take your time and get healthy, Kawhi.

LMA Is A Spur For Even Longer

If we were wrong about it seemingly like the Spurs wanted LMA to feel more wanted in this town, today’s news does not support that.

LMA reportedly singed a big extension that will keep him in silver-and-black for a while.

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That is good? I guess?

If nothing else the getting paid like he is super-important may help LaMarcus play like he is super-important. Honestly, after the offseason in which the Spurs considered dealing him and trading for maybe Kyrie and making a run at CP3, the Spurs went and cemented their commitment to last season’s plan.

Meanwhile the division competition is making excuses, maybe.

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Spurs Season Is Nigh

I am an old basketball soul and my biorhythms are accutely attuned to the NBA cycle. That is to say that it does not quite feel like basketball season just yet.

And yet, we are a mere six days away from the opener against the Timberwolves.

What madness is this? Well, it is the the NBA’s way of addressing the resting epidemic popularized by San Antonio’s own Gregg Popovich.

As a rule, I do not pay much attention to preseason. Still, I have noticed Rudy Gay looking good in silver-and-black even if the uniforms do not. I am nervously awaiting the announcement of a jersey-sponsor that I find gross.

The new Spurs jersey looks . . . off. I don’t know. Maybe I have truly become the Scrooge I was meant to become. So it goes.

Meanwhile, the Spurs have a billboard with Aldridge peaking over his shoulder with his nameplate prominently displayed. Somehow I feel like the marketing arm of the Spurs is doing their best to make him feel wanted.

I mean gaze upon this:

We all consider Kawhi the face of the franchise but it seems like these billboards and advertising campaigns are here to make you feel better about LMA. The thing is, I would feel great about him if he played up to his talent level.

No amount of advertising will make me less frustrated with his performance in the second half of game one against GSW.

If he plays like 1st Qtr LMA? Well, then yeah.

Finger: Kyrie Talk, Aldridge Burn

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As a counter to this, some will point to the Spurs’ acquisition of LaMarcus Aldridge, and how that has not quite met expectations. But if there have been any issues in that arrangement, it is not because Leonard hasn’t given Aldridge a chance to be assertive. It’s because Aldridge hasn’t taken him up on it.

That about sums up everything I have written about LMA. Emphasis mine.

I’ve heard that some players think Kawhi is a “system” guy whose success is dependent on the scheme, that a handful of other guys would be doing the same were they in his situation. This is a version of something even guys that are big fans of the organization have said, including Stephen Jackson.

Bob Horry even went so far to say that established players need to dumb down their game to play in San Antonio.

The thing to take from all this is that 1. This system isn’t for everyone. 2. Everyone isn’t for this system. The players that want to do the things to win value organizations that do so consistently. While Kyrie Irving looks like he is fleeing the greatest player of this generation for some substandard situation, he actually is taking control of his fate: LeBron is not long for Cleveland (because Dan Gilbert is a clown) and Irving wants some place where he can do his thing without uncertainty. San Antonio may not be ideal for his ego, but it is a model of consistency.