It’s not that there was no attention paid to the San Antonio Spurs in the offseason. There’s never any attention paid to the Spurs in the offseason. Even when they successfully recruited LaMarcus Aldridge as a free agent in 2015, the biggest story of that NBA summer was the insane on again-off again DeAndre Jordan follies with the Dallas Mavericks and LA Clippers, not San Antonio’s low-key persuasion.
Just the way they like it down there.
Give the Golden State Warriors all the light and the heat and the immediate expectations. The Spurs don’t have their paintball-loving, franchise all-time-best and future-Hall-of-Famer as their defensive anchor for the first time in two decades, and that will take a while to fully process during the course of this season.
Duncan still shows up from time to time at practice, detailing what coach Gregg Popovich wants done on the floor. He has an open invitation to do whatever he wants for the franchise. But it’s obviously not the same.
“It’s felt weird every day,” Popovich said last week, “just walking in the gym and not seeing the big fella. I’m getting used to a new look, I guess, when I look around the gym. But I miss him, sure.”
Duncan is the franchise’s all-time leader in games (1,392), minutes (47,368), points (26,496), rebounds (15,091), blocks (3,020) and field goals (10,285) -- as well as rings (five). He had a major hand in each of the Spurs’ championship seasons, and was Obi Wan to a generation of knights who had yet to learn the ways of the Spurs. A joke or a bang on the head from Duncan did wonders for the young and struggling; his words were brief but powerful.
He leaves that, now, to the next generation.
“It’s more about doing the right thing, and showing the guys the way to do it,” Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “Coach tells us to be on the nail, close out, do it this way, you do it. That’s how Tim started it and did it for 20 years, so that’s how our culture is. It’s about showing it and doing it in those teaching moments. I got better at it in my last three years in Portland ... but it’s not about having a pecking order; it’s about getting guys to be better at it.”
Fortunately for the Spurs, they may have the best two-way player in the league to build around. Again.
Kawhi Leonard had already established himself as the Spurs’ best offensive player over the last year or so. They’d gradually increased his workload, making him the focal point in the halfcourt, and he’d responded with a career-high 21.2 points per game. More crucially, he was already ensconced as the league’s top individual defender, shattering his opponents’ shooting percentages and game plans. Entire quarters were throttled as Leonard shut down this guy, then that option, then another, and another
Now, he has to lead in all ways.
“Just keep that culture going,” Leonard said after scoring a career-high 35 to lead the way in a 29-point Spurs pasting of the Warriors in Oakland on opening night. “Tim was a great basketball player, led this team to five championships. I just want to do the same, or get close. Just keep having a winning culture, and just keep moving from there.”
Leonard is one of four starters back from last season (though guard Danny Green is out another couple of weeks with a quad injury). Pau Gasol, fresh off another star turn with Spain at the Olympics (he led his native land to a bronze medal), replaces Duncan in the middle, but Tony Parker is still running the show. Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills are back to anchor the bench. Pop still glowers. There is more than a little continuity left from the team that won a franchise-record 67 regular season games last season.
And the team that beat San Antonio in the playoffs, the Oklahoma City Thunder, is now without Kevin Durant.
The Warriors are wildly talented, to be sure. But as the Spurs showed last week, the Warriors are also skinny and unproven off their bench, and vulnerable to a team with athletic size. The Cleveland Cavaliers showed that in their Finals comeback in June, and since then Golden State has lost Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli and Mo Speights.
By contrast, the Spurs are loooooong.
Their starting frontcourt features the 6-foot-7 Leonard, at the three, the 6-foot-10 Aldridge at power forward and the 7-foot Gasol in the middle -- and, for now, 6-foot-9 Kyle Anderson, in for Green at the two. Off the bench come 7-foot Dwayne Dedmon, 6-foot-9 David Lee and 6-foot-6 Jonathan Simmons to go with Ginobili and Mills, who almost led Australia to its first-ever medal in Olympic competition.
