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?

  • Deeds130

    Nice bit of optimism, that. But, going forward this team does need a leader, they need an all-star (or two). And so I remain in the “blow it up this summer and look to the lottery” camp. The Spurs have done a nice job picking up talent from the shadows, I have every reason to believe that exchanging what they have for multiple looks at the lottery would yield several exceptional talents. Everybody else is concerned with getting good players back in trades, I’d happily package as many of those as you want for a chance to follow the Sonics/Thunder model of rebuilding (i.e. drafting premier young talent, and developing them).

    In the meantime, it is fun to watch these younger guys (more, please), and am certainly interested to see where Manu will take this bunch. But I don’t mistake these guys for anything other than role-players.

  • Cheyenneharty

    Liked this piece and was made to ponder Leonard’s upside. When Kawhi peaks, David, which player do you think he will resemble the most?

  • DorieStreet

    Well stated, David.
    Metamorphosis for the Spurs has begun. Game highlights still feature the Core 3, but new names are starting to appear in the narratives–last night Bonner is  the leader scorer (by 1), Leonard has a double-double and pulled down 1/4 the team’s rebounds.
    Phase one of the transition looks promising– young newcomers contributing significantly in victory.

  • Anonymous

    Good write up  David. I’m with the same thought on why don’t they squeeze as much as they can out of Splitter. He’s a player waiting to bust out on to the next level. He’s already getting double teamed and now is getting some respect so why not encourage the thought of him being the priority down low on the block on offense when he’s on the court instead of having to roll the dice on throwing up 3 point attempts and instilling panic when they don’t drop thus forgetting to focus on someone that can give consistent quality attempts? With the the way this 2nd unit has performed I believe they are rebuilding on the fly and we are like you said one great big man away from being elite again. My prediction for next season is that 3 good/potentially good  players will be gone next season to carry the rebuild on the fly to fruition. 

  • Rick from LA

    Beautifully written and right on target. 

  • icewater21

    Shawn Marion/Derrick McKey/George Lynch?

  • Tysdurden04

    Any chance at trading for Chris Kaman or signing any of those players coming back from China

  • Anonymous

    Let’s hope that a butterfly is the result of this metamorphosis and not Kafka’s cockroach.

  • Anonymous

    How about a little Dennis Rodman and World Peace.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Andrew A. McNeill

    This year’s Basketball Prospectus actually had Kawhi Leonard’s similarity score giving him a close match to Joe Johnson of all people. Interesting stuff, that. http://basketballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=1777

  • Anonymous

    On a more serious note, this is a beautifully written piece David. I have been getting similar feelings to the ones you were describing.

    On certain nights you feel that this team is doomed to mediocrity and the light at the end of the tunnel seems so far away. Yet, on other nights, some unknown player comes off the bench to save the day, and you get the feeling that this ship is not going astray and someone in the organization knows exactly what they are doing.

    Regardless of what side of this roller coaster ride we have been on this season, it is a painful yet beautiful feeling watching this Spurs team try to come into its own. Here’s to hoping we find the right identity that assures continuity of one of the great organizations in sports, one that embraces humility, kindness and a sense of belonging. It is a huge reason I’m a fan of this team, which preaches that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

     

  • Tyler

    No team in the league is giving up a lottery pick in this year’s draft for anyone on our roster, including TP. 

    I wish it was as easy as a trip to the lottery, but the reality is it’s far from a sure thing the lottery brings back good times. I’d argue the Thunder model is an exception to the rule, not the rule itself. The Thunder owe their success to luck first and foremost, and great, sound management second. You have to have both because one without the other leaves you as the Bobcats, Kings, or Clippers (until this year) of the NBA.  

  • Alex Dewey

    Nice article, David!

  • Cheyenneharty

    Amazing, since I tend to think of Johnson as a pure offensive player.

  • http://twitter.com/nudityJ nudityjfandango

    Nice write up.  Encapsulates the spurs current directional challenges very well. 

    I am also upbeat re our future.  I think we’re developing a core right now that can sustain us moving forward and give the front office the opportunity to add value on the fly be it through super star moves or role player upgrades.

  • http://twitter.com/nudityJ nudityjfandango

    I think we already have better building blocks than the kings, bobcats or clippers had before they started a rebuild.

