Spurs fans are aware as any of the Ripleys-Believe-It-Or-Not 36-2 start of the Golden State Warriors, but they have every reason to be excited and optimistic about their chances to win a sixth NBA title.
The Warriors are defending champions, but the Spurs are only a year removed from winning the title, and they still have Duncan-Ginobili-Parker – as we’re always told, an elderly version but one that keeps performing an important superstar function:
They continue to make players around them better.
And Spurs management – Gregg Popovich, who is not only coach but also has the title of Spurs president of basketball, and general manager R.C. Buford – keeps finding players who have the potential to perform in an ideal setting, which the Spurs have.
Although the Warriors had an impressive playoff run last year, it would have been interesting to see how they would have handled the challenge of the Spurs, who, again, were defending champions at the time.
Had the Spurs won their final game of the regular season, they would have had the second seed in the West. Instead, they lost to the Pelicans, dropped to the sixth seed and had to play a good Clippers team in the first round. They lost the deciding seventh game on a shot by Chris Paul so incredibly acrobatic that even the most corrupt Soviet figure skating judge would have given it a 10.
The Rockets got the second seed and eliminated the Clippers in the West semifinals but were no match for Golden State in the conference finals and lost in five games.
The Spurs added premier free agent LaMarcus Aldridge, who is learning the personal adjustments it takes to play the Spurs’ team brand of basketball. Aldridge averaged 20 shots a game last season but fewer than 14 a game this season and his scoring average has dropped from 23.4 points to 16.1. He is the second leading scorer on the team, and, in fact, the second-best forward behind Kawhi Leonard, who leads San Antonio with 20.6 points (Parker, Ginobili and Duncan are 3-4-5, respectively, in scoring).
But it is the subtle moves made by Buford and Popovich that have complemented Duncan throughout his career and made the Spurs an elite team. Not much was expected from players like Danny Green, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Matt Bonner – who are still with the team – but they have made contributions over the years, and Green has developed into a solid starter.
So that brings us to Jonathon Simmons, who is 26, and Boban Marjanovic, 27, who have become part of the depth Popovich is so accomplished at building. If ever there were an unlikely pair with the potential to contribute to the Spurs when the playoffs arrive, it is the two elderly rookies.
The best word to characterize Simmons, a 6-6 shooting guard, is doggedness. His career began at two Texas junior colleges before he finished at his hometown University of Houston, where he led the 2011-12 Cougars, averaging 14.7 points and five rebounds.
He entered the draft but was not selected. He found work with something called the Sugar Land Legends in a semipro league, then spent two years with the Spurs’ D-League team in Austin after earning an invitation to training camp through an open tryout. He played with the Spurs team in the Las Vegas Summer League and – after scoring 23 points and winning MVP of the championship game – he was signed to an NBA contract.
At 7-3 and 290 pounds, Marjanovic has become a crowd favorite in San Antonio. His playing time is more sporadic than Simmons’, but he has had several impressive performances, even starting one game when Duncan rested.
Marjanovic had his two best games of the season against impressive opposition. He scored 17 points against the Timberwolves and Karl-Anthony Towns, the first pick in the 2015 draft. And he scored 18 in 17 minutes against No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor when the Spurs manhandled the 76ers, 119-68, in December.
Marjanovic’s teammates love his hard work and hustle and will challenge anyone who thinks he has earned playing time simply by being huge.
“I think people look at his size and sort of think he’s a big stiff, but Boban’s a hell of a player,” said David West, the two-time All-Star power forward who gave up $12.5 million in guaranteed salary to play for the Spurs for the veteran minimum of $1.5 million. “He’s not a big stiff. He can move and stays engaged in terms of the pace of the game. He’s a positive for us.”
Popovich has tried to douse “Bobansanity” in San Antonio. He loves what the big Serbian brings – “I like his height,” the coach deadpanned after one game when Marjanovic dominated garbage time – but was offended when some Spurs fans took to chanting “M-V-P” as the big man attempted free throws.
The league’s most irascible personality, Popovich recognizes Marjanovic’s length, soft hands and solid basketball IQ. He also knows that he will be a role player most of this first season and, certainly, in the playoffs.
It’s Simmons who actually has a shot at earning a spot in Popovich’s postseason rotation. The most athletic of Spurs, he has wowed fans with some of the most spectacular dunks since Manu Ginobili’s first few seasons. But he also is a hard-working defender Popovich has matched up against some of the better wing players in the game, including James Harden.
Like many other Spurs, Simmons and Marjanovic benefit from playing with the Big Three. But they are the latest in a long line of complementary gems that the Spurs have so effectively uncovered in the Duncan era.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.