The Metamorphosis

by

Us fans are easily swayed by streaks. The winning kind make us salivate at the questionable algebra: (surprisingly excellent team) + (Manu Ginobili) = (Championship). Losing streaks –even the one-game sort that defy the “streak” misnomer– peel each and every one of the team’s virtues away, ruthlessly exposing its flaws and shortcomings. Somewhere in the middle, somewhere between LeBron James’ 30-foot pull-up jumpers and Green’s reverse lay-ups, between Tyreke Evan’s heroics and Kawhi’s ridiculous upside, lies the true measure of this Spurs team.

For years now, as the early playoffs exits piled up, I have heard people I respect say that we had finally reached the turning point. That an old team with aging stars would not be able to compete with the new superteams that emerged as a result of lopsided trades, decisions, strokes of luck: the Boston Hydra, the Miami Frankentrio, the Lakers one-eyed Zentaur. Blowing up a team has a certain unmistakable appeal that calls forth the gambler in all of us. Let us close our eyes, cast the dice, cross our fingers and hope for the future. Perennial relevance in the NBA is always just a magical ping pong ball bounce away, after all.

The Spurs organization has chosen a different path.

Our beloved core was preserved despite the injuries and unavoidable decay, with the notable exception of amnesty fodder Richard Jefferson. RC Buford and Popovich abandoned their penchant for veteran, savvy players, for drafting and stashing overseas, and started looking for young and ready potential amongst the dregs of unimpressive drafts. The infamous myth which claimed that Popovich always refused to play youngsters was first adjusted, then squashed by a slew of rookies playing important minutes, until line-ups featuring Leonard, Joseph, Blair, Splitter and Green took the court during the second quarter of a honest-to-goodness NBA game. Currently, as Ginobili recovers from his injury and Duncan sits to protect his body for bigger, better moments, the Spurs feature a team that would in other circumstances be described as “young, but with potential for greatness if they find a leader”, or maybe “talented enough to reach the playoffs but without the experience needed to win difficult seven-game series” — or even, perhaps, “the future”. The Spurs have rebuilt on the fly, looking at a post-Duncan era that prolongs a decade of excellence and preserves the institutional memory that made the Spurs what they are. We blinked, and then we were young.

Growing pains are to be expected. DeJuan Blair remains an imperfect weapon whose value rises or falls depending on the matchup, and whose approach to shooting a basketball is as lackadaisical as his attempts to grab defensive rebounds. However, with the right teammate to feed him down low, and the right partenaire guarding him, his presence can change the momentum of an entire game on its own. As a situational bench player, he is perfect. Cory Joseph, a once-promising second string point guard, is proving that his place at the moment is with the Toros. His attempts to man the ship have been amateurish, and forced Popovich to use line ups with no true point guard, featuring a three-headed point-guard-by-committee comprised by Anderson or Richard Jefferson, Green and Neal. After a cold start, Bonner seems to be finding his range – but whenever his shot errs, he serves only as a stark, punishing reminder of our need for a true center. You do not need to be an ESPN Insider to realize that we are still flawed.

However, I am cursed with seemingly irrational optimism. After every win like last night’s, in which the push for a victory seems to surge from what was once the deep end of our bench, my mind adjusts the mental model I have formed of this newest incarnation of the Little-Spurs-That-Could, tweaking the parameters and recalculating our chances. Kawhi Leonard continues to be a rookie that stubbornly refuses to make mistakes: just about every shot is an open one, every pass is effective and logical, every rotation is remembered. Many pages have been written about his defensive prowess and deceptive athleticism, but in my view his most impressive quality is his beyond-his-age self-awareness: he is a rookie that never plays beyond his limits – limits that he can recognize with remarkable acuity. His shot mechanics are fluid and his confidence unwavering. The arch his jumper needs will come in time.

Danny Green represents another unexpected surprise for me (for us?), with a game elevated by an unconscious willingness to fill holes created by injuries, inflated salaries and aging bodies. Green is at his best a mirage of Ginobili, a player capable of grasping moments, of offensive wizardry and exquisite defensive timing, but mired by oversights that scale him back to a more mundane size. He is an inexplicable gift as the second team’s shooting guard, and his newfound confidence can only be explained by what I imagine were countless triple doubles at the expense of lanky, faceless European foils. Green is a good, solid player.

