Gary Neal's legacy as a Spur will always be that he was the ultimate rags-to-riches success story.
Here was a guy already in his mid-20s, an undrafted vagabond with a checkered past, flitting from one European outpost to another when the Spurs decided to take a flier on him in summer league. He hit some shots, opened some eyes and was the beneficiary of the one time Manu Ginobili (who insists he doesn't want to coach when he hangs 'em up) drew up a play on a preseason lark. Neal parlayed the opportunity into a steady gig as a contributing role player who specialized in getting hot and scoring in bunches and bailing the team out out of a bunch of cold spells. Of course, he also had his share of slumps and defensive miscues and just plain cover-your-eyes calamities.
Well, we knew this was in the works for awhile, but it's now (just about) official that Neal is an ex-Spur, seeing as he's about to join the Bucks. Neal, who shuffled somewhere between the seventh and eleventh slot on the Spurs' totem pole the past couple of seasons, is now the first bona fide "subtraction" in the off-season ledger, a rotation player on a championship contender off into the ether forevermore.
On one level, I'm glad that there's only a.0001% chance that Neal will have the opportunity to exact revenge on the Spurs' front office on the playoff stage since he's joining a non-entity in Milwaukee instead of, say, Oklahoma City or Houston or whomever. Sure, there's a decent bet that he'll go off for 25 on some frigid Tuesday in January on a segababa in which the Spurs are resting Duncan and Ginobili after grinding to a tough win at Minnesota the night before. But really, so what? Heck, good for him if he does and it brings him some measure of validation or closure. The point is that he can't come back to haunt us in some meaningful situation, no matter how remote the possibility.
On the other hand, I feel bad for Neal that Milwaukee was the best situation he could find for himself, and only a two-year deal for three million a pop (basically the same money that the Spurs dished out for Marco Belinelli) and for a team going nowhere to boot. Sure, six million is a windfall for any of us, and it's probably more money than even Neal thought he'd ever see after not being drafted and toiling overseas for a few years. Still, it has to be a splash of cold reality to his ego, the proof that the rest of the NBA sees him pretty much the way the Spurs did: a replaceable cog, a guy to give anywhere between eight and 20 minutes on a given night depending on how hot/cold he is and how hot/cold the starter in front of him is. His athletic limitations, especially on defense, are abundantly clear and it's growing increasing unlikely that anyone, not even the dregs of the league, see him as some sort of diamond-in-the-rough savior buried beneath the phalanx of talent on the Spurs, who somehow didn't see what they had in him.
I think that ultimately (and of course I have no tangible evidence whatever to base this on) that Pop just wanted to turn the page on Neal, after having come to the conclusion that this almost 29-year-old is just not going to get any better and will quite likely regress. It's easy to blame Neal's plantar fasciitis for his prolonged stretch of ineffectiveness during the season, but that injury doesn't explain or excuse his constant inattentiveness on defense (particularly around the three-point line), his habit of getting sucked into the paint for no reason while his man is left wide open, the touch fouls leading to "and-1"s and all those missed rotations. Combine that with the streaky shooting, the questionable (to be charitable) shot selection, the inability to run a decent pick-and-roll or get the team into sets quickly on offense and all the inconsistency night after night and it was just hard to make much of a case for Neal beyond his cheap salary, his corporate knowledge and his Gibraltar-sized stones.
It's hard to know whether Belinelli will be better or worse, but he is similarly cheap, 18 months younger, a more naturally gifted passer, a better defender (at least, under Tom Thibodeau) and he has a bit more size to him. Also, Belinelli has shown a propensity to deliver in the clutch as well, though it's up for debate within the statistical community if that's actually a real thing. He sure seems to think he's got the goods though. Mostly I think that Pop just wanted to see a different face, for better or worse.
Neal's departure means that Popovich does lose some of his bluff leverage with Belinelli and any "doghouse" moments will come early in the year, if at all. I mean, really, who does he have on the roster to threaten Belinelli's playing time with? Nando De Colo? Good luck with that. I'm sure there'll be at least one two week stretch in December or January where Pop will be disgusted with some aspect of Belinelli's play and he'll give him a few DNP-CDs, prop up De Colo's "experience in the system" and "off-season improvement", and then either De Colo will stink it up (or Manu will tweak his left eyebrow and sit out for 3-4 weeks) and Belinelli will be ushered back into the rotation like nothing happened and come April De Colo will be on the far end of the bench, if he's dressed at all.
