The process starts anew in San Antonio
SAN ANTONIO — It hasn’t been easy for the San Antonio Spurs to forget Game 6 of the NBA Finals. I know, you’ve heard this story before. It’s been the main topic of conversation all summer long. But that’s the thing; there has been no escaping the memory of the game they let get away.
For Danny Green, not even a trip to inner Mongolia could offer respite from the thoughts. When Manu Ginobili would go on vacation with his family, the hotel staff would bring it up. Gregg Popovich said he sees the images when he closes his eyes.
“Suffice to say that I’ve thought about it every day. I’m wondering if it’ll go away,” Popovich said. “I’m anxious for it to happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
The Spurs aren’t used to this, after all. Their previous four trips to the NBA’s promised land all produced championship banners that currently hang from the AT&T Center’s rafters. Still, perspective is something this team has always possessed in spades. If not for the millions who watched it happen and the thousands more who repeatedly ask the questions and write the stories, maybe it’d be easier to forget. But it’s not the end of the world. Far from it, really.
The daily grind is once again upon us, and that means a chance to hit the ‘reset’ button. Or whatever.
“As time goes on, as we all know in our lives, you get back to the day to day pretty easily because it’s the nature of life,” Pop said. “Basketball might be the eleventh or twelfth most important thing on the list.
“It’s time to get over it.”
A fresh Manu Ginobili
It’s difficult to argue the Spurs’ Hall-of-Fame sixth man has ever experienced a more difficult end to a season than what Manu Ginobili went through in June. A city that has loved him unconditionally for a decade became split emotionally, and his future wasn’t quite as certain as some may have thought.
“I wasn’t ready a month ago. I was still trying to enjoy my time off, try to forget about things, recover mentally and feel out those energy bars,” he said. “But now I am. You start seeing the guys again and feeling that adrenaline of the season coming, and I’m excited that it’s here.”
The 2012-13 season wasn’t what you’d call an ideal contract year for Ginobili. He struggled with injuries early on and right before the postseason began, his shooting suffered throughout the year, and he had some particularly rough games during the playoff run. Even with the equity the Argentine star had built in San Antonio, things in his own mind were left uneasy.
But once the July 1 free-agent moratorium began, the discussion didn’t last long.
“Before I had the first talk with R.C. (Buford), I had a few doubts. I didn’t know — after what happened with my injuries early in 2013; about what happened in the playoffs — I didn’t know exactly what they wanted to do, if they wanted to change things or not,” Ginobili said. “I remember sitting with R.C. there and I asked him exactly the same question, ‘What do you think? What do you see from me in the future?’
“He looked at me saying, ‘Well, you’re part of this. We want you here. We know how important you are.’ I said, ‘OK.’ That’s it. That’s what I wanted to hear. (The talk) lasted six minutes.”
Ginobili signed a two-year deal worth $14.5 million. If Tim Duncan decides to exercise his player option heading into next season, the deals for Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker will all expire at the same time.
The newest faces on the bench
Gregg Popovich has become accustomed to making offseason adjustments when it comes to his coaching staff. Each year it seems one of team’s branches is planted elsewhere, whether it be on another bench or in a different front office, and every season the Spurs adapt. It’s safe to say that this season may hold the biggest challenge yet for the longtime head coach, however.
Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown have both accepted head-coaching jobs elsewhere (in Atlanta and Philadelphia, respectively), leaving a void on either side of the Spurs’ lead man. While both hirings are well-deserved, they’ve left Pop in an unfamiliar place. And because of that, he didn’t have a chance to get to Slovenia for EuroBasket.
“I didn’t get anywhere overseas this summer, because Bud and Brett were rude enough to leave. They had interviews and were changing all my travel plans and other things,” Popovich joked. “Very inconsiderate. Who’d want to go get a head job?”
All joking aside, the feeling in San Antonio to begin this season is different than normal. Gone are Bud and Brown, and in step former Pacers assistant Jim Boylen and a couple of former Spurs in Ime Udoka and Sean Marks.
“They’re getting along fine, but I don’t know any of them,” Pop said. “I feel like I have to coach the coaches and let Timmy, Manu and Tony take care of the team. I’ll just show up for the games.”
A plan that could work, in all likelihood, but the Big 3 would prefer their coach be there with them. With a proven system already in place, it will be up to the newest coaches to catch up.
“(The coaches have) been out here running the offense themselves, literally — getting up and down the court, getting used to the way we do things, getting the lexicon straight,” Popovich said. “It is different. During the games I’m going to look to my right and left and it’s going to feel a little bit different.”
And speaking of the Big 3, they’re really beginning to feel their age. We’ve already seen former Spurs players and staff members take jobs around the NBA, and the list just keeps growing. For Manu Ginobili, it’s eye-opening.
