After the 2010-2011 season in which the Spurs fell to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, becoming just the second #1 seed to lose in the first round since the NBA expanded it to seven games, it was apparent that the roster as constructed was not good enough to get the Spurs to the heights at which they as an organization (and we as fans) had become accustomed to. There was a growing sense of unease amongst Spurs supporters, as we wondered if maybe, just maybe, these were the final moments in the sun for the holy triumvirate of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. And Richard Jefferson didn't help.
Do you remember this team? There were five players who played more than 28 minutes per game: the Big Three, Jefferson, and George Hill. Matt Bonner averaged the sixth most minutes per game. Jefferson and DeJuan Blair tied for the team lead in games played. Antonio McDyess, bless his heart, shuffled around the best he could before giving up the ghost as a professional and retiring after the season. Tiago Splitter was a rookie who averaged just over four points in 12 minutes per game. Some guy named Danny Green played in only eight games. Tim Duncan had his worst statistical season as a professional to that point. Chris Quinn played 41 games for this team. Chris Quinn only played 78 more minutes in the NBA after this season. The fact that Gregg Popovich was able to win 61 games this year through sheer force of will and an uncanny ability to beg, borrow and steal may be the greatest coaching job of his career (and with no COY award, which is exactly how I imagine he would want his greatest coaching job to be remembered). At least we had Gary Neal.
Make no mistake about it. When the foundation of your roster starts with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, it's easy to get complacent. It's easy to maintain the status quo. It's easy to believe that tweaking the pieces around those Three is enough to get you where you want to go. But after the Grizzlies debacle, PATFO was not complacent. PATFO did not maintain the status quo.
PATFO was proactive.
It all began on a Thursday. It was June 23, 2011 in New York City when the Spurs made a move that extended the franchise's fortunes beyond the shelf-life of the Big Three, trading Pop-favorite George Hill to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for the 15th overall pick, San Diego State forward Kawhi Leonard (and two second round picks). They followed that trade up by drafting 19-year-old Longhorn product Cory Joseph with the 29th pick.
Then came a flurry of in-season moves that were completely out of character for PATFO, a regime long known for it's dedication to continuity. First came a December signing of T.J. Ford to solidify the backup point guard position. After Ford abruptly retired in March of 2012 due to health concerns, the Spurs made a move to open up more playing time for Kawhi, trading Richard Jefferson to the Golden State Warriors for Stephen Jackson. One week later, the Spurs signed Patty Mills and Boris Diaw off the street. These moves, combined with the development of Tiago Splitter and Danny Green during the season, set the Spurs franchise up for another sustained run of postseason success as they reached the Western Conference Finals for three consecutive seasons, back-to-back NBA Finals appearances, and the fifth championship in the Duncan-Popovich era in 2014. These Spurs were perhaps the most talented teams from top to bottom in franchise history.
But we all know this story. So what does this have to do with last night's 117-89 victory over the Phoenix Suns?
Everything. After last season's first round loss to the L.A. Clippers, PATFO was again proactive - chasing and landing the biggest fish in the free agent pond in LaMarcus Aldridge, convincing David West that he has always been a Spur in his heart, trading for Ray McCallum, and mining the depths of the worldwide pool of basketball players to bring in Jonathon Simmons and Boban Marjanovich. The Phoenix Suns came into last night's game fielding a roster of nine healthy players (eight, after P.J. Tucker went down in the first quarter with a chest contusion and did not return) and though the Spurs were without Tony Parker and Tim Duncan themselves, the depth that the Spurs have constructed was never more apparent as they stepped on the gas and wore the Suns out in the fourth quarter. Even missing two future Hall of Famers, the Spurs played 13 guys (none over 29 minutes) and outscored the Suns 38-20 in the final frame to notch another comfortable victory.
We have all become accustomed to (and perhaps spoiled by) the Spurs consistently fielding a roster that is deep with talent; a roster that can continue to operate at a high level despite missing important pieces. As the NBA season grinds on through the dog days of winter and teams struggle through injuries and fatigue, it is important that we all occasionally take a step back and admire the dedication to development and the foresight for roster construction that the Spurs have embraced, especially when all we need to do is look across the court at last night's opponent to see the alternative.
Proving My Point
Someone's been learning from Timmy...Boban, with no business winning a race, beats the Suns down the floor. pic.twitter.com/MazzsIQT8H— Chris Itz (@Chris_Itz1) January 22, 2016
Your Three Stars
1. Boban Marjanovic: 17 points, 13 rebounds, 22 minutes played
2. Kawhi Leonard: 21 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and a starting spot in the All-Star Game
3. Jonathon Simmons: 13 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 vicious dunk
Because Michael Erler and I are apparently dead-set on making you all relive that awful week in 2011, here's some more awful stuff from that awful week.
Awful #1 song on the Billboard Top 100 that week:
Awful #1 movie in the box office that week: