1 - After the loss to the Clippers, Pop cited effort as the main problem with the team. It's not the first time he's done that. Is the championship hangover real?
Michael Erler: After you win a championship and accomplish your goal of redeeming everything, it must be really hard to be motivated for regular season games the next year. You just kind of assume you'll try hard when it matters or that you'll have a 14-2 run somewhere when you get down in a game. It must be hard to just focus and play with the proper intensity, especially after wins. Heck at times it's hard for the Spurs to do that in the playoffs after wins. If a coach could ever figure out how to make his team play hard night after night no matter how many titles they won, he'd be the best coach ever, but I think it's impossible. It just goes against human nature. No matter how much you tell yourself "the next game is all that matters," you can't trick yourself into actually believing that forever.
Pop understood his job was going to be much harder this year, but so far that understanding hasn't led to many positive tangible results. Also, it doesn't help matters in the least that Leonard's missed so much time, and Parker and Ginobili have struggled
Jesus Gomez: It probably is. Manu Ginobili recently said something similar, that they don't consciously play with less effort but their motivation has waned a bit. I really hope that's the case because it means that, as the playoffs get closer, they will collectively step up. The other option is that they just aren't that good anymore and I'm not ready to accept that yet.
Kyle Carpenter: I would take a team of undersized, outmatched Cory Josephs busting a lung to compensate for a lack of talent over freakishly gifted non-chalants any day of the week. I guess that's why I root for the English players in the Premier League.
I wasn't sure what to call it--maybe complacency, maybe a hangover--but this team has looked tired in 2015. Lethargic and exhausted. Like they'd rather still be in those comfy locker room chairs during 3rd quarters. If this is simply regression to the mean from a team that was the most focused sports organization I have ever witnessed last year, then so be it. But I don't think this lack of effort is simply glaring by comparison.
(This is also a symptom of a coach who has demonstrated that themes and big pictures are always more important than minutia. You have veterans who mustered everything, hopefully not for the last time, but it is significantly harder to do that each year. And harder still to do it in this slog of the NBA Winter.)
Chris Itz: I really didn't think that it was going to be an issue before the season started because I thought that Duncan and Pop wouldn't let it happen, but it does seem that human nature came into play. Erler suggests that they play better and harder after losses and that may be true, but it's not like they become a dominant team in the games following losses. They've posted a nice 12-5 record, but their point differential over those games is +4.2, up from +3.6 for the season. If you take away three home wins over weak competition -- the 76ers by 25, the Knicks by 14 and the Lakers by 14 -- the point differential is just +1.1. There were injuries and tough opponents for sure, but the good guys haven't shown the determination and focus that they did last season.
J.R. Wilco: One of the most difficult things to find in the game of basketball (and in life for that matter) is balance. In the NBA, trying too hard can be just as much a problem as not trying hard enough. The game must have seemed so easy to the Spurs as they were blowing out the Heat in games 3-5 of The Finals. Having that experience is great as a memory, but trying to get back to that place has to be maddeningly difficult. Effort is key, but it's not everything because you also have to be on the same page and make the correct reads -- which is so much a feel thing. The inability of the Spurs to dominate is so much more than just an Champ's Hangover.
2 - The Spurs signed Reggie Williams to a ten-day contract but it's hard to see him sticking with the team. Is there someone out there who you think could contribute from that 15th spot?
Erler: I'll freely admit I'm not an expert on D-League rosters or international ones, but for the most part I don't think anyone there would be of much help for the simple fact that Pop wouldn't trust them to be. Barring a catastrophic injury epidemic, no call-up will ever play enough to make a difference, and if so many injuries have to happen for them to get a chance then what's the point anyway? As for the trade/buyout/free agent front, I have zero interest in any of the old guys like Ray Allen, O'Neal or Dalembert, but maybe someone on Denver like Arron Afflalo or Wilson Chandler could be useful. The Spurs could use a stretch four or another wing shooter (if they want to pull the plug on Diaw or Bonner or Belinelli) but I doubt they will.
I argued in the off-season that re-signing Diaw might be a mistake, that the team should get some fresh blood that's hungry for a ring instead of Diaw who would most likely be complacent, and I hope I was wrong.
Gomez: No, not this season. Guys like Andray Blatche and Michael Beasley are killing it in China and could bring size and athleticism but their track record off the court is atrocious. What I would love to see the Spurs doing is to sign someone from the D-League or even Europe, as they did with Baynes, to a cheap multi-year deal. The Spurs will have a lot of free agents next offseason so getting someone young and cheap that can sop up ten minutes a game in 2015/16 would be great. So give Jordan Hamilton a call, R.C.
Carpenter: Meh. Are we honestly going to find a better fit somewhere in the D-League than Kyle Anderson? JaMychal Green got a look, but is now off to the Grizzlies on a 10 day-contract. If I could spot the next Hassan Whiteside, I would probably be working with Mr. Buford, rather than commenting on his moves via the internet.
With a preface of Longhorn alumni bias: Jordan Hamilton has been scoring like a madman in the D-League. He's a proven NBA commodity on that side of the ball, if only he could become a coherent defender.
Itz: I think we know who this team is. Either they remain healthy and approach the level they played at last season or they don't. There's no marginal player that is going to make a difference.
