The Spurs play the Pistons in a nationally-televised game on ESPN Wednesday night and the good folks at “The Worldwide Leader” were kind of enough to make play-by-play announcer Mark Jones, who’ll be calling the game along with analyst Jeff Van Gundy, available to me for a few minutes.
You’re probably familiar with Mr. Jones’ work on some level. He’s been with ESPN since 1990 and calls NBA, WNBA, men’s and women’s college basketball games for them, as well as college football. He even hosted their old NBA Today show, when that was a thing. He’s one of my favorite broadcasters they have because he’s solid, he knows his stuff, he knows how to set up his color guys well and he doesn’t try to make the games all about him with cute catchphrases or too much “superfluous poppycock.”
That we'll also get Van Gundy (as opposed to some of the alternatives) is a bonus.
The following is an edited transcript of our chat:
Q: Mr. Jones, what are your impressions of the Spurs from the outside?
A: I think they're geared up for a championship run. They're on pace to have the third-best single-season record of all time and they just finished up a 7-1 road trip here while missing some key pieces. It's a different Spurs team than we've seen because now Kawhi Leonard is their main guy and they've added LaMarcus Aldridge and different guys are in and out of the lineup, but Pop always gets everyone to buy in and they're making it work and the question with them once we get down the road here is whether they'll be healthy enough and at their best to compete with the Warriors.
Q: Do you think they have any realistic chance against the Warriors?
A: I think they do. The key is going to be Aldridge and (Tim) Duncan play together to the point where Aldridge can put up his big offensive numbers. I think the question is going to the bench with or without (Manu) Ginobili. He's going to be starting from scratch. Can he regain his form? He was looking pretty good before his surgery. Can Patty Mills give you the leadership and production that Ginobili was giving you? Manu's a playmaker, he's had a lot of big moments in the biggest games over the years, and if he's not 100 percent I don't know if the Spurs can replace that.
Q: As a national broadcaster you get to watch everyone. How has LaMarcus Aldridge looked to you in comparison to how you saw him play in Portland, and what are the Spurs doing differently with him?
A: Popovich has said he's caught on a lot faster than a bunch of their guys have. He's had a great Feburary though a lot of those games were without Duncan, but he's had some games here that definitely reminded you of his Blazers games. At the same time, we all remember how he played in that game against Golden State and I don't think any of us will forget it soon and I've heard from some people up there that weren't too surprised by it and have questioned his resolve against tougher opponents.
Q: You mentioned Tim Duncan. What are your impressions of him both before and after the injury, and do you think he's on his last legs here and ready to retire?
A: I really think this time it might be it for him. I don't think he's running worse than in previous seasons, and he's given up some shots so that Aldridge can score and get comfortable. I know his knee has caused him to miss some games. I'm never going to bet against him in the clutch. You know Popovich is going to manage his minutes to make sure he's peaking come playoff time.
Q: Getting away from the Spurs, what's it like being able to cover the whole league and having to know a little bit about everybody instead of being embedded with one team and knowing every nook and cranny about them?
A: I love it that way. You get a wide ranging view of the league that way. Not being a "home team broadcaster," for me that's an advantage that you get a wider scope of things. When it comes to doing a Spurs game or a Pistons game it's pretty easy to call one of my scouting friends or assistant coaching friends, and get a detailed report on guys.
For Wednesday's game we'll meet with coach Popovich and get a chance to go in the locker room and talk to Tony Parker and I'll use all that info I've gathered from them and the different people I've talked to in preparing for the broadcast to set up my analysts and to be able to have things to say during the gaps in action and to be able to make cogent points here and there in response.
Q: In addition to watching every team, you also get to work with a wide range of analysts, from Jeff Van Gundy to Mark Jackson to Jon Barry and others. How does that dynamic change for you, of having to shuffle different partners every night?
A: Different flavors and you get them all during the course of the year. Hubie Brown is great with statistical analysis and trends. Doug Collins is the same way, he's a savant and he sees what's going on with the game and is great at predicting adjustments coaches will make. Mark Jackson has his own style and the way he sees the game. With Van Gundy, he's different, he'll sit back and observe and be quiet for a while and you almost forget he's even there, but having worked with him for a while now, you learn that in those times to just fill in the silences because you know he's thinking, you know he's formulating an opinion and the next time there's a gap he's going to give you a hot one.
(Full disclosure: I had some issues with my recorder so portions of the interview are paraphrased.)