State of the Spurs: Where things stand at the quarter pole

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Here are the ground rules for this conversation: Both Stampler and I get 5-6 minutes to reply. I started by asking him a question, and then he had to include another question with his reply. We took turns and tried to cover everything noteworthy from the first 25% of the 2013-14 season.

J.R. Wilco

You had a bit of fun with J. Gomez and your dueling banjos articles on Pop's experimenting with the lineup so far this season. I think it's something that will continue for most of this year. But without rehashing all of the arguments, there was an interesting conversation in the comments where Fred Silva held forth on the dangers of requiring NBA players with NBA sized egos to go from starting to the bench, and back again. Do you think this is an issue with the Spurs current roster?

aaronstampler

I think it depends on the guy. I don't think the older ones who've been around would care too much, like Diaw or Belinelli. It's not like their minutes would change much either way. They're going to play between 15 and 25 depending on how well they're doing and how well or poorly the others are doing. The three guys I'm concerned about, in order, are 1) Kawhi 2) Danny Green and 3) Splitter. They all have their confidence/focus issues from time to time and "benching" -- whether it's on merit or Pop's matchup whims -- may interfere with that.

I do generally agree with the notion that these guys aren't robots no matter how much we want them to be at times and that they're actual people with egos and feelings. I don't think Manu was necessarily happy with it, but he's smart enough to not complain in public.

I remember very well that Tony DID NOT handle it well.

Basically, my mindset is to keep starting Leonard and Green regardless of how well they're shooting because I don't see how any matchup could call for them to be on the bench. It's not like there are NBA teams starting five centers. The only way you bench either guy, in my mind, is if they've checked out on defense.

Also I think the lineup tinkering definitely matters on the lower end if we're talking about being in the rotation versus not at all, like between Ayres/Bonner/Baynes and Mills/Joseph. I think playing versus getting DNPs, or worse being inactive like De Colo, definitely hurts these guys, and why shouldn't it?

Okay, my turn: Tell me two things Pop has done so far that you've really liked and two that you haven't liked.

JRW

Well, I LOVED the fact that he got the Spurs out of Mexico City so quickly. There was a big discussion in the comments on Canis Hoopus about how the Spurs bus left the arena just as the NBA announced that the game wouldn't be played. And apparently there was a significant gap between that happening and when Minnesota's buses left.

And that reminds me of Tom Ziller's note (at the bottom of this storyabout how yet another injured Bull was hung out to dry by Coach Thibs. The one thing you never have to worry about with this team is Pop failing to look out for the health of the players.

The other thing I like is the way he's handled the whole team and Duncan. First, you've got to give him props for keeping the team from having any Finals hangover. And the situation with Duncan's slump could have easily been been screwed up. But Pop knew enough to leave it alone, and Tim came around like the GOAT PUFF he is.

As for the things I didn't like. (You're really going to force me to go on record with some Pop criticism, aren't you?) Well, it's tough to come up with anything, what with the team playing so well. But if you pressed me, I'll go with sitting Green and Leonard late in the loss to OKC. And then again in Houston.

He sat both of them -- both nights. That had better qualify as two things. And I didn't like either of them because it also turned into two losses in three games.

I think the biggest surprise of the season is Boris Diaw's transformation from overweight pass-first shrinking violet into a plus-sized version of playoff Robert Horry, circa 2005-2007. What do you think got into Boris, and what's your biggest surprise of the year?

Stampler

He benched Kawhi for Bonner. BONNER! Kawhi should only be benched for Bonner if the team is forced to play Trivial Pursuit to win a game. Maybe that could be like a future column... list 50 things you're confident Bonner can do better than Leonard.

Anyway, Diaw is by far the biggest surprise. Of course I don't buy for a second that Pop didn't have anything to do with it and that it happened organically. I think this is something Pop and the coaches figured out in their off-season tinkering when they looked at the film and when camp opened he sat down with Diaw and told it to him plainly -- something along the lines of, "I've got Bonner, I've Ayres, I've got Splitter, and I can even play Leonard at the four if I have to. So either your fat butt shoots the ball when you're open or I'm going to bench you, period."

Same rules as Bonner or Green, basically.

Besides that, I guess the second biggest surprise would have to be how sharp they came out collectively, with no Finals hangover. I thought the focus wouldn't be there, but I underestimated just how bad the schedule was that first month. I don't say this often, but Mr. Schedule-maker really did them a solid on that one. Going forward though they're going to have to be a lot sharper, starting tonight, obviously, and it is a concern, like I told Phil in that interview, that they've lost three of the four "tough" games that they've had and the one win was by two points to a Warriors team, at home, playing without Stephen Curry. I want the Spurs to win every game, naturally, but a win tonight especially would go a long way towards boosting my spirits.

Okay, my second question... what do you think of Manu's play so far this season? Be brutally honest and not the white bloggy Sean Elliott.

