From Gregg Popovich down, Spurs relying on patience

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SAN ANTONIO – Spurs guard Patty Mills – who injured his shoulder in the offseason and was expected to return in 2015 – was quietly cleared two days ago.

“I’m not going to let him play,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said.

Huh?

“I’m going to hold him off as long as I can,” Popovich said. “There will be a point where he won’t allow me to do that anymore, and that’s fine. But for right now, I’m winning the battle. At some point, I’ll lose it.”

Popovich doesn’t lose these battles very often.

The Spurs coach has instilled a culture of patience that he hopes will carry his team through this relatively difficult stretch, including a 114-106 loss to the Thunder today.

San Antonio 18-12, on pace for more than 49 wins. Most teams would be thrilled with that record.

But the Spurs have never won so few of their first 29 games since drafting Tim Duncan in 1997. They’ve lost seven of 10, a rare skid at  any point in the era. In this loaded Western Conference, that has them just seventh in standings.

Not that Popovich checks those.

“Never have before. Might as well not now,” Popovich said. “If I look at them, they don’t change. It’s kind of like a referee’s call. You can moan and groan, but it doesn’t change. I can stare at the standings, and we still have, whatever, 11 losses. It doesn’t turn into nine if I look at it for a while. So, I don’t pay any attention to it.”

(To be fair, Popovich is not immune from moaning and groaning to referees. Far from it.)

Of course, Popovich’s most famous method of patience is resting his key players – Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili especially – during entire games. He’s concerned Duncan (whose 32.2 minutes per game entering today are his most in six seasons) and Ginobili (whose 25.5 are his most in four) are playing too much.

“I have to try to take care of that over time, so that we can be as energetic and fresh as we can possibly be,” Popovich said. “And we haven’t even made the playoffs yet. Aren’t we like eighth or ninth or seventh or whatever we are? I don’t know. It’s not like we’re automatically in. We have to play well enough to get in. There’s a lot of good teams out here.”

He’s not concerned about San Antonio’s defense, either. The Spurs rank fifth in points allowed per possession, down from third each of the last two seasons.

“When we get all the players back, then I’ll think about it,” Popovich said.

And that’s the one area – injuries – Popovich doesn’t always keep calm.

“I worry about it every day, really,” Popovich said.

But he overcomes that inclination.

Popovich is sitting Mills as long as possible, waiting for the guard to take more contact in practice.

Kawhi Leonard, who injured his hand, is another story. That’s not patience on Pop’s part. It’s reality.

“He can’t move his hand,” Popovich said. “He can’t catch and dribble and all that kind of stuff.”

In a similar vein, San Antonio’s Christmas opponent, the Thunder, were without Kevin Durant.

“He could not go if he wanted to go,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said.

Obviously, injuries have kept both teams from their traditional perches atop or near the top of the Western Conference. But Popovich won’t ask Santa Claus for healthier players – or anything else.

“Ever since we’ve drafted Timmy, I’ve asked for nothing,” Popovich said. “Anytime anything bad happens like injuries, I say, well, the scales are just evening is all they’re doing. We’ve had enough luck that anybody should ever ask for anything else is not fair. So, we never feel badly about anything bad that happens to us, because we were able to get Timmy. That’s the truth. Nothing will ever balance that.”

So, Popovich will patiently wait for his team to get healthy, for its defense to play better, for its record to improve.

Mills in particular likes that approach.

“The environment that you’re in, to have that peace of mind to know not to rush, make sure you look after yourself,” Mills said. “I think is the best thing.”

For himself and for the Spurs.

Short offseason, uncertain financial outlook may mean fewer coaches fired

76ers coach Brett Brown
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Already this season, Kenny Atkinson was out in Brooklyn, the New York Knicks fired coach David Fizdale, and John Beilein was shown the door in Cleveland (with J.B. Bickerstaff hired to replace him). That was just the tip of the iceberg in expected NBA coaching changes this offseason, the buzz around the league was between four and up to 10 more coaches would be fired.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Now those same teams are looking at a shortened offseason, while at the same time the owners have taken a financial hit and aren’t thrilled about the idea of paying two coaches at once, and suddenly it looks like a lot more coaches are safe. Brian Windhorst and Tim Bontemps touched on that in their story about next season at ESPN.

After much chatter before the stoppage of changes in the coaching ranks, several league executives told ESPN that teams might be more likely to hang on to coaching staffs longer than planned to avoid paying out millions to coaches fired in current market conditions.

A lot front office sources around the NBA are speculating about the same thing.

Expect a few changes. Mike D’Antoni’s contract is up in Houston and few around the league expect him to return next season. Jim Boylen is considered the walking dead in Chicago where there is a new front-office regime. New York and Brooklyn still have to hire their guys.

However, other guys considered almost certainly gone — Brett Brown in Philadelphia or Scott Brooks in Washington, for example — may keep their gig another year because of the uncertain waters of the NBA right now. Maybe not, there could be firings, but don’t expect the tidal wave of coaching changes to wash over the NBA that everyone expected back in February.

