The injured are returning one by one, the superstars are ejected, and one coach’s season ends abruptly. Today’s roundtable brings together Pounding the Rock’s contributors Bruno Passos, Marilyn Dubinski, Jesus Gomez, Mark Barrington, and editor-in-chief J.R. Wilco to discuss the stretch in which the Spurs went 4-0 against the Hornets, Mavericks, and the Grizzlies twice. Question are distributed over the weekend and edited to post every Tuesday, so for discussions about the Spurs games Oklahoma, Detroit, Miami, and Boston, check back next Tuesday.
Must start off with the return of Tony Parker. Give him a grade for the week.
Bruno Passos: A. He's getting to the rim, setting up teammates, and doing just about everything he should to feel comfortable on the floor again. He also had a 25.6 net rating through his first three games. There will be rough nights, especially against elite defenses like Boston's, and he won't be nearly as aggressive whenever there's a legitimate rim protector lurking nearby, but everything I've seen so far has been encouraging.
Marilyn Dubinski: Based on expectations, I'd give him a solid A. He's hardly lost a step, is slashing to the rim, hitting shots, setting up the offense, finding the open man, taking care of the ball...basically everything we wanted from Dejounte Murray and Patty Mills but weren't always getting. Where he has impressed me the most is his aggression level; he has shown no fear of diving for loose balls or potential contact, and to me that is the biggest sign that he is back.
Jesus Gomez: Tony gets an A. He's been terrific. I was not expecting him to be in game shape, since he's been out so long. It seems like he wasn't lying when he said he was healthy weeks ago. I do worry a little bit about what we'll happen once the minutes limit is lifted. It's easier to be aggressive when you know you are going to be on the court for 18 minutes. It will be an adjustment when he starts playing fourth quarters again. Hopefully he'll figure it out.
Mark Barrington: I think that everyone, including me, had the expectation that Tony would lose a little bit of speed and agility after such a devastating injury and take some time to get back. When he burst back on the scene beating people off the dribble and showing off his French Twist* in the first game, my mind was blown, just as Kawhi's was in the HEB commercial. Just giving him an A seems an under-appreciation of the medical miracle that we've just witnessed. I just can't wait to see how Kawhi comes back from a similar issue. Doctor Parker is a miracle worker.
* That might not mean what I think it means.
J.R. Wilco: Tony gets a B from me, but I will admit that I expected him to be fresh when he returned, and that the only reason he’s not at A-game level for me is that he’s had limited minutes. I love the energy and speed he’s playing with, but even more so his expertise in running the pick and roll/pick and pop. He even ran the loop play recently and cut back on it to receive a pass on the entry side and scored on a drive down the middle of the paint, which was so good to see.
Kawhi Leonard is said to be on the final stretch of his time on the bench. Is this news or the same soundbite rhetoric as before?
Passos: The Spurs don't divulge anything they don't want to, and to hear that he's fully participating in practice means that his return is nigh. It's news. It's great news.
Dubinski: I see this as legit news for a change. Before Pop's answers were just of the "when it happens, it happens" variety, but confirming that he's doing 5-on-5 drills and legitimately close is a lot more believable than "sooner rather than later." Also him traveling with the team is a good sign after a semi-panic was caused by someone videotaping Kawhi "struggling" to climb up to the plane a month or so ago.
Gomez: To be fair, it was news when Pop said he'd be back "sooner rather than later." You have to take those statements at face value, really. This update seems more specific, though, which is always better. Pop said they would bring him along slowly. Him doing five-on-five drills seems to be the final stage of his recovery. I expect him to be back soon.
Barrington: I think this new news is very encouraging, and is specific enough for us as fans to be optimistic about a return to action soon without lingering issues from the injury. I think the Spurs have been treading the line between maintaining medical privacy and trying to inform the fans about Kawhi's status. Although a lot of fans feel frustrated that they aren't being told an exact schedule for his return, it seems clear that the reason for that is that there isn't a set schedule, and previous setbacks have made the team cautious about returning him to play too early.
