Before Dejounte Murray, the Spurs’ 20-year-old rookie point guard, could wrap his head around the notion of the team’s annual Rodeo Road Trip, he had to get to the bottom of something more basic.
“When I first heard of it, I was like, ‘What is that?’” Murray said after playing in the Spurs’ final home game of February on Saturday night at the AT&T Center. “I didn’t know what it was. I’m a rookie. So, [the veteran players] were like, ‘We’ve got this rodeo,’ and I’m like, ‘What is a rodeo?’”
Born and raised in southeast Seattle, Murray had never even seen a horse in the flesh, let alone a rodeo. He won’t see the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, either. Not with the Spurs hitting the road for their next eight games as the AT&T Center basketball court is removed, the arena floor covered with a few tons of dirt.
The Spurs won’t play there again until March 1.
This year’s rodeo trip begins Monday night in Memphis, against the Grizzlies. The trip will cover 7,378 air miles and span the continental United States, literally coast to coast.
The annual trek has become part of Spurs lore, mostly because the Spurs have won 82-of-137 games on the 13 previous trips, a winning percentage of 70% that has kick-started the stretch run for the most dominant NBA team of the 21st Century, with four championships and five trips to The NBA Finals.
Gregg Popovich uses the trip to hone in on his playing rotations for the stretch drive and the playoffs and to strengthen the bonds of what he calls the Spurs family.
This year’s trip arrives 50 games into the first season in 20 years without franchise icon Tim Duncan. This makes the Spurs’ 39-11 record, second-best in the NBA, a surprise to anyone who expected significant decline after the future Hall of Fame big man announced his retirement last July. Already, they are 20-5 on the road, in position to match, or surpass, the best road record in franchise history, 30-11 in their 2013-14 NBA title season. They have won on the home courts of the other three teams among the NBA’s top four: 129-100, over the Golden State Warriors, on Oct. 25; 102-100, over the Houston Rockets, on Dec. 20; and 118-115, over the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers, on Jan. 21.
Yet, despite a record that has the Spurs on pace for 64 wins, Popovich has been bothered by inconsistency in execution and focus. Manu Ginobili, who made the first rodeo trip during his rookie season, 2002-03, understands there are specific goals that must be accomplished on this year’s trip if there is to be a return to The NBA Finals. Chief among these: Finding the consistency in execution and focus that Popovich wants.
“The important thing is going to be trying to get more reliable, more consistent, and play better,” Ginobili said. “For moments of the season, we have done very well, but then we have had slumps that are pretty tough. We are looking forward to playing well, more consistently. And the road is great. We always take the rodeo road trip as the last turn before the final stretch. So, we are looking forward to it and we are excited about it, even though it sometimes gets a little long.”
Making the trip without Duncan will seem strange for Ginobili and Tony Parker, who made the first 13 with the former team captain. Duncan was the team’s defensive anchor, a 16-time NBA All-Defensive selection whose value exceeded the ability of statistics to measure his defensive impact. Somehow, the Spurs will begin the expedition ranked No. 2 in the NBA in fewest points allowed per 100 possessions (103.9), No. 4 in opponent field goal percentage (44.3), and No. 2 in opponent 3-point field goal percentage (33.9), an especially important factor as the importance of the long ball continues to increase, league-wide.
Two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard now is the tip of the Spurs’ defensive spear. Teaming Leonard with Danny Green, whose defensive skills are not sufficiently appreciated by casual Spurs fans, deserves much of the credit for running opposing shooters off the 3-point line, as well as contesting long-distance shots.
Leonard’s emergence as one of the NBA’s Top 10 scorers – tied with Golden State’s Steph Curry, at 25.4 points per game – has stamped him as the Spurs’ most important player and thrust him into the conversation for NBA Most Valuable Player. His is the highest Spurs scoring average since Duncan averaged 25.5 points per game in 2001-02, the team’s final season in the Alamodome, which also was the final season without a rodeo trip.
Just as surprising as the Spurs’ ongoing defensive excellence: The fact they have transitioned smoothly from the Duncan era with nearly as many first-year players (7) as holdovers from Duncan’s final season (8). Four of the first-year Spurs – centers Pau Gasol and Dewayne Dedmon and power forwards David Lee and rookie Davis Bertans – have had significant roles thus far, though Gasol has been sidelined since Jan. 19, when he suffered a fractured bone in his left hand.
Of course, General Manager R.C. Buford and his staff knew the Duncan era had an end date. Finding players to fill a roster without him didn’t happen overnight.
“It’s been important from the very beginning, all the work the staff does,” Popovich said. “A lot of organization has been set up in ferreting out not only players that maybe somebody else hasn’t spent time on, but looking at players who maybe didn’t work out so well in another situation and trying to figure out if maybe they will work out well in our system. We have been able to do that to a pretty good degree and it’s obviously a part of our success that R.C.’s staff has been so diligent in bringing people who fit into the way we want to play.”
Popovich has had the Spurs playing at a faster pace since Duncan ceded team scoring leadership to Parker in 2010-11. The arrival of Gasol this season brought a throwback to Duncan’s prime years, as the former Lakers and Bulls All-Star teamed with LaMarcus Aldridge to give the Spurs a one-two post punch. Since Gasol’s injury, they have returned to a faster pace, with Dedmon and Lee taking turns starting at center. Having to adapt to Gasol’s absence has force-fed a return to faster play.
“When you have injuries, not only does it give you another way to play, but it gives you an opportunity to play other guys,” said Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone, his team thumped by the Spurs, 121-97, on Saturday. “Pop’s done that for years, resting guys throughout the season. So, when you get to the playoffs, their bench has confidence. They know how much Pop believes in them. He’s given them the opportunity to go and play meaningful minutes, and that’s why they always respond.
“You never want to have injuries, but there’s always a silver lining. If a guy steps up, or you start playing faster and create a different identity, that just makes you that much more dangerous as you get into the post-season.”
When this year’s rodeo trip nears its conclusion, the Spurs may be back to full strength, Popovich indicating Gasol has targeted the final two games of the 20-day excursion for a return to action. By then, the final piece of the playoff puzzle may well be working the former All-Star center back into the lineup.