“We’ve got size, we’ve got speed,” Gasol said. “And I think we’ve got versatility, basically. We can go big, can go small; can go fast, can go slower. I think, also, with a lot of guys who know how to play the game the right way -- and a coach who will get on you if you don’t, or get you out quickly if you don’t.”
Leonard has taken everything thrown at him by the Spurs, processed it and put it on display. The jumper that was suspect out of college is now rebuilt and deadly in the midrange. The handle that wasn’t good for more than a dribble now can get Leonard from the top of the key to the front of the rim in a second. Need to do more from the foul line?
Study film of how some of the greats initiated contact.
He shot double-figure free throws three times in 82 games (including 10 playoff games) in 2015-16.
He’s shot double-figure free throws twice in the first four games of 2016-17, including 12 in Sunday’s win at Miami, the Spurs’ fourth straight to open the season without a loss.
No, you can’t dismiss the Warriors as overwhelming favorites in the west, or eliminate the Clippers as legit contenders. But getting Leonard’s Draft rights from Indiana in 2011 for George Hill will go down as one of the most consequential trades of the last 15 years league-wide (and that’s not a criticism of Hill).
We are not counting pseudo sign-and-trade deals done to make the loss of a major free agent slightly more palatable to the losing team, like the Cavs “trading” LeBron to the Heat in 2010 for a bunch of picks and stuff after he’d already decided to sign with Miami. (Trust us: Cleveland would have rather have kept LeBron than gotten the picks.)
Yes, the Boston Celtics have gotten a rasher of picks from Brooklyn for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett -- the gift that keeps on giving, up to and including the first the Nets will give to Boston next year -- but the Celtics have not yet ridden those picks to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Shaq to Miami in 2004? Big. The Diesel was a huge reason the Heat was able to win its first title in 2006. But that iteration of the Heat fell apart less than two years later.
Pau Gasol to the Lakers in 2008? Very big. Giving Bryant a bell cow inside, Gasol and the Lakers won back-to-back rings in '09 and '10.
But Leonard already has a Finals MVP award, and two Kia Defensive Playerof the Year awards. He’s raised his scoring average in each of his first six seasons. He’s allowed the Spurs to seamlessly transition to their third potential era of dominance. He’s just 25.
“He’s earned the trust that he’s commanding,” a Spurs citizen said.
“Don’t think we are surprised.”
No, the Spurs could not predict that Leonard would become such a monstrous talent, no more than they could have predicted their unlikely ascent to the top spot in the 1997 Draft to take Duncan out of Rick Pitino’s arms in Boston (how the world would be different now had the Celtics, as they should have, secured that first overall pick). Nor did they forsee Ginobili’s Hall of Fame career from the 57th pick two years later in ’99.
But they knew there was something there with Leonard, something they thought they had to have to keep being competitive. And, now, they have it, and so much more.
They have Aldridge, supposedly discussable if not on the trading block (of course the Spurs dismiss that talk) after a good but not great first season in San Antonio. Cousin LaMarcus says he’s still very happy back in his native Texas and isn’t looking to leave.
His number is called, early and often. He is not only asked to post up, but to face, initiate and create when he can.
"This opening night was a million times easier and more comfortable, more confident than last season’s opener,” Aldridge said as he exited the locker room at Oracle Tuesday. “Pop talked to me more (about) how more of a leadership role required (of) myself. I’m definitely feeling more like myself. I’m back there with guys, trying to help lead.”
He looks more comfortable than Gasol, who is finding his way as almost everyone does upon arrival in the 210.
“I think LaMarcus is going to be a monster this year,” Parker said. “With the Spurs, it’s always the second year that they play better, once you know the system and everything.”
Says Gasol: “it’s just a matter of matchups, and who’s closer to the basket and who’s farther from the basket, and kind of read and play the game the right way. So far, we’re playing off of each other pretty well, and finding each other. I’m just trying to absorb all the dynamics of a new team, and once I do that, I’ll be able to play a little more freely.”
