An Internal Tension

by

Hell Get It Figured Out

He'll Get It Figured Out

When word of the Marcus Williams call up broke, many Spurs fans were hoping Malik Hairston would not be cut. When he saw minutes earlier in the season, he showed the makings of an impact defender. Unfortunately for Hairston, his offense is behind schedule. Even a limited offensive player like Bruce Bowen has a shot to go to–in his case, a deadly accurate corner 3. This is not the case with Hairston; his catch and shoot game is underdeveloped. But Hairston is only a rookie, with plenty of time before him to develop a 3 point shot. Spurs fans wanted to see Jacque Vaughn go.

And why not? Vaughn is playing on the final days of his contract, waiving him would have cost the Spurs very little. Moreover, Tony Parker, George Hill, and Roger Mason Jr. play the point. Vaughn is a 4th string point guard. As the team’s season fizzles out without much snapple, crack, or pop a 4th point seems superfluous, at best. It’s hard to imagine how Jacque Vaughn plays into the Spurs’ plans to retool. Malik Hairston, on the other hand, could play into their future.

The preference for Hairston over Vaughn was fueled by the ubiquitous sense that the team is at a crossroads. The path forward will not be the same path that got the team here. It will look similar at points, but the core of Tim Duncan-Manu Ginobili-Tony Parker will need more help, and that help needs to be younger. Even if that help can’t fully meet, it must approximate the length, speed, and athleticism of a team like the Trailblazers. This means the Spurs must find fits that are less like Jacque Vaughn and more like Malik Hairston.

Gregg Popovich has carved a unique place for himself in the pages of sports history. He’s a Hall of Famer, both as a coach and front office executive.  How many men in the history of professional sports have pulled this off? It’s an elite little club, chaired by Red Auerbach. Invariably, failure follows on the heels of such attempts. It’s not an infrequent thing to see an elite coach attempt to hold an office in General Management concurrent with their gig on the sideline. Some find success, but it’s a rare thing.  Usually, it ends in a mess.

Gregg Popovich has not only walked that tightrope, but he’s done so hopping on one foot while juggling bowling pins. Or, put differently, he’s shown olympian balance, especially with the rigors of small market shaking the line at either end. Men like R.C. Buford have done much of his heavy lifting, but Pop’s singular genius is almost without peer.  That genius will be tested this offseason.

I sense an odd dissonance afoot, especially since the Spurs’ title hopes have been dashed against the rocks.  Coach Pop and Front Office Pop need to call a meeting over their very best bottle of A to Z. They need to get on the same page.  Let me explain.

After last night’s loss, the specter of age haunted the team’s postgame quotes.

  • Pop: “We had a tough time sustaining and for us, this late in the year, it was a tough back-to-back. They came out and I appreciate the players’ effort, especially against a young, athletic team this late in the season.”
  • Parker: “They were younger and more athletic than us. We had a good first half, had a big lead and then lost it, and the second half was kind of tough for. I thought we had no energy.”
  • Mason Jr.: “We had a good win yesterday and an athletic, deep team tonight got the best of us.”

Do you see a common theme emerging? Here’s the issue: in comparison to the Spurs, young and athletic is the new norm. Whether early or late in the season, the Spurs are playing against young and athletic from this point forward. Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley are no longer effective counters. They need a new model, and they need it this offseason. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are too old to wait.

The dissonance between coach and front office is the difference between short term objectives and long term objectives. Coach Pop wants to win now, and he understands that playing Jacque Vaughn, who knows the full playbook, gives him a better chance than novice George Hill. But Front Office Pop recognizes that developing George Hill is a major priority for the future. Somewhere along the season’s road, Coach Pop wrestled away the wheel from Front Office Pop, and they’ve been fighting ever since.  The struggle between these objectives, speaking honestly, has resulted in some regretful late season coaching decisions. George Hill regressed throughout the season, and in my estimation it’s because he went from having a consistent role to not knowing when of if he’d play. Roger Mason Jr. has weathered a similar stud to dud slump, and it directly corresponds to changes in the rotation.

But Pop gets a pass because he’s Pop. And he gets a pass because the Spurs are a 50 win team (in a difficult, younger conference) despite a firestorm of injury. Measured against the impossible measure of himself, he’s had a mediocre year. Measured against everyone else, he’s still top-tier. Unfortunately for the Spurs, they don’t have the luxury of everyone else’s standards.

Coach Pop and Front Office Pop need to find peace. They need an embrace and a wet, sloppy kiss. They need to commit to a roster that is younger and more athletic, but which still compliments the championship core. It’s a difficult road ahead, but it’s the only road the Spurs have to drive. It’s gonna have to take them home.