    We have a lot of youthful guys that have steady to good careers in their future.  Tiago, Green, Leonard are all good players to have on a roster for a rebuild.   Manu & Tp are both on the ticket for reasonable salaries.

    Utilising cap space and moving up in the draft may indeed go hand in hand.

  • Anonymous

    Metamorphosis to what?  Right now the cocoon is still wrapped cloaking the real change until fully developed… but with some good idea of what’s to come.  And…it’s still going to take a “premier” talent to reach the ultimate journey.  It would be nice but I wouldn’t say any of the hopefuls mentioned will be premier in this league.  Really good is the best I can see happening.  They will need a “premier” (or at least a top 10 draft prospect) talent to ride upon to the ultimate goal as well as that premier talent needing them to achieve that goal.

  • Anonymous

    Kinda said the same as you but 4 hours later.  I agree though couldn’t fathom how the Spurs achieve such a goal.  Delicate balance to say the least because the team will need both.  A top pick while keeping some of it’s up and coming youth.

  • DorieStreet

    Without the antics, drama, off-the-court issues.

  • DorieStreet

    Everyone knows “premier” talent is needed to win the league title; however, the franchise can obtain very good players and mesh them into a winning playoff team. The Pistons come to my mind, both the “Bad Boys” and the team in the last decade– outstanding talent that came together to become championship teams.

  • Anonymous

    Not sure there’s anybody in the lottery worth giving for.  There’s no Tim Duncans or Kevin Durants.  The Spurs probably could do just as good being the 15th or 16th pick.  Heck…even maybe the 20th pick.  If the Spurs want to move up in next year’s draft…they won’t give up Parker or Ginobili.  It’ll be another George Hill type of trade if they could manage a taker.

  • DorieStreet

    Duncan and Durant were consensus collegiate players of the year as a Senior and Freshman, respectively. The team picking 1st in the lottery are not giving up the first pick when talent like that is on the board. But the NCAA all american team are selected 3 deep at every position (Division I, II, etc.). There can be players among the top 20-30 honored that could be there that can make the Spurs squad and contribute.

  • DorieStreet

    We are still in phase one of “The Metamorphosis.” Yes, the newcomers are in the rotation and contribuitng; but until the Core 3 leave this squad, we are still in phase one. Tim, Tony, and Manu are still on the team and start. Yes- Duncan is a shell of his former great self, but he is still our best low-post player. Tony’s bad performances come along  more frequently, and his counterpart on the opposing team outplays him in about half the games, but he has become our leading scorer. Manu is injured (again), but will be the focal point of the team once he returns. Once the exodus of these 3 begins (in whatever manner or timeframe) begins, then the transition of the Spurs moves forward exponentially.

  • DorieStreet

    We are still in phase one of “The Metamorphosis.” Yes, the newcomers are in the rotation and contribuitng; but until the Core 3 leave this squad, we are still in phase one. Tim, Tony, and Manu are still on the team and start. Yes- Duncan is a shell of his former great self, but he is still our best low-post player. Tony’s bad performances come along  more frequently, and his counterpart on the opposing team outplays him in about half the games, but he has become our leading scorer. Manu is injured (again), but will be the focal point of the team once he returns. Once the exodus of these 3 begins (in whatever manner or timeframe) begins, then the transition of the Spurs moves forward exponentially.

  • Anonymous

     I think we’re in agreement since it’s kinda what I said which you replied to.

    My main point was…I don’t think there is Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant in next year’s draft.  Some really good talent to be sure…but none the caliber as a Duncan or Durant.

  • Deeds130

    JJ is shot-happy and has miscast himself as a go-to scorer and playmaker, which makes him a bad fit for most teams. The only similarity I see is that, like JJ, KL willl probably also record inconsistent boxscores throughout his carreer. If Kawhi can learn to draw fouls at high rate that will help, but shooting simply isn’t his natural talent and will not be there for him consistently (so dont get your hopes up too high). However, KL should continue to play within himself and his motor and competitiveness may well well equate to a near-JJ contribution over time, considering that JJ is himself no HOFer, in his case due to primadonna decision-making and a tendency to take games off. KL should be a more harmonious fit (and complimentary role) on any good team. Just don’t give him a ludicrous contract!

