The Spurs have recently played solid Spurs basketball. Not only does their record reflect it, but their defensive rating points to something going right. And with so much competition in the Western Conference, every game counts.
With December 15th now behind us, teams are allowed to trade most players who were signed this summer. This is the time when contenders look for complementary pieces and the bottom teams unload assets for future prospects.
This week PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Bruno Passos, Jesus Gomez, Mark Barrington, and editor-in-chief J.R. Wilco discuss the Western Conference talent pool, possible trades for the Spurs, Pop’s rise to the 4th all-time winningest NBA coach, and some comparisons of this season’s Big 3 to the men who defined what it means to be THE Big 3 in San Antonio.
All questions were posed Sunday after the embarrassing Bulls loss and before the final home game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Check back next week for responses to Monday’s game and the trip out east.
Gregg Popovich now ranks 4th in wins by an NBA coach after passing Pat Riley. What is the most impressive aspect of Pop’s legacy thus far?
Dubinski: The sheer longevity. The fact that he has stuck with the same team for so long (he’s running away with the winning record for a coach who has stayed with one franchise) and managed to string together so much success while changing with the times — unlike Phil Jackson, who still thinks the Triangle and nothing else is the way to go — will always have him regarded as one of, if not the best coach of all time.
Passos: It’s hard to pick any one thing, but the impression he’s made on so many players, coaches and media members, on a personal level, will color the way he’s looked back on just as much as the wins and titles. The reverence he’s shown in a scrum is a unique, palpable thing, and it’s because, as I’ve heard firsthand, there’s something in Pop that challenges people to be better versions of themselves.
Gomez: I’m going with the adaptability that he’s showed over the years. As en experiment I’d ask anyone to go watch a game of the 2007 Finals. You’ll see some elements that have remained with the team until today, but you will also see a different defensive scheme and an offense that seems unrecognizable compared to the one the Spurs employed in the 2013 and 2014 Finals. In between those finals trips the Spurs were for a while a high pick and roll team, too and after the last title we’ve seen them turn into a slow, iso-heavy squad. Not a lot of coaches are willing to shake things up as often as Pop and even fewer could actually be successful while changing things on the fly.
Barrington: It’s the thing that’s missing this year, which is consistency. Pop has been able to put together 20+ years of contending teams, and this year’s squad might just have broken him with their inability to put things together. At least so far. It’s still early in the season, and maybe the positive signs that we were seeing before the Bulls debacle will become habits instead of some sort of anomaly.
Wilco: All of the above, as well as his ability to find diamonds in the rough and shape them into solid, sound, cogs in whatever system he’s employing at the time It’s hard to narrow it down to just one thing, but on top of what everyone else has said, that’s the thing that has always amazed me.
The Spurs have gone 4-1 on their recent home stand. What has changed in the Spurs play to help facilitate this run?
Dubinski: There are lots of factors to point to: less travel, more practice/film time, a renewed focus on defense, role players tend to play better at home, etc. Of course, a lot of that went down the drain in the second half against the Bulls, but we’ll learn a lot more about this team based on how they respond vs. the 76ers and if they can keep this up once they’re back on the road.
Passos: The players have talked about what a difference being at home for a long stretch of time makes. It gives them the chance to watch film, focus on small things, and build on performances. While the Bulls loss sucked and seemed to suggest they’re back to the drawing board, I think we’ll see a lot of the good habits, especially on the defensive end, carry over to the rest of the season.
Gomez: The schedule helped. The homestand came at a perfect time. The opponents were either bad or shorthanded. That’s probably the biggest reason why they won four in a row. I do think the Spurs also started to figure out how to defend a little better as a team but clearly consistency is still an issue. We’ll see how much of the good that we saw in the past few games carries over to the rest of the season, but the Spurs deserve credit for doing what they were supposed to and playing well at home, for the most part.
Barrington: I kind of wish I could have answered this question before Saturday’s game against the Bulls, because then I would have said that the Spurs were starting to figure out how to play together on offense and were starting to understand the concept of team defense. But after that performance, I honestly think that nothing has really changed since early in the season. They’re still a very inconsistent squad and the guards can’t handle aggressive and quick defenders, who force them into turnovers that lead to easy points for them. The Spurs are obviously a much better team at home than on the road, but most mediocre teams are.
Wilco: The first thing for a struggling team to do is to play well at home. The first thing for a Pop-coached team to do is play coherent defense. Aside from the second half against Chicago, San Antonio has begun doing both. The next step is huge: finding out whether they can do both of the above consistently.
December 15th marks the first day that many players become available for trade. Is there any piece of the Spurs puzzle that could be acquired right now?