Anyway, good luck and godspeed, Gary Neal. You were probably the best undrafted Spur since Avery Johnson. Thanks for that one shot against the Grizzlies and for Game 3 against the Heat (hmm, both of those turned to be series losses in the end). I hope you make me and everyone else look like idiots by starring for the Bucks and then get traded to some semi-contender like the Knicks or something but nobody I really hate or fear.
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Ginobili turned 36 on Sunday. His birthdays used to be celebrated with fanfare, even though it was a bit of bittersweet fanfare, like "Hey, I hope he's having a happy day and today's another reminder that he's on our team and totally awesome and I guess it kinda sucks that he's another year older now even though technically he's just a day older than he was yesterday."
However, this time around the national media tone is decidedly more negative on all matters Ginobili, more akin to, paraphrasing Tony Kornheiser on PTI for example, "He turned 36 yesterday and the Spurs gave him a two-year, $14.5 million contract after he played so AWFUL in the playoffs, where he looked more like 56 than 36," while a Finals turnover montage played during the voice-over.
It's just funny how quickly the narrative changes in sports. One more rebound or one more free throw by Kawhi Leonard, and the entire story of the Spurs off-season is remarkably different. Ginobili would be thought of not as the senior citizen who choked away the Finals but rather the guy who turned the series with a terrific Game 5 and who came up with a couple of big plays at the end to seal Game 6 and lock up Tim Duncan's legacy as being the best player post-Michael Jordan.
Or suppose that Duncan had made that bunny over Shane Battier with 30 seconds to go in Game 7 to tie it up at 90-90 -- that the pressure of that moment forced a James miss instead of a make and that somebody like Duncan or Parker made the Finals winning shot at the buzzer for the Spurs. Then the Ginobili summary would've been, "He made up for a tough Game 6 performance by contributing 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting with 5 assists to pick up for the injured Parker and support Duncan in a historic Game 7 triumph for the visiting Spurs." The fourth quarter turnovers wouldn't have even been mentioned. Instead, only Spurs diehards will ever remember that, all things considered, Ginobili played relatively well in the game; the only Spur to really contribute at all, besides Duncan and Leonard.
The Heat would've been thought as overrated, overexposed, over-hyped chokers with terrible fans, and the off-season focus would've been about whether Pat Riley was going to fire Erik Spoelstra, trade Chris Bosh and/or Dwyane Wade and whether James is already thinking about moving on to his next stop after 2014. Of course, that's not the way it all went down. Instead, as more time passes, few will remember just how close they were to losing the series, how so many fortunate bounces had to go their way in the final 30 seconds and how even Game 7 was anything but a mere formality, as that game too came down to the last minute. Come October, the San Antonio will once again be buried down the list of fashionable contenders, beneath not just the Heat and the Thunder but also the Pacers, Clippers, Warriors and the off-season darlings Brooklyn and Houston. The Spurs will just be that boring, small-market team too old to make another run.
All because of one lousy rebound that wasn't secured.
Mediots will grumble about Manu's tarnished legacy and the need for redemption and how it would be borderline miraculous if he could, at age 36, get off the mat and contribute to another Spurs title run when he looked absolutely finished the year before. Me? I'd be mighty fine if he played a bunch of games like Game 7 of the Finals, because I don't think Danny Green and Tony Parker will combine to shoot 4-of-24 too often and I really like Duncan's chances of scoring over Shane freakin' Battier one-on-one.
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I'll leave you with this. Henry Abbott, whose work I usually respect, put up a video of some feller named Shea Serrano, who he describes as his "favorite Spurs fan." Supposedly, Serrano is some kind of writer, though I'm not at all familiar with his work. I have no idea if he's a blogger of some renown --I don't really follow too many of those-- or if writes about other things. What I do know, after having watched this video, is that there's probably a thousand people more qualified for Abbott to talk to when it comes to the Spurs, including our own JRW, or me, or really just about any of you.
Instead, Serrano, Abbott's go-to source for all things Spurs, is a man who freely admits to not having watched a live Spurs playoff game in over six years and to not having watched any of their playoff losses, period. He cheerfully declares that the only reason they made the Finals at all was because of the injury to Russell Westbrook and that they wouldn't have had a chance against OKC. He goes on to admit that he doesn't think they have a chance at all to contend going forward and that their window is shut. Did ESPN ask Abbott to find someone this fatalistic when it comes to the Spurs or was it his idea? I mean really, he couldn't have talked to anyone else? This was beyond idiotic.
Tune in next week, when Brian Windhorst interviews a Tibetan monk about the Heat's title chances and Stephen A. Smith files his exclusive with Hillary Clinton about how Dwight Howard's move to Houston will impact
Western Civilization the Western Conference.