It’s been an emotional week for the Spurs. Manu Ginobili’s jersey retirement ceremony got the Big Three and Pop together again for one night. Days later, the team locked down a playoff berth for the 22nd straight season. The on-court performance during that time wasn’t ideal, but it was hard to fixate on mistakes made on random late season games in such a positive atmosphere.
Looking ahead, we are entering the very last stage of the regular season. It’s a time to take stock of the year while simultaneously keeping an eye on what’s coming. PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos and Jesus Gomez join Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco do just that in this week’s round-table, as they share their opinions on the Spurs’ run, their picks to win awards and more.
What was your favorite part of Manu’s jersey retirement ceremony?
Marilyn Dubinski: Tim Duncan making fun of Rod Thorn’s mispronunciation of “Emmanual Jinobilly” on draft night in 1999 was pretty hilarious and got me laughing. It was a nice mix of comedy added to what was otherwise an emotional ceremony. Who would have thought Timmy would be the comic relief? (In reality, it’s not too surprising, but I was amused by non-Spurs fan on social media who were shocked he could be funny, and some even said this is the first time they’ve ever heard him speak. Clearly they haven’t been around long if that is the case.)
Mark Barrington: I think it was Sean’s introduction, and Pop heckling him to wrap it up. Just about every speaker mentioned that Sean had stolen their thunder, although Tim seemed to be relieved that he didn’t have to cover all of the points that he had planned to.
Bruno Passos: The sense of family throughout was powerful, from the intrateam connections to Manu bringing his wife and sons on the floor and expressing his sincere excitement for making up for lost time. It was a reminder of how much he made his time with basketball count, and of how much he had to look forward to.
Honorable mention: A pregame moment when Pop respectably but unmistakably bristled when an international reporter asked him to say, “Gracias Manu” into the mic.
Jesus Gomez: My favorite moment was when Tony Parker addressed his shaky relationship with the people of Argentina. I didn’t think he was that aware that he was hated here for a while. I also loved the fact that Manu’s international career got so much attention. The event was about the Spurs retiring his jersey. The whole thing could have been about Manu’s NBA career and it would have been fine. The fact that both the franchise and Ginobili wanted to have the Golden Generation be a part of the festivities shows just how special that group was and how big a part it played in shaping the Manu that would become a star.
J.R. Wilco: Two things: First, that Tim Duncan talked longer and more willingly at Manu’s ceremony than he did at his own? Hilariously appropriate.
Second, Manu’s words to his wife (that Gomez graciously translated for us English speakers) were so inspiring that I question any husband who hears them and doesn’t immediately want to be a better man.
The Spurs have extended their playoff streak to 22 seasons. Is this year already a success, no matter what happens in the playoffs?
Dubinski: I would say yes. Personally, coming into this season I couldn’t see how they could possibly be worse than last year’s 47-win Kawhi-less team (which they can and should still surpass), especially when replacing 9 games of him with a full season of DeMar DeRozan. That being said, I didn’t consider stuff like the impact the roster turnover would have on the team, the losses of Manu and Tony, etc — and that was before losing Dejounte Murray for the season. Considering most pundits had the Spurs missing the playoffs, and especially considering it appears they have set themselves up for a brighter future in the process, I’d call it a success. Seriously, how many teams still make the playoffs in their biggest “rebuilding” year in two decades? That’s an accomplishment.
Barrington: Absolutely. When Dejounte Murray went down with a season-ending injury, expectations went out the window for this year. The development of Derrick White has been pretty exciting to watch, and the integration of DeMar DeRozan with the team culture has been pretty seamless. I’m excited with what this team will do next year.
Passos: Sure. It’s a lower bar for this team, but there are still plenty of accomplishments baked into it, from integrating DeRozan to overcoming an injury to Murray, learning some things about White and having Forbes and Bertans take further strides. The playoffs are a sort of box they had to tick, but the little things are the actual substance that the team can now build on.
Gomez: I’m leaning towards yes. The Spurs went through massive changes last summer, then lost their starting point guard and still somehow made the playoffs in the West. That’s a successful season. I know fans are accustomed to contention, so a first round exit — if it comes to that — won’t be considered something to celebrate, but the team deserves credit for putting together a good season. That being said, a respectable playoff run is probably going to be required for the fan base to remain optimistic going forward. If they don’t get swept, I’d call this year an absolute success.
Wilco: Here’s a razor we can use to make this determination: After watching the team all year, would we be surprised if the team lost in the first round? Probably not. Would we be surprised if they made the second round? Would we jump up and down and puff out our chests and hope to run into NBA analysts so we could crow about the fact that even though everyone expected them to crater —and even though many called for them to tank— they are in fact one of the last eight teams standing? I think we would. Verdict: successful season already. You only act up like that when things go better than you could’ve expected. (Additionally, any season that contains a revelation like Derrick White MUST be considered a success. No argument.)
The season is almost over. What are your picks for MVP, Rookie of the Year and Coach of the Year?
Dubinski: Much to the consternation of my Rockets fan co-worker whom I talk NBA with everyday, I’d pick Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP because I’m ready for someone to be rewarded for being more than just a scorer when leading his team to the top of the league. I believe Luka Doncic has run away with ROY, and not to be biased but I’d give Pop COY for all the reasons listed in the previous answer. What other (West) coach gets his team to the playoffs under such extenuating circumstances, nonetheless in this relatively smooth of a manner? Pop’s ability to adjust and contort his ways to his personnel was tested again, and he continues to prove that he’s the best at what he does.
