To be young again
“A lot of athletes can’t play basketball. Young and athletic has to come with some sort of skill. Young and athletic is easy. I can go get five from the D-League who are young and athletic.”
-San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, via the May 13 Express-News Interview
In his sit down with the San Antonio Express-News‘ Jeff McDonald and Mike Monroe, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was very candid about this past regular season and what lies ahead for San Antonio after its disappointing end in the first round.
Young and athletic. Two of the cliché buzz words general managers spew every offseason along with the phrases “defend better” and “run more.” Those outside of the San Antonio Spurs organization have been calling for the Spurs to make the transition for years, often falling on the deaf ears of R.C. Buford and Popovich.
Acquiring youth and athleticism would be nice, Popovich annually insists, but not simply for the sake of doing so. If the Spurs can fit such luxuries into their budget, and it helps improve the team — it’s not as if Popovich is inherently opposed to the notion. But again, it has to improve the team.
To pull from the highlighted quote, Popovich and the Spurs did in fact “go get five from the D-League.” Never mind that of those five, one of them was Steve Novak, who checks in as a slighter, less athletic version of Matt Bonner. Danny Green, Larry Owens, Othyus Jeffers, Da’Sean Butler. All are young athletes, but hardly ready to help the Spurs in the present.
Go back further and read through the list of players that have enticed Spurs fans with the promise of a dunk or two, only to never be heard from again in the NBA. Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Ian Mahinmi, Garrett Temple. Hell, in his brief stint with the Spurs, James “Flight” White was as young and athletic as one will ever see in the NBA.
It’s not as if the Spurs haven’t experimented with youth. And it’s not as if Popovich and Buford dislike youth and athleticism. They simply are not enthralled with the youth and athleticism available to them at the back end of the draft or the bargain bins of free agency.
Capped out and near the back end of the draft for much of the past two decades, the prospects left available to the Spurs have fewer and fewer dimensions to their game. If a young prospect with NBA impact athleticism falls within the Spurs means, there’s generally a good reason for it.
They typically can’t play basketball.
Armed with minimum contracts, shooting is perhaps the cheapest, most immediately impactful skill set a team can acquire. And if a player can combine that shooting with basketball intelligence and functional athleticism then there is a slight chance they can be the next Gary Neal. If Neal were taller, faster, or jumped higher, chances are the Spurs could not have afforded him.
That’s not to say the Spurs haven’t missed out on prospects within their resources. Dorrell Wright, for example, would have made a lot of sense on the wings this season and moving forward. But for every Serge Ibaka or Wright that pans out, there are a thousand Ndudi Ebis.
At this stage in the Spurs history getting younger and more athletic on the fringes of the roster would hardly make a difference. There are no impact athletes to be had.
In that sense, getting younger and more athletic is misguided and overrated to an extent. Because the best place to be young and athletic is in the core of your team. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Young and athletic is easy. Young and athletic and skilled enough to be better than what the roster already has? While still being affordable? Good luck.