Wilco: The Spurs bring back players when they’re satisfied they’re ready to play. What’s the alternative — bringing them back sooner despite the risk? As far as communication is concerned, more is better for fans, and less is preferred by the team. This is how it’s always been and wishing for anything else is a recipe for frustration. Bottom line: he comes back when he comes back and we’ll celebrate his return no matter the date.
Anthony Davis earned his first career ejection last Wednesday on two technical fouls accrued on consecutive plays.
LeBron was ejected the night before. Pop received his second ejection of the season the other night against Dallas.
Is there an epidemic of aggression right now involving the officials?
Passos: I haven't been following the trend league-wide but, based on the examples given, I wouldn't say so. Pop knew what he was doing with both of his. Anthony Davis seemed to earn his. LeBron's is probably the only dubious one of the bunch, but isolated incidents do happen (shout-out to Joey Crawford) from time to time. That said, technical foul league leaders Demarcus Cousins and Draymond Green (6 techs each) are both on track to surpass their totals from last season, so maybe there is something to it.
Dubinski: While I personally enjoy a good all-star ejection since it rarely happens to Spurs players, and Pop's typically happen when he wants to fire up the team. The general consensus seems to be that the refs' tolerance level has bottomed out this week. I don't know if players flipping out is something the league privately told them to crack down on, or if we are witnessing a wussification of the officials, but the star-level of players ejected this week would be one heck of a coincidence, if that's all it is.
Gomez: I think refs were too lenient to some players earlier in the season. Now there might be some over correction going on. It happens. But there's an ebb to these things. In a few weeks we'll be wondering why refs are rarely calling techs.
Barrington: Spreading out the schedule early in the season has got the players a little less focused on just getting through the games and led to a little more energy for the players. Instead of being beat down by travel and back-to-backs, the players can bark at each other and referees, which is exactly what the league wanted when they stretched out the season.
Wilco: I’ve been amazed for years at how much latitude the refs allow star players before calling techs. Whether we’re seeing a momentary blip, or something that continues all season remains to be seen. But I guess I’m old school in that I get it when coaches yell at the officials, but prefer players to treat the refs with at least a bit of respect.
Memphis fired David Fizdale just before the Spurs consecutive games against the Grizzlies. What does that do to a team, it’s players, and the fans overall to lose a coach mid-season? Do you think there are more major coaching adjustments on the horizons for teams? Especially looking at teams like the Clippers who have lost key players.
Passos: It sucks, but for Memphis it seemed to help put a spotlight on the dysfunction that has quietly been eating away at the team for years. There's a great piece that Grizzly Bear Blues published a few days ago that I highly recommend, giving a good idea for what's been going on, and how many fans are feeling about their team right now. It's a reminder that a team can have a sound coach, multiple stars, and a strong identity, but without good leadership starting at the top it can all crumble.
Dubinski: It was definitely surprising. After Fizdale stood up for his team against the refs last season (even if he was if it wasn't as bad as he made it out to be), it seemed like they were all in with him. To learn that even back then he and Gasol weren't on the same page is surprising, and I hardly think you can blame him for their rash of injuries. It seemed like a desperate move by the Grizzlies' front office hoping to kick-start its team and avoid the worst embarrassment of all: your star asking for a trade, and it didn't work. With the spectacle they and the Suns caused with seemingly unnecessary firings and more blame falling on the owners and front offices for not giving them adequate help, I can see some other teams pumping the breaks for a bit. (For the record, I don't think Doc is going anywhere.)
Gomez: I don't think Fizdale was the problem in Memphis, but he dug his own grave by benching Marc Gasol on the fourth quarter against the Nets. There was tension bubbling between the two, and that clearly wasn't the right way to handle it. I think by firing him management tried to hit the reset button in terms of locker room chemistry. It might not work, but it was the most viable option. The front office won't fire itself. Trading Gasol would be more complex and have bigger repercussions. So Fizdale is gone. That's how it typically goes.