Simmons can relate -- though he’s still subject to Popovich’s wrath three years after joining the Spurs’ organization.
“I don’t think you ever get used to it,” Simmons said. “You just try to stay out that doghouse.”
A great offseason story in 2015 -- he helped lead the Spurs, coached by Becky Hammon, to the Samsung Vegas Summer League title -- Simmons had a tenuous hold on playing time at the start of last season, but gradually fell out of the rotation.
He’s back in the rotation this season, and knows he has to rebound, defend and run to keep his spot.
“It’s been a time, but I love the game,” Simmons said. “It’s been fun. I’m here. It took me a while to get here, so I don’t complain about things I have to do, even though I’m new to it and sometimes question, okay, why? But I love the game and I love every part of it, so I think just being positive and going about it that way.”
Simmons’s story -- there’s always a great story with the Spurs -- began in 2013, when he paid $150 to attend an open D-League tryout in Texas.
He’d played the previous year with the Sugar Land Legends of the American Basketball League, after putting his name in the NBA Draft -- unsuccessfully -- following his junior season at the University of Houston. He needed to support his kids.
How much did that set back his bank account?
“I don’t think I had a bank account, to be honest,” he says now.
“You just believe in yourself,” he said. “I was working hard up until then. I had a clue that somebody would pick me. I’m just not 6-6 and sloppy. I actually play a little bit. It was just an opportunity for me ... I had positive surroundings. My friends. They got up with me at 5 o’clock in the morning to go work out. Not necessarily saying there’s a difference between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., but I think just the mindset of knowing you have to get somewhere, and doing whatever it takes. Having positive people push me, and still pushing me to this day. My friends are not going to tell me I’m doing good when I ain’t.
"I think that helped me a lot. And having motivation. I’ve got children that gotta eat.”
The hope is that the younger legs of Simmons and Dedmon, each 27, along with 23-year-old Davis Bertans, the former second-rounder who came over from Europe this season, can make up for the smarter legs of Boris Diaw -- traded to the Utah Jazz to clear enough cap room to sign Ginobili -- and longtime veteran and sandwich aficionado Matt Bonner.
“I keep emphasizing, we’re going to miss Boris and Matt, too, because they’ve been part of what we do for a long time,” Ginobili said. “It is what it is. We’re taking all of that into consideration ... and try to forget about that, at least for today. Then, we’ll see.”
It’s an amalgam this season. So if there is no longer a big Virgin Islander who settles everything and everyone, there is still a lot.
Popovich often joked he’d follow Duncan out the door, but he knew he’d promised Parker and Ginobili he’d coach them to the end, too.
“I hope so,” Parker said. “I’ve got two years left. I trust Pop that I’m going to finish in San Antonio, just like Manu, just like Timmy, just like Dave (Robinson).”
Indeed, you only needed to see Parker and Ginobili playing one last time for their native France and Argentina, respectively, at the Olympics in Rio last August to begin to understand just how competitive they both remain at their relatively advanced basketball ages.
As ever, everyone’s minutes will be monitored within an inch of their lives. The season isn’t a week old, and Popovich has already sat Parker and Ginobili for a game -- Saturday’s win in New Orleans -- to try and bust up those back-to-back exertions.
“For me, personally, I think it’s going to be even better,” Parker said. “I think I’m going to play even better. I can only focus on the Spurs, take the whole summer off and really take care of my body to try to get a couple of runs at it. I really think with this team, we can try to do at least one time, try to get another ring. That’s why for me it was an easy decision to retire and to fully focus on the Spurs.”
No, don’t focus on the Spurs. Pay attention to Durant and the Warriors, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Clippers. Pay attention to Russell Westbrook’s nightly one-man assaults. Don’t pay them any mind.
“We had a few additions, especially in the big department,”
Ginobili said. “But most of the team is back, and the coach being back, too. We’re going to miss the Big Fella, no doubt about it. But we have the corporate knowledge back that we always talk about, and we’ve got an advantage in that aspect.”
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