Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Spurs are older, but much wiser, too

Gregg Popovich is the longest-tenured NBA coach. He has led the San Antonio Spurs to five NBA titles since 1999.
Gregg Popovich is the longest-tenured NBA coach. He has led the San Antonio Spurs to five NBA titles since 1999. The Associated Press

In one of the more amazing, almost unfathomable truisms of the modern NBA, the most appealing and successful game is played by men with gray hair and bald spots, with creaky knees that refuse to straighten, with a coach who barks orders like a general but melts like a kitten.

Those five championships? Those never get old. Seemingly, neither do the San Antonio Spurs, who play the Kings on Saturday at Sleep Train Arena. They stopped counting birthdays decades ago. A little oil here, an offensive tweak and personnel coup there, and the defending champs continue chilling like one of coach Gregg Popovich’s vintage wines.

Five rings since 1999. If that’s not a dynasty, it’s as close as it gets these days in the NBA.

“They remind me of the old Kings with Vlade (Divac) and Chris (Webber),” former Kings coach and current NBA analyst Garry St. Jean said earlier in the week. “They make the extra pass. Their spacing is terrific. They cut hard to open it up for the next guy. It’s all sound, fundamental basketball. Move the ball and move people.”

Don’t forget the style points. For far too long, the Spurs were underappreciated by an increasingly restless, hyperbole-driven NBA audience. While the basketball world slept, and the league marketed dunks and spectacular one-on-one moves, elevating individual stars above collective superstardom and sustained excellence, the Spurs didn’t get mad, they won titles.

Popovich and R.C. Buford drafted wisely and retained key players. They scouted overseas more effectively and consistently than any franchise. They maintained salary cap discipline, benefited from Peter Holt’s backseat ownership and philosophically and pragmatically changed with the times.

While Popovich can’t control his players’ health, he certainly dictates their availability, often to the chagrin of league officials. Not everyone is a Pop fan. While league executives equate revenue streams with the nightly appearances of elite players – and feel for fans who buy tickets, only to discover visiting superstars on the bench – the Spurs cite a close connection between rest and championship rings.

In a concession to the 82-game regular-season schedule and the impact of back-to-back games on his aging stars, Popovich regulates minutes and sits Tim Duncan (38 years old), Manu Ginobili (37) and Tony Parker (32) when he senses they are fatigued. Early Tuesday evening in Oakland, for example, the league’s longest-tenured coach scrutinized Duncan’s mobility during warmups before allowing the future Hall of Famer to play on the second night of a back-to-back.

Duncan not only played, he anchored an interior that scored 48 points in the paint and repeatedly denied the Warriors openings at the rim.

“We’re back in business,” Parker said after the 113-100 victory. “We’ve had a lot of injuries, but that’s no excuse. We understand that every night they (opponents) are going to come at us. We’re the defending champs.”

So back to those style points. The Spurs haven’t always been this much fun. In the early years of the Popovich era, the emphasis was on defense and feeding an inside/out offensive system that relied on big men Duncan and David Robinson. It wasn’t that the Spurs didn’t pass well or pass often – ball movement is a staple of every Popovich scheme – it’s just that the sequences didn’t engage as many teammates or develop nearly as quickly.

The transition toward a faster, more open floor game began when the Spurs were swept by the small-ball Phoenix Suns in the 2010 Western Conference semifinals.

“I think you have to be aware enough to understand what problems exist or what improvements might have to be made, and have the wherewithal to face it, and not be stubborn,” Popovich said. “We knew we couldn’t be the defensive team we used to be. We didn’t want to be a terrible or mediocre defensive team, but we weren’t going to get to the top of the heap, probably. So we thought we have to pick things up offensively. We had to do something to keep up with everybody else. We became a better-scoring basketball team.”

On their best nights, those nights the legs feel young, the energy flows, the crowd incites, the Spurs conduct clinics in pacing, passing, movement, spacing and shooting. They set and hold screens that jar teeth. Old-fashioned backcuts become hip. At times it appears as if five quarterbacks are on the floor, with players anticipating and reacting and angling passes before a teammate completes a route or reaches a specific spot.

“We have been running the same stuff for 14 years,” Ginobili said, “but we have become more unpredictable. We attack quick, and while Pop calls some plays, most of what we do now comes off motion.”

If not forever young, Popovich, whose Hall of Fame chair already is rocking, is forever progressive, forever changing. He alters his appearance more often than Phil Jackson. The beard is long, then trim, then gone. The white hair is slicked back, then buzz cut, then sloping down his neck. His encore to his latest championship includes hiring legendary European coach Ettore Messina as an assistant and introducing former WNBA star Becky Hammon to the NBA coaching ranks.

And these Spurs? Even with Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter and Marco Belinelli out with injuries, this is the team to beat, the team to emulate.

“For the last six or seven years,” former Spurs forward Sean Elliott said, “we got onto the big stage, were injury-free, so people got to see what we are all about. Everyone had been talking about the Big Three. But didn’t we again prove that formula obsolete? You build a team with more than three players. It’s hard to get players to buy into this kind of system, but when you play as a team, this is the reward.”

Five rings. Count ’em.

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

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