The big news coming out of Monday's practice is that Brazilian big-man Tiago Splitter was among those participating for the first time all season after straining his right calf on the second day of training camp. Before last Tuesday's season-opener against the Dallas Mavericks, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said that Splitter's injury had somehow spread to his back, so it was surprising indeed to hear the revelation that Splitter is "probable" for Wednesday's home game against the Hawks.
So, how did Splitter look, coach?
"Oh he looks great," Popovich said, jokingly. "On a scale of 1-10, he looked fine. Handsome kid."
Splitter's physical appearance aside, it would be excellent timing if he were able to return and look anything like his usual self because the Spurs face three stud bigs this week: Atlanta's Al Horford, Houston's Dwight Howard and New Orleans' Anthony Davis -- who's already one of the best players in the league. They certainly missed Tiago's rim protection against Phoenix's penetrating point guard trio, especially when Tim Duncan wasn't on the floor. Aron Baynes and Boris Diaw had poor showings in that regard.
The one thing fans have to brace themselves for is that it will in all likelihood take Splitter quite a while to find his rhythm and to condition himself to be able to get up and down the court for his usual 20-25 minute load. Early on, he might be a gangly, uncoordinated, out-of-control, fouling mess. Splitter's closest friend on the team, fellow South American Manu Ginobili -- who himself knows a thing or two about the difficulties of finding one's form following a long layoff -- has modest expectations.
"I think it's going to take even longer than Kawhi," Ginobili said, comparing Splitter's situation to that of Kawhi Leonard, who missed most of preseason and the first regular season game with an eye infection. "Kawhi's younger, more athletic, and Tiago's missed most of the season so far. It's going to take him a while. I don't even know if he's going to play. This was his first practice and he practiced for a little bit so we'll see how it goes but we need him long term. It's not that we need him for Atlanta and then miss four games, so we've got to make sure he's fine."
Even though Leonard's ailment caused him to be quarantined from teammates, he was still able to run on the treadmill and keep himself in shape somewhat. With Splitter, the calf injury prevented him from being able to do cardio work in the same way, so he'll be further behind. All that being said, Ginobili, like the rest of the team, is eager to get Splitter back, for all the obvious reasons.
"(On) both ends of the floor," he explained. "You know sometimes he's not going to score 18 points, but he's always in the right position, he sets the best screens on the team, and he does what he's supposed to do every time, so it's something that we need. I'm very used to playing with him on the pick-and-rolls and on the screen-roll and on the defensive end also. He's long, in position, verticality, something we always talk about, so we need him back ASAP."
Splitter's return was only the second-biggest surprise of the day, with the first shocker being that Pop is actually not that big of a fan of practicing. Well, at least not during this early stage of the season. The curmudgeonly coach was grumbling a bit about the opening schedule that had the Spurs play on opening night last Tuesday, then rust until Friday at Phoenix and then break for four more days before Wednesday night's clash with the doppelganger Hawks.
"Actually it's a pain in the neck," Pop said of having the expectation to practice whenever there are gaps in the schedule, which went a long way toward explaining why he gave the players the weekend off. "Early in the season after training camp everybody wants to go play," Pop added. "To play a game, wait four, five days, and you play a game and wait four days, it's not what I would want in the beginning of the season. You gotta go play."
One Spur who probably benefited from the break was probably Leonard, who is still catching up on his conditioning and shooting after missing so much time. Popovich didn't sound like he expected it would take his 23-year-old forward long to find his game.
"He didn't have his rhythm (Friday at Phoenix)," Pop confirmed. "He started off a little awkward, a little out of shape, that sort of thing, which is expected. He'll be much better on Wednesday."
Meanwhile, Cory Joseph said he wouldn't mind extra practice himself.
"It don't matter to me," he said. "I'm 22-years-old so we can practice tomorrow out here, however long we want to, for me. Maybe some of the old guys, it's tough for them."
For the record, Pop is giving the team another day off on Tuesday.
Ginobili and the rest of the Spurs are still adjusting to having Joseph back as a part of the regular rotation, and the adjustment is actually a bigger one for the Argentine sixth-man than you'd think. For most of last season, when Joseph played heavy minutes it was with the starters in Tony Parker's stead. Patty Mills was mainly a reserve whose role didn't change much, regardless of what was going on with everyone else.
"I have to readjust a little bit, but again after the championship, three months, even if Patty was healthy we'd have to get used to playing with each other," Ginobili said. "We had a couple of plays with Patty that we knew where both of us were going to be and we knew we had a couple of automatic plays but we've got a long time for that and we have to figure it out with Cory because we know that Patty is going to be out for half of the season."
Ginobili, who called Joseph "our best player in the preseason, probably," explained that whatever the Toronto native may lack as a scorer, he can make up in other areas that Mills can't. "It changes a little bit because Patty's a pretty quick type of shooter, he gets rid of the ball very quick to get it back and shoot," Ginobili said. "Cory's more of a traditional point guard, but he plays really hard, he's longer, more size, he gives you more rebounds, so it shifts a little bit, but they both play very hard and try to put pressure on the other point guard. Things that we need."
It might be an average Monday for everyone else, but today represents one of the most fun days on the calender for "the big three," Leonard and perhaps one or two Spurs to be revealed later on. That's right, it's H-E-B commercial shoot day. You would not believe how many people it takes to put these commercials together, from the film crew to the set designers, wardrobe people, make-up artists and so on. When the staff broke for lunch, it took seven picnic tables to accommodate them all.
"It is a long day, especially after a tough practice like this one but first you have fun shooting it, and then you see the end product and you're proud of it," Ginobili said. "It's a great job they do with the scripts, and they put us in a great spot to perform well and be funny, so it's all something that we really enjoy.
Ginobili revealed that of all the H-E-B commercials he's participated in that "the yoga one," was probably his favorite, which is an interesting choice given that he didn't have any speaking lines in that ad. He also shared that he's excited about this year's crop since he's already read the scripts -- and is planning on tweeting some pictures later on.
Usually the Spurs shoot these commercials during the preseason, but an unexpected circumstance caused a postponement because their leading man wasn't quite ready for his close-up.
"These were supposed to have been shot two weeks ago but Kawhi’s thing got (it) postponed," Ginobili explained. "He’s the go-to-guy now for the punch lines."
Unfortunately, we'll have to stick to the interviews to get any punchlines from Pop, who declined to participate in the commercials this season.
"No I don't need the money," Popovich said, adding, "Which begs the question, why do the players (do them)?
Finally, Buck Harvey, who's as plugged into the inner workings of the Spurs as anyone, had an interesting column over the weekend on the team being unable to come to terms with Leonard on a contract extension.
My read on the situation is simple. First, Leonard's agent used Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports to try and put pressure on the Spurs at the 11th hour and to try and make them look bad. Then, PATFO countered with Harvey, feeding him enough to label Leonard's agent as unprofessional and worse. I won't be at all surprised if Leonard switches agents before long and I still expect him to be a Spur long term. I'm sure when the time comes someone will explain to Leonard, if they haven't already, that not giving him a contract now has actually nothing to do with him, and everything to do with how the league's CBA works. They can't have their cap room tied up for next season with Leonard's contract. It makes far more sense to sign a premium free agent or two first (assuming that Duncan and/or Ginobili retire) and then signing Leonard to the max under the Bird rules, which allows teams to go over the cap to re-sign their own players. Leonard surely wants to play for a contending team and while that's always going to be a long shot once Duncan hangs 'em up, it'd be next to impossible if they give him a max deal now.