Fans will get their first in-person look at the revamped roster that will contest the 2016-17 NBA season on Saturday night, when the Spurs play for the first time at AT&T Center without retired superstar Tim Duncan.
The first of three pre-season games scheduled for the team’s home court will be against the Atlanta Hawks, with Gregg Popovich indicating he will suit up all 19 players on the roster. On Monday the veteran coach left six veteran players off the playing roster for the first of six pre-season games, a 91-66 loss to the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix.
With more new players (11) than holdovers from last season (8), Saturday’s game against a solid Hawks team coached by former Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer will be an important first step aimed at building familiarity with Popovich’s offensive and defensive systems, as well as synergy and camaraderie among the players.
Those in attendance on Saturday likely will be most anxious to see how new starting center Pau Gasol, the six-time All-Star who will fill the starting role held by Duncan from 1997 to the end of the 2015-16 season. The 36-year-old Spaniard knows there is no replacing the greatest player in Spurs franchise history, vowing only to be the best Pau Gasol he can be.
“I’m not coming here to fill his shoes and the spot that he left,” Gasol said on media day. “But I’m here to fit in as best as I can with the guys that are here to win a title basically. And work as hard as I can to do that.”
Danny Green, a five-year starter and shooting guard, missed the first week of practice sessions while nursing a badly bruised left thigh. That involuntary break gave him a chance to observe his new starting center from a different perspective than being on the court with him.
He liked what he saw and believes Gasol’s game will work seamlessly within the Spurs system.
“Because he’s so intelligent and a great passing big I think he will fit right in perfectly,” Green said. “The offense is pretty much built for his style of player. I’m excited to see how it works with him on the floor and to play with him.
“In the league right now he’s probably the best person you can think of that could kind of come close to what Timmy did for this organization. Obviously, Timmy was a little older. (Pau) is getting older, too, but he’s still very skilled for a guy at 7 feet, and he does a lot. I’m excited to play with him and see how well he fits in the system.”
Entering his 15th Spurs season, guard Manu Ginobili understands this pre-season carries considerably more weight than most he previously experienced with rosters filled with many more players familiar with the Spurs way of playing. Just as Gasol must get comfortable in his important new role, the players who will join Ginobili on a bench unit that has been one of the NBA’s best for several season must find ways to adapt to the loss of big men Boris Diaw and Boban Marjanovic.
“I think (the pre-season) is more important,” Ginobili said, “because we’ve got two important roles to fill: We need Pau to get familiarized with the system and with the plays he will be playing with LaMarcus (Aldridge) and Kawhi (Leonard); and the second unit bigs are completely new, so Kyle (Anderson), Jon (Simmons), Patty (Mills) and I are going to need to play with them and see how we run the pick-and-rolls or how we do the extra pass. We’re going to need a little time in that respect.
“(For the bench players), I think the main difference is going to be Boris. Boris was a big part of the second unit with his passing and the way he saw the court. So we are going to have to get whoever it is – David (Lee) or Davis (Bertans) or DeWayne (Dedmon), whoever is going to be in that situation – to get familiarized with the way we play. Especially last year you could tell there was a big difference with the way the first unit played and the second unit.
“If we want to all be productive and make those changes during the game and change the pace of the game we’re going to have to have everyone on the same boat,” Ginobili added. “Hopefully, we adjust to that and we include whoever is new on that type of play.”