“Why can’t __________ find itself a Gary Neal?”


Stepping into the starting lineup tonight for the Indiana Pacers, former college player of the year and lottery pick Tyler Hansbrough will likely face off with the similarly credentialed and comparatively productive (per 36 minutes) DeJuan Blair.

Both role players, one was heralded as a potential steal of the draft, the other as a probable reach.

And that’s the way perception skews in the favor of the San Antonio Spurs. While Pacers general manager Larry Bird has drawn ho-hum reviews for connecting on singles and doubles finding solid role players in the mid-to-late first round, the combination of Popovich and Buford have hit homeruns with similar players, seemingly from out of nowhere (otherwise known as IUPUI).

But Pacers fans should not be flummoxed, or at least the very least, they shouldn’t feel alone. That’s the way the Spurs roll, and there are many other fan bases wondering how the Spurs do it every. single. time. Just ask Royce Young of the Daily Thunder:

I was watching the game with a friend of mine and we were talking about why OKC can’t find itself a Gary Neal. Or Matt Bonner. Why/how do the Spurs always find those guys? Is it like a Yankees mystique thing where when someone puts on the uniform their confidence goes up and they play better by osmosis or is San Antonio just that good at finding diamonds in the rough. Why can’t the Thunder get one of those guys? WHY?

Setting aside the fact that Sam Presti and the Thunder have unearthed a gem of their own in Sergei Ibaka, from Jaren Jackson (how we miss your head shake) to Stephen Jackson, the Spurs are unique in their success rate of pulling viable rotation players from the scrap heap.

But how have they done it? First off, necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, and with little cap space—and even worse draft positioning to work with—the Spurs have needed every bit of innovation they could muster.

But as innovative as they are, the rest of the NBA has caught up on the European market for some time. Yet the Spurs are the ones watching Gary Neal hit crucial three-pointers on their home court night in and night out. So why can’t teams find a Gary Neal of their own?

Stating Pop and Buford are just better at it would be simplistic, and to a point correct, but truthfully the Spurs could probably plug in a few of these Pacers and they would shine just as brightly.

There are many superstars in the NBA, and even more secondary stars, but few can match the complete games the Spurs core boasts. Where a Dirk Nowitzki might need a Tyson Chandler to protect him defensively, or Carmelo Anthony a heady point guard to get his teammates involved  (and a Tyson Chandler to protect him defensively would be nice too), Tim Duncan has no such needs.

Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili might be very different stylistically, but their skill sets are still grounded in all the fundamentals: defense, efficient scoring, and passing.

Guys like Gary Neal or Matt Bonner or DeJuan Blair are not asked to fill in some pressing hole in franchise players’ games. Those needs are already met, so everything they provide augments what the Spurs already do. Their cup runneth over.

From a personnel standpoint, this allows the Spurs a much larger talent pool. Affording them looks at talented, but limited players.

Neal might not have ideal athleticism, but he does not need to in a system that creates all the driving lanes he could want and makes him a capable defender solely off effort and intelligence.

It’s no coincidence that a year ago, with Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili never fully healthy, role players like Roger Mason were suddenly exposed.

So to answer Young’s question, it is a sort of mystique. But one that has more to do with the players they are playing with rather than the name on their jersey. All that needs to be known is when Popovich inserts a player that has fans scrambling for wikipedia or media guides into a clutch situation, you might not know his name, but you should already know the results.

  • http://espn.com Trenton

    Go Spurs go!

  • ruth bader ginobili

    Great post, couldn’t agree more. I think this aspect of Tim and Manu is often overlooked, and is a big reason for their success.

    Besides the skills of the Big Three, you could also apply this to their personalities. The Pacers, for instance, had to make an effort to bring in character guys with their lottery picks. The Spurs, on the other hand, can take chances on guys, like Neal, with a shaky background.

  • BlaseE

    Great article.