Barrington: I liked Fiz, and he was entertaining to watch. In any organization, stability is the key to success, and firing a leader after a short time is corrosive to morale and organization. The locker room must have been toxic for them to have fired him so quickly, but it goes to show that the NBA is a player's league and no coach [except one, perhaps] can survive the discontent of his superstar player. J. B. Bickerstaff seems to have his players playing hard, and he might be their best choice. The truth is that the current roster of the Grizzlies wasn't going to do very well in the talent-rich West, no matter who was the coach, so a coaching change only makes things worse for them.
Wilco: In the modern NBA, a coach can’t gratuitously bench his best available player because they’re not on the same page, and then refer to it as flippantly as Fizdale did -- at least, they can’t do all that and still expect to keep his job.
Where does LaMarcus rank in terms of current, healthy power forwards?
Passos: There are strong cases for the Brow and Al Horford, who's playing a pivotal role on one of the league's best teams, but then things get murky. Most people would have Draymond ahead of him, but they're in such dramatically different roles, and I'm not sure Draymond's slight defensive edge makes up for the fact that he's still averaging 10 points per game in one of the most dynamic offenses ever. Are we calling Giannis Antetokounmpo a forward or point guard? What position does KD play more of these days? Either way, top five seems safe, but I'm OK if you have him higher, and that's awesome for a guy many fans were wanting to send off for spare parts not long ago.
Dubinski: I think he's right up around the top. I can't speak much for what's happening in the East (is LeBron James starting at PF right now?), but in the West it's hard to argue that anyone expect Anthony Davis has been better. Draymond Green is still doing his thing, but he's not the focal point like Aldridge is right now and doesn't carry the same burden. I'd also say no current PF in the West has more pressure to perform than LMA (especially now that Blake Griffin is out for an extended period), and he's risen to the occasion like no one could have imagined. Good for him.
Gomez: Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap and Anthony Davis are all missing time. I have Kristaps Porzingis and Draymond Green ahead of LA, but that's because I'm accounting for potential when it comes to the former and versatility when it comes the latter. It's all subjective, obviously. I wouldn't blame anyone for having Aldridge as the best power forward this season. He's been phenomenal.
Barrington: With Anthony Davis getting hurt, LaMarcus is the best healthy strong forward in the league. He's not just a dominating player on offense, this year his defense has been impressive too.
Wilco: I’m on record as being crazy excited about LMA’s season so far, as well as my distaste for ranking players from different teams in different roles against each other. Aldridge is playing great offense and defense and I couldn’t be happier.
In the past week, Manu Ginobili took at least one charge per game.
Considering what happened to him in February 2016, is it a case of “when will he ever learn?” or “when will we ever learn?”
Passos: Nobody will learn. For Manu, it is who he is, but it's also what he feels he needs to do to make an impact these days against guys half his age.
There's nothing for us to learn, either -- Manu will continue to lunge drive into the lane, take contact at the rim, and throw himself in front of whomever he has to, and we'll watch with bated breath, suffering just a little each time. It's the least we can do.
Dubinski: Like I said about Tony above, Manu is simply fearless. He won't even stop dunking and risking his hamstrings! In other words, he's Manu. This is what he does, and we must learn to accept that. Pop did a long time ago, and it might be a big reason why he looks 15 years older than Mike D'Antoni even though their age difference is only about 2 years.
Gomez: At least he's doing it during actual games that matter now. It was more worrisome back in preseason, when he was risking his body in meaningless match ups. But he's Manu. That's what he does.
Barrington: Manu's gotta Manu. As much as it hurts to watch, it's who he is. The day he stops competing without regard for his health is the day that he retires from playing.
Wilco: I believe that fans love Manu the way they do because of who he is, and he reveals who he is by the way he plays. It’s not just clever, heady, unique-vision type plays that show the kind of player Manu is, it’s the all-out-all-the-time approach that creates that devotion Spurs fans have for him. He can’t change that any more than he can fill in his bald spot.
Thanks to all of our contributors for their thoughts. Do you have a question you’d like to ask In The Bonus? Put your question in the comments section or email Jeph Duarte.