Ah, NBA training camp, that time of year where you only really pay attention to basketball if A) you're paid significant money to do so B) you really dislike baseball and C) it's not Sunday, because who seriously misses football for this?
We're about a week away from preseason games where the Spurs play CSKA Moscow for the World Championship of Pop-Ball, but before they do here's a quickie Top-10 list of Spurs-related things to watch for in camp.
Here we go, from least to most compelling.*
10. The Backup Bigs
Boris Diaw played in Eurobasket '13 with Tony Parker, so he's not quite as spheroid as usual, and you figure he's well ahead of most everyone when it comes to being in rhythm. Will this be the year that his coaches and teammates finally get him to shoot more? Fat chance, to pardon the pun. Will he be a more diligent rebounder? LOL you.
Then there's Matt Bonner, who can hit open shots and guard completely unmotivated, uninterested mental midgets who openly hate Kobe Bryant. Against other people? He's somewhat less effective. Personally, I can't think of a single man on the summer camp roster I'm less interested in watching than Bonner, just because by now you know what he is and it's not going to change. Unless it gets worse. Oh no -- it could get worse?
No, the guys I'm interested in here are the third string, namely Aron Baynes and Jeff Ayres née Pendergraph (whom I propose we nickname JANP just because it sounds like "Champ!"). The former is a lug who has more game and athleticism than people give him credit for and I'm foolish enough to think he could be useful if Pop ever gave him a chance to crack the rotation in earnest. The latter I know next to nothing about, except for that playoff game where he got ejected from the bench, and I'm eager to see if he can surpass all of DeJuan Blair's defensive accomplishments for the Spurs within his first 14 seconds of floor time.
9. What Do The Assistant Coaches Have To Offer?
J. Gomez touched on this one already, but I'm mildly curious what Jim Boylen and Sean Marks will add to the bench. There's always a chance they could be puppet people, but that's the kind of thing we'll never know. Ime Udoka returns too, and I guess he's been promoted a slot over on the bench, but right now Boylen is the top assistant as I understand it, meaning
if when Pop gets ejected on some Tuesday night in Milwaukee, he'll be the one making the calls. Personally, I think by this point the team should just eschew the concept of "assistant coaches" altogether. By all means keep Chip Engalland and Chad Forcier around for their shooting and development roles, but for all in-game things you can just rely on the big three to lead the team, no? Parker makes most of the play-calls anyway and Manu's math wizardry could help him figure out the minutes rationing for everyone.
Pop already mentioned that he's going to have to spend camp "coaching the coaches," so for me to say I'm not expecting much in the way of innovation or contribution from this group would be a grand understatement. Remember, I'm still the guy who was never convinced Pop heeded any words of wisdom from the assistants he had before.
Still, it'll be worth keeping an eye on the bench during the preseason and early in the year, just to see if there's any chatter out there or any of them even look at all constructive. I just can't imagine a guy like Marks saying, "No, Pop, we have to do THIS."
8. Young vs. Maggette vs. Nobody
During his initial presser on media day (a.k.a "The one day of the year Pop plays nice") Pop mentioned why exactly the team signed a pair of musclebound wings in veteran Corey Maggette and relative youngster Sam Young, saying he wanted some bulk behind Kawhi Leonard to guard opposing bulky small forwards so that thin-framed Ginobili and Marco Belinelli wouldn't get pounded down low.
However, due to the overall quality of the roster -- and the lack of same from Maggette and Young -- even if one of them makes the team it'll be as an extremely limited role, somewhere between the 11th and 15th man, and very possible that they have to wear a suit or take a DNP-CD more often than not. Really the only way either gets any serious playing time is if Leonard suffers a long-term injury, and even then, they'd still be reserves in all likelihood, with Danny Green sliding over to the starting three.
While I don't think the winner of this competition will provide much value, ultimately, it will be something to waste our attention on since there are few legitimate camp battles for jobs out there. Better to pay attention to this meaningless thing than whatever Sean Elliott and Bill Land have chosen to prattle on about.
Don't be surprised, however, if the answer for Young vs. Maggette turns out to be none of the above and the Spurs just go with 14 on the roster, keeping a spot open to be flexible. Pop mentioned that Diaw is more than capable of filling in the "beefy three-man" (which sounds like the winner of "The movie Stampler Least Wants to Watch" Award) role.