Tiago Splitter, now, is a game changer. Or he can be. Or I want him to be. I cannot explain the jump in quality that some rookies experience when after a few months of sunny Summer they escape their cocoons transformed into beautiful sophomores, not any more than I can explain Splitter’s current minutes-per-game average. All I know is that the Spurs currently have only one player fully comfortable with receiving the ball in the post with his backs to the basket and being asked to create two points out of a fake, another fake, a twist and a hook shot – and that player is not Tim Duncan. Our quest for one of the rare true centers left in this league of feisty guards and athletic shooting forwards is understandable, but at least part of the answer might be sitting at the bench every night, waiting for the nod to lead from deep within the arc while Tim Duncan -the fleet-footed sharpshooter, Tim Duncan- rests. I scratch my head every night as Splitter’s league-leading 61.5% field goal percentage goes largely ignored by non-Brazilian media. What else is needed for the coaches to trust a player who can score seemingly at will even as one of the team’s only two true facilitators looks in from behind the bench on a suit?

An incomplete Spurs team is struggling to find its identity while on the run from an impossible schedule, injuries and worst of all, mediocrity. No metamorphosis is smooth, no transition is easy. But every season that passes, every roster change that shaves off years and experience, every fourth quarter in which Duncan cheers from the bench, the Spurs become something that is not quite what they were before.

Something… more?

  • DorieStreet

    Deeds130

    I understand your reasoning. But swapping out KL now makes no sense. We obtained him by trading George Hill, a player who did well but plateaued here in SA (due to Pops playing him out of position perhaps?) because Kawhi fills a need at the 3 position and we had to many guards.
    Leonard is the only Spur name mentioned by you in the first paragraph. The lack of other names mentioned speaks volumes.
    21, 13, 12, 9—the salaries of the Core 3 and RJ.Until their presence is removed from this team, continually trading young talent acquired through the draft for higher picks is just treading water. The money not only handicaps us–all four still start, but in their delcine are still the best at their postion on the team.

    Your commentary in the last paragraph is a little off regarding those teams.
    UTA did not “blow it up”—they had to scramble following the Jerry Sloan- Deron Williams fiasco; they have a good start for this season.
    MEM – bottom feeder team for most of theire existence; on their way up since the Gasol brothers trade, along with other acquisistions.
    MIN – 1st round fodder for 7 STRAIGHT seasons under Flip Saunders and with Kevin Garnett leading the way until the conference final appearance in 2004; since then-back to the bottom of the league.
    CHI – that looks to be the track the Spurs need to follow:  HOFer retired, then they shipped out key veterans to the title runs, hit the bottom for 6 seasons then got back in the playoffs for a couple of years. Struggled again then hit lottery paydirt with Derrick Rose.
    OKC – franchise move to another city–had already botttomed out while still in Seattle.

  • Osiris

    Nice piece, it went down like a very good meal.

  • osiris

    Its hard to tell what he will become, he literally has alot of growing up to do. Hes going to get much stronger and more skilled. Hes already better on offense than Bruce Bowen. Hes effective, but it also seems like hes invisible alot of the time. All the guys you mentioned are much more athletic than Kawhi.

  • Deeds130

    Dorie-
    With KL, I was just pointing out to Tyler that we could get into the lottery if we really wanted to, even without being to creative. I didn’t mention other names bc I thought the implication was clear: everyone should be on the table.

    To your rebuttal that the franchises in question didn’t dive headlong into rebuilds, I still say they did. Trading D-will or whoever your biggest asset(s) is(are) in order to forgo another opportunity to be first round playoff fodder and look instead to the draft IS blowing it up in my book… and is exactly what SA has avoided doing.

    If, as you say, SA can’t move forward until the big names are gone, it begs the question as to how well SA would be served by bringing TD back for 2-3 more years. Wouldn’t that just be holding the club back? We can make that same case with the other vets as well (although RJ isn’t enough of a difference-maker on this team to be included in your argument). Now, I know RJ and TP were unsuccessfully shopped in the recent past, but even an uneven trade would hasten the Spurs rebuild. My suspicion is that the Spurs overvalue their players, and will continue to erroneously think that they are just a tweak or two away from contention. The time for retooling is past, and if they are aggressive they can indeed hasten the arrival of their next All-Stars.

  • Anonymous

     Ahhh.  I think I better understand your POV after reading your reply to me and Dorie.
    For a minute it looked as though we were laughingly agreeing on the same thing but in different words.  Except now I see your approach would be more dramatic.

    Trading pieces for “top” draft picks even if it means trading away say Kawhi + Parker or Ginobili in order to garnish higher caliber players in future drafts.

    That definitely would be sending up the white flag on our current “Big 3″ approach but as explained would bring in that kind of top talent sooner.  Going the route they have been almost seems to be prolonging the rebuild process.  But it might not have to be as dramatic as your suggesting they need to do if next year with cap space they manage to land an already proven (maybe not as young as a draft pick) talent to play for the Spurs while still managing to get really good talent in the mid round of the first while keeping Parker and Ginobili.

