SAN FRANCISCO – The Spurs found a way to get through training camp without Tim Duncan.
Now they have to learn how to play without the greatest player in franchise history.
Their journey to a new era begins with a Tuesday night game against a team that set an all-time record for wins last season and then landed the most coveted free agent in years, four-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant.
How can the Spurs defeat the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors lost only twice during their historic 73-9 2015-16 season?
“We know it is going to be very hard and we’ve got to be close to perfect to beat them,” said Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, the team’s oldest player since Duncan, 40, announced his retirement in July. “But it’s fine. It’s a great test to see where we are. It is not Game 5 of the Conference Finals. It is just Game 1 (of the regular season).”
After winning a franchise record 67 games last season, the Spurs didn’t get to what had been a highly anticipated Western Conference Finals against the Warriors. The Oklahoma City Thunder ended Duncan’s career with a Game 6 playoff win that gave them a 4-2 series win over the Spurs in a second-round matchup.
The Spurs regrouped after that disappointment, restructuring the roster after Duncan made his decision to end his spectacular career. Seven newcomers join only eight holdovers from the 2015-16 team that won 67 games.
Training camp was devoted to teaching and getting acquainted. Now the players will try to shift to a higher gear.
“When you are in training camp you are not in full steam mentality,” Ginobili said. “You are trying to get in shape; you are trying to remember the plays and bring everything back. This is just the beginning, and this is when we are going to start missing him (Duncan) and them. People forget how important Boris (Diaw) and Matt (Bonner) were to this team, too. So, we are going to miss all three.”
Diaw, now 34, was traded to the Utah Jazz in July. The Spurs did not make a contract offer to Bonner, now 36, when he became a free agent in July.
“We have to know (Tim) is not coming back and we have to face it. But for sure, all three are going to be missed. But we have some additions. We will have to involve them.”
Chief among the additions, of course, is Pau Gasol, a six-time All-Star center with even more length than Duncan, if not Duncan’s remarkable skill as an interior defender. Signed to a $31.7 million, two-year contract to fill the gap left by Duncan’s departure, Gasol said he feels a bit like a rookie awaiting his very first NBA game.
“Yes, I’m excited to start off,” Gasol said. “It’s going to be a challenging start, for sure, from the first game to every single game after that. We start with two games on the road; two opening nights for the two home teams. I’m sure it’s going to be demanding and we’re going to have to stand up to the challenge and see where we are.”
Every NBA team will have to see where it stands against the Warriors, who followed a disappointing loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals by signing Kevin Durant away from the Thunder.
Do the Spurs feel a bit like Guinea pigs as the first opponent for a potent team that added another All-NBA player who is a prodigious scorer?
“I don’t know,” Gasol said. “I wouldn’t think of ourselves as the Guinea pig. We have an incredible team here with a lot of talent and a lot of experience. We have to figure out as we go along how we can get to the best level, our best level, which I think will be the highest level. But they have a particular team. We have to know who they are, what their weapons are and we have to know how to attack them and utilize our weapons. Not just be reactive, but be proactive.
“It’s going to be an interesting first challenging game. It doesn’t mean if we do great we are the best. … And if we lose, it’s not going to be ‘Oh, they are so much better than us.’
“It’s just opening night. We want to start off well but as I’ve always said, in a big game if you win and then you lose the next night, what was it worth? If you go to Sacramento and you lose, ‘Oh, you (are) the worst.’ You’ve got to face each and every game with great concentration, understanding that every game is valuable but you’ve got to move on the next one and start over.”
The Spurs will begin the season with a makeshift starting lineup. Kyle Anderson is penciled in as a replacement for injured shooting guard Danny Green, the team’s second-best perimeter defender, behind only Kawhi Leonard. Green is out for about three weeks with a left quadriceps (thigh) strain.
Popovich will split Green’s time between Anderson and second-year swing man Jonathan Simmons, but knows Green’s absence will be especially harmful against Golden State’s NBA-best offense, now ever more potent with Durant in the fold.
“Yeah, (Green) is probably more important to us defensively against a team like that than he is offensively,” Popovich said. “He is going to make shots or miss shots, but at the defensive end, he has really been important for us. And against a team that runs offense so well like Golden State, that will be a challenge.”