If there were rankings for the NBA’s overlooked and underestimated, the San Antonio Spurs would be No. 1. They are the contender people love to forget. That’s not to say they aren’t respected. Four titles since 1999 and the potent management duo of Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford translates to a substantial bottom line.
But the last few years, it seems that when championship aspirants are rated, any mention of the Spurs is followed with “yeah, well … but … they are too old and as boring as their uniforms, which could have been made in the ’50s and look just as good on black and white TVs as they do in color.”
That sort of attitude is fine with the Spurs, who play in one of the NBA’s smallest markets and, most of the time, make subtle changes that impress the purists and full-timers but not the masses.
Even before the trading deadline, the Spurs were positioned to compete for the NBA title. But when they managed to acquire the irascible Stephen Jackson for Richard Jefferson – a soaring talent who often crashed and burned in San Antonio – the Spurs suddenly became … favorites in the West?
Certainly the defending champion Mavericks took notice.
“That’s what they needed,” said Jason Terry, who played a year at the University of Arizona with Jefferson. “They wanted to get Jefferson out of there and if you can get Stephen Jackson for Richard Jefferson I would have done it, too. And (Jefferson is) a Wildcat. But that’s just a no-brainer.”
How far do the Spurs glide under the radar? Consider the negative generalization about them – their collective age.
And then look at an area that Popovich manages better than any NBA coach – minutes played.
Is anyone aware that the Spur who has averaged the third most minutes on the team is 20 years old? With Jefferson’s departure, only Tony Parker and Tim Duncan have averaged more minutes a game than rookie Kawhi Leonard’s 23.9.
Right behind Leonard is 24-year-old Danny Green, who has averaged 23.2 minutes. And three other players 27 and younger have averaged at least 20 minutes a game on a team with the fourth-best record in the NBA behind the Bulls, Thunder and Heat.
In all, Popovich has nine players averaging at least 20 minutes. Jefferson was the 10th and Jackson will likely replace most if not all of Jefferson’s minutes.
Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili still play major minutes, of course. And those three are the only Spurs who average in double figures.
But Popovich has long managed the season as merely a tuneup with no emphasis on where the Spurs are seeded. He coaches every game as if he is preparing for the championship series, and that has caused consternation among those who do not share his vision.
When the Spurs were in a stretch of three games in four nights in three cities – which was near the end of a nine-game road trip that stretched over the All-Star break – Popovich held a healthy Duncan and Parker out of a game in Portland.
Popovich was hit with a heavy dose of sanctimony after the Spurs were not competitive in a 137-97 loss. Wasn’t Popovich in essence dumping the game? Where was the commissioner’s office? What about the ticket-buying fans who were paying enormous prices to watch the Spurs jayvee team?
Popovich shrugged and compared it to a savings account.
“I can’t run our guys into the ground when it’s time for them to rest based on the schedule and the time they’ve been playing,” he said. “That’s what’s going to happen if you want to put some money in the bank for later.”
Popovich has coached that way for years, concentrating on the way the Spurs are playing – not their record. And he has been quizzed about his approach so many times that he makes light of the issue when it inevitably comes up.
Before the Spurs lost in Dallas Saturday night, Popovich was asked how important seeding was.
“Unbelievably important!” he said, raising his voice, flapping his arms and laughing.
And then he stated something that, for him, is obvious.
“Who knows?” he said. “We won (61) games last year. Remember we lost right away. One would think that maybe it doesn’t matter.”
The Spurs had the top seed entering the playoffs last season but an elbow injury to Ginobili limited his effectiveness in the first round and an opportunistic Memphis team won the series despite being the eighth seed.
“What it means is you do your best and whatever you are, you are and you go play,” Popovich said. “And you win or you lose and you go to dinner. That’s just what you do.”
The Spurs have built the second-best record in the West despite Ginobili missing 28 games with a hand injury and a muscle strain. He did not play in Friday at Oklahoma City, and Popovich has said he will not play Ginobili on back-to-back nights for the remainder of the season.
Despite Ginobili’s absence, the Spurs still won on the road against the team with the best record in the West. The reason? How about 15 points, 19 rebounds and five blocks from Duncan. The man may turn 36 next month and doesn’t put up those numbers every night.
But when needed, he can still provide.
Despite the Spurs’ success, Popovich said they still have work to do.
“We’re still kind of like in flux in a way,” he said. “We’re still trying to get Manu into the lineup in a meaningful way and we haven’t done it. We’re still (trying to find a) backup point guard and doing that with Gary Neal and Manu and Danny Green.
“Now we’re going to try and get Jack involved somehow or other. I’d rather have a rhythm right now to what we’re doing. We don’t really have that. We’re trying to get there, but circumstances just won’t allow it, so hopefully we can get it done before playoffs.”
Popovich said the Spurs are not playing as well on defense as they have in the past, even though they are second in points allowed with 93.3 per game.
The offense has been first-rate. The Spurs rank fourth in the NBA with 100.8 points per game. They are also first in 3-point percentage at .401.
And now, in Jackson, they’ve added toughness. The man who played a major role in the 2004 brawl between the Pacers and Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills has never backed down from a fight, which makes him very popular with teammates.
“He’s got an edge to him,” Popovich said. “I like his edge; I like his toughness, his grit; his willingness to play in big situations. All those sorts of things are what I like.”
“I’m all about my team,” Jackson said. “Whatever it takes to protect my teammates, to be with my teammates, I’m going to ride it to the end. That’ all I know.”
Jackson was a key member of the Spurs’ 2003 championship team, averaging 12.8 points and 33.8 minutes during the playoffs. And now, as he nears his 34th birthday next month, he may be the final ingredient needed for the Spurs to win a fifth title.
But keep that between us.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.