The Extra Pass: The Spurs and time

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The Extra Pass is a column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we look at the San Antonio Spurs. 

You don’t have to scrounge for reasons for why the San Antonio Spurs have such great success. A quick point of the finger to Tim Duncan works just fine; an additional point to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili works even better. There probably can’t be enough praise heaped on head coach Gregg Popovich, and attributing credit to the top of the organization won’t warrant many complaints. The Spurs are a world-class organization with all-world players. It can be that simple.

Maybe it’s so simple that it’s easy to look past. Every year the Spurs get older, and every year the concerns about time pop up and we forget everything else. Every compliment includes a caveat — the Spurs are great, but they’re old. Fact is, time is undefeated, and we tend to side with the champion over the challenger in that regard. In the eyes of many, the Spurs are up against it more and more every year.

But when the Spurs inevitably tear through the league like they always do, we say that they’re defying time. We praise their ability to fight time. Every year we do this and act surprised.

It makes me think that we’re looking at it the wrong way. The Spurs aren’t fighting against time. They’re using it.

Forfeiting Time

It starts by giving it up. Manu Ginobili has done it for years, coming off the bench and taking less minutes while not shying away from recuperation time from the bumps and bruises his reckless style of play welcomes. Tim Duncan, meanwhile, has played less than 30 a minutes a night for the last three years. It’s not that Duncan can’t play that much anymore — his playoff average usually hovers around 36 minutes a game — it’s all about pacing. Duncan is playing some of the best basketball of his career and putting up career per-36 numbers, but no team better understands how long an 82 game season is than the Spurs. They are always the tortoise.

That said, thinking that the Spurs sit their stars simply for the sake of rest is a classic mistake. Monday night’s trip to Chicago was a perfect example. Could some combination of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Stephen Jackson could have played? Probably, but suiting up those guys for tired or rusty minutes in the middle of an 82-game season serves no real purpose. Popovich went with none of the four, and the Spurs reserves got a ton of minutes they don’t usually receive. That move paid off, as the shorthanded Spurs beat the Bulls easily, 103-89.

And what’s the result? Another banked experience for guys who might not get many shots at it. When the day comes for Kawhi Leonard to be the Spurs’ top scorer, he has 26 points against the league’s best wing defenders to draw on. That confidence gleaned is more important than anything Parker, Duncan or Ginobili could have done. No coach puts their team in more no-lose, low-risk situations during the regular season than Popovich.

Organizational patience

You would think a front office with an aging core would be in a huge rush to win in their championship window, but the Spurs have gone the opposite route.  Tiago Splitter was drafted way back in 2007, playing overseas for three years of Tim Duncan’s prime before coming over. Nando de Colo was drafted in 2009 and is a rookie this season. George Hill was a mature, useful player at both guard spots for the Spurs, and he was swapped for a raw 19-year-old rookie in Kawhi Leonard last season.

Is it a coincidence that the biggest moves the Spurs have made have been for a center and a small forward?  By waiting on Splitter and developing Leonard into a killer corner scorer, the Spurs might be better than ever. After all, it’s the Spurs — not the Lakers or the Heat or any of the other “super teams” — that have the most effective starting lineup in all of basketball. The Parker-Green-Leonard-Duncan-Splitter lineup has a 106.9 offensive rating and an 87.1 defensive rating. The window is as open as it ever was.

The system

Most of San Antonio’s offense revolves around motion. Guys move with a purpose. There are very few plays for individuals, which eliminates turn taking and bad shots off the dribble. The next time you hear about a player under Popovich complaining about not getting enough shots will be the first time. If you cut hard, you’ll get it. If you screen hard, you’ll get it.

The Spurs may have been missing their stars in Chicago, but their biggest star was undoubtedly the system. The reserves executed in the halfcourt flawlessly, running everything with the same crispness the starters would. Popovich demands his players to follow a lot of rules on both ends, but he doesn’t dumb things down or limit the possibilities. He trusts his players to make the right decisions because they’re his players. Again, that comes with time.

And that’s really the point. We like to consider time as the one great enemy to the mighty Spurs empire, but no other team has used it to their advantage quite like the Spurs have.

James Harden came to Rico Hines run at UCLA and just destroyed people

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Elite NBA defenders, with a team and a game plan behind them, can’t slow down James Harden.

So imagine what happens when he shows up for an open run.