    It’s worth mentioning that Pop shows his confidence by telling his role playing shooters (Bonner, Neal, Anderson, Mason (ex), Quinn) that they will be benched for passing up good looks.

    If Neal is open and doesn’t hesitate and air balls a three, that’s okay, it happens. Pop rewards players for taking efficient opportunities whether they are efficient that night or not.

    Pop creates an atmosphere that breeds confidence and in turn, success.

  • DorieStreet

    @ ruth bader ginobili

    It is only one (as far as I know) incident with Neal, and he is the 1st player in the Duncan era with such a mark. Spurs FO has never deviated from their character bar this decade of basketball operations. The only thing I can recall was Tony & Eva stopped by SAPD (2002?) and one of them called the officer an epithet (anyone remember?).

    But that article described our team to a T. There have been a few articles written by various sports outlets since the season started that provide an accurate description of what the franchise has accomplished and how they went about it. Starting with this one, I going to backtrack and compile the sites/sources.

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  • http://dawnoftheweak.com Wes

    Great as always.

    Not needing to fill a gap in our franchise players allows so much space to pack in role players. The atmosphere of correction means a lot as well, Pop doesn’t get players he doesn’t think he’ll be able to coach, so all these other coaches recruit talent alone not realizing that they’ll never be able to get the most out of these talented players because they aren’t coachable.

  • DorieStreet

    P..S Don’t fret for the Thunder -Presti will get them there. OKC already has the most important part–a bonafide top 5 player in the league who in 3 seasons has put his stamp on the league, but whose low-key personality is still intact, and who hasn’t gone “NBA Hollywood”. #35, remain yourself, just like #21 has for 15 years.

  • Junierizzle

    So true. The big 3 generate so many good/open looks. Ive never seen a team get so many open looks. Last season wit RMJ going cold and Bonner playing low minutes its no wonder they struggled with their shooting.
    This season they are getting the same looks but now Bonner is on fire, Neal is so far consistent, Ghill can hit the corner 3 and James Anderson was shooting 50% before he was injured. Shots are falling baby.
    Spurs always had a knock down shooter. Kerr,Horry,Finely. Hopefully Bonner and Neal can keep it going. I hope JA comes back with enough time to earn a spot on the playoff rotation.

  • SpursfanSteve

    As long as the big 3 are healthy, the role players will continue to play well. Bonner, Neal, and potentially Anderson should all finish the season shooting 50% plus from 3 (or close to it).

  • http://www.anaheimamigos.com Anaheim Amigos

    Great article, with a well-argued line of reasoning. I would only argue that Tony Parker’s game is not “grounded in” defense.

  • Big Whit

    OKC could get Neal, just trade us Kevin.

  • senorglory

    Is Parker fundamentally sound on defense? I’m not saying he’s not, I’m just curious as to 48mins take on Tony’s D. I really can’t tell– we play team defense, so it’s hard to pick out individual defenders just based upon which opposing positions are scoring, and sometimes, as a winning strategy, we run schemes that allow a PF or PG to run up a bunch of points, to the detriment of our opponent (hello Phoenix!), so that if Rondo scores 30, it’s hard to tell if that’s a biproduct of our overall strategy, a break down in rotations and team defense, or lackluster defense from our PG.

    Any ideas?

  • http://searchingforslava.blogspot.com dave m

    Terrific stuff, melding trade philosophy and a Pacers preview? Best post I read anywhere today and I’m a Lakers fan (duck and cover).

  • spursgermany

    “The Spurs, on the other hand, can take chances on guys, like Neal, with a shaky background.”

    Stop watching Foxnews and do read Huffington Post, please!!!!

    We lost to Knick and Celts, games which we could have won and snatch away a win at Pacers, where we nearly lost, it smells fine very fine for postseason games.

