Mixing and matching, Popovich and the Spurs face early challenges
Manu Ginobili's absence has complicated the start of the season for the Spurs
Coach Gregg Popovich is using these early games to evaluate some young players
MINNEAPOLIS -- His head down, his fists balled up at his temples, Tony Parker stared at the stat sheet floating on the crushed ice and water into which his ankles were plunged. He wasn't marveling at this document of his single-greatest night on a basketball court -- 55 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds, 50 minutes 32 seconds in a double-overtime victory at Minnesota on Wednesday -- but rather concentrating hard on something other than the frigid needles he was feeling in his feet from this icy soak, or the throbbing in his Ace-wrapped knees.
As Parker sat there, still mostly in his sweaty Spurs uniform, rookie guard George Hill dressed nearby.
"I've seen it in the video games,'' Hill said a couple of times about Parker's performance, to anyone within earshot. "But I've never seen it with my own eyes.''
On the other side of the room, another new Spur, Roger Mason, was talking about things he had learned in six weeks with coach Gregg Popovich that he couldn't have known from afar.
"Honestly, it's beyond expectations,'' Mason said. "The most impressive thing that I've seen Pop do is, before the election, he had us watch a video on the civil rights movement. For me, you know he has the X's and O's and that he's a great coach, but stuff like that, you don't see that.''
On Monday, with San Antonio off to an uncharacteristic 0-2 start, with back-to-back games against the Mavericks and Timberwolves looming, Popovich devoted about 45 minutes before practice -- on the eve of a historic presidential election -- to a topic that had nothing to do with his players' place and moment in time, and everything to do with it.
"It was Dr. King. It was a bunch of current events on the struggles that a lot of African-Americans went through in the civil rights movement,'' Mason said. "It completely threw me off. But when I went home and reflected on it, I was like, Man, he's a special guy.''
It's all a part of the Spurs' culture, something their organization has more than probably any other in the NBA. For a lot of the other 29, when you think culture, you think funky green stuff growing at the bottom of a petri dish. But with San Antonio, thanks to winning over a sustained period with unchanged core principles and principals, it's rookies blinking hard over veterans' feats and new guys being surprised by way more than the Air Force Academy-trained coach's new ZZ Pop whiskers, which make him look like a hip college prof Donald Sutherland might have played.
"It's probably the best organization in the NBA,'' said Hill, the 26th pick in the June draft out of IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis). "They treat you with respect and I've learned a lot since I've been here. Looking at TP today, I'm learning from one of the best point guards in the league. Then you have a veteran like Jacque Vaughn that you can still learn from. From Bruce [Bowen], from Tim [Duncan] ... I think this is the best place that I can be to have a successful career. It starts here.''
The Spurs' season, the way most people think of it, finally started Wednesday when they needed 58 minutes and Parker's 55 points -- especially his retreating 20-foot jump shot to tie, 116-116, as time expired in the first overtime -- to beat the lowly Wolves. Before that, there had been losses to Phoenix, Portland and Dallas, a defense that was allowing 100 points a night, a growing disparity in rebounds and, of course, the prolonged absence of shooting guard Manu Ginobili, San Antonio's leading scorer last season and winner of the league's Sixth Man Award. Ginobili had ligament surgery on his left ankle after the Olympics and isn't expected to play until sometime in December.
"At the beginning of the season, there are a lot of reasons you might not win every game you want to win,'' Popovich said. "But Manu [being out] was certainly a significant part of that. Our team is built around those three guys [Ginobili, Parker, Duncan]. Everybody else is a role player. ... If one of them is not there, then the bench really has to pick it up. But at this stage, I think we're in a little bit of transition between playing some younger guys and some other guys who have been here a while.''
That's the "I'' in team for San Antonio -- integrating new guys to a system that transcends today's particular personnel. How well a Nazr-Come-Lately fits in determines both how well the club plays and how long the individual sticks around. Some of the "new Spurs'' have been temporary fixes, bubble gum on the leaks in San Antonio's all-season radials: Nazr Mohammed, Rasho Nesterovic, Stephen Jackson, Francisco Elson, Glenn Robinson, Jason Hart, Devin Brown. Some (Matt Bonner?) might even qualify as mistakes. Always, though, Popovich and the staff are hoping for more. Another Malik Rose maybe. The next Bowen or valuable bench pieces like Robert Horry or Brent Barry.
Now the hopes ride on Mason (26 points in 44 minutes Wednesday), Hill, inexperienced centers Ian Mahinmi and Anthony Tolliver, guard Desmon Farmer and swingman Ime Udoka, in his second year as a Spur. This team is working hard to get younger even as it grows older, its advancing years taking the most heat for the first week's failings. "Some day we will be [too old],'' Popovich conceded. Only not yet.
It's a tricky thing, tinkering and treating the season's early months as part experiment, part on-the-job training. Home-court advantage matters come springtime, and can be lost before Christmas as surely as after. But the long months stretching out between now and, say, March are a particular test for the Spurs. Getting from training camp through the rigors of 82 games, with three stars who are prone to getting hurt (Ginobili), exposed by size and style to injuries (Parker) or simply getting creakier (Duncan), is a growing challenge. It's almost as if San Antonio needs two teams -- one now and for the next four months to soak up minutes, another later when it's really time to win -- to navigate the NBA's two seasons.
For now, the Spurs will settle for help from the role players when they can get it and games in which they can turn the outcome with a clutch play or three. That and, naturally, Parker going for 55.
"No. No. No,'' Parker said, walking out Wednesday night, the last player to exit the visitors' dressing room. "That was just a one-time thing. I think our guys are getting more and more comfortable, the new guys, Roger Mason. We want to get our defense back to what it was last year -- we're not going to win a lot of games scoring over 100 points. Usually, we lose those games.''
Then Ginobili will come back. And maybe, then, the mojo.
"We'll be fine,'' a tired Parker said. "We'll be fine.''
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.