The Spurs began training camp four weeks ago with more questions to answer than at any point in nearly two decades prior. The greatest player in franchise history was in his third month of retirement and there were more newcomers than holdovers from a 2015-16 team that won a franchise-record 67 games.
Gregg Popovich approached the transitional pre-season the same way he has approached every training camp he has run since 1997.
“As usual, step by step, try not to skip any of those steps,” Popovich said.
The Spurs need to take a few more steps before they will be the team both Popovich and Spurs fans hope will remain a contender for the 2017 NBA championship.
“We will be ready for the season in about a month, probably, just like everybody else,” Popovich said on Sunday afternoon after putting his team through its final practice session before Tuesday’s regular season opener in Oakland against the two-time defending Western Conference Champion Golden State Warriors.
Other than the absence of Tim Duncan and the loss of two more players steeped in the Spurs way of playing, camp was not much different than any camp of the past 15 years. That is according to one of only two players who has experienced that many pre-seasons in silver and black.
Nevertheless, veteran guard Manu Ginobili, about to begin his 15th season, understands that the loss of Duncan’s 19 years playing with what Popovich calls “corporate knowledge” of how the Spurs go about business, made learning a major priority.
“I don’t think it was that bad,” said Ginobili, who at age 39 became the team’s oldest player when Duncan announced his retirement on July 11. “We lost a few key players that were here for a while, but not that many, either. Four of the five starters are back. The three wings from the second unit are back, so we’ve just got to add the bigs.
“I think we’ve got corporate knowledge and I would think we have way more than average in the league. So, we’re not going to use that as an excuse. And the additions are knowledgeable and experienced. They have been around and they know how to play. That shouldn’t be an excuse at the beginning of the season.”
Ginobili is right about two of the additions to the roster. Center Pau Gasol, who supplants Duncan as the team’s starter, will begin his 16th season in the NBA. Power forward David Lee has 11 years of NBA duty on his resume. DeWayne Dedmon, a third big man signed in the off-season, has three years of experience.
The other four newcomers all are rookies. That is a record number for a Popovich team at the start of a season.
The very fact that four rookies made the opening night roster separated this camp from any training camp of the Duncan era. Clearly, there was much more focus on learning and adapting.
Gasol, a six-time All-Star, came to camp with no illusions about replacing Duncan, a two-time NBA Most Valuable player and a three-time NBA Finals MVP. His goal was to learn the Spurs offense and develop chemistry with his fellow starters. He declared that quest a success but also said he found Popovich’s camp different from any he had experienced in prior seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Lakers, and Chicago Bulls.
“It’s definitely been different,” he said. “That’s all I can say. It’s been different. I always come into situations with an open mind, ready to enjoy them and do my best. But it’s been different, kind of like ‘Always unexpected changes and go with the flow.’ But it’s been positive.”
Day to day, Gasol never knew quite what to expect.
“You have to be ready for anything on any given day,” he said. “You have to come with pre-season games with a certain mind-set with each game, expecting to play a certain number of minutes and get yourself ready for the regular season. I think none of the starters have played the minutes in any game that we will play in a regular season game. So, that’s been surprising, to an extent. But, at the same time, it’s a long season and we didn’t want to force anything or anyone and we should feel well rested for the regular season.”
Though Gasol occasionally was puzzled he liked the chemistry he developed with his new teammates, as did Popovich.
“From what I can see, they sort of like each other,” Popovich said of his new roster’s chemistry. “Nobody’s been in a fight. Nobody refuses to talk to somebody else. They will all be on the bus together and flying together, so I think they are getting along pretty good.”
Chemistry notwithstanding, pre-season did not afford enough time to establish a regular rotation of players, and Popovich isn’t sure how long that will take.
“When it happens, it happens,” he said. “When you know your team is pretty set and you understand the personality of the team and who is going to work together best and you’ve got the rotations down and you are consistent, it can happen any time. It’s not something that you formulate and decide when it’s going to happen.”