This past offseason the San Antonio Spurs realized they needed to get more height and more athleticism on both ends of the court.
Last season the Spurs were the worst offensive rebounding team in the league and in the playoffs had problems scoring. To shore up these deficiencies, general manager R.C. Buford and head coach Gregg Popovich went out and rounded up Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess and Keith Bogans. Then Buford drafted Pittsburgh Panthers power forward-center DeJuan Blair for Popovich.
After a miserable 4-6 beginning to 2009-10, it appeared that this season might mark the end of a 12-year run of success for Popovich and venerable center, “The Big Fundamental,” Tim Duncan.
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But just when the rest of the NBA thought they might be rid of the Texas Triangle’s toughest team, San Antonio went on a five-game winning streak to boost its record to 9-6.
However, the Spurs amassed that recent five-game run against bottom-feeders and teams seeking a winning identity. For a team with the championship pedigree of the Spurs, games against Washington, Milwaukee Golden State, Houston and Charlotte are good for the ego.
But beyond two early divisional games against Dallas, Thursday night’s nationally televised game with the Boston Celtics, a 90-83 loss, served as the new-look Spurs’ first true test of the season.
Despite the team’s shaky start and national buzz surrounding the Celtics game, Popovich remained philosophical about the season so far and the meeting with Boston.
“Is the game a litmus test? Sure. But if the team happens to win tonight it doesn’t mean we’re going to win the championship, just like if we get blown out it isn’t the end of the world.”
While most teams around the league are retooling their offenses in an effort to score more points, Popovich hopes to restore some of the Spurs’ defensive swagger from the team’s championship years.
“While I don’t think we can be as good defensively as we were a few years ago, it’s important for us to be better than we have been the last two seasons,” Popovich said. “It’s a process, though. We have to work on it game by game and we’ll see where we’re at by the end of the season.”
If the first half against the Celtics was any indication of the team’s progress, Popovich has many sleepless nights ahead of him. Boston got any shot it wanted — so much for the added defensive presence — and the Spurs were so discombobulated offensively the Celtics exerted little effort in stopping them.
Often McDyess and Bogans were out of place with Popovich waving them into position. The on-court instructional sessions cost the Spurs precious seconds on too many possessions. The Spurs shot a paltry 40.9 percent from the floor, 2-of-9 from the free-throw line, and Boston held a comfortable 47-39 lead. If not for the subs, led by Manu Ginobili and Blair, the deficit would have been much more.
Pregame, McDyess dropped hints about early season difficulties, the state of the team and perhaps even their future.
“This is the most difficult scheme I’ve been in on offense and defense,” he said. “Of course, I’ve been in one place for so long I knew there would be an adjustment period. Everything here is so exact; every play there’s so much detail.”
Jefferson, who spent eight years with the New Jersey Nets and one with the Milwaukee Bucks before moving to the Spurs, concurred with his new teammate.
“Of course there will be an adjustment period. The schemes here are very different, very involved. We just have to take things one game at a time. Like tonight. We want a ‘W’ but we also want to progress. We know it’s a process. We just have to keep getting better every game and we’ll see where we are at the end of the year.”
Blair’s relentless play inspired the Spurs’ subs as they mounted a fourth-quarter comeback against Boston. Yet the Celtics walked away from the AT&T Arena with the victory.
After the game, Popovich intimated that he learned something new about his team and particularly the new mix of players.
“You learn about your team every game,” Popovich said. “Tonight I learned that these guys have character and aren’t going to hang their heads. They played hard and I applaud their tenacity for hanging in and continuing to persevere through the game — despite making some critical mental errors and missing some assignments.
“But you have to play 48 minutes and we didn’t do that. We missed free throws and had too many turnovers. You can’t do that against a team as good as they [the Celtics] are.”
On the future of the Spurs, Popovich was a bit more circumspect.
“Hopefully we’ll get better week by week,” he said. “Hopefully.”
Blair, who scratched out a team-high 18 points in only 21 minutes and grabbed 11 boards, understands the season is young — and it is long
“You can’t win a championship in November,” he said.
Wise words from a rookie.
The motto for the 2009-10 San Antonio Spurs is “Work in Progress.” They are not in the same league as the NBA champs, the Los Angeles Lakers. And they have a ways to go before they can beat a team like the Celtics — or Orlando, or Denver.
But 66 games from now? The jury is out and a verdict isn’t being returned any time soon.
However, if Popovich’s postgame calm and cool demeanor was any indication of what he thinks his team may be come April, the rest of the Western Conference — and the league — better watch out.
That “Work in Progress” sign might well turn into another San Antonio Spurs NBA championship banner.