On the NBA: The Innervation in San Antonio

Philosophizing on league-wide issues and offering previews of upcoming opponents, ‘On the NBA’ is our new general NBA column.  Today’s feature looks at tomorrow’s opponent, the San Antonio Spurs. – Ed.

Gregg Popovich does not have to prove anything to anyone. If his career closes with a slow fizzle, leaving him nothing more than an old man who collected a bunch of rings in his early years cast aside by a game that left him, he’d still be one of the greatest to ever pick up a clipboard and yell at men in short pants. With the jewelry on this man’s mantle, nothing can ever be taken from him; even his familiar cast of stars that exemplify his style of play constantly reminds all at home who these men are and what they’ve accomplished. Never are the Spurs dismissed or given anything other than the utmost of respect; for now and forever, they’re the champs. Except these aren’t the same aging, dilapidated champs we had all finally grown comfortable with because we thought we didn’t have to fear them anymore. No, the San Antonio Spurs are young but experienced, energetic but controlled: in other words, the Spurs are contenders.

Like delicious candy rain, options have suddenly started falling from the sky for Popovich; in the not too distant past, he saw a bench that exemplified entropy with its end-of-the-rope veterans and semi-skilled skill players. Men like Michael Finley and Glenn Robinson saw chances to go ring-chasing without having to change too much, and they gladly accepted; the problem is that this team has to find its way to the ring these days because the old stars aren’t coming to them (like most of the elderly, they’re headed to Florida). This team needed to build on the fly, while simultaneously sustaining Tim Duncan’s career long enough to unleash the dusty old death ray in one final, glorious playoff run. R.C. Buford and Popovich were left with entirely new jobs after ten years of building on the most solid foundation possible; they had to fill cracks in the base, fix what was once unbreakable, instead of plugging holes with 10-day-contracts and singular role players.

Whether you or I think George Hill, DeJuan Blair or Tiago Splitter will develop into true-blue, genuine stars feels insignificant when considering the idea that all three could be; the three (semi-)young talents with star potential are anomalies in the world of championship contenders. That kind of mass progress generally only can take place in a salted-earth scenario where years of draft picks grow together (Portland, OKC… the teams you want your team to be), but thanks almost exclusively to brilliant drafting on the part of management, the San Antonio Spurs are an up-and-coming young team in the West. The team just has a little more veteran firepower than most. It all seems very surreal, like an optical illusion: if you stare long and hard enough, this wasting collection of old men will begin to look like a burgeoning offensive power with veteran leadership. To be clear, their youth’s current, optimistic status among basketball observers seems far more tenuous than those of OKC or Portland, but Hill and Blair have been clearly brilliant at times over the last two years and possess brilliant skills (sharp shooting and rebounding like the Hulk would, respectively) that can always prove helpful to teams. Splitter remains untested on American soil, but his skillset seems serendipitously suited to the Spurs’ needs (HOLY SCHNIKES. Check out that incidental alliteration) with Duncan on the court. Popovich has always looked rather brilliant when entrusting his teams to his youth before any other sane coach would, and because he is Gregg Popovich, I think he will accurately judge whether these are the men for whom he’s been looking.

He has given viewers reasons to question the faith, though. At least far more often than they used to do so. The Richard Jefferson deal seemed like an anti-Spurs move, especially when he was resigned this offseason for four years, $38.8 million. To bet so hard on what were obviously diminishing results seemed unwise entering last season, and after his supernova of a flame out in 09-10, the new deal looked like the product of raw madness. Alas, the Spurs knew best; though he was not exactly what was needed, his talent at the wing would be hard to match on the fly, while Ginobili and Duncan still have feeling in their limbs and Parker’s name wasn’t being floated as a back-up plan in New York. So, the Spurs abide. San Antonio has all of the pieces, even if it doesn’t obviously reek of the talent necessary to make the grueling trudge to an NBA title. All of the bets are hedged on this team; if the rookie center doesn’t quite dominate, maybe Jefferson will have a comeback year after an offseason of rigorous training with Pop himself. If Duncan gets injured, maybe Blair will become that vacuum on the glass and turn those per minute rebound numbers into something tangible. As it is with most brilliantly but meticulously built teams, San Antonio can endure quite a few misfortunes and find itself on its feet, a luxury Popovich needs this time around.

Once again, Gregg Popovich does not have to prove anything to anyone. This is a year, though, that he can make something new happen. Because all-time great coaching is inexorably tied to great talent, so much of how we judge the men in ill-fitting suits comes down to sustained brilliance: that idea that no matter the look of a team, this guy can coach them into being something more than a bunch of good basketball players. For the first time in a couple of years, Pop has himself a beauty of a team on his hands. It also so happens to be one that may not be able to feature Tim Duncan as its unanimous best player, and those are uncharted waters for the Spurs’ coach. It will take tons of luck and more deft coaching, but his team has a chance to be special, challenge the Lakers and flex real muscle in this year’s postseason. Yeah, it could flounder and lead to another knockout in the first two rounds, an outcome that seems much more likely, but a chance at a title is a chance at a title.  Those glints of hope are rare and amazing, and the Spurs’ veterans know exactly how hard it is to get them. Popovich does too, and he also knows that while he may not need to be legitimized, he’ll take the validation if it comes along with another ring.

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