Last week I wrote a story referencing The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith's landmark chronicle of the 1990-91 Chicago Bulls, which naturally lured me into re-reading the book. I find myself shaking my head in amazement at not only Smith's reporting and the relationships he was able to form with Phil Jackson and the players, but the access he had in general. Smith makes a point of mentioning in the introduction for the 20th anniversary of the book that such a thing couldn't possibly be written today; no one gets the kind of access reporters and beat writers got back then. Another legend in the business, Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe, claimed in an interview that if he was a young man now he'd never aspire to be sportswriter because it's a nightmare, the teams and public relations people have so much control that the access is a fraction of what it used to be. Players and journalists don't travel together on the same planes and buses like they used to, and they don't socialize in the same bars or clubs. Heck, with the Spurs we're fortunate if we can even talk to Tim Duncan or Tony Parker after every other game, let alone after a shootaround or some off-day practice.
As the Spurs prepare for their Sunday matinee game with the current Bulls, it occurred to me that the team I cover can't possibly have a tenth of the internal friction or combustible chemistry issues of that Bulls team. For one thing, they lack a megalomaniacal superstar hellbent on scoring like Michael Jordan. For another, Gregg Popovich's sway within the franchise and the locker room is absolute. He's been at this for so long and so successful that no player with any sense would dare challenge his authority. Back in 1990 it was only Jackson's second season as a head coach, so he hadn't earned anywhere near that level of unquestioning respect. Popovich can afford to publicly tee off in a profanity-filled tirade to Kawhi Leonard like he did Friday against Denver or more regularly against Danny Green or even one of his veteran "Big Three," and none of them will ever go back at him.
Finally, it's a more tranquil locker room environment because there just isn't as much of a chasm between the team's best players and the reserves. Almost everyone in the Spurs' locker room has proven himself to some degree, especially now that Kyle Anderson is off in Austin playing for the D-League team. They're not all stars, obviously, but it's not a stretch to say that Cory Joseph, their third-string point guard, could be the the top backup for most teams and that several of their second-teamers could start elsewhere. Heck, the sixth man, Manu Ginobili, is a future Hall-of-Famer. The 1990 Bulls bench, by contrast, were mostly a bunch of unproven youngsters still trying to gain a foothold in the league. They were all itching for playing time and worried about their next contracts and whether they could get through a practice without incurring Jordan's wrath, not to mention Jackson's.
With all that being said, it'd be naive of us to assume that the Spurs spend their time off between games singing "Kumbaya" around the campfire to the sweet, soulful strumming of Matt Bonner's acoustic guitar. The Spurs still have their little cliques like every other team. "The Foreign Legion" of Ginobili, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills often hang out together on the road. Leonard, Joseph and Green congregate in the locker room. Popovich tries to keep everyone unified by organizing team dinners, but like any other group some players are closer with certain guys than others. Duncan isn't as aloof and nowhere near as antagonistic toward his teammates as Jordan was, but he's not the most social person, and is more of a family man these days.
While I don't think guys are slugging one another behind closed doors, these are still tremendously competitive, emotional, testosterone-charged humans. We see them argue at times on the court or in huddles. There are times where they are dissatisfied with their roles and their situation, even if they're not necessarily barking on the phone to their agents demanding to be traded. Every now and then those issues go public, like with Stephen Jackson, DeJuan Blair, Nando de Colo, or guys before them like Michael Finley or Beno Udrih. Once in a blue moon we even hear snippets of Pop openly airing his disappointment with a player, like with Tiago Splitter or Richard Jefferson.
Taking all that into account, perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising that Ginobili voiced some frustration after the Nuggets game, though in the most polite, passive-aggressive, Manu fashion possible. He was asked about the offensive execution and replied with the following:
I think we played better the previous three games than we did today. Today we held the ball a little too much. Of course we did really well, Tony was great today and that was the main difference-maker, and Kawhi too, but I think we can play much better as a team, finding open teammates and attacking better. I don't think we were that good.
Mind you, this was after a game in which the Spurs scored 120 points and shot 54.4 percent. I followed up by asking him if he thought that force-feeding Leonard the ball took the offense out of its flow and Ginobili gave such a detailed answer it was as though he was relieved somebody finally asked him about it.
I think he's going to get [shots]. Last year against Miami for example, he scored like crazy and we didn't run one play for him, so we know he's going to score and if we move the ball well he's going to be the one that's going to attack the seams or find open shots so we don't have to get crazy about [going to] him. Of course, sometimes we're going to use him in isolations because he's developing, he's amazing and getting there, but with his strength and offensive rebounding abilities he's going to score regardless, so I think it's going to be great for everybody if we can go back to moving the ball the way we did the previous two games for example.
I contend that on some level, Ginobili associates "moving the ball," with him being involved in the offense. I don't think he's necessarily hungry for shots because he doesn't see himself as a scorer these days, but he is the team's top playmaker and I think he'd like to play more. He hasn't played over 23 minutes since Feb. 8 at Toronto and has logged 21 minutes or fewer in seven straight. With Parker slowly returning to form and Leonard becoming the team's first option, Ginobili finds himself on the margins.
In fact, Manu averaged just 8.7 points over 10 games in February, despite shooting .459, his best percentage in any month all season. He didn't make many threes and was in a funk at the free throw line, but converted layups more regularly and even started stroking a few mid-range jumpers after being totally off the mark with them through the first 50 games. Ginobili's had some of his playmaking duties curtailed while the bench as a whole hasn't been terribly productive (like Jackson's Bulls) of late. Splitter moving back to the starting lineup has completely thrown the reserves off kilter, and with Mills and Diaw both slumping, the team is starting to look a lot like the 2013 Spurs.
Ginobili is hardly the only Spur to hint at displeasure within his role. A couple of weeks ago , before his reemergence, Parker was asked about the team's point guard rotation, where he had been losing minutes to Mills and Joseph.
It's great options. Patty's a great shooter, Cory's more of a defender and he can penetrate, so we all bring something. During the regular season it's fine but I'm sure once the playoffs begin Pop will make the right decisions because usually in the playoffs rotations get shorter.
You don't have to be too cynical to see that The Wee Frenchman is throwing some shade there. Do your cute experiments in the regular season Pop, but I better be the guy in the playoffs. Is there any doubt that "the right decisions," Parker speaks of involve keeping him in the game as much as possible?
Even Duncan has let it be known with the press when he's unhappy about being lumped into any critiques about the group not playing hard enough, and Leonard wasn't shy early in training camp about expressing a healthy dose of skepticism about Pop pledging to involve him more in the offense this season -- although that eventually came to pass this year.
So the Spurs aren't exactly the '91 Bulls. Their captain would rather bring a struggling teammate up than tear him down. It's a good thing, if not the most interesting story for the guys who cover the team. But there are things bubbling below the surface, as you'd expect with any group the size of an NBA team. It's just human nature. Thanks to "The Popovich Rules" we don't know about 99 percent of them, as the team works through their issues behind closed doors.