    Not saying either one of us would be more correct than the other.  And I’m not disagreeing with your analogy.  It’s sound logic.  And I certainly wouldn’t have a devastating hope about the future of the team if the Spurs chose your proposed coarse of action.  I think it’ll all depend on how they manipulate cap space next year and/or amnestying R.J. before their plan of action will be clear.

  • Anonymous

    I’m right there Dorie.

  • Anonymous

    We’ll be adding better players from the draft and transition some stash away’s from past draft  that seem promising (one or two) while letting the core three ease on to retirement and a tribute to go with that. This club will be fun to watch all the while still.

  • Anonymous

    Of course.

  • Anonymous

    Knicks are having a tuff time in there superstar debut. 

  • Anonymous

    Super at that time. But now Super teams have younger serviceable  stars as a whole.

  • David Keystar

    Tyson Chandler has a .704 FG%

  • Mark B

    The Knicks problem is that both Melo and Stoudamire only play half of the time. They don’t play defense [although Amar’e is much improved over his Phoenix days] and don’t share the ball on offense.  One player like that on a team can work, but having two is pretty destructive.  

  • Hobson13

    Very well written piece.  Indeed, the supporting pieces on the 2012 Spurs roster are completely different from the supporting pieces of the 2009 Spurs team with the only exception being the incomparable Matt Bonner.  In fact, considering the low draft positions we’ve had over the past decade, the Front Office has done a good job finding players like Splitter. Blair, Leonard, Neal, Green, etc. 

    However, without the elite talent (Big 3), these young pieces can’t consistently win and, IMO, couldn’t even slide in as 8th seed in the West.  Evidence strongly suggests that our young players are all support pieces, not franchise players.  In fact, we probably don’t even have a young player on the talent level of say a Joe Johnson or Danny Granger or Al Jefferson (all borderline all-star players) and we know that even this level of talent hasn’t been able to win in the playoffs.

    IMO, the absence of even one young lottery level talent does NOT paint so bright a future for the Spurs, but in fact points to several years in the cellar in order to rebuild via higher draft picks.  I conclude by saying that this summer HAS to be the critical moment for the Spurs front office.  Tim and Manu’s declines will come more pronounced as they are both in their mid 30’s and Tony’s decline could occur at any point.  Once the Big 3 are tapped out, it will be nuclear winter for SA basketball.  Bottom line:  Blow it up this summer and rebuild while Tony has at least some trade value and attempt to lure one young talent with big $. 

  • DorieStreet

    Deeds130-
    Good points by you (and very well stated).
    That record-breaking regular season, coupled with Manu’s injury at the end of it, is exhibit A to your last paragraph about how the front office/coaching staff feel about the team in its present state. That notion about just being a “tweak or two away from contention” will be tested when the trade deadline comes up. If no other player(s) (read: frontcourt guys) is/are acquired this season, are we to presume that the Spurs think the squad as is can make a deep playoff run?

  • Tyler

    I don’t think Kawhi would net a top ten pick in this year’s draft. Most teams aren’t willing to forgo potential for a solid role player. Late lottery? 13 or 14, maybe.

    My point was this: “quick” and “rebuild” shouldn’t be in the same sentence. Off the top of my head, only LA Lakers, Utah, Boston and OKC rebuilt in short order. Not coincidentally, those are also 4 of the best run teams in the league. I’m not counting Miami simply b/c the Spurs aren’t going to be built through FA for the most part

    Almost all the time, from trough to peak, it takes at least that long to get back to the playoffs, plus more to be considered a contender. Minnesota, Charlotte, Memphis, Clippers, Chicago, Sacramento, Golden State, Atlanta….I’m sure there are more.

    I don’t think fans realize just how frustrating, grueling, and oftentimes disappointing rebuilding actually is. If we were to blow it up (trade everything of value in exchange for young players/picks) you can pencil this team in for at least 3 years of 20-30 wins, plus a few more to get back to 50 wins (our current level). Keep in mind, that’s under a rosy scenario! A little bad luck, and it could be closer to a decade before we approach anything to our current level.

    It’s easy to point to OKC and say, “Let’s do that!”. Actually doing it though, is a very risky gamble. For my money, let’s play this current group out, wait till the older guys retire, and we hit the lottery because we’re a bad team, not because we dump everyone for picks.

  • Tyler

    According to Chris Broussard, the Spurs are interested in signing K-Mart once his season is over in China.

    (I know, I was shocked too)

  • Tyler

    They also have the worst backcourt in the NBA by a pretty wide margin.