7. Joseph's Job To Lose
Cory Joseph was decent in summer camp and then quite good in international ball, but that doesn't tell us much of anything. Yes, the backup point guard job is all but his, almost entirely due to his defensive prowess, but it remains to be seen if he can hold on to it. Joseph can go to the hole, but his finishing is inconsistent and his point guard skills remain in question. Behind him are Patty Mills, who's an instant scorer but not a threat as he's ideally suited to the third-point-guard/instant energy role and Nando De Colo, who doesn't have the handle or the quickness to be a point guard at this level.
While the job looks to be Joseph's by default, I wouldn't be shocked if, ultimately, we don't see a Ginobili-Belinelli backcourt with the second unit at some point, with one of the aforementioned muscle-bound hulks at the three or a Ginobili-De Colo back court, with Belinelli at the three. The Spurs offense is predicated on being able to run the pick-and-roll with the primary ball-handler, which is why Ginobili mostly has the rock when he's playing with the scrubs. If Joseph can't run a pick-and-roll competently AND he can't shoot it accurately enough off the pass, he won't get consistent minutes for this team.
He doesn't have to improve both things to stick, but he does have to improve one or the other. It's that simple. If I had to lean one way, I'd guess he'll rely on his pick-and-roll skills because he can dribble it and he's not selfish. When people chase the roll man though -- and they will -- he has to be able to knock down that 17-footer. De Colo's edge over him is size and the ability to catch and shoot, but he has to really work on not only his turnovers but also his pitiful finishing at the rim. Joseph also has the toughness edge and was a hellacious rebounder for a little dude in the playoffs.
6. Tiago 2.0
Alright, the Spurs committed to Tiago Splitter for four more years at good money. Barring a trade he will outlast the Duncan/Ginobili era. For that investment one would hope that we haven't already seen the best the Brazilian has to offer. Hopefully he continued to develop his game in the off-season and he can offer a bit more variety and aggressiveness to his offensive game and some more rebounding and fortitude on defense. Frankly, I'm skeptical on both counts. I don't think size bothers Splitter as much as athleticism does and there are some guys who are thicker and springier who give him a hard time. I also feel that Splitter doesn't get enough calls from the refs because of his perpetual hangdog demeanor and sheepish body language. Yes, that stuff really matters. Still, I wish Splitter could borrow some of Baynes' grit and ruggedness, because otherwise I don't know how he'll be able to progress as a player. It's not like he's going to suddenly develop Dirk Nowitzki's jumper.
5. Tony Parker's Overall Health
There were a couple of scares with his knee this summer, but for the most part it appears that the Spurs have dodged a bullet and that Tony made it through Eurobasket healthy. Though his complaints about fatigue sound to me mostly like the strategic whining of a veteran looking for a coach to take it easy on him for camp, I'm still going to keep an eye on Parker during the preseason games just to see where his body's at, what his energy and stamina look like, how much lift he has on his jumper and so on. I'm not expecting much hustle or defensive commitment from him by any means, which is fine, but I just want to make sure that he looks like someone who'll be the same Tony Parker once the games count.
4. The Team's General Energy
While we're on the topic, I think the vets as a whole -- particularly The Big Three -- have to be examined, not for the crispness of their play as much as the overall energy they're expending while they're out there and how much it rubs off on the team's secondary leaders and then the role players and the new guys. The Spurs have never been ones to take preseason all that seriously under Pop, but the vibe I'm getting is that this crew, coming off a Finals loss and cognizant that a long season awaits them, might break the all-time record for least effort given during preseason.
While that's all fine and good for the mainstays on the team, I think that kind of thing would send a bad message to the others, who might mistakenly think it's the standard mentality that's acceptable to bring into the regular season. Some vets on the roster have shown no problems with being able to turn the switch on when it matters, but we have no idea what to think in that regard with Belinelli, Ayres, Baynes, Joseph, etc.
I really hope the team as a whole doesn't take a "Nothing matters before the playoffs" mentality in the wake of the depressing Finals loss, because that's the kind of attitude that'll see them careening to a 50-32 record and a seventh seed in the competitive West. Sure, the Thunder will be lessened by the loss of Russell Westbrook for the first month-and-a-half, but the Clippers, Rockets, Warriors and Grizzlies will still be stacking up the wins and quite a few other clubs in the conference will have to be reckoned with as well. You can't take anyone lightly.