  • DorieStreet

    I have watched a few college games this year. Kentucky again have players that will leave the school early for the draft. Jared Sullinger needs to stay another season at Ohio State. Harrison Barnes for North Carolina needs another year also.

  • Anonymous

     If only that be the case for the future.  But we are now seeing “super teams” being formed.  Players (superstars) converging (and probably behind the scenes manipulating) to make it so.  I don’t know if a Pistons type of team of the past could compete with that.  Perhaps a type of team with much of the same make up… but still …it will need at least one “premier” player.

  • Da2006

    Just one coment: I know Gary Neal is as of this moment better than Anderson but I’m sure JA has way more upside, I just hope Pop would give him some minutes. That’s all … PLEASE ohh ALMIGHTY POP give him more minutes, he’ll pay off.

  • Senorglory

    a ‘blow it up this summer and look to the lottery’ plan could take a lot longer than one season. 

  • Anonymous

     Yeah…I started following with a little more intent of watching some of the big names…but even Drummond looks to not be quite the “hype” he was touted to be in the beginning of the season.

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

    Those Pistons beat a Super Team with four Hall of Famers (Kobe, Shaq, Payton, Malone) without a single “premier” player.

  • Lvmainman

    Probably a Stacey Augmon type. Hopefully, he’ll keep improving his jumper.

  • DorieStreet

    I respectfully disagree.
    Kings got it right at the beginning of the century (CWebb, Steve Smith, Mike Bibby) but that WC final game 6 sealed their fate.
    Minus 21, 9 and 20 Clips are better than Spurs- but who is their owner/GM? Been in the Association for nearly a half-century/have not even gotten to the conference finals/nuff said.
    Bobcats: as long as 23 is making roster decisions, they will be the Clippers of the eastern conference.
    The transition is in effect —  but will not take full flight until the Core 3 exit the franchise—-

  • DorieStreet

    Pistons looking hard at Andre–pair him with NBA All Rookie 1st teamer Greg Monroe—Motown rises up again

  • DorieStreet

    I always watch March Madness intently (from the “play-in games (yech!!) to the Monday nite championship).
    Calling on Spurs fans to do the same (if you’re not doing it already). Saw San Diego State’s run and found out about Kawhi Leonard. So when draft night comes around, you have a visual about how the draftees performed on the court instead of reading about it.

  • DorieStreet

    Spurs are not ‘blowing it up’ until any/all of the Core 3 leave the team this summer.

  • http://twitter.com/latin_d David Menéndez Arán

    I honestly don’t know what he’ll become. I know what I want him to become, and many like me: Gerald Wallace. Dennis Rodman was his own animal, and Ron Artest strikes me as more physical and mercurial. His potential as an offensive player overshadows whatever points Marion has extracted from his nauseating shot…

    Oh well. He’ll be better, that’s all I care about at this point.

  • Anonymous

    That was not a super team.  Malone and Payton were past their prime.

    Wade, James and Bosh.  That’s the super team I’m talking about.  All in their prime.  Built through free agency.  Durant, Westbrook, Hardin…all young and years of prime play ahead of them.  Built through draft and trade.   Paul and Griffin.  So on and so on…the trend is happening and will continue.  Teams like the ’03/’04 Pistons wouldn’t have a chance against the types of teams being formed in this day and age of the NBA.  Spurs will have to do more than Splitter, Leonard, Green for it’s future though they are great pieces to start accumulating.

  • DorieStreet

    Remember when Joe Johnson broke out in the ’05 playoffs vs Spurs—he was not the #1 option or the ‘go to guy’ for the Suns.
    I live in the ATL; he is not a prima donna/bad coaching (i.e. Mike Woodson) and his persona (Joe is laid back- I am not in the locker room but I feel he is not a leader for the team). The majority of the Hawks fans shouted from the rafters and the streets that Johnson was not worth the max contract, but the inept Hawks ownership thought another team with overbid and get him.