J.R. Wilco: If someone on a 10-day contract can help the Spurs, they're not going to win the championship. But I suppose someone off the waiver wire might possibly be able to contribute a few minutes of positive playoff production, but it's unlikely. This team's established guys will either be able to get it together in time, or there will be a new NBA champ.
3 - The Spurs are playing at a significantly slower pace this season. Could that be tied to their offensive struggles?
Erler: It's one of many factors. They just look tired, mentally and physically. People brought this up constantly with the Heat last year so why can't it be an issue with the Spurs? They've played 100-plus games the last two years and made it to the conference finals the year before that in a season where they squeezed 66 regular season games into 4.5 months. Sure, they rest guys and don't play them heavy minutes, but I think fatigue must be an issue.
Gomez: It's hard to say if playing slower is the problem or playing poorly has led to playing slower. A high pace is not just about fastbreaks but getting into the offense early and cutting opponent possessions short. I do think there are growing pains that come from trying to integrate Leonard into the offense from the post that slow down the attack. I'm assuming that as the games pass, the team will get the hang of it and we'll see the pace rise as it happens.
Carpenter: Slow, sure. Sloppy, definitely. I don't really think the pace is the problem. We've all fallen in love with the evolution of the Spurs offense to this quick, ball-pinging around the perimeter outfit, but we haven't had a Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili capable of getting the penetration that spawns that. I think Parker still has a lot left in the tank, but this is a bit of a trial of what else we've got.
Itz: The biggest reason the Spurs have struggled offensively is not pace, it's Tony Parker. Not only because he has missed 14 games, but he's also been a net negative when he's been on the court. If you take out his rookie season, he's posting career lows in points, rebounds and assists per game. His ability to finish seems greatly diminished and I'm officially concerned about TP.
J.R. Wilco: I'm coming back to the issue of feel. When all five guys on the court are seeing the same thing simultaneously, baskets come easy and quickly. There's your pace. Finding something approaching last year's basketball nirvana is difficult because there are so many things that have to fit together correctly. Pace is a symptom, not the disease.
4 - Who was the biggest All-Star snub?
Erler: Damian Lillard, easily. I think it's kind of a joke that Kevin Durant made the All-Star team. Reigning MVP and all that, but he's played 20 games for a .500 team. It's a travesty. It's like the coaches didn't want to upset him and give him motivation for the second half of the season or something.
Gomez: I would say Lillard but that would mean Duncan shouldn't have made it so I won't do that. I'll go with Nikola Vucevic. 19.4 points, 11.2 rebounds and two assists per game playing for a terrible Magic team that can't space the floor? That should be enough to get to the All-Star game. Sure, he can't protect the rim to save his life but neither can Blake Griffin. Of course Griffin is the better player but I feel Vucevic got punished for playing on a bad team.
Carpenter: This will be the space where everyone argues for Lillard, after all, DID YOU SEE THAT TRIPLE OVERTIME GAME??? But he has fluctuated from MVP to horribly inefficient (though that didn't stop me from wearing those Iverson zip-up Answer IVs as an 11-year-old) in a conference that already has a Russell Westbrook. Lillard's last 10 games, in which the Blazers are 2-8, he has shot 33% from the field and 24% (on 83 attempts!) from behind the 3-pt line. That said...he should've been on this team. Just make it all guards, Anthony Davis, and Marc Gasol. Coached by Duncan (You know you'd watch that).
The East's biggest snub is Kyle Korver. Great name, legendary year. A full 10% better three-point shooter than Klay Thompson!
Itz: Probably Damian Lillard. He's the only player in the league scoring at least 21 points and dishing 6 assists per game with a usage under 27% via basketball-reference, which is a pretty rare feat that is usually accomplished by an all-star. He's also shooting 37% from behind the arc, taking the third most threes per-game in the league and being assisted on only 56% of them. Only Steph Curry can best that.
J.R. Wilco: While an honor, it's just an exhibition, and all too often it's nigh-unwatchable. That said, you can take your pick between Lillard or Korver.
5 - Give me the starting five of your Anti All-Star team. No conference restrictions, just the five worst players getting regular minutes in the league.
Erler: PG Tony Parker. Heh, just kidding.
I'll go PG Jameer Nelson, SG Lance Stephenson, SF Matt Barnes, PF Josh Smith and C Kendrick Perkins.
Gomez: J.J. Barea - Kirk Hinrich - Richard Jefferson - Wesley Johnson - Glen Davis. Honorary mentions: Jimmer Fredette, Hedo Turkoglu and Kendrick Perkins. The 76ers would blow out that team.
Carpenter: Your 2015 Los Angeles Lakers.
Scooter Brooks sits KD and RW at the same time and calls post-ups for Perk. That kind of nonsense earns you the privilege of coaching this sorry group.
So Perkins at the five, Quincy Acy at the four, First Name Last Name at three (all of the Mavs fans I know just groan when he checks in), the remains of Vince Carter at the two and a rookie with a poor jumper at point...let's go Elfrid Payton. Alexey Shved as the sixth man. Gomez' team would have their way with that team.
J.R. Wilco: Richard Jefferson, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, Josh Smith, and ... Derek Fisher. (Yes I know he's coaching now. Leave me be.)