Once again, the Spurs are off to a strong start. This seems to be rather old hat for them. Yet, they are frequently overlooked by just about everyone. How annoying is it that one of the most successful teams of the past 15 years is continually an afterthought, despite being featured on Christmas Day, until they finish the Rodeo Road Trip?
Steve Tallent: I'll be honest. As an avid fan, it is annoying. I like to hear good things said about my team, especially from national media. Instead, I see two teams that might not even make the playoffs in a horrible eastern conference, EACH getting more press time than my Spurs. And of course, an injured Kobe Bryant, dunks in practice, and the news makes headlines on seemingly every national sports website. Tim Duncan got more press coverage when he was struggling at the beginning of the year than he will for the rest of this year. And by that I mean, stop haunting us. Leave us in peace. I am annoyed for us. But this year, I'm annoyed for other teams as well. The Pacers, the Blazers, the Thunder, and the Suns, all deserve a LOT more press time than they are getting. All small market teams. It sucks.
I do have to say that it is a lot better now than in previous years, especially 2011-12. After earning the best record in the NBA and losing in the first round to a very tough Grizzlies team the year before, nothing that the Spurs could do on the court that year meant anything. What about the Spurs? "The Spurs are a great ‘regular season' team." Meaning, come playoff time, expect an early exit. That they were a paper tiger. They were done contending. No respect. No appreciation of what they were accomplishing that year. Destroying two teams to make it to the WCF caused some of those commentators some angst, I would guess, but losing 4 in a row to exit the WCF after being up 2-0 didn't help matters much. Last year was different. Many believe that a call here or there (like for instance on Ray Allen traveling), a rebound, or a free throw made, and they would have been the champs. This year, again, nobody wants to talk about them, but nobody wants to look like a fool come May, so they aren't dissing them either.
I would also like to say that people want something new and fresh. I would like to say that. But I can't. I've heard that rhetoric as an excuse for dismissing the Spurs year after year. It just doesn't seem to be true. The Trailblazers are new and fresh. No love. The Suns are a tremendous new and fresh story. Pundits are just waiting (and it appears hoping) for the wheels to come off. The Lakers have been around and competitive forever. Kobe has been around forever. Nothing new and fresh there. Kobe's knee is probably going to get more press time in the next 6 weeks or so than all of the Texas teams combined.
In the end, the Spurs are like a life-sized elephant sculpted from bacon slices at a bar mitzvah. Many folks would like to go all Jim Gaffigan and gush over how good they are but are afraid or ashamed. Others say that they don't really like bacon but recognize the longevity of well-cured bacon and wish their food could be that good that long. Some folks say that bacon is boring (not that they know from personal experience) and the best way to kill a great party (or TV ratings) is to add bacon. Others of course say that bacon is unclean, i.e. dirty, and flops a lot. But in the end, not much is said about the elephant in the room, and almost all agree it would be better if it just went away.
Matthew Tynan: It certainly annoys most fans of this team, but if you're looking at it objectively, the reasons are understandable. As you mentioned, this kind of start is old hat, so there's no new, sexy story angle; they've got the same core of players they've had for roughly a century; they've played the same brand of basketball for years now, and the public knows they don't necessarily take the first few months of the season super seriously; and top of it all, they don't give the media much of anything to talk about. They're as tight-lipped as ever, much to the chagrin of both local and national media-types who venture to San Antonio for a story. But, as always, once the playoffs begin, the coverage will increase as it always does.
San Antonio shoots the second highest field goal percentage (.484) and the third highest 3-point percentage (.397) in the league. Those numbers probably shouldn't come as a surprise as the Spurs are increasingly potent offensively. They have been for some time. However, the team does not get to the line much. Should the Spurs make an effort to get to the line more or does it even matter because their offense is clicking so well?
ST: As you know, there are (at least) two reasons for getting free throws. 1) Getting certain players in foul trouble to get them off the floor. 2) Getting easy shots. Because the Spurs don't go 1 on 1 very much, getting certain players off the floor is not usually a priority - although I have seen them do it a few times this year. The Spurs offense already generates easy shots at a prodigious rate. And the thing about free throws, is that you usually have to have significant contact to generate them. And there is a superstar bias. Stu Jackson claims that stars have more touches, therefore a higher number of blown calls. Stu Jackson is wrong, or dreaming. So, the Spurs players that would be the best at drawing fouls are the big three. As you know, the big three, while not quite geriatric, are not exactly hearty youths either, and good health and gas in the tank come May is the paramount concern. Banging bodies and hitting the floor with regularity is wearing and there is a conscious decision to avoid it most nights. Heckling Kendrick Perkins until he takes a swing and then suing him might be a clever way to make some money without working hard for it, but doesn't make it a good idea. You could get really hurt. Word on the street is that he's not even above punching a woman in the face.