Teams forced into difficult choices to trim traveling parties for restart

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The 22 teams participating in the NBA restart were all at the Disney campus together for the first time Friday.

None of them, however, made it to the Orlando, Florida, area with their usual travel party.

Leaving families behind for several weeks — or maybe even three months, depending on how deep a team goes in the playoffs — during a pandemic isn’t the only hardship that teams are dealing with during this restart. Space limitations within the quasi-bubble at Disney also meant that teams had to cut their official traveling parties down to 37, including players, so many people who usually travel with a club aren’t on this trip.

“We’re not able to take everybody — and that stinks, because of the amount of work that they all put in every single day,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve tried to identify how to be the most efficient we can be with people that can be excellent remotely as well. I think that that’s one of the things that we’ve had to identify. In some cases, their excellence remotely probably hurt their chances of going initially.”

It’s expected that as the bubble population shrinks after six teams are eliminated from playoff contention and then eight more are ousted in the first postseason round, teams will be allowed to bring in more staff.

But until then, while teams are playing games on-site at Disney, there will be plenty of work done back in home markets and home arenas as well. Some teams left player development coaches behind, some even left assistant coaches, and all teams traveled with only one media relations staffer and one equipment manager. In normal circumstances, some teams travel with as many as three people to handle media requirements and two for equipment.

“You know, it’s tough,” Orlando President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “We kind of shied away from some of the language that was being thrown around — the whole idea of essential (staff) and non-essential (staff). It’s not about that. This is a very narrowly defined circumstance, and it requires certain skill sets to address this circumstance.”

Players counted against the list of 37, and most teams brought the full complement of 17 players. That left 20 spots for coaches, assistant coaches, player development, video, security, strength and conditioning, athletic training, media relations and content creators.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the process of figuring out who goes and who doesn’t was brutal.

“We already have had a model of everybody sharing responsibilities,” Spoelstra said. “We already had a meeting about this where there’s an absolute understanding that this is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation. And that means bags, laundry, cleanup, everything … that’s not just for equipment managers, that’s everybody — coaches, trainers, weight room staff, head coach, coaches, we’re all going to be involved in every aspect of it.”

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan also expressed disappointment that tough decisions had to be made on the staffing end.

He completely understands the NBA perspective. Keeping the number of people in the bubble manageable is a key part of the NBA’s plan for being able to finish the season; the more people in the bubble, the more risk there is of something going wrong.

“Everybody deserves the opportunity, but for the safety of the league and the players we can’t do that,” Donovan said. “So, what we’ve got to do is understand, whether it’s myself or assistant coaches, we may have to be setting up video equipment, we may have to have one of our coaches filming practice in Orlando. There’s things that we’re going to have to do that are going to be outside the box that will normally been taken care of.”

Chris Paul playing cornhole. Luka Doncic trick shots. Welcome to life in the NBA bubble.

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Teams have emerged from quarantine in the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando, getting some run in on the court, and are starting to explore life in the NBA bubble.

Then they are documenting it on social media.

For example, Chris Paul and Darius Bazley played some cornhole.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic was hitting trick shots on the court.

Then Doncic and Boban Marjanovic were doing Disney Channel ads.

Complaints about the food by players have died down, in part because they are out of quarantine and get a choice of restaurants, in part because they saw the backlash and realized the complaints looked elitist. Or maybe it’s just the Mickey pancakes.

Everyone is out and exploring the campus and having fun…

Well, except for Robin Lopez, who sees no reason to leave his room.

Zion Williamson “just went back to square one” with quarantine workouts

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Zion Williamson looks cut — like he spent the entire quarantine doing workouts — and ready to be a force at the NBA restart in Orlando.

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Built for this 💪

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What workouts did Zion Williamson do during the break to get that look? He took everything back down to step one and built it up again working out with his stepfather Lee Anderson, Williamson told reporters on Friday (hat tip Andrew Lopez of ESPN):

“It just felt like I was 5 years old again,” Williamson said Friday. “Just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at 5 again. It was a great process to learn it all over.”

Williamson did a little more than that. He also had approval from the league to go to the Pelicans practice facility throughout the quarantine and get treatment on his knee, the one that kept him out the first 45 games of the season. So he stayed healthy.

He also worked on other aspects of this game, such as his jump shot. Williamson took 76.7% of his shot attempts at the rim this season, and while getting to the rim is critical to his game, he’s going to have confidence in his shot and knock down jumpers to reach higher levels in the league.

The Pelicans enter the bubble 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West, and with the softest schedule of any team in Orlando (matching their schedule before the interruption), they have a legitimate chance of forcing a two-game play-in series. It’s not easy, but there is a path to the playoffs for New Orleans (setting up a Zion vs. LeBron James first-round showdown that league broadcast partners are drooling over).

A stronger, improved Zion could help get the Pelicans there.