The Spurs and 76ers are two vessels whose journeys will pass one another twice over the span of the next two weeks, yet they have absolutely nothing in common except the shared familiarity of their captains. San Antonio, the defending champions, have won five titles over the past 15 seasons and contended, more or less, for the past 25. The Sixers, meanwhile, boast a roster who combined have fewer games of experience (and far fewer wins, obviously) than Tim Duncan.
One would think that we, better than anyone, would understand the ethos behind "Pounding the Rock," and endeavor to not make shallow, surface judgments on these Sixers, where General Manager Sam Hinkie and coach Brett Brown, a longtime assistant to Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, are together intertwined in the beginning stages of a grand experiment, a complete and total from complete scratch rebuilding as sweeping and ambitious as any NBA team has attempted in years. They're doing it on a shoestring budget, no free agents to speak of and with no players drafted higher than third overall, in a league where the difference-makers usually come one every two or three seasons. Michael Jordan was famously picked third overall in 1984, Since then Carmelo Anthony and James Harden have been a couple of credible third overall picks and both have already been traded from their original teams and struggled to take their new ones past the opening round of the playoffs.
The Sixers third overall pick, center Joel Embiid from Kansas, is expected to miss the whole season recovering from back and foot surgeries. In his wake fellow lottery picks Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel are making do, with the flotsam of an expansion roster around them. Even though Carter-Williams won the Rookie of the Year Award last season, Brown is temporarily bringing him and Noel off the bench, perhaps to shield them from the constant onslaught of humiliation and suffering they would experience against opposing starting lineups night after night. Maybe, the theory goes, against other second units they can hold their own and gain some confidence. Let the guys who won't be a part of the future fall on the proverbial grenade, right?
You want to give the Sixers, led by a good man in Brown, every benefit of the doubt. You want to give them credit for Embiid, who may very well wind up being the only superstar from this draft class when it's all said and done, and also for Dario Saric, another lottery pick they have stashed away in Europe. But it's hard right now, man. It's so hard. Forget the second or third blows of what will eventually have to be 101. Right now I'm not sure the Sixers have even gotten to the county store to buy the rock hammer yet. I'm not even sure if the stonecutter has entered his apprenticeship.
The Spurs, who hardly resemble the team that raised the Larry O'Brien trophy last June, thrashed the Sixers as expected 100-75 at the AT&T Center Monday night and did so while playing Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all fewer than 18 minutes and Kawhi Leonard fewer than 20. Ginobili in particular looked quite listless in 11:52 of playing time in the first half after faring quite well in the four-game California road trip and sat out the second half of this one.
To say that the Spurs ever really played "well" for a sustained stretch would be a sweeping overstatement. They were just there, doing what they do, and throwing their jerseys on the court, more or less, playing at preseason intensity because it was all that was required. It was hard to take anything away from their collective performance on either end because so little had to be done for the easiest of solutions to be found. Aron Baynes might as well have been invisible, so little attention the Sixers bigs paid attention to him on roll after roll to the basket. The Aussie scored a dozen, tying his season-high at Houston but without the ignominy of Dwight Howard dunking on his head repeatedly this time. Defensively the Spurs didn't have to do much but wait for the Sixers to clank the first half-decent look they got on any trip down the floor and to rebound the misses. To the Sixers credit, their ball movement did improve as the night wore on, even though their marksmanship did not.
For prolonged stretches, the Spurs played down to Philly's amateur level. They still turned it over 18 times and shot a middling 44.4 percent on the night. A 21-point lead shrunk down to 10 with 10:02 remaining, at 74-64, and Pop was playing all kinds of obscure, experimental lineups, maybe out of boredom. At one point he had no point guard on the floor, rolling with Matt Bonner, Jeff Ayres, Austin Daye, Boris Diaw and Kyle Anderson. Thankfully, the madness didn't infect him too long and he got Cory Joseph back out there.
All that can be said for the Spurs is that whereas some coaches would've panicked at the prolonged scoring slump and begrudgingly trotted their stars back on the floor to take care of business, Pop kept his confined his to the bench, preferring to rest their weary legs for a trip to LeBron-ville on Wednesday night (with the possibility of Marco Belinelli returning to their ranks as a reinforcement) and trusted his backups to hold on at home. Eventually they broke the Sixers spirit, behind a hail of threes from Matt Bonner and Danny Green and some leadership from Joseph and Boris Diaw. Bonner actually finished as the game-high scorer with 18, the first time he's done that since Jan. 30, 2012 at Memphis, where he had 15 in a 83-73 win. The last time he scored at least 18 was Feb. 20, 2012 at Utah, when he scored 20 in a 106-102 win.
"It's just about respecting your opponent," Bonner diplomatically explained afterward. "We're all NBA players and can win on any given night, so we've got to go out and play our basketball and take care of business."
The truth is at least half the Sixers roster are NBA players in name only, where at best they can hope to be footnotes if Hinkie and Brown's plan works out years from now. It's hard to fathom a worse opponent to help you prepare for a rematch with LeBron James (not to mention Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving) than the Sixers, except from the standpoint where your guys get to rest a bit beforehand.
"I"m not here to judge the Sixers," Popovich said when asked to asses their plan. "I just know Brett, and he is a hell of a coach, he is a hell of a competitor, and he will just keep on teaching and demanding and loving them. That is what he does and he is great at it."
What Pop does is guide a team of talented veterans with grand aspirations, as polar opposites on the NBA landscape as possible in every regard. If any ounce of him fancied the idea of starting over, building another program anew, just to see if he could without a Tim Duncan, he sure didn't show it with the press. It's a job for a far younger, more energetic man, and he knows that.
Still, I can't help but wonder if he wishes he gave Brown the advice to wait for a different gig. The Sixers are miserable.
Your Three Stars:
3. Cory Joseph (9 pts)
2. Aron Baynes (4 pts)
1. Matt Bonner (5 pts)