Call me a sucker, but I'd still like to chase the best overall record if at all possible. No, I don't want to sacrifice anyone's health to do it, but that's what having a deep roster is for. Supposedly the philosophy is that it doesn't matter who plays as long as they play with the proper attitude and intensity. Theoretically, the reverse should be true as well, where even if we have our full roster available for a given opponent, if they don't have the appropriate fear then even the Bobcats could beat them. The worry is that they'll think they can just throw their uniforms on the court and win, or that everyone will think, "I don't have to compete tonight, Parker's got this," and Parker will think, "I don't have to do much tonight, Kawhi's got this," and so on...
It'll be up to Pop to nip that in the bud and it starts in camp.
3. The Manu Wannabes
With one notable exception, Belinelli will be the most scrutinized Spur in camp, as a lot is expected of him. Not only is he replacing Gary Neal on the team, but he's in effect being groomed to be the next Ginobili. Pop went out of his way to encourage such comparisons, which is uncharacteristic of him, since he usually likes to temper expectations. My guess is that he's already figured out (or has it on good authority) that Belinelli is a guy who responds more to a pat on the back than a kick in the butt, but we'll see.
Will Belinelli be used as a primary ball-handler with the second unit? Will he be off-the-ball? More at the one, two or three? How quickly will he figure out the plays at either end? Will he be too willing to pass in an effort to be unselfish and too tentative to shoot, as many newcomer Spurs wings have been? Maybe giving him the ball will encourage him to not float around a la Richard Jefferson.
Obviously how Belinelli and Ginobili play together will be my main concern. I want to see their chemistry and how they mix, whether they can play together and whether they're interchangeable. Can they take turns handling the ball and playing off of it? I also want to see if they can work together defensively or whether that'd be a disaster.
However, we can't forget about De Colo in all of this. As poorly as his season ended, I still think he has a role on this team. Remember, at this time last year he was the one who was being tagged with the "Manu Jr." label and he was supposedly this slick passer and creative shot-maker. We didn't see too much of that during the season, though there were flashes here and there. He couldn't finish at the rim and he turned it over too much, while his defensive intensity came and went.
With the point guard experiment mostly over, De Colo's role on the team -- if he has one -- seems to be as the third-string shooting guard who plays on back-to-backs when Ginobili's being rested. If he can play with the requisite energy on defense and shoot over 40 percent from downtown though, he'll have a spot on the team. You can never have enough of those guys. Maybe the pressure of not having to run the team will help him.
2. Kawhi Leonard's Step Into Stardom
Pop couldn't hype up Leonard enough during media day and Ginobili made it clear that the team will regularly be calling plays for Kawhi this year, though it remains to be seen if that will involve pick-and-roll sets or straight isos or post-ups for Leonard. Either way, his role and profile figure to increase, even though they were already pretty high by the Finals. Leonard declared his arthritic knee fully healed and claimed that he was 100 percent, but every player says that at the beginning of camp. Safe to say though, all eyes will be on him in October and beyond.
One area where I disagree with Gomez, though, is that at last season's rates that 82 of the 96 minutes available on the wings will be going to Leonard, Green and Ginobili. I think it's a tad presumptive to assume that all of Leonard's minutes will be at the three spot, particularly given A) the depth and talent distribution of the Spurs roster with Belinelli on board and B) how well Leonard played in the postseason as a small-ball four.
I know the Spurs played almost exclusively as a "big" team during the regular season, and I won't be a hypocrite here because I fully encouraged them to do so and was happy that they did, but I can't deny that they found something with Leonard and it'd be silly for them to ignore it now. Obviously Splitter has to play. Diaw, too, I guess. But beyond that if the choice is Leonard/Ginobili/Belinelli or Bonner/Leonard/Ginobili then I'll take the former all day. Baynes can be useful in the right match-ups against big teams or when Duncan is being rested, but for the most part the league is trending more to small-ball and the Spurs have one of the best small-ball fours in Leonard and the best small-ball center, bar none, in Duncan.
I think what I'm trying to say is I'd just as soon have The Red Mamba wearing a suit most nights.
1. Tim Duncan's Hair
I would give my life savings (admittedly that's like $42.82) to have some media member sidle up to Duncan and ask, "So, I couldn't help but notice you're growing your hair out. Is that because you're newly single and ready to mingle?"
* measuring compelling is completely subjective
More from Pounding The Rock:
- 10 San Antonio Spurs training camp storylines
- J.R. Wilco discusses Kawhi Leonard's fantasy value on the Phil Naessens show
- Spurs training camp & pre-season questions: what to keep an eye out for
- Who besides Dwight Howard will be booed in the 2013-2014 season?
- Actual Spurs Players Talking To Actual Media People: Spurs Media Day Quotes