  • Hobson13

    An old front court player who’s best days are years in the rear view mirror.  Sounds like exactly what the Spurs need to fix their issues (sarcasm).  I’d like to see the Spurs quit kicking the can farther down the road and actually make agressive moves to rebuild.  Needless to say, I’d pass on Martin.

  • Tyler

    But for a 20 game rental? He’s a decent 4th big to come in and play 10 minutes in the playoffs. I don’t know the exact date, but he won’t be able to sign for quite awhile…..

  • Chris

    Yeah, really.  Odd choice.

  • Anonymous

     He’ll be an unrestricted FA since Spurs didn’t extend.  Anderson just might be lost for next to nothing next season if he starts playing well enough to be incorporated into the system this season.  That’s unless Anderson would agree to a sign and trade.  But point being…if he starts to produce good numbers…out right I think another team will offer him more than the Spurs would be willing to pay.

  • Anonymous

    Well if the FO isn’t keeping JA (which I hate to see go just yet) well then they can trade him and Blair for Anthony Randolph. Anybody?

  • Anonymous

    If the Spurs could get Anthony Randolph for Anderson/Blair…I’d be all over that deal.  Not sure Minnesota would entertain it though?  Not sure the Spurs would either.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Tomas.M.Rodriguez Tomas Rodriguez

    Kobe and Shaq were better than any twosome from the current super teams you mention, and Malone even at that stage in his career was at least as good as Bosh is now. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/Tomas.M.Rodriguez Tomas Rodriguez

    Kobe and Shaq were better than any twosome from the current super teams you mention, and Malone even at that stage in his career was at least as good as Bosh is now. 

  • spursfanbayarea

    If the spurs were to blow it up. They could amnesty jefferson, try to bring back duncan on vets minimum contract, trade parker during the season for an expiring contract. That would allow the spurs to go after 2 max free agents. Williams and howard, while still having manu and duncan. Not too shabby. But unfortunately no big names are coming to the small market of s.a. Maybe spurs can move to Anaheim and become a more desirable location. Spurs will only get better through sheer luck and drafting. Which is a slow but painful process. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/Tomas.M.Rodriguez Tomas Rodriguez

    I only meant the Pistons from the 2000s. As you mention, the Bad Boys had some all-timers.

  • Bry

    Yes, because they certainly are. The Spurs were basically a couple of injuries and a Dice implosion away from being a VERY GOOD deep playoff team last year. If Duncan and Manu were not injured (in Manu’s case a seriously debilitating injury) and Dice played even at his usual mediocre level the Spurs would have been lethal. They can easily get right back to that with a single mediocre addition to THIS roster (when healthy). Meanwhile, Duncan’s salary is set to drop, they’ll have a decent draft pick, and then next summer Manu’s salary will drop as well. Throw in the amnesty and the further development of Green, Splitter and Leonard, and I’m very optimistic for the team’s future WITHOUT blowing up anything or crazy risky trades.

  • Bry

    Very true. Like the article says, impatient people want to gamble and ignore just how horrible it will be if we don’t get lucky. 

  • Bry

    The ‘exodus’ of the Big 3 (4) is not required for anything. There’s no need to push them or anyone out the door. They can stay as long as they like and serve as mentors and leaders. It is their salaries that decide the roster. This year they are making the lions share of the Spurs overall salary. Next year that will already change significantly. Duncan’s salary will prob drop by 12 million or so by itself. Jefferson’s will likely be amnestied and Ginobili’s will be on it’s final year. That’s the natural progression of their contracts. That will be the case four months from now. So, no need to shove people out the door. 

  • DorieStreet

    I, for one, can buy your hypothesis. I thought everyone (franchise and fans) counted on McDyess too much. (His numbers were still solid his 5 seasons with the Pistons, but hell–  he entered the league 2 years before Timmy- his production was due to fall off dispite Pops keeping him off the court during the early part of 2010-11.
    (McDyess went from 9.6 /9.8 in his last Piston’s year to 5.8 / 5.9 as a Spur in 2009-10.

  • DorieStreet

    If it works out the way you stated I am OK with it. And given the farewell The Admiral got – locally and league-wide  – I feel Tim, Tony, and Manu deserve the same opportunity to be lauded- even if the season(s) results don’t end in a championship.
    The NBA is a business. But it is also a bond, a passion, a pride of community, and a memory of life as much as birthdays and first dates.
    Some of the fans will disagree. But as much as the franchise works to still be the best, it may never happen again. So let us take time to truly salute the principals who brought sports grandeur to our city -even if it means delaying the rebuilding process into being an elite NBA team again.

  • Fred Silva

    Just wanted to say I enjoyed this post, David.  Good work.