On Pessimistic Predictions, Patty Mills, Portly Frenchmen and the Passage of Time
There is an old rule about writing on the Internet (well, as old as rules about writing on the Internet can be): Don’t apologize for not having written in a while. Just write.
Earlier today Bradley Doolittle published a piece on ESPN Insider predicting the record of every team in the Western Conference. Bradley predicted the Spurs would finish with either 50 or 51 wins (his prediction was 50.7 to be exact), 9.3 games worse than last season when adjusted for total number of games.
Bradley’s without a doubt a smart guy, and I think it’s not only fair but correct to argue that the Spurs will neither equal their adjusted win total for last season nor will they have the best record in the Western Conference for the third straight year in a row. The conference got better: the Lakers made the kind of blockbuster moves the Lakers make; the Thunder will ripen with age, as will the Timberwolves; the Nuggets look poised to couple a surprisingly formidable defense with their already potent offense.
The Spurs are going to lose some games they won last season. Their relative record will be worse. However, if I may be so bold, I’d like to argue that in and of themselves the Spurs will be slightly better than they were last year.
During this most recent Summer League, the play-by-play announcers (who specifically escapes my memory) had the pleasure of interviewing R.C. Buford one evening during a Spurs game. One of the announcers asked about Boris Diaw, whose heft and nationality (the Spurs seem hell-bent on signing as many Frenchmen as realistically possible) have made him a frequent topic of conversation when the future of the Spurs is the broader question at hand.
Buford noted that Diaw came in to a new and complex situation – what the Spurs did both offensively and defensively last season was rather ornate – and performed exceptionally well. He played so well that, by the time the Western Conference Finals rolled around, Gregg Popovich had moved Diaw into the starting lineup. There’s a rather lengthy article to be written about Popovich’s willingness to move Diaw into the starting lineup on such relatively short notice and his evolution as a coach, but we’ll save that for another day.
Buford was singing Diaw’s praises, specifically noting how pleased he and Popovich were with his defense (despite the fact that Boris is nailed to the floor), when he made a critical and ever so telling remark: Buford noted that Diaw was a smart enough player to come in and pick up the majority of the Spurs system almost instantaneously; how much better would he be after spending a full training camp with Popovich, Duncan and the rest of the team?
Buford was spot on in regards to Boris. The only criticism I would make is that his comment was too narrowly tailored. With a training camp under his belt, Diaw’s going to play at an even higher level than he did last season. However, he’s not the only player this will be true of: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw will all improve in some sense this season. On an individual level, Splitter and Danny Green will likely and Leonard will almost certainly continue to grow as players. On a systematic level, all five players will function better within both the defensive and offensive schemes, given the advantages provided by a full training camp and the ever-steady passage of capital-T Time.
Like many Spurs fans, I’m especially bullish on the potential contributions of Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills. If Kawhi’s Summer League performance is any indication (and, admittedly, Summer League performances are oftentimes an indication of nothing whatsoever), he will not only continue to blossom as a defender and be a reliable shooting threat from the corner, but as Time passes he’ll become an ever more dangerous threat to attack off the dribble and finish with imagination and skill near the rim.
The fact of the matter is, outside of Isaiah Thomas and arguably Klay Thompson, no rookie busted right through his ceiling without blinking in the manner Kawhi Leonard did. He’s going to continue to be a pleasure to watch this upcoming season, even if his empty expression doesn’t betray the slightest bit of pleasure on his part.
If you’re in mood for outward expressions of enthusiasm than Patty Mills is the player you should be focusing your attention on. Mills is going to be doing plenty of celebrating this season because I think Mills is going to be seeing his fair share of minutes. Barring the meteoric rise of Nando De Colo, which I consider rather unlikely, it won’t be long before Mills is unquestionably Tony Parker’s backup.
If and when Mills sees serious minutes with the second unit, anybody capable of vividly remember the last couple of seasons is going to immediately recognize why both George Hill and Gary Neal (both players whom I love) were incapable of playing backup point guard.
A couple years ago The Big Fundamental’s Wayne Vore, whom I consider a good friend despite the fact that he’s a surly bastard, said to me that a wholly underrated capability of point guards is being able to get the basketball over the half court line without turning it over under pressure. However much I may have wished both Hill and Neal were capable of such a seemingly simple accomplishment, they struggled mightily to do so at times.
With Patty Mills, this won’t be an issue. He’ll be the most confident ball handler we’ve had backing up Parker in a number of years. He’s the most dynamic scorer we’ve had backing up Parker in a number of years, which will both allow the second unit to more closely resemble the tactical decisions made by the first unit and take pressure off of Manu Ginobili. Even though they play different positions, Mills’ presence will ever so slightly make Ginobili’s regular season minutes fewer and less intense.
While we’re on the subject of minutes, it’s worth pointing something out. As you are well aware, minutes are one of the ways in which we human beings divide up capital-T Time. In reality Time, given its relationship to Space, is far less concrete than we believe or experience it to be. However, it is no less dictatorial. We cannot escape the confines of our own experience and, subsequently as I pointed out earlier, Time ever-steadily passes. In the instance of Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills, I believe the passage of time will lead to an improved level of play. Like nearly every other human being who has ever heard of Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, in their instance I don’t think Time is on the Spurs side.
However, at this point, predicting the decline of Manu and Tim strikes me as a fool’s game. Year after year they have defied the odds, and if they did so again this season who would honestly be surprised. Yes, if Ginobili and Duncan decline significantly Bradley Doolittle’s prediction could be far closer to the truth than I believe it to be. But I’m willing to wager that both Ginobili and Duncan hold serve for at least one more year, and the Spurs find themselves in possession of the third best record in the Western Conference when the season comes to a close.