“When you see the bench and you see your teammates, and when you go play Orlando and you see your teammate — it’s happening more and more. You go play Oklahoma City, and the kid that was helping you out is the GM, you start to think about many years of the past,” he said. “But it makes you feel proud. We all know how great this has been the last 12 years. Knowing that other teams and franchises are really looking to do things that we’ve done … it is important.”
But the conspicuous absence of the two coaches he knows so well made for a nostalgic media day.
“For sure we’re going to miss them. If any of us had a doubt during the game, we would go to Bud or Brett, probably before Pop because Pop is doing so many things and controlling other stuff. If you had a question, you knew they were going to think the same as Pop,” Manu said. “Brett Brown was a guy that worked me out and warmed up with me every day for 11 years. We became friends, and we didn’t talk about basketball that much. It was about different things — about traveling, about economy, about Argentina or Australia … or Maine.
“It’s going to be different with three coaches that are new. But the system is going very well here,” he continued. “We all know what we do. The core group of the team has been here for a long time. If there’s somebody that can do it, I think it’s us.”
The future of Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard was created in a laboratory owned by Gregg Popovich. I’m beginning to grow convinced of this. Ever since the young small forward stepped foot in San Antonio, the Spurs’ head coach has heaped unending praise upon him; and he’s upped the dosage.
“Kawhi is the new Parker, Ginobili, Duncan kind of guy,” Popovich said. “He’s going to take over as star of the show as time goes on.”
When that time will come remains to be seen, but there’s certainly no hurry.
“Timmy and Manu have obviously figured out a way to continue to play very well — be at the top of their games at their age. Tony Parker is still young enough to be the star that he is, but he’ll get older, too, and that’s where Kawhi comes in,” Pop said. “He’s been phenomenal. He’s improved more quickly than any player we’ve ever had. His mindset is such that he wants to be great, and he has all the reasons to be. So we’ve got to put him in position where he can be a great player.”
Pop has never been one to bloviate or exaggerate, which is why it’s always a surprise to hear these things. We have no reason to doubt it, but given Leonard’s role as the team’s fourth fiddle, it’s understandable why there’d be skeptics. Still, if you watched the Finals, you saw a glimpse. Perhaps the glimpses will become more common and prolonged, but while the Big 3 are around the stardom may have to wait.
And when Leonard speaks, it’s as if Pop has a bug in his ear feeding him lines that Tim Duncan would approve of. When asked about dealing with the NBA Finals aftermath, Kawhi responded, “(I) didn’t think about it too much. We lost.”
OK, then, Kawhi. Did you do anything fun this summer?
Plays defense: check. Keeps to himself: check. Works tirelessly: check. Shows little emotion: check.
The test tube this guy was created in has to have the nickname ‘Pop’ engraved on the side of it.
Marco owes Manu a debt of gratitude
When asked about the addition of Marco Belinelli, Popovich made it clear he loves the way one of his newest players will work for this team.
“I think he’s a very underrated player. I consider him to (have) the same mindset as Manu, which means I’m going to have to be patient, as I’ve learned with Manu,” he said. “Manu taught me to shut up and just watch him play a little bit more, which was a good thing. Marco’s going to be the same way.”
Upon hearing this news, Manu felt a sense of unfairness. After all he went through, it’s going to be this easy for the new guy?
“(Pop) learned too late. I should have come in like Marco now. He didn’t know how to look away when I got here,” Ginobili said. “We paved the way for a lot of guys.”
Belinelli and Manu played together at Bologna in Italy when Marco was 15 years old, more than a decade ago. Now they find themselves playing for the same NBA team.
“He plays kind of similar to the way I do. He plays the pick and roll really well, he can make shots, he can get to the rim — he does a little bit of everything well, and he’s going to be important, especially in that second unit, to share responsibilities so I don’t play with the ball the whole time,” Ginobili said. “He really, in the last couple of years, turned into a seasoned, developed player. Before, he was always a talented kid that could get hot, (and) in some of the games, not that much. But in the last two years I think he accomplished regularity that made him a great player.”
Popovich and Co. have built a roster around the international basketball influence, and they’ve been quite successful doing so. The Spurs set an NBA record last season for most foreign-born players on the same team, and they’ve only added to that this year. If Belinelli is anything like Ginobili, Pop will be receptive much more quickly this time around.
“They have the same passion for the game. They have no fear, which most of the time is good. Sometimes it can bite you. But I’d rather have that than somebody who’s timid,” Pop said. “(Belinelli’s) passion for the game and his ability to want to be there in big moments is special.”
And you won’t have to worry about players not getting along. Belinelli said he’s going to look at Manu “like a dad.” As if the guy wasn’t feeling old enough as it is.