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With milestone season underway, Spurs’ history serves as diversion and north star

The team’s 50th anniversary will be a year-long celebration of past successes as much as an admission of what it takes to repeat them.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

More than he has at least in my years close to the team, Gregg Popovich jokes. He rolls with your questions, even the half-baked ones, and offers his observations, candor, and no shortage of positivity. Occasionally, he reflects.

Ahead of the team’s season opening loss to Charlotte on Wednesday, his 25th season opener as head coach, Pop sent out an unprompted happy 95th birthday to Red McCombs, local business leader and part of the ownership group that originally brought the Spurs to San Antonio.

“Since this is our 50th anniversary, we wouldn’t be having this without Red McCombs... He was my first boss, and I can remember still walking into Incarnate Word and seeing this big dude come in in his big cowboy boots and his fur coat and his big Texan hat, and I wondered, ‘Where the hell have I landed?’”

Now 73, Pop is a unique standing throughline into the history of one of sport’s most winning institutions, as well as a central figure in its success. If we’re to borrow the Ship of Theseus metaphor for the Spurs, who have shirked one plank after another through time, he remains an original part of that structure, or maybe simply its captain. Wherever they’re going, whatever they’re to become next, the vessel remains recognizable with its patriarch trying to bind it together.

“The responsibility is huge,” he said when speaking about the heavy developmental focus of the 2022-23 season. “It’s like having babies, you want to get them up right. You gotta have the right formula and milk and food and all that kind of stuff. And create an environment where they can all be successful. And there’s so many of them... You wanna make sure you’re not missing this guy or that guy and doing this; that this coach is helping this guy today and that we’re rotating the coaches onto different players, and just make sure they’re getting all the information. It keeps you busy. It’s exciting, and you really get to know them on a different level than most students... We have to make sure the train is going the right direction and that we’re not leaving anyone behind.”

It’s through Pop’s shared lens that we see the Spurs — not just who they were in halcyon days, but how they see themselves now and how they intend to get back there. He didn’t have to put such a fine point on it in another preseason presser, but he did anyway:

“[This year’s team is] a wonderful group of guys. To be a championship program you have to have a couple of superstars on your team — we have all known that for a long time. That doesn’t exist right now. That’s not a knock on these players, it’s just a fact. To avoid that fact seems kind of senseless to me. What we have is a bunch of guys that can all be parts of a championship team if the other pieces arrive at some point. So, to watch them develop, to watch their spirit and camaraderie with each other has been really a kick.”

The organization is rarely so transparent, nor so obliging with sound bytes that the media and fans can run with — but these are objectively different times, with an increasingly loose Pop shaping the narrative. A different ship in different seas.

Until draft lottery night, at least, the stakes have never felt lower. “I shouldn’t say this,” he began at media day, teeing up his now-viral quote. “But I’ll say it anyway. Nobody here should go to Vegas and bet on this team to win the championship.”

The money instead is to watch the team’s group of 20ish-year-olds primed for big minutes, flanked by a handful of vets fully aware of their mandate to provide guidance, levity and perspective to a campaign that will likely feature plenty of losses. Trade deadline arrival Josh Richardson has become the face of that crop, with Doug McDermott and Gorgui Dieng both willing parts of that support structure for as long as they’re around.

It’s fitting for this to take place amid the backdrop of the team’s 50th. Ginobili’s Hall of Fame tribute was the first of many, including celebrations of each of the team’s 5 championships in the Popovich Era, and a return to the Alamodome still on deck. What will be ubiquitous in every lookback are bona fide stars that elevated the Spurs to greatness. Plenty of ingredients went into it, sure, but Pop himself has said there’s really no secret sauce; it was Tim Duncan that made it all possible. As great as it is to have a Hall of Fame coach on the sidelines, as much as your culture can stabilize, you also need to find your way into those blue-chip players, like Duncan and David Robinson, and other transcendent talents like Tony Parker and Ginobili to take you places.

Among the betting favorites to pace the league in losses, the Spurs know who and what they are, seemingly more than may have admitted in years past. Gone is the intent to scrap for a play-in spot, as well as some of the core pieces that propped San Antonio to that level, moved for future-facing assets and the promise of being worse in the short term; deliberate, if cynical, renovations to the Ship of Theseus, and probably not the last. As a result, more displays like Wednesday’s opening rout are on the way, each loss serving a keen developmental purpose to be sure, but also playing a small mathematical role in the Spurs’ clear new direction.