MT: They've started to get to the stripe a little more frequently as of late, and that really is a necessity as the season winds along. It's tough to be entirely successful offensively if you're not getting to the line for the easy points, because you can't solely depend on the jumpers to fall. That's a dangerous game. The Spurs haven't ever really been a team that shoots a ton of free throws, and they showed last season they can be successful as a middle-tier team in terms of free-throw attempts per game. But they're well below their average from last year, currently at 17.6 trips to the line a night. You'd like to see that number jump into the low-20s, but they don't need to be elite in that capacity to be successful.
On the surface, Danny Green's numbers are good. However, he has been inconsistent and his minutes recently took a huge dip. What has been going on with Green's game and does Pop still have full confidence in him?
ST: Danny Green has been dubbed "Icy Hot". It seems he's always been that way. Unlike some other guys that can go get a different shot or get the FT line to get themselves going, V3RD3 (Green) does one thing. Shoot the 3. When he's off, he can be the only guy for 20 feet in either direction and brick it. When he's on, he can be 5' back of the line with a guy running at him and up in his face and it's nothing but net. I'm just an observer, and I don't get to walk around the locker room and ask the guys, or the coaching staff questions, so I can't speak to how Pop feels. Most likely, the feeling wouldn't be "happy". Even if you could ask the question, do you think you would get the real answer from CIA Pop? I will say that Pop is the master of getting the most out of people, by putting them into situations where they can be the most successful. And he's notorious for trying all sorts of lineups and plays and stuff early on in the season, resting guys (even guys not named Tim, Manu and Tony), and even breaking up stuff that is working really well. As long as the Spurs are winning at a good clip he has the luxury of doing this. It's stuff that you would expect in practices, but unlike college where you have at least as many practices per week as games, NBA teams don't get a lot of practices, and the Spurs may consciously do less than most to keep the guys more rested.
MT: Green's moniker around here is Icy/Hot, given his propensity to show these types of swings. Popovich and he have had some small tug-of-wars in the past, so this isn't all THAT new. But Green has had some really bad spells this season, which I believe is a result of a few things: his streakiness and the fact that defenders don't let him get loose anymore. Ever since the Finals he's had a buddy following him wherever he goes on the floor. If he's open, he's deadly; he just hasn't been open nearly as much, and that's a problem given his poor off-the-dribble skills. But he's a very valuable defender and floor-spacer, and I'd bet money he'll eventually be re-inserted into the starting lineup. Pop has always been one to try new things early in the season, and Marco Belinelli has been scorching the earth as a shooter. So why not give it a try? Still, Belinelli's chemistry with Manu Ginobili and the second unit is far and away better than it is with anyone else, and I expect the San Antonio starting lineup to eventually figure out what has plagued it at times already this year.
Marco Belinelli bounced around the NBA for a number of years before joining the Spurs this season. He was never really a standout but this season, Belinelli has been lights-out. He is second in the league in 3-point shooting percentage (.505). That mark is simply absurd. Why is Belinelli clicking so well in San Antonio?
ST: Not a lot was expected of Belinelli when the Spurs signed him. The coverage from one of our writers predicted solid play, good all around skills, but definitely not the second coming of Manu. He has exceeded all expectations, offensively, defensively, shooting, playmaking, etc. The short answer to your question is I don't know and can only speculate. My speculation is Pop, Chip, Manu, the Foreign Legion, and culture. Let's start with the last one and work backwards. Culture - the Spurs only bring in guys that are team players, and especially value high basketball IQ. In general, they don't get stuck with bad contracts, they don't make bad trades and then have to make another bad trade or pick up whatever might happen to come up on the waiver wire, or free agent market to try to fix what is broken. So, when the Spurs go after you, you know they want you, and that they will value you. That's got to be a confidence booster. Guys are brought in to fill a role, and not to be the team's savior, so I think it may be easier to find a comfort zone.
