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For the new Spurs, class is over and the exams begin

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Most of the work done to incorporate new pieces into the Spurs machine takes place in private. As the regular season begins, it's finally time to see what the new-look Spurs are capable of.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Coaches love Practices

This is an interesting time of year for Spurs fans.  We know we will miss some favorites who have gone on to different teams (CuJo, Splitter, Belinelli). But in Spurs land, "the future's so bright, we are all wearing shades".  The addition of LaMarcus Aldridge and the return of Manu, TD, Kawhi and Danny Green led to the Spurs' Summer of Domination.

Even though this year's season starts around Halloween, the more analogous holiday is Christmas. This new Spurs team is the Christmas present Spurs fans can't wait to open. Fans (and the players themselves) want to see what it will look like. We get glimpses of that Christmas present during exhibition games, but those are just wrapping and the bow, not the present itself. Starters barely play and some preseason games have 15 different Spurs out there, many of whom are destined for the D League, or worse. Most importantly - the games don't count, and the players know it.

From a coaching standpoint, the preseason games perhaps mean even less. Coaches know that the most important work they do is done behind the curtain.  Coaches are teachers - and the teaching is done at practices.

Indeed, as I recounted earlier, Gregg Popovich's last head coaching job before he landed (or more accurately, hired himself for) the Spurs job was at Pomona College outside of Los Angeles. At Pomona, and at Claremont where I coached opposite Pop for a few years, full-time coaches are awarded tenure at the college, just like your English, History and Philosophy professors. (As an assistant, I did not have tenure, so I was more analogous to an underpaid teaching assistant.)  By awarding tenure to the full-time coaches, the smaller colleges recognize them as teachers - the coaches just wear shorts, sneakers and a whistle instead of ugly plaid jackets with patches at the elbows.  (One of the problems with D-1 coaches is that they don't think of themselves as professors - for one thing, their salaries dwarf what the professors earn, as do their egos.)

Pop also was an assistant coach for two of the great teaching coaches - Larry Brown and Don Nelson. Both Brown and Nellie were thoughtful students of the games who liked to try new things. Nellie, in particular, revolutionized the sport with a small ball approach, an approach ridiculed at the time, but which the Warriors adopted and used to win last year's championship --  stealing the idea from the 2014 Spurs. That innovation, like Pop's many innovations which have led to the Spurs' reign of success, were incubated when he coached with Pomona Pitzer, later fertilized by the great minds of Brown and Nellie - and implemented through countless practices throughout the years.

Players love games, as do coaches - but coaches really love the teaching that goes on to prepare for games. John Wooden famously said "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."  Great coaches like Pop don't let that happen. They know that practice is going to class - the game is the exam. In the NBA, the regular season is a series of quizzes and mid-terms, with many classes in-between. The playoffs are the final exams. And unless the players go to class, and coaches teach during those classes, the exams don't end well.

For coaches, some of the most gratifying moments happen when your players take their exams (play the games) and execute what we practiced over and over again before taking the exam. When I coached at Claremont McKenna College, I worked on fundamentals with our bigs. (Even though I played guard in college, and still do today, I often worked with the post guys.) One fundamental we constantly worked on was keeping the ball up above the shoulders after getting an offensive rebound - put another way, not bringing it down below the waist where all the munchkins can grab at it. One of my coaching highlights occurred when my all-conference post Dominic Nappi grabbed an offensive board in traffic and, without bringing it down into Munchkin-land, powered it back into the basket. I found it especially gratifying when all the other bigs on the bench stood and cheered the play. They knew that Dom had done exactly what they all had worked on in practice.Yes, Dom earned A+ on that part of the exam.

You see the same thing with the Spurs. Each time they run the hammer play, and the screen opens up Patty Mills or Danny Green in the corner for an open three, the coaches and the players know that play worked because they had set that screen in practice - over and over again. Similarly, the dearly departed Splitter became adept at catching the ball on the pick and roll -- and immediately firing the pass to the opposite corner.  Splitter knew the help man forced into the paint on the pick and roll would be the defender otherwise assigned to the corner shooter. Spurs fans should know that Splitter and the bigs had done the exact same thing, over and over at practice, which is why it looked so easy during the game (the exam) where we all get to see the result.

When we open the Christmas present that is this new Spurs team, I look forward to seeing what the Spurs do when LA is setting the screen. He loves to pick and pop instead of rolling as Splitter did (because he couldn't shoot like LA can). Where will LA pass the ball when teams rotate someone onto him on his pop?  Whatever we see, the pass he throws will be something that the coaches had the players run countless times at practice.  Enjoy watching the result of all that hard work.