Barrington: Giannis for MVP, although you could make a good argument for Harden. I would go away from Harden because he’s just so unenjoyable to watch. He’s probably equally valuable to his team, but it’s annoying to watch him hold onto the ball and then either take 3 or 4 steps or just flop. Rookie of the year is between Luka Doncic and Trae Young, and I’ll wait until after the Mavericks game to decide. Coach of the Year? You can’t overlook what Doc Rivers has done with the Clippers, but I honestly think that Pop deserves some consideration for getting the Spurs to the playoffs despite losing their point guard to injury and with a massive turnover in the roster. Probably the winner should be Mike Budenholzer, who has the Milwaukee Bucks running like a well-oiled machine.
Passos: We have to split hairs on MVP given how great both frontrunners (Giannis and Harden) have been, and even then this feels like a matter of preference more than anything. That said, I’ll go with Harden — if only because I hate watching him play and still cannot get over the force he’s been on offense. Defenses are doing everything they can — completely overhauling their coverages — in an attempt to slow him down, and it’s still not enough most of the time. For ROY, I’m fine with it going to Luka, who’s been great for longer than Young. My COY is Doc Rivers, who’s going to finish just under 50 wins and a top 6 finish in the super-tough West despite his front office — one that he was, until recently, a part of — openly gutting his roster.
Gomez: I’m going with Giannis as MVP, though I can understand how someone else might pick James Harden. They have both been amazing, but Antetokounmpo has done it on both ends for a much better team. Doncic should get ROY. Trae Young has made a push but it’s too little, too late. The numbers make it clear that Luka was just better throughout the season. I’m going with Bud as my COY. Pop deserves consideration and so do Nick Nurse and Mike Malone in my eyes, but Bud took a good team and made it great. He’s arguably had the biggest impact out of any coaches this season, so he should get the hardware.
Wilco: Giannis, Luca and Bud.
Speaking of MVPs, who was the Spurs’ this season?
Dubinski: Part of me wants to go off the cuff and give it to Derrick White since he has proven to be extremely vital to the Spurs’ success, and they seem to experience the biggest swings when he’s out or in a slump, but ultimately in the truest sense of the word I have to give it to LaMarcus Aldridge. He was their best, most steady player all season and one they definitely wouldn’t have made the playoffs without.
Barrington: LaMarcus Aldridge is the guy who is at the center of everything the Spurs do. DeMar DeRozan has had a really good year, but LaMarcus edges him out for how much he does to open up the game for everyone else. He’s improving his game at a stage in most player’s careers where they begin to wind down.
Passos: It’s Aldridge, for all the reasons we kind of take for granted now. He’s adapted to DeRozan (and basically an entirely different starting lineup from last season), carried the load on both ends of the floor, and is shooting at a career-best clip from the field.
Gomez: It’s kind of tough to pick between Aldridge and DeRozan, since their numbers are so eerily similar. They were both also great for stretches but had some rough patches as well while they adjusted to new roles and positions. I’ll go with Aldridge, mostly because — as it has been the case for most of his career — the team was so much better with DeRozan off the court. LA appears to have been more essential to the Spurs’ success despite having a negative net rating differential himself, so he gets the nod.
Wilco: Gotta go with LMA. Both guys struggled for a part of the season, but mid-season slumps are just more daunting than starting the season slow. Also, seemed to me like DmDr’s bad patch lasted longer.
The matchups are still not determined in the West. Should the Spurs try to win out or gun for a specific opponent, even if it means “resting” players strategically?
Dubinski: As long as the risk of falling to 8th and facing Golden State is on the line, they need to keep winning. It’s looking more and more like the Warriors will hold the top seed, so the Spurs need to do what they can to stay above the Thunder. If a situation arises on closing night where something like a loss gives them Denver but a win means Houston, then I would accept a strategic “rest” game.
Barrington: The Spurs need to win, both for playoff seeding and to improve their confidence. If they want to have any chance of advancing beyond the first round, they need to play consistently well for the rest of the season. They can’t keep giving away possessions at critical moments in games. You can overcome those kinds of mistakes against the Hawks, but a top playoff team like the Warriors will exploit those lapses and take the game away.
Passos: Unless something completely abnormal arises, they just need to win and expect that a 7th seed finish steers them away from a 3rd Warriors matchup in a row. That said, if things get weird on the final night of the season and Denver is suddenly in 1st, there’s no shame in playing Metu and Eubanks 35 minutes each against Dallas and, you know, seeing what happens.
Gomez: Unfortunately I don’t think the Spurs are in any position to speculate. To have margin of error for gamesmanship they needed to win a few more games earlier. I just can’t see how they could realistically strategize their way into a series against Portland or Denver, though I’m certainly hoping they luck into one.
Wilco: They’ve got to win out or they won’t be able to start a new string of 50-win seasons. Don’t we all want to be able to, years from now, say things like, “Only one season with less than 50 wins in the last 35 years. And the guy everyone forgets was the reason for that one sub-par year? Kawhi Leonard. Yeah...and I don’t have to remind you how he turned out!” I know I do.
Also, I prefer to play the Nuggets (a team the Spurs have played well this season) over a third straight postseason against dem Warriors.)