Mount Rushmore is missing, and now there’s a fire in the souvenir shop.
The brutal news Monday that San Antonio point guard Dejounte Murray had suffered a torn right ACL the day before in a preseason loss to Houston hit the team hard. Murray’s on-the-job training last season got solid results (8.1 points, 5.7 rebounds per game and an All-Defensive second team nod), as the Spurs were looking to the 22-year-old to set a faster, more aggressive pace for 2018-19 while serving as the point of their defensive spear.
Now Murray’s season presumably is over. Veteran Patty Mills and second-year guard Derrick White will likely fill Murray’s spot. And coming on the heels of top draft pick Lonnie White IV’s torn meniscus that could cost the rookie two months or more, it made for a lousy weekend.
In a challenging preseason. After the most convulsive summer in franchise history.
This was the offseason in which “the Spurs way” officially and perhaps forever went from present to past tense. In the span of a few weeks, All-Star point guard Tony Parker signed with the Charlotte Hornets, inscrutable Kia MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard got traded reluctantly to Toronto and Manu Ginobili at age 41 announced his retirement.
Add all that to Tim Duncan’s retirement two summers ago and, yes, for the Spurs and their fans, it is as if someone swooped in under cover of darkness and sandblasted away Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and T.R.
The crew in place now, the ones wearing the “laundry?” Only three current San Antonio players -- LaMarcus Aldridge, Marco Belinelli and Mills -- even played with Duncan. Most of the other players arrived in the past two years.
And then there’s Gregg Popovich, the coach and the constant. Popovich has been around for 23 seasons, the longest tenured coach not just in the NBA, but across all four major U.S. pro sports.
He ranks fifth in NBA coaching victories with 1,197, behind only Hall of Famers Don Nelson (1,335), Lenny Wilkens (1,332), Jerry Sloan (1,221) and Pat Riley (1,210). At .689, Popovich is second in NBA winning percentage to Phil Jackson’s .704 -- and unlike all the other names in this paragraph, he has done it with this one franchise.
This season, however, is different. Owing to the player departures, San Antonio’s string of 21 consecutive playoff appearances might be in jeopardy. Its streak of 21 straight winning seasons might be, too. Last year, 82 percent of the league’s general managers picked Popovich as the NBA’s best coach in NBA.com’s GM Survey. This year, his support dropped to 30 percent.
The tone at the Spurs’ media day reflected current circumstances. The team had suffered a couple more serious and significant hits in recent months -- Popovich’s wife, Erin, passed away in April and former assistant coach Don Newman died 12 days before training camp -- and those were the first two topics the San Antonio coach addressed with reporters. But those heavy, mournful comments bled into a sober, somewhat resigned atmosphere in the gym for the start of the new season.
“In one way, it’s a little bit melancholy because I’d been with them for so long,” Popovich said of his stars’ departures. “At the same time, it’s a great opportunity for a new challenge and new energy, a different route, a different perspective. Seeing all the new faces that we have to try to put together will make it a real interesting and challenging year. But in a good way.”
After a pause and a follow-up question, he added: “I really don’t know all the names.”
Life moves fast, and it’s easy to forget just how good -- and how predictable and stable -- San Antonio had been essentially for two decades. That streak of 21 postseason appearances is just one off the league’s record and produced championships in 1999, ‘03, ‘05, ‘07 and ‘14. Along the way, Popovich, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili set all sorts of marks for winning in various combinations.
Inseparable from the on-court success, that group set standards and defined itself with a determined, unadorned, us-rather-than-me approach that often set them 180 degrees apart from typical NBA perceptions.
The goal will be the same as it has been every year. We want to be the best team we can be as the playoffs roll around."
Few invoked the term “culture” before the Spurs concocted theirs and made it so essential to their winning. It’s a stew of maturity, discipline, innovation, flexibility, selflessness, competitiveness, modesty, confidence and trust. It owed large debts to the personalities of the players who shaped it but most of all, it came from Popovich, his own blue-collar background and his vision.
Some have questioned his demeanor, others his rapport with sideline reporters. No one has questioned his sincerity.
“Everything that Pop did came from his heart,” Golden State coach (and former Spur) Steve Kerr said for the new ESPN documentary, “Basketball: A Love Story.
“And that’s what I think resonated with the players in creating this vision, this culture that guys really love to be part of.”
Said Steve Nash, two-time NBA MVP and longtime Spurs rival, for the same project: “He brings in guys who are intelligent, who will listen, play for each other.”