  • gospurs44

    I watch every Spurs game. 90% of the time I watch every second. Whether their up 20 or down 20 I still watch. In regards to Malik Hairston, I just didn’t see it. I think he’s Ime Udoka lite. He’s a hustle guy who can defend a little, rebound a little but can’t shoot. We already have those type of players so why do we need another taking up a roster space. I may be wrong but I don’t think we risk losing him to another club at this time.
    As for the two Pops, I think when FO Pop decides he wants to develop a young player, Coach Pop doesn’t have the patience to go along with the plan (remember he wanted to get rid of Tony and replace him with J Kidd). As I’ve said many times, regardless of how much of a genius you think Pop is, he falls short in his player development. How many times have you seen a young player make a mistake and then look over at the bench to see if Pop is going to scream at him or pull him. So the next time the player wants to shoot he’s scared, has no confidence. G Hill’s confidence is shot and Coach Pop is the reason.

  • ChillFAN

    That Jacque Vaughn gets playing time right now is totally indefensible, but at this point the Spurs can’t just cut him in favor of Hairston.
    You said yourself, JV knows the playbook. So if one of the other PGs you mentioned goes down, he can step in, dribble down the court and dump it into Tim.
    Austin is a legitimate option for Hairston, but its not for JV–neither of those players would make any difference in the playoffs.

    gospurs44, I trust your opinion that Hairston is not the answer for the Spurs troubles.

    I would say, though, that I thought Pop gave Hill steady minutes earlier this season even when Manu and Parker came back from injuries. There’s a point in the season that rookies tend to hit a wall of fatigue from NBA playing time, and around that time is when Pop dropped Hill’s minutes. But the fact that he’s not playing well is Hill’s fault, not Pop’s.

    Now that Manu is gone, who should fill that first off the bench creator role but Hill?

    Parenthetically Spurs’ pursuing Kidd was the right decison. Tony and Pop seemed to handle the aftermath well.

  • Daniel

    Pops Mensah-Bonsu was a perfect counter to guys like Aldridge (and David West too) who just kill the Spurs. Maybe he gets an invite next season?

  • SpurredOn

    ChillFAN,

    I agree with your assessment of Hill. I was wondering if he had hit his rookie wall or if Pop recognized his value and was trying to protect him from that wall knowing that we’ll need all his energy and quickness come playoff time. This is a lot of games for him and he’s had playing time since the start due to all the injuries. We may have a better idea if he gets more p/t the final two games.

  • gospurs44

    Chill, unfortunately with Manu out this team doesn’t have another creator to come off the bench. I never said he shouldn’t be playing because I think he should be. My point is Pop’s lack of trust in him through his inconsistent minutes is affecting his confidence in turn that is affecting his play.

  • Will

    I agree that Pop is not good at developing players. Actually the only player he ever developed was Parker, and in a way it’s more thanks to Parker seemingly indomitable will and his strong desire to always bounce back. But all the other prospects have been squandered.

  • jose

    The Spurs need to get younger. However, Pop needs to be patient and start developing some young players. It has to happen!

    The Spurs have some pieces they can work with. So, its a matter of letting the reins go.

  • LionZion

    Classic post imo. Very nicely put about the possible conflicts going on inside Pop’s head.

    Extremely tough to find a solution. Hopefully we get a little lucky.

  • michael

    I think the Pop has done well balancing the roster over the years. Only significant injury has sidelined them from challenging for a title (Derek Anderson, Ginobili, Duncan etc.)

    The impending roster shakeup will be the most reconstruction they’ve had to do in recent memory. It will be interesting to see how Pop handles recent additions, Hill, Mahinini, Williams, Hairston, and Gooden. These are all talented, athletic young bodies, but will they improve enough to take up the slack for the aging veterans?

    A couple additions make sense to me personnel wise in summer 2009. Von Wafer, Trevor Ariza, Matt Barnes are all talented, athletic, cheap and unrestricted free agents. I hope we acquire one of them to add to the mix in Vaughn, Finley or Udoka’s roster spot.

  • gargalen

    “Pops Mensah-Bonsu was a perfect counter to guys like Aldridge (and David West too) who just kill the Spurs. Maybe he gets an invite next season?”

    Pops is the with the Raptors and a restricted free agent – he’s likely back with the Raptors.

  • ChillFAN

    goSpurs44, I hear you, I must have misunderstood you, apologies. I think we are in agreement that Hill needs steady minutes.

    Spurred on and Jose, I could not agree with you more–I want to see young players on the floor in these final regular season games. Otherwise, it tells me Pop is going to the empty well–dumping it into Duncan while old, slow dudes stand around–one more time.

    Michael, great post. I like Ariza, like MattB too, but not sure Barnes fits our system (but lately, what is our system?)