  • Deeds130

    1) Just for the sake of argument, you don’t think KL would net a lottery pick in return? As a former #15 pick who is showing value and nearly a lock not to be a bust, sure he would. But to your point, the likelihood of any ONE of our players being swapped for a lottery pick IS very low indeed. However, we do have pieces that can get us an additional first rounder back, if bold we could even got 2 first rounders back by shipping out multiple players, and/or taking on a bad contract or 2. We could also create a package to move up in the draft.

    The kind of production we are getting is not that hard to come by, can evidently be done away from the draft, and is replaceable. Replacing are AllStars is far more difficult, and we have no realistic opportunity to do so, except by blowing it up. What I’m suggesting is trading players while we can, to get multiple looks at a deep draft. And then, with a young inexperienced team, getting a top pick the following year. Fans here seem to favor the kind of Pollyanna conservatism that will doom a franchise to the middleground for the forseeable future. Or otherwise hitting the lottery down the road after the big 3 retire, Splitter has crossed the 30yr hill, and the rebuild can only be long and late-coming. No thanks.

    2) The clippers are a bad example due to terrible ownership. The Cats just started their rebuild in earnest last year (and MJ is not the best talent evaluator). The Kings have several promising young pieces and are one guy away from having a complete team, they just have to develop. You also need the right coach, which hurts alot of the teams you might like to use as examples. Meanwhile, UTA, MEM, MIN, CHI, and OKC are all teams that you might like to call the exception not the rule. Yet they either blew it up, bottomed out, or both, with good results. But you gotta have top talent, you gotta have top talent. And there is NO team (other than MAYBE NYK) with good playoff prospects going forward that didn’t build around their LOTTERY PICK. Just like their are none currently.

  • DorieStreet

    Sorry for the typo=====Hawks ownership ( a grand mess in its own right) thought another team WOULD overbid their offer and get him.
    Leonard is grounded (remember his father was a business owner who was killed during a robbery of his carwash while Kawhi  was in college).

  • Deeds130

    I can appreciate the delicate balance, but if forced to choose, then choose draft picks. Scary, I know. But the thing is, you might HAVE to chose because draft picks may be hard to come by otherwise. And making the opposite choice, keeping the young pieces we have out of restraint, equals what– PERENIAL first round exits? No thanks.

  • DorieStreet

     @ Tomas   – +100  – – On the “Bad Boys” – Isaiah Thomas, Joe Dumars are HOFs, and Rodman just got put in, but more for his career with the Bulls. The Microwave, John Salley, James Donaldson, Mark Aguirre, Bill Laiambeer–outstanding/very good pros.
    The 2000s decade team – with 6 straight eastern conference finals appearences  – Rick Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups–even with their collegiate resumes included- won’t get into the HOF. Ben Wallace is a maybe – NBA defensive player of the year 4 times (tied with Rodman).

  • Deeds130

    It will definitely take more than one summer. You just significantly increase the odds of a short and effective rebuild if you obtain multiple first round picks and are willing to part with talent for better draft opportunities. If you are too scared to do so, then you can be looking at a playoff drought which is 5 years or more versus 2 or 3 years.

  • DorieStreet

    No need to sacrifice Neal’s minutes to get Anderson in. Gary is the SG who might can spell Tony/future starting PG some minutes; James is the SG who will play solid D and can fill in at the 3 position against some opponents’ lineups.
    We CANNOT give up on Anderson now==put him in the rotation so he can prove he can remain a Spur after this season.

  • DorieStreet

    Yeah—Mavs with “premier player” Dirk beat the “super team” Heat last year in the finals.

  • DorieStreet

    Kings with Cousins (a head case no doubt) Evans (off-court problems & bad decisions on the court sometimes), John Salmons, Francisco Garcia, Chuck Hayes, Jason Thompson, Marcus Thornton—again they are better once Tim, Manu and Tony are gone (unless we get very good young talent to replace them). Inept coaching dooms them, just like the Clips.

  • Deeds130

    Improved jumper or not, he’ll be most successful as, at most, the 3rd or 4th scorer on his team. I’m rooting for that improved jumper though, and am a fan of the young fella.

  • Deeds130

    OKC was essentially built through draft. KD, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka. Perkins was a delayed return on the #5 pick they got when the “blew it up” and parted ways with their best player, Ray Allen. Likewise, CHI is nowhere without Rose/Deng/Noah. SA will never be able to put together a contending team except through the draft.