One spot a lot of NBA players head in the summer to get some games in is Rico Hines’ games at UCLA. Harden showed up and, well, you know what comes next. Via Ball is Life.

The man is so smooth, so under control, and just able to get buckets however he wants. It’s just fun to watch. Unless you’re an opposing coach.

Could Kevin Durant return from torn Achilles, play for Nets this season? Maybe…

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Every case is different, but many players return from a torn Achilles in about nine to 10 months. Kobe Bryant pushed and did it in eight. Other players will take a full year.

If Kevin Durant returned in nine months it would be March, enough time to get in game shape and be ready for the Nets’ playoff run.

There’s a growing sense from teams we could see just that scenario, and Spencer Dinwiddie talked about it with Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

Though Nets GM Sean Marks refused to rule Durant out for the season, the feeling within the league is trending toward him potentially playing this season.

“I know KD is taking the rehab process ultra-serious. He wants to come back as soon as it’s appropriate, and healthy and the right decision for him, and then also subsequently that would also be the right decision for,” said Dinwiddie, who points out that even a slightly-diminished Durant could still be a superstar.

“The beautiful part about this is, the man is 7-foot and one of the best shooters of all time. At worst you get Dirk [Nowitzki], and Dirk was a monster. So we’re ready for him to come back whenever he wants to and whenever he’s ready to do so, and we know that he’s going to be a phenomenal major piece of our roster.”

Durant is an intense competitor who wants to get back on the court. He pushed to get back from a calf injury and play in the NBA Finals only to suffer the Achilles tear. He’s smart enough to be sure he’s all the way back before he steps on the court, if that means he sits out a full season so be it. However, he absolutely could return this season.

If he’s back, the Nets go from interesting team to potential threat to the Bucks and Sixers at the top of the conference. Durant was the best player in the world the past couple of years and he could return to that status quickly, and lift Brooklyn up with him.

Will Toronto give Pascal Siakam a max extension?

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In his third year in the league last season, Pascal Siakam made a leap. He averaged 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, shot 36.9 percent from three, became a shot creator, played quality wing defense, and he was a key part of the Raptors earning the right to have a parade and hoist a championship banner. He earned that Most Improved Player trophy.

Siakam is Toronto’s future after a summer where Kawhi Leonard left.

Siakam also is eligible for an extension right now.

Should the Raptors give him the max of five years, $170 million? A number of executives around the league told Frank Urbina of Hoopshype that Siakam may be worth that number.

A Western Conference coach agreed: “With Toronto in the situation that they’re in, no longer having Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green, Pascal Siakam may be a safe bet for them and they may want to give him a max extension to lock him up. I’ve been impressed with his development; he’s improved into a highly, highly serviceable player who’s very efficient and does a lot for that team. From the outside looking in, it seems like he’ll be able to continue his development too. He seems highly motivated and very grateful to be in the situation he’s in and he doesn’t take anything for granted.”

Is “highly serviceable” worth the max? The two players who got that money this summer were Ben Simmons in Philly and Jamal Murray in Denver. Most of the GMs spoken to for the article would try to extend him for less than the full max.

“I think they’re going to try to extend him,” one current Eastern Conference GM said. “I haven’t talked to Toronto, but he’s obviously a huge piece for them, helped them win a championship, he’s getting better, he’s young, he’s athletic and he can shoot. They’re going to try to extend him. Do I think he’s a max player? No. Do I think he’s a good player? Certainly. It’ll come down to what he thinks he’s worth, and I’m sure his agents have called around to see what kind of offers he could get if he enters restricted free agency.”

Another Western Conference executive agreed that he’s not worth the max, telling HoopsHype: “Out of Pascal Siakam, Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram and Buddy Hield, [the main candidates remaining for a rookie-scale extension], I don’t think any of them will get the max or deserve the max. If I was running each team, I would force them to play it out. In some situations, keeping their cap holds is so much more beneficial. You should only extend if you get a below-market-value deal or if it’s a no-brainer extension.”

If the Raptors come in at less than the max with an offer, Siakam may just want to play out this season and head into restricted free agency next summer. If he has another strong season, when he hits the market in a down year for free agents he may find a team willing to make a max or near max offer and Toronto will have to match or let him walk. Essentially, Siakam would bet on himself.

We’ll see if Toronto and Siakam’s people can find a number that works for both sides, the deadline is Oct. 21. The sides are talking, but its more likely this rolls into next summer.

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.