JRW

Saying that you don't say something often implies you've ever said it in your life. I'm absolutely blown away that you're capable of admiring the work of the NBA's schedule-making team. That might be the season's second most surprising thing.

As for Manu's play, I wrote about this phase of his career two years ago. I'm happy with him no matter how many points he scores, as long as he's not a turnover machine or a turnstile on defense. He raises the game of the rest of the team every minute he's on the court. He makes it so easy for them to score. And with the addition of Marco Belinelli, he's hardly ever in a position where he's the only guy on the court capable of making a play with the shot clock winding down.

I'm loving Bili MiNelli. And with Boris' great play, I think we should be willing to call them Di Bili MiNelli. That's at least as snappy as The Foreign Legion. Right?

Spusmillivanilli

Tell me what you see with Tiago Splitter this year. Is there much change, or is he just slowly getting better the way kids are constantly growing to the point that you turn around and think, "When did you get to be nearly as tall as me?"

Stampler

Okay, first of all, I like Di Bili MiNelli about as much as I like Bill Simmons kickstarter campaigns. Secondly, while I love what I'm seeing with Marco's offense, his defense has left much to be desired, which I guess isn't too surprising.

As far as Manu goes, the aspect of his game that I'm most impressed with so far is his defense. He's sliding his feet well, beating guys to their spots and really looks a lot more sturdy on that end than the past two years. Offensively though, I'm bothered by the fact that his aggressiveness is almost completely gone. He almost never takes it to the rim, even though when he does he finishes at a really high percentage. I wish he took more shots and got to the line more, and if he did, the added bonus would be that he'd commit less turnovers as well, though I understand that would mean more of an injury risk.

Also, I don't have the numbers in front of me at the moment, but I'm pretty sure the "makes everyone better" comment hasn't been a reality as far as playing with the starters, though I guess Leonard and Green's struggles are mostly the problem there. His numbers are really good with the bench, but not so good with the main guys, I believe. I'd love to be wrong.

As for Splitter, I've never once compared him to a young boy, though as I type this at Starbucks there is, in fact, a six-year-old boy three feet in front of me, on his mother's lap, who's been sucking on two of his fingers down to the second knuckle for like five minutes straight, so I can see the connection one would make between that and his play in the Finals.

I do think Splitter has grown a bit stronger and he's getting some contested rebounds on both ends and he generally looks more confident in his post game and ability to back people down enough to throw in that dinky hook. The problem with him is that he has almost no lift whatsoever which hurts his ability to score in traffic and also he struggles more, ironically, against smaller players than big ones. He is constantly getting stripped and while some of those are fouls the refs just aren't calling, a great many of them aren't. He is just fundamentally poor in that regard and while I'm sure the coaches have talked to him ad nauseam about keeping the ball up, it's just not happening. Maybe Pop has to tell Manu and Tony to throw it at his head, the way Michael Jordan would with Bill Cartwright.

I do wish Pop would just commit to playing him 30 minutes a night come hell or high water. You're giving the guy 9 million a year, so you might as well use him. A player can only develop so much and help so much playing 22 minutes a night.

As we sit here on December 7th, are you more or less optimistic about this team's chances to win the title than you were when the season started? What was your feeling then, by the way? I don't think you ever told me. I'm on the record, as goober fanboy as I am, that they're going to win it all.

JRW

I think Manu's aggressiveness is still there. Remember all of those layups against the Grizzlies in the home opener? Six field goals on six drives to the rim. If you'll let me speculate for a minute, I'd say that Manu's learned to temper his natural aggression. In both of his Spanish articles this season, he's talked about how he's more able to just enjoy playing this year. And I how much he hated being injured for so much of last year. Along with that comes the wisdom of age, that Duncan's had for years, in that no one play is worth sitting the bench for weeks. For the first time in his career, he's taking fewer risks with his body. I think that's a good thing.

As you said, he's still driving successfully when he does drive. I expect to see him play this way for most of the year. If that's what it takes to have healthy Manu in the playoffs, so be it.

I'm more optimistic about this team's chances than I was on October 30th. And I was optimistic even then. I think they're the best team in the West, and that's even with Portland's current play. I think they're a match for either Miami or Indiana.

Stampler

Manu only seems to drive when he's inspired. He drove a bunch in the season opener, and then I remember him doing a lot of it in the second half of that Oklahoma game I think, when nothing else was working for the offense. And he'll still drive if he's good and pissed. Like, in the Houston game, Dwight Howard dunked a ball off his head, and immediately Manu drove on the next possession and scored and then drew a charge on the other end. Stuff like that still happens. He needs anger or urgency. He even said so himself after the Finals he needs to feel angry these days to play well instead of being in that constant state of being on edge, and the older he gets, the more immersed he gets into his family life and kids, the less passion he feels for the games and they just become like a job where he's punching a clock.

Okay, that's too harsh. I think like you said he is enjoying the games, enjoying being a part of a team, but that personal drive isn't there the way it was when he was younger. He's happy to just be a part of the team instead of one of its stars.

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