The Spurs on Sunday begin what is apt to be the most transitional playoffs in franchise history.
After a 67-win season in which Kawhi Leonard led the team in scoring – the first player in 18 years not named Duncan, Parker or Ginobili to do so – a Spurs roster re-constituted last summer will begin its quest for a sixth NBA championship against a Memphis Grizzlies roster ravaged by injury.
Game 1 is scheduled for a 7 p.m. tipoff at AT&T Center, where the Spurs lost only one regular season game this season.
The Spurs roster still includes its Big Three stars but the faces of the franchise are new. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will begin their 13th playoff run together. They understand it may be their last run. Duncan will turn 40 the day after Game 4 of this series. Ginobili is a little more than three months shy of his 39th birthday. Parker, who will be 34 in May, in in his 14th season of sprinting, end to end, at the point guard position.
“It’s been many (playoffs), and with all different success or frustration stories,” said Ginobili, whose body has endured all manner of injuries over his pro career. “That makes it more relaxed, but at the same time it’s also one of the last times. You want to absorb everything you can and have a good time.”
The series is also apt to be one of the most lopsided the Big Three have played since forming in 2002-03. That is because injuries have robbed the Grizzlies of two of the most feared playoff performers in the league.
With a healthy Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, Memphis a team nobody wants to meet in the post-season. The players who remain, including veterans Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and Tony Allen, will keep the “grit and grind” ethos that is personified by physicality and aggression. But, the roster is filled out by players who never will make the NBA’s “Who’s Who” list. Rather, they are on the “Who’s That?” register.
Until the Grizzlies signed 23-year-old point guard Xavier Munford to a 10-day contract on March 16 the closest he had come to the NBA was playing 41 games for the Bakersfield Jam, of the NBA’s Development League. But he logged a little more than 28 minutes a game in the final three games of the season, when the Grizzlies had to face the Golden State Warriors twice.
Munford became the 28th player to wear a Grizzlies uniform during a season beset with both injuries and disruptive roster moves. Before they played the Spurs at AT&T Center on March 25 their coach, Dave Joerger, quipped that he asks his players to wear “Hello, My Name Is” stickers on their practice uniforms.
The Spurs understand they must ignore pundits like NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury, who wrote that the Grizzlies can win the series only if “the Spurs are the victims of a mass alien abduction.”
“They’ve still got talented guys,” Leonard said. “You’ve got to make sure they don’t get open looks; make sure we’re playing hard and our focus is ready to win a ball game. Anybody can win or lose this game.”
That is what Gregg Popovich calls appropriate fear of the opponent, and the fact Leonard believes it to be true is one reason the Spurs coach called him “the future face of the franchise” after he had played just one season in silver and black.
Certain to receive significant support in this season’s voting for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, Leonard already has proven Popovich prescient. That he shares “go-to” status with first-year big man LaMarcus Aldridge emphasizes the transitional nature of the regular season just concluded and the playoffs about to begin.
Leonard appreciates what the Big Three have taught him in his first five seasons.
“It’s been great just learning from them each year,” he said. “Seeing what type of attitude and how they treat their bodies to last this long; to play 10-plus years at a high level. Just being able to be a part of what they have done and being able to play with this legacy is great.”
Left unspoken: His desire to add to their legacy with the ultimate transition: A sixth Spurs title.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that this is Leonard’s fourth season. It is actually his fifth.
*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.