Through the years, the Spurs changed their style -- from the Twin Towers power game with Duncan and David Robinson for the first championship, through incarnations in the new millennium that dialed up or down the offense and defense to suit who was there, right through the elegant, European passing game they mastered for the ‘13 and ‘14 Finals.
But their core values never wavered, including the resolve to regroup after having their hearts broken by Miami in ’13. A year later, older across the board, they paid back the Heat.
“Family” comes and goes in pro sports, mostly as a temporary chemistry thing applied in hindsight. What the Spurs had with Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Popovich was deeper, more like blood.
“Tony and Manu developed into the players they are in part because of where they came from,” said San Antonio GM R.C. Buford a while back. “But more because of the relationship they built amongst each other with Tim and Pop.”
Now it’s LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay and Pop, with little of the history and none of the pedigree (other than Gasol’s two rings with the Lakers) of the Mount Rushmore group. Constants, even aging ones, have been replaced by variables.
“More than anything,” Popovich said on the eve of camp, “it’s figuring out -- we’ve got a lot of flexibility -- so who’s gonna play where and who’s gonna play together? And when are you gonna be big and when are you gonna be small? And what combinations work the best? We don’t have any answers for that yet.”
Saying goodbye to Parker was tough. Losing Ginobili sounds like it hit at another level.
“It was sort of a complicated thing,” Popovich said. “Because when you’re dependent upon someone for that long, for a lot of different reasons -- not just his play on the court but just his combination of understanding people, being as curious as he was about everybody on the team and everything in the world, whether it was politics or religion, it didn’t matter what it was -- he was like a partnership in that respect. Talking on buses and airplanes. So you know that that’s going to be gone.”
Ginobili has been invited to work with the coaching staff and hang around as much as he likes -- the Duncan routine these days. Popovich’s wild card on the court from ‘02 through last spring, he sees the changes and how they’ll impact the coach from a different vantage point.
“I think it’s going to be awkward for him sometimes,” Ginobili told the San Antonio Express-News. “During halftime, when he does his thing and he’s not going to see us around. At the same time, it’s going to be a challenge to learn more about the new guys and see what buttons to push. With us, it was already too easy and he already knew us so well. I think it’s going to be a great challenge for him, having a different kind of team.”
The first question is whether the Spurs, so transformed, can still win. Of that, Popovich’s peers express little doubt.
“I think you underestimate them at your peril,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said before Sunday’s game. “They traded one All-Star [Leonard] for another All-Star [DeRozan]. So it’s not like all of a sudden they’re gonna fall off the grid. … They’re really good. It wouldn’t surprise me if they’re top four.”
Said Clippers coach Doc Rivers: “I always look at continuity in two areas. One is coaching -- if you’ve got the same coach, if you’ve got the same system, if you’ve got the same way, you can be better faster. And they have Pop.
“No. 2 is if the top players have not changed. Well, they have, but not really. Their top player is Aldridge and he’s back. The new one is DeRozan and that’s going to be an increase. San Antonio made the playoffs last year and they didn’t have Kawhi [Leonard appeared in just nine games due to a controversial leg injury]. They’re going to be pretty good. I think people are sleeping on ‘em.”
A trickier question is whether the Spurs ever again can formulate the camaraderie, the mutual ambitions -- the culture -- that was their brand for two decades.
Can they round up stars who will willingly stay, dominate, lead -- and do it all for below market value? That’s what makes their absence such a double-whammy. The Spurs lose their talents and the ability to retain them at discount rates, which gave Popovich and Buford room to manage the rest of the roster amid salary-cap constraints.
The Leonard episode, and trading him to the Raptors with Danny Green, poses a threat to San Antonio’s defense. More than that, though, it dealt a blow to Popovich’s all-mightiness over his guys -- communication clearly broke down -- and his notions of a less dramatic baton pass.
The basketball operation still does have the brainiacs who so often have snagged the right players at the right time. The Spurs still embrace and anticipate trends that made them so formidable defensively and with corner 3-pointers.
The front office remains a model of stability and there are a few guys in the locker room who can lead. Yet the ones who won and made Spurs culture not a thing but a five-time championship thing, they’re gone.
Popovich’s view of this season sounded humble. That wasn’t necessarily new, but it rang more true this time.
“The goal will be the same as it has been every year,” he said. “We want to be the best team we can be as the playoffs roll around. Get into the playoffs and do the best job we can.”
“The principles of how we do things, what the process is, will probably stay the same. But there are tweaks every year, whether it’s a tweak on offense, on defense. ... In general, the standards are the same, as far as what we expect.”
The standards? OK. The results? To be determined.
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