    Just keep pounding guys, God BLESS YOU ALL

  • spurcase42

    I think it might be worth mentioning also that Pop is just a hell of a coach. If anyone remembers that Tony was a raw undisciplined 19 year old player when he arrived. Would he have fared so well under other coaches or would they have given up on him when he disappeared for long stretches in those first few years? But Pop COACHED him into the player he is today. Pop did not give up on Jefferson after his first bad year in SA. He COACHED him back into the player he used to be. So as well as finding these gems, Pop has the knack for developing them into great players.

  • jason


    The subject of Tony’s defense is hotly debated issue. For years the general knock on Tony has been that he’s too much of a score first pg and consequently doesn’t create for his team with assists or help out much on defense. Both of these arguments are overstatements I think. For one, tony is indespensible in creating for his teammates with his driving ability and threat of scoring down low opposing defenses have to have one eye on help d for tony and one eye on their own man. Tony doesn’t set up shooters of screens the way rondo does, he penetrates and kicks out for an open 3 (arguably these assists are more valuable, like an assist and a half).

    As for defense, you’re absolutley right, many nights our game plan is to let opposing pg have any shot they want, so often – especially against boston – tony’s job will be to sag on defense and dare his man to shoot by covering the driving lanes. Forcing defenders into lower percentage shots is still defense (short of blocks and steals that’s all defense really is). But tony’s no slouch on creating turnovers this year, in fact he’s a top ten player in steals and assists. So I couldn’t find fault in tony’s d. In years past he’s had bruce – the one man team defense – bowen as a sort of saftey net. These past two years without bruce, tony’s picked up much of the defensive slack. This could be why our defense on most nights this year is more characterized by possessions created than opponents fg%.

  • johnny

    The spurs are smarter because they ask these players to do the things that they are good at. That is why it is great to tell the shooters that if they don’t shoot they are coming out of the game. If they are on the floor and not shooting, they are pointless. However if they are shooting the coach can choose to take them out if they are not shooting well. The spurs system allows these players to come in and if they accept their role they can be very successful on the team. Their have been many players over the years that have not been able to concentrate/fulfill their role for the spurs. These players don’t last long on the team. These players that are successful on the spurs on a lot of other teams would be hard for them to succeed because other teams would not put them in the position to succeed and expect things out of them that are not their strong suit.

  • G$$

    They have been doing this for years, so they are like light years ahead. One of the few teams, keeping a close eye on players outside of the usa and US born players trying to making a living playing the game around the world…

    Teams need to look at kirk penny, one of the players spurs cut, due to having neal under contract.

  • Hicksman

    Since the SPURS is a TEAM D system a High BBIQ can allow you to be a decent defender. Knowing the systems and rotations (and executing them) in the SPURS system will allow guys like Tony/Gary/Matt B to play zone or positional D, funnelling to the baseline etc (also having a pretty decent shot blocker behind you helps) this also allows these players to gamble (as Tony has this year) get into passing lanes and create some turnovers which will lead to easy baskets.
    GO SPURS GO!!!

  • badger

    Great article!!

  • t-mac

    Excellent post, but I just would like to add that Parker and Ginobili were both picked late in the draft.

    I would consider both of them as steals.

    Parker was selected as 28th in 2001 and Ginobili 57th in 1999.

    IMO the Spurs just have made the best decisions in the draft for the last 10 years. Therefore, the organisation has enjoyed continuous success.

    Keep in mind that the Spurs also drafted Luis Scola, even though he never played in their uniform.

  • Eric

    There are 100 players in Europe that are as good or better than Gary Neal is.

    The Spurs have not brought any of them to San Antonio. This is a total fluff piece. Gary Neal was never even remotely close to being a star in Europe. He was about as average of a player as you can be.

    Europe is riddled with players that are much, MUCH better than he is. The Spurs have not signed any of them.

    The truth is that the Spurs front office is pure crap. It is just slightly less pure crap than the rest of the NBA front offices.

  • PC

    Let us not forget the number of players the Spurs have drafted that are not on the roster but that are playing well on other teams:

    Leandro Barbosa, Luis Scola, Goran Dragić, Beno Udrih…just to name a few

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