Tony Parker limped down the tunnel that Friday night, clinging to the shoulder of a trainer, and even Gregg Popovich had to wonder. Manu Ginobili had already spent five games in a sports coat and now Parker was certain to need his own. Injuries come and go. Every coach understands that. But somewhere along the way in those first 10 days of the season, Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs had also seemed to lose some of their soul.
The Spurs won four championships in nine seasons, including three in the past six, because they defended as well as anyone in the NBA. Now, they weren’t even doing that. Popovich questioned whether his players had taken their defense for granted. Or whether they had just stopped listening to him altogether.
“Have I been here too long?” Popovich wondered.
Nearly two weeks later, the question seems to have answered itself. The Spurs won three straight games before losing to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday. They’re treading water, or, as Popovich says, “hanging on” until Ginobili and Parker return. All but four of their 11 games have hinged on a single possession, and aside from a stirring comeback victory over the Houston Rockets, they really haven’t beaten anyone of merit. The Utah Jazz present another big challenge on Friday. Their margin of error remains razor-thin.
But the Spurs are defending once again, and that says something not only about from where they’ve come, but also where they might be headed. And why it might be wise to hold off shoveling another layer of dirt on them. They’re old and they’re missing Parker and Ginobili, but they still have Tim Duncan and they still have their coach, and that should count for something.
As New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said a week ago, “You know Popovich and Duncan will eventually figure it out.”
Patience has been forced upon Popovich and Duncan this fall, a virtue neither has had much use for in recent years. Together, they are trying to prop the Spurs’ championship window from closing shut, molding a roster that is long on years at some positions and short on experience at others. They will wait on Ginobili and Parker for at least another couple weeks, trying to claw out as many wins in the meantime while hastening the development of their younger players.
“The whole damn equation has changed,” Popovich said. “It’s a maxi-transition and we were going to do it on a mini basis.”
During these unusual times, the Spurs have leaned on their two constants: defense and Duncan. Even before Parker sprained his left ankle, the Spurs had slipped defensively, plummeting to the bottom of the league in most major categories. Popovich worried that his well-worn pound-the-rock message had gone stale. But the more he and his staff looked at the film, the more they realized that it was the coaches who had changed rather than the effort of their players. Over the summer, the staff had implemented a few wrinkles to the team’s system, which included varying how they defended the pick-and-roll.
“Creative, intelligent coaching moves,” Popovich said with his trademark sarcasm, “that turned out to be dog doo-doo.”
The Spurs have won over the years because they do the ordinary doo-doo extraordinarily, and after a loss to the Miami Heat dropped the record to 1-4, Popovich returned to stressing the tenants of the team’s defense: Keep ball-handlers out of the middle of the lane; funnel them baseline into the arms of their shot-blockers; and don’t give up open 3-pointers from the corners. In the five games since, the Spurs have yielded 80, 82, 75, 88 and 83 points.
“That’s given us a chance to win,” Popovich said.
So has Duncan. He returned this fall leaner and stronger, having spent part of the summer throwing tractor tires as part of a new training program developed by the team’s strength-and-conditioning staff. Opponents also have quickly learned that Duncan’s shooting stroke, in addition to his tread chucking, looks as smooth as ever.
Over the years, Duncan had become increasingly hesitant about firing from distance, figuring the team had better shooters who could do that. Popovich convinced him such indecision was creating too many end-of-the-clock situations for his teammates. More and more, he’s now committing to shooting the open jumper. So far this season, he’s averaged 23.9 points on 56.2 percent shooting, the latter of which would be the highest of his career.
Duncan also has realized another benefit from diversifying his game. “It lessens the pounding I take,” he said.
Popovich frets about taxing Duncan too much, and not just because he’s averaging nearly four minutes per game more than he’d averaged the previous four seasons. For much of the past six seasons, the Spurs have closed games with the same core around Duncan: Parker at the point and Ginobili and Bruce Bowen on the wings. Even Fabricio Oberto had become something of a mainstay at center. These days, Duncan often takes the floor with a collection of youngsters and journeymen surrounding him.
George Hill, the rookie who’s starting in place of Parker, has the potential to be “one of the best defenders to come into the league at his position,” Popovich thinks. But he’s also a novice at the point and is limited offensively. Roger Mason, the sharpshooter from Washington, has turned out to be a nice free-agent pickup, but he, too, lacks experience with the Spurs. Bowen started every game he’s played for the Spurs for more than seven seasons, but he’s now coming off the bench because the team needs more scoring with Ginobili and Parker out.
“I don’t think there’s a team in this league that’s going to feel sorry for us,” Duncan said. “Everybody’s got to deal with it. Everybody’s got to fight through it. We’ll find our way.”
Duncan has played the role of veteran guide. He’s directed Hill and Mason on the floor and in huddles, and has had to learn to live with their mistakes. On the opening possession of a recent game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Duncan motioned Hill toward Michael Finley. Instead, Hill fired the ball back at Duncan, nearly clipping him in the chin.
Duncan, too, has surprised some of his new teammates. “I didn’t know he had so much personality,” Mason said.
Popovich has praised Duncan for his patience and empathy, but he’s had to show the same. Said Ginobili: “It’s been tough for Pop, too.”
Help should be on the way. Ginobili, who underwent surgery on his left ankle after re-injuring it during the Olympics, hasn’t had any setbacks and is now playing two-on-two. The Spurs don’t have a firm timeline for his return, but Ginobili and Popovich both remain cautiously optimistic he could be back in the lineup in two weeks, depending on the amount of practice time afforded the team. Parker also is progressing and could return near the end of the first week of December.
The Spurs have trolled the trade market, inquiring about Golden State Warriors forward Al Harrington, but there are concerns about Harrington’s back, as well as the fact that he can opt out of his contract at the end of the season. And aside from their three stars, the Spurs have filled their roster with role players in the truest sense. “No one wants their guys,” said one scout.
Father Time continues to gain on the Spurs, and this transition likely would have been smoother were it not for some bad luck and a bad decision or two. Brazilian forward Tiago Splitter, the team’s 2007 first-round pick, elected to remain in Europe this season because the U.S. dollar had grown so weak. Another former pick, Argentine forward Luis Scola, continues to thrive in Houston. All the reasons the Spurs gave for trading Scola now ring hollow. Popovich, too, has admitted he might have been too quick to cast Beno Udrih aside.
Still, one thing has never changed within these Spurs. Only the strongest survive. Popovich and Duncan are forever building for that next title together, and you’re either with them or you aren’t. They’re connected emotionally and temperamentally, the respect and appreciation between the two unwavering even if the stubbornness of each sometimes grates on the other.
This week, someone asked Popovich why he grew out his beard. “Because I wanted to go from a 9,” he deadpanned, “to a 10.” In truth, Popovich let it go untrimmed all summer after Duncan goaded him into it.
“They communicate at a level that very few mates ever do,” Spurs GM RC Buford said, “and it’s often communication that doesn’t have to be spoken.”
So, for two more weeks, at least, Duncan and Popovich will try to prop up the Spurs, one directing from the sideline, the other from the court. Maybe time has already caught them. Even with Ginobili and Parker, the Spurs will have trouble measuring up to the talent and depth of the Los Angeles Lakers. But they’ll win or they won’t, as Popovich likes to say. This much is true: They’re defending again and they haven’t stopped working. The rest of the league hasn’t exhaled just yet.