Opposing Views: Spurs Beat Writer Jeffrey McDonald
The Suns take on Western Conference rival San Antonio less than 24 hours after completing a comeback win at New Orleans. Matt Petersen caught up with Jeff McDonald, the Spurs beat writer for The San Antonio Express-News, to get the scoop on the Spurs from the opposing sideline's point of view.
Petersen: A lot of people wonder if the Spurs' loss in Game 6 of last season's Finals will linger, yet it's hard to imagine guys like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker sitting by their lockers with vacant stares of regret five months later. Are those concerns overrated, or are they legit?
McDonald: It will be a long, long, long time before anybody in San Antonio -- actual Spurs included -- forget about Game 6 in Miami. In fact, Gregg Popovich referenced last season's Finals after beating Denver on Tuesday night. It's the kind of thing that lingers. You're not going to forget it. That said, I'm not sure it has much bearing now that the season has started. If things go south Wednesday against the Suns, it's not like players will start flashing back to, "Oh no, Game 6 in Miami." These guys are able to compartmentalize pretty well. They still kick themselves over it in private moments, I'm sure. But it's not an issue once the ball tips off any given night.
Petersen: The Suns' training staff gets a lot of credit for prolonging careers, but it seems like the rest of the league has been waiting for the Spurs to "get old" for years. What's the biggest factor that has kept that from happening?
McDonald: Gregg Popovich and his stubborn refusal to overplay his old guys. He took a lot of flack, not to mention earned the Spurs a hefty fine, for sending four key players home before that nationally televised regular-season game at Miami last year. And, of course, that was extreme. But Pop has no qualms with keeping, say, a Tim Duncan in street clothes if the games and minutes are piling up. I don't think we'll ever see Duncan play a fourth game in five nights again. Every back-to-back is in question. Duncan played 34 minutes at altitude Tuesday night in Denver. He could sit out against Phoenix, although that kind of DNP-rest would be unprecedented at home. But the point is, Pop has no qualms punting a game here or there if it means getting his older stars some rest, and he has been that way for years. I have no doubt that has prolonged Duncan's career.
Petersen: San Antonio has a ton of American heritage and history, but its NBA team represents Brazil, France, Italy, Australia, the Virgin Islands and Argentina. Who in the Spurs organization was most responsible for the team's success in foreign player scouting and signings?
McDonald: Pop and R.C. Buford were at the cusp of the international scouting game back in the day. This is a group that drafted Manu Ginobili 57th overall in 1999. The draft book called him "Emanuel" and announcers couldn't even pronounce his last name. Yet the Spurs saw enough to take a flyer and found a future Hall of Famer. Pop tells a story of going to a huge overseas tournament to scout Sarunas Marciulionis, and he and Don Nelson were the only NBA-types there. Times have changed. The rest of the NBA has caught up to the international since then, but the Spurs still seem to gravitate to international players. You don't want to paint any group with a broad brush, but at this point, I just think foreign players fit their ball-movement heavy system better than many American players, who were often reared in one-on-one AAU programs.
Petersen: Kawhi Leonard opened a lot of eyes last year, especially in the postseason. Have there been concrete signs that he's ready to make the oft-discussed "leap" in his career?
McDonald: Leonard was certainly the breakout star of the Finals, and there's a lot to like there. Pop is calling more plays for him, getting him posted up on smaller wings sometimes. They called a grand total of zero plays for Leonard his first two seasons. Pop is urging Leonard to be more aggressive looking for his own shot, so you're seeing him take a few more one- or two-dribble jumpers. It's still a work in progress, though. Leonard was a focal point during the preseason, but has faded to a third- or fourth-option early in the season as the other stars are getting their normal workloads. Leonard is still capable of piling up points via steals and transition baskets, or on putbacks. He's definitely growing in confidence and will be a handful once all the parts of his offensive game come together. That, and he was the Spurs' best perimeter defender the day he showed up for rookie orientation. I don't think he's an All-Star this season -- Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are still ahead of him in the pecking order -- but he's got the package and the potential to perhaps get there in the future.