An Internal Tension
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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.