Midway through San Antonio’s SEGABABA in D.C., I was reminded, for the 49,529th time, that for all the terrible decisions I’ve made in life, young Stampler got it right as an 11-year-old when he took a shine to a certain rookie center and decided, "I’m going to be a Spurs fan."
Markieff Morris got whistled for two borderline foul calls three seconds apart while trying to guard the bigger LaMarcus Aldridge. After the second call, he said something probably not very kind to referee Ken Mauer. He got hit with a technical as a result, which was expected and normal. Usually what happens in these situations is teammates and coaches try to step in between the two aggrieved parties in an effort to ease tensions. Perhaps the team’s star or captain tries to avert the ref’s attention or a couple of assistants rush over to drag the angered over to the bench area.
None of this happened with the Wizards Saturday night. John Wall and Marcin Gortat were content to let Morris go off, unabated. Scooter Brooks was a wallflower, paralyzed and powerless. Morris pushed Mauer into donning a second and final "T" with no one in Wizards white seeming to care.
Is it homer-ish of me to suggest that such a thing wouldn’t ever happen on the Spurs?
I’m still trying to figure this team out, 17 games in. The Spurs are undeniably fun, and downright perplexing most games. They’re 14-3, winners of nine on the trot and have started 10-0 on the road, setting a franchise record. This last game against the fractious Wizards was the most convincing of those wins, and it was by all of 12 points. Only two of their wins have been blowouts, but one of them was the season-opener at Golden State.
One conclusion I’ve reached is that this is the funkiest Spurs roster we’ve seen in years. They don’t win many games easily because there’s no reason for them to, not with three of their seven most important players peering over the cliff of their NBA mortality. While the individual pieces don’t impress you much – with a couple notable exceptions, of course – the whole has inarguably been more than the sum of the parts, and a lot of that has to do with four additions to the club. R.C. Buford probably won’t win Executive of the Year again, not with Warriors counterpart Bob Myers snagging Kevin Durant in the off-season, but he deserves kudos for his work this past summer. Gregg Popovich has also been typically brilliant in integrating the newcomers. The Spurs have out-performed their win projection so far by two wins.
Pretty early for this, but here's actual win totals against Pythagorean win totals (wins expected based on margin of victory) pic.twitter.com/4WZsipltK7— Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh) November 28, 2016
Really, if you drink an adult beverage or five and squint a little, this crew might remind you of the 2002-2003. The player-for-player comparisons are messy, but this is a team of specialists, Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard aside. Everyone else provides one or two unique assets and a whole host of liabilities, only for those weaknesses to be papered over by the strengths of others.
Take Pau Gasol. He’s simply an abysmal defender, with zero qualifiers. Man, Jesus was right, as much as it pains me to admit. He’s as much of a statue in his own end as Brooks was while watching his starting power-forward talk his way into an early shower. Gasol’s length enables him to luck into an occasional block, the way Tim Duncan swatted people for two decades without jumping, and the Spaniard’s lack of lateral agility is reminiscent of The Golden God’s last couple seasons. But what Duncan had were the instincts and wherewithal to know where he had to get before his opponents did, which Gasol sorely lacks.
What Gasol does provide, however, is a repertoire of skills on the offensive end. He gets open threes from the straight-on and the corners pretty much whenever he wants. His hi-lo passing to Aldridge and Leonard has been superb. I’ve been disappointed in Gasol’s low-post work, but he’s been a boon to the starting lineup overall, spacing the floor, providing another outlet for Leonard and Tony Parker and serving as a tertiary play-maker, making the half-court offense that much more unpredictable. The starting lineup has been devastating with Parker and Danny Green back to full health, scoring 113.4 points in 107 minutes together per-100-possessions according to NBA.com’s Stats Index. The starters produced 104.7 points per-100-possessions in 698 minutes with Duncan last season.
As great as the starting five's offense has looked, Duncan’s retirement seems to have adversely affected the defense. Aldridge has reverted back to his Blazers days on that end, making a play now and then with his athleticism but mostly getting lost in space. Not having Duncan around to direct traffic has hurt them all – even Green and Leonard have lost guys on screens and back cuts, but we knew there would be regression with the loss of the best player in franchise history and one of the smartest defenders of all time. What I like about Aldridge besides his jumper is he can still hurt people with his post-up game, and like we saw against the Wizards – and more importantly, the Warriors – he’s a weapon versus teams that like to use small power-forwards.
Speaking of big-men who struggle defensively, how about that David Lee, huh? I hope most of you haven’t been seduced by the one emphatic block he gets a night to turn a blind eye to his otherwise absent-minded play in his own end. And for all his early offensive production for the Spurs, his scoring, rebounding and PER were actually better for Dallas last season, in similar playing time, per Basketball-reference.com. But I come here not to bury Lee but to praise him. He hasn’t played much the past couple of seasons and has lost some weight, as well, and as a result he sure looks like he’s got more juice in his legs than I remember. I think he’s an upgrade to what David West provided last season because he’s still got enough quickness and bounce to finish strong at the rim.
With all these all-offense/no-defense guys proliferating the roster, Dewayne Dedmon was a vital and necessary pickup. They haven’t lost in his absence, but his rim protection has been sorely missed. Dedmon has the best defensive rating on the team of any rotation player by a mile and blocked 3.7 shots per-36 minutes before spraining his knee. I have a feeling he’s going to see plenty of playing time once he gets healthy, especially in fourth quarters when the Spurs have leads to protect, kind of like how Tom Thibodeau would use Omer Asik and Taj Gibson to close out games for the Bulls back in the day.
Another newcomer who’s springier than he looks is Davis Bertans, who’s got ten slams already, halfway to Matt Bonner’s total in 10 seasons for San Antonio. I love the kid’s stroke and it’s clear he’s already gotten the message that Pop made crystal clear when he arrived: If you don’t shoot when you’re open, if you hesitate at all, you’ll sit. Bertans hasn’t looked the least bit intimidated by the league and I love the way he spaces the floor for the second unit. Perhaps the best thing about him though is the way his emergence has forced the other reserves to step up their games. If you’ve noticed, both Lee and Jonathon Simmons have upped their aggressiveness the past few games. They’re no dummies. They understand with Dedmon’s return to the lineup imminent there will have to be an odd man out. Ask Kyle Anderson what happens to bench guys who get tentative. If Lee or Simmons lose their edge, their minutes will go to the Latvian kid.
That’s the thing I like about this team. There’s real competition for minutes and every skill-set is covered. Green can guard the guys who are a bit too small for Leonard. Parker’s still crafty enough to finish around the basket and can get the bigs and Green looks in ways that Patty Mills cannot. Mills can shoot it from anywhere and play at the frenetic pace that’s beyond The Wee Frenchman at this point. Manu Ginobili runs the second unit, spaces the floor and makes sure everyone gets good looks. Simmons supplies badly needed athleticism off the bench. Pop noted a few games ago that they’ve never been able to adequately replace what Marco Belinelli gave them in 2014, but that edition of the Spurs had Duncan and Tiago Splitter to anchor the defense and Ginobili was three years younger. This team doesn’t need a fourth wing shooter as badly as it needs one who can run, jump, defend and make hustle plays at both ends.
Bottom line, this disparate jigsaw puzzle of a roster is fitting together better than I ever imagined. I still don’t fancy them in the playoffs against the usual suspects (actually, I think they match up better versus the Warriors than the Clips), but I am open to the possibility. The new guys give them an answer for every wrinkle people throw at them, and when all else fails, having Leonard in your back pocket is a pretty cool security blanket.