Manu and the foreign legion - It's got to be hard to be a foreign player in the NBA, although not as bad as it once was. With a few exceptions, English is your second language. The culture is vastly different. Americans in general know more about foreign food and beer, Italian, Greek, German, etc., than they do about foreign culture, traditions, and geography. There might be one or two other foreign guys on your team and you're all lumped together as if Italy and Brazil were as alike as Chicago and Milwaukee. What you say? Chicago and Milwaukee are nothing alike? Italy and Brazil aren't even on the same CONTINENT! Then you get to San Antonio. And Manu is there. He speaks your language, like, your native language. He can explain difficult concepts to you, that you might not otherwise get. He played in your country. He lived there for years. He's had a lot of the same experiences you have had. And then there are 10 more guys from foreign lands - including the superstars. And you find a culture where you're not an outsider. Everybody is a foreigner. I mean, the Red Rocket is from New Hampshire. Have you ever met anybody from New Hampshire? Me neither. Apparently, their diet is about 90% sandwiches. So, I think it is really easy for a guy like Marco, to feel like he's found home away from home. I can't think of a better situation for him.
Pop, Chip and the rest of the coaching staff - Everybody says Chip Engelland is like the best shooting coach ever. Can't hurt a shooter to work with a guy like that for a while. We usually only get to see Pop being sullen in interviews, but apparently he is a tremendous people person. He gives his guys boundaries and then gives them freedom and confidence within those boundaries to play their hearts out, with a high level of accountability. Everybody says that Pop puts guys in position to be successful, and to get the most out of their talents. I remember Gary Neal saying something like, Pop puts him in to shoot, and if he doesn't shoot, Pop will sit him on the bench, so he doesn't worry about continuing to chuck them up there even when he's missing. Pop just wants him to shoot. I've seen Pop scream at guys for passing up an open shot. It's got to boost your confidence next time you get the ball, that Pop doesn't care if you missed 10 in a row, he WANTS you to take that next shot. Pop has defined the boundaries and expectations for each person and clarifies them regularly by getting up in their face and screaming at them when they stray. You won't see Tiago Splitter hoisting up 3s a la Andrew Bynum. Then again you won't see an Andrew Bynum type on the Spurs. And if a guy can't "get over himself" and be all for the team, and accept the role and boundaries he's given, he shows them the door - even just before entering the playoffs (Stephen Jackson). You never have to wonder where you stand on the Spurs.
I think in San Antonio, a lot of pressure has been taken off of Belinelli. The team is not reliant on him for 3s, or ball handling, or to be a defensive stopper, or a facilitator or anything. And he is surrounded by guys who know what they are supposed to be doing and are good at it, and don't care about stats or highlights, just getting the job done. Like the a special forces unit. It's not one supersoldier and a bunch of cannon fodder, but a cohesive unit, working together. And the Spurs run more of a European style of offense than most teams in the NBA. Belinelli would probably also thrive in D'Antoni's offense. We're happy he's in San Antonio, and hope he can stay healthy. He's come through big for us so far.
MT: Popovich and Ginobili told us prior to the season how excited they were about Belinelli's arrival; that he was the perfect complementary piece to their international-style system. But none of us expected this. He's a great pick-and-roll player, he understands the motion offense already, he moves exceptionally well off the ball (which is huge when Manu is on the court) and the dude can flat-out shoot. I think a lot of that has to do with the opportunities he has in this system as well as the open looks. Let's face it, the Chicago Bulls' offense isn't exactly San Antonio's. So far it's been a place for him to thrive. I don't expect him to finish the season with a 3-point percentage in the 50s, but I do expect he'll remain a reliable and important bench cog for the entirety of the season.
Has Kawhi Leonard eaten a breakfast taco yet? If not, why?
ST: I don't know if he has yet, but I guess he should. When you're living in a foreign land, you should try the local food, once at least. But after that, a breakfast taco? I mean, I love tacos. And enchiladas, and burritos, chimis, and you know, pretty much most Mexican food. I live in TN, but I spent 20 years in AZ, and 10 in NM. I'm salivating right now just writing this. But a breakfast taco? I'm into some variety with tacos, you know, soft, chicken, or if you are in a coastal land, even fish tacos. But a breakfast taco? That's a step onto a slippery slope. Where does it end? We've already got breakfast burritos. The next thing you know somebody will be shoving eggs and bacon into my jalepeno poppers, or chorizo into my salsa, or a pancake with maple syrup into my relleno. A line has to be drawn somewhere. If that means that Kawhi has to abstain from this aberrant food to make a statement that will reverberate around the globe and save the planet, more power to him. But he should go get a green chili fix at Chuy's. And after writing this, I might have to go get a green chili fix. My options here in Tennessee are a 1 hour drive to Chuy's in Nashville, or the jar in my pantry that I've been hoarding for the past year. Decisions, decisions.
MT: To my knowledge he still has not, because robots are incapable of digesting human food. That's the only possible explanation for depriving oneself of such deliciousness in the city of San Antonio: he's a robot.