Everything Spurs fans need to know about the importance of this season’s pre-season schedule is contained in the passenger manifest for the team’s Sunday afternoon flight to Phoenix for the first of six exhibition games that will help shape a roster that has more new faces than old.

All 19 players on the training camp roster will make the trip for a Monday night game against the Phoenix Suns.

That may seem like a “no-brainer” decision by Gregg Popovich until you consider the players the Spurs coach left in San Antonio when the Spurs departed for their 2015-16 pre-season opening game in Sacramento: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Boris Diaw.

The breakdown of the training camp roster shows only eight holdovers from the team that won 67 regular season games last season and 11 newcomers, including Pau Gasol, a five-time All-Star tasked with an unenviable role as Tim Duncan’s replacement.

Popovich doesn’t believe Gasol will have difficulty adapting to the Spurs way of playing, calling him one of the most intelligent big men in the NBA. He is more concerned about the overall process of meshing the many newcomers and introducing them to the Spurs way of approaching a season.

Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich smiles as he responds to a reporter. Photo by Scott Ball.
Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich smiles as he responds to a reporter. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“They need to get to know each other, camaraderie, that sort of thing,” Popovich said. “Get used to each other, get to know each other, laugh a little bit.”

That’s why veteran guard Danny Green, still nursing a left quadriceps injury suffered a few days before training camp began on Monday, will accompany his teammates to Phoenix knowing he won’t even suit up for the game.

“I’ll want him to take the trip for the reasons I stated,” Popovich said.

After four days of practice sessions, sometimes twice a day, Popovich and his coaches have gotten a good read on each player’s skills. More important is discovering how the new players fit into the Spurs ethos.

“(You look for) a lot of things,” Popovich said. “They’re all pretty talented but it’s who fits, who can learn, who will make a great teammate, who can accept a role. That’s mainly what I look for with the new guys that are young.

“The other new guys that are going to be competing for minutes, it’s just a matter of who fits together the best. You want to see who has a work ethic; who responds to teammates the best. More of the intangibles, I guess, than Os and Xs right now.”

Having lost four big men from last season – Duncan, Diaw, Boban Marjanovic, and Matt Bonner – integrating newcomers Gasol, David Lee, Dewayne Dedmon, and Davis Bertans into the big man rotation is one of Popovich’s main concerns.

“It will take time to get all the new guys to understand exactly how we play and who goes with whom,” he said. “But the intelligent play of Timmy and Boris was important. And Matty didn’t play that much the last year or two, but he was still there on the plane and the buses, sitting next to LaMarcus and getting him ready and talking to all of our players about how we do things. So we’ll have to make sure we do our best to do that.”

Popovich had a sense that Lee was one of those veterans who could make a seamless transition as a Spur. He made a call to the 33-year-old veteran of 10 NBA seasons in late July. A few days later, Lee had signed a two-year contract for the NBA’s 10-year veteran minimum salary, starting at $1.55 million this season.

“Pop called me in the middle of the summer and told me they’d love to have me,” Lee said. “We talked a little bit about the role he thought I’d have and I thought it sounded great.”

Lee’s role: First big man off the bench, coming in for either LaMarcus Aldridge or Pau Gasol, depending on the game situation.

Lee has made a good first impression in training camp. He showed up having dropped 15 pounds from his 2015-16 playing weight, declaring himself as fit as at any time in his career.

“Just in these few practices he’s been doing what we have seen and we’re very pleased that he’s a grown man,” Popovich said. “He understands how to play, he’s a really good passer as a big guy, (and) he can make a medium range shot.

“He will be somebody who’s important to our rotation, for sure.”

A two-time All-Star, Lee’s first impression of the Spurs was equally positive.

“You can tell five minutes when you walk in the door here (that) everybody is super professional,” Lee said. “Guys come in and do their job every day. Everything is very efficient. Guys are veterans, so there’s no stuff on the side, side agendas, or things like that. The coach is the one in charge here, and everyone knows that. He sets the tone. He tells you what he wants out of you and that’s what you do. Guys understand that coming in. Guys who have been here 15 years say it’s that way every year – guys who get along and pull together to try and win a title.”

The quest for the sixth title in franchise history begins Monday with a game against the Suns that will give Popovich a chance to mix and match player combinations and determine which combinations seem to fit.

The pre-season games also will provide the newcomers with their first glimpse of Popovich’s in-game demeanor. He has been known, even in pre-season games, to be more than a tad demonstrative when mistakes are made.

Point guard Tony Parker, now the longest-tenured Spur, knows it must be experienced to be understood.

“You can explain,” Parker said, “but until you have it like in real life and him really screaming at you, then you really get the full effect.”


Top image: Spurs players Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills shoot around during practice. Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

Dedicated Defender Dedmon Brings Athleticism, Speed to Spurs

Leonard’s Next Step: Assuming Duncan’s Leadership Role

There’s No Replacing Duncan, So Gasol Will Be Gasol

Popovich Lauds Kaepernick’s Courage, Calls Race ‘Elephant in Room in Our Country’

Mike Monroe is a longtime, award-winning sports journalist who has covered the NBA for the San Antonio Express-News and other publications.