Dubinski: It’s hard to find a deal that works out for the better for the Spurs without being too expensive. It would be nice to shore up the small forward position, and big names are out there, but they all have flaws that make them not worth the cost (no one wants Carmelo Anthony, Jabari Parker is way overpaid and carries too much baggage, Otto Porter is a nice piece but $108 million for a 3-and-D player is pretty high, etc.) If there is a deal out there that makes the Spurs better, PATFO will consider it, but it likely won’t be the big splash many are looking for.
Passos: With how competitive the West has been, there aren’t many sellers yet on the market, which makes it tough to brainstorm possible deals. That said, I’d look into the asking price for someone like Kent Bazemore, who’s not having a great season shooting the three but could plug a hole in the small forward spot and whose contract the Hawks may be wanting to offload.
Gomez: Only a handful of teams are tanking, so there are not of quality veterans available for cheap. And the Spurs should not use their best assets to make a short-term play for anyone other than a star. Closer to the deadline if they are still in the playoff hunt, they might find a forward they can just plug in for 15 minutes a night. But I’d be fine with riding this year out and conserving flexibility for the offseason.
Barrington: It’s pretty tempting to look for some kind of quick fix for the pickle the Spurs find themselves in, but I don’t really see too many players that are available that the Silver and Black could make a meaningful play for. It would be nice to unload Pau Gasol’s bloated contract, but it might make more sense to wait on that until next year when it’s only partially guaranteed.
Wilco: Few things would shock me more than seeing PATFO make anything more than a waiver-wire transaction this season.
In the past two weeks the Spurs were drubbed by 34 by the Jazz, then dished the Clippers a 38 point annihilation. It seems like anyone can beat anyone else in the West, with just 6.5 games separating 14 teams. Has the league finally found competitive balance, at least in one conference?
Dubinski: I wouldn’t necessarily look at blowouts to justify competitive balance, but the standings part is certainly telling. Between last year’s runaway teams (Golden State and Houston) struggling early and the floor rising for all of last year’s non-playoff teams except the Suns, we’ve reached a point where basically any Western Conference team can beat up on another on any given night (and they are). There should be a larger gap by season’s end, but if the NBA ever needed any more justification for just taking the top 16 teams to the playoffs or even demolishing conferences all together, this is it.
Passos: The increase in pace probably adds a bit more scoring variance night to night, but the West has certainly been as competitive as ever as far as the standings are concerned. It’s too early to say whether a balance has been established, but it’s good to see some of the perennial cellar dwellers (looking at you, Sacramento) rejoin the fray.
Gomez: It does seem like there’s a lot more balance this year. It’s hard to predict who will win night in and night out, on both conferences. I think most of us are still expecting the Warriors to eventually get it together and run roughshod over the league once again, but for now it’s nice to see 14 teams in the West and around 11 teams in the East all with chances to make the playoffs.
Barrington: There have been a ton of blowouts in the NBA this year, and even some good teams have received some horrible drubbings on bad nights. I’m not sure if you call that competitiveness or just the fact that with the new rules, it’s a lot easier for a team to run away with the game earlier, leading to extended garbage time minutes.
Wilco: Few changes would make me as happy as chucking the conference-based playoffs and going to a 1-16 seeding. If this years’ performance by the West is what finally makes it happen, I’ll be thrilled.
Who does the best impersonation of a member of the original “Big 3”: DeMar DeRozan with his Parker-like drives, LaMarcus Aldridge with his Duncan-like ground-bound defense, or Rudy Gay with his newfound Manu-esque versatility? (Feel free to answer with another option)
Dubinski: How about DeRozan and his euro-step? It’s not quite on Manu’s level, but he has to be the Spurs’ second best Euro-stepper of all time.
Passos: Who does the best what now?
Gomez: I’m going with none of the above. The only answer to me is Pau Gasol’s Duncaface. Pau might have been doing a variation of it his entire career, but it was only after he arrived in San Antonio that he mastered the bug-eyed expression of incredulity after every foul that Tim Duncan made famous. I’m sure the two worked together on it on one of Timmy’s visits to the practice facility. It definitely paid off.
Barrington: I want to see you try that question out on Pop someday, Jeph. He would probably just growl at you and say something about isosceles triangles. I don’t think that any of them compare to any one member of the Tim-Tony-Manu big three. They are A big three, but not THAT big three, they all have different games from those guys. The challenge is to make this big three puzzle fit together as well as the other one did, and Pop hasn’t figured that one out yet.
Wilco: For the past couple of seasons, LMA’s effort and savvy on defense have been, if not outright Duncan-esque, then at least the closest facsimile we’re likely to see in San Antonio over the next decade or so. I’m glad Aldridge has recently been performing on offense, but it’s his regular hustle and effectiveness on D that make me continually glad he chose San Antonio.
Join in the conversation in the comments section below.