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.