The Spurs have always had a duality to them. They are traditional but innovative, predictable in some ways but not in others. "The same old Spurs" description so many throw at them is apt in that you can count on them to be consistently good, to play disciplined basketball, and to be coy with the press. But over the years their style of play has changed dramatically and, while their core remains the same, the rest of the roster has undergone significant changes.
That tension between continuity and evolution will be strong this season. The Spurs won the title in decisive fashion. There were two close series but the struggles against the Mavs seemed a product of fluky events and a perhaps overconfident team not showing the "appropriate fear" and what most people forget about the Thunder series is that Ibaka wasn't the only injured star. In fact Tony Parker was hobbled for most of the season, including the playoffs. Yet the Spurs finished with the top record in the league, came out of the West and demolished the Heat in the Finals, playing some of the best basketball anyone has seen in years.
So obviously the temptation is high to avoid fixing what's not broken.
That explains why the team brought everyone back, something no championship team has done since the Chicago Bulls in 1991. Here's how Pop explained the decision: "Uh ... well ... we had a pretty good year so ... I didn't see any reason to kick them out of town or make trades or changes. Plus most of them were under contract, and that makes it more difficult. It's a pretty good crew and they'll all come back and as usual they'll do their best and we'll either lose in the first round, second round, conference finals or win it all, who knows?"
The phrase "a pretty good year" is the current front-runner for Understatement of the Year. Pop is obviously being careful not to succumb to hubris, but he and the rest of the league knows that if the Spurs can play as they did last season, they are the team to beat, the favorites. The Spurs didn't need a complete overhaul like the Cavs' underwent --- or even the rotation tweaks of the Clippers and Thunder -- because they know how good they can be with what they have. Staying the course was obviously an easy decision.
That's why it was a little strange to read what Pop told the media as transcribed in this must-read Washington Post piece by Michael Lee: "You got to keep up with it, because teams change, players' careers change and the makeup of the team changes. Standing pat never works." That mantra largely contradicts what the franchise did this off-season. The makeup of the team hasn't changed at all and the only real change I can envision happening from day one will be come because Patty Mills is recovering from rotator cuff surgery. If standing pat never works then why have the Spurs gone with the most extreme example of continuity in years while their opponents have made significant changes?
That apparent contradiction disappears when we understand the quote in the context Pop provided it: standing pat is a mindset, not anything quantifiable like roster changes.
Everybody knows complacency (and health, of course) could be as big a threat to a Spurs repeat as OKC or Cleveland. "They are human beings. They are going to feel satisfied," said Pop, and I can't help to think that he's talking about himself as well. Everyone, including - or especially - Pop need new challenges or else they are susceptible to contentment, to resting on their laurels. And even in a season in which he could simply be on cruise control after building and keeping together a team that plays exactly the way he taught them to, he will find those challenges.
The Spurs have made two big additions this summer: Becky Hammon and Ettore Messina. Hammon is pioneer but also a rookie coach in need of a mentor. And Messina is a seasoned veteran of the sidelines and, according to Pop, is bringing innovation to the playbook already: "In our preparation for the season he's seen the way we do things and we do this and we do that and he's said ‘Have you thought about this?' and I already like some of the suggestions that he's made that we'll change." Pop has never been shy about adding plays or changing philosophies and having new eyes looking at the way things are run could result in subtle but meaningful tweaks. Does the team need that? Probably not. But if you can get better there's no reason not to try to.
To the casual observer, the Spurs will look the same next season. With any luck they will also have similar success. But the faithful have seen just how much experimentation was necessary to achieve this identity the Spurs now have and, knowing the architect behind it, will expect even more. Even if it's still probably not necessary to start featuring Kawhi Leonard in the offense more prominently yet, Pop will try to find ways. He will continue to try to untangle the riddle within an enigma that is Boris Diaw instead of settling for the glimpse he got last season. And he will even try to figure out just how good the deep bench guys can be, even though they will not sniff the court in the post-season and won't be Spurs next year. Failing to do so would be standing pat and we already know how Pop feels about that.
This upcoming season the entire roster will be the same. The same coach will roam the sidelines as the same owner and general manager watch from the stands. We'll see the same defensive schemes and largely the same offensive plays. The Spurs will continue to have an identity as an unselfish team that moves the ball with precision and, provided there's no great injury, even the minutes distribution come playoffs time will be similar. But to interpret that as the Spurs being the same will be a mistake. The franchise, with Pop as its engine, is always in flux, always in motion even if it takes a more nuanced observation to see the wheels turning than it does on teams that constantly change names on and off the court.