Everyone knows the stereotype with the Spurs: boring. That’s actually completely incorrect, unless you find things like quality spacing, terrific execution, intelligent offense, splendid fundamentals and magnificent ball movement boring. But then again, those people probably also thought Godfather II was boring and love John Cena movies.
Another stereotype that’s also kind of incorrect: they’re old. Tim Duncan’s old. Manu Ginobili’s old. Tony Parker’s old-ish. But the dirty little secret about the Spurs is that they have some serious youth in their ranks too. Kawhi Leonard is 21. Danny Green is 25. Gary Neal is 28. Tiago Splitter is 28. Cory Joseph is 21. Nando De Colo is 25.
And here’s the funny thing about all those guys: Gregg Popovich has absolutely no problem playing any of them. And thereby, the Spurs develop those young players on the fly, which in turn is why I think a lot of people think of the team as old. Because you’re used to seeing Green and Leonard and Splitter and Neal. They seem just as veteran as anyone else on the roster.
The Spurs develop. They cultivate talent, and not just top tier lottery guys. Cast-offs from elsewhere, foreigners, D-League, whatever. They are the masters. Henry Abbott of TrueHoop wrote a really great piece illustrating this developmental philosophy:
Coaches are playing “correct” Grays over “still learning” Valanciunases all over the league. It satisfies a coach’s sense of order and control. Every coach wants their team to play the right way — which is not so different from following coach’s orders. Without that, what’s the point of having a coach?
Meanwhile, the guy who plays the “wrong” way often helps his team more, thanks to the many advantages of youth.
It’s a dilemma that trips up many NBA head men. But not Gregg Popovich.
The story is that the Spurs’ front office keeps feeding Popovich NBA-ready role players, and by the time his team’s in the Western Conference finals, he can confidently trot out Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Cory Joseph and the like, who are all both young enough to be in their athletic primes and schooled and experienced enough to do things the right way.
Nice. Decisive, even. Lucky.
But when it comes to the fine art of turning prospects into producers, Popovich’s aggressive youth-friendly approach is the standard. Popovich has missed with some young players. But he has also hit the bull’s eye more than once, and it made all the difference.
The Thunder organization has built their infrastructure in a manner that’s attempting to mimic the Spurs, specifically a small market team centered on core values and principles like sustainable success, a strong developmental system and a discernible, almost tangible culture. It’s still unknown whether or not the Thunder will enjoy the same kind of success the Spurs have, because I don’t know if you know this, winning in the NBA is hard. It takes great luck as much as it takes great management and great play. The Thunder were dealt a heap of the bad kind this postseason and by extension, the Spurs got some of the very good kind in that Russell Westbrook was out. It happens.
But after reading Henry’s piece, it really struck me that there’s a disconnect between the Thunder and Spurs when it comes to young players. At least there was this season. It’s not that the Thunder aren’t trying to develop their youth, it’s just that they’re going about it somewhat of a different way.
The best example is these numbers: 1) 23 games played, 147 total minutes and 2) 24 games, 347 minutes.
Can you figure out the meaning there? Number one is Jeremy Lamb’s 2012-13 season, number two is Derek Fisher’s.
I was one of many that were outspoken about Fisher’s playing time during the regular season and for me, it had a whole lot less to do with what Fisher was actually bringing to the floor and more to do with the fact of what he was keeping off it. The idea of playing Fisher over Lamb, outside of inexplicably treating Fisher like he was a shooting guard somehow, completely flew in the face of the Thunder’s approach of long-term development over short-term gain. Not only did Fisher get 12-15 minutes a night over Lamb, but he cut into the minutes of Reggie Jackson and even DeAndre Liggins. Why would the Thunder want to play a 38-year-old with no future with the franchise over a 20-year-old that’s supposed to be a future big piece? Unless they have no plans for Lamb (possible, I suppose), what sense did that make, especially for the Thunder?
Obviously, maybe the team didn’t feel Lamb was prepared for those moments. He’s in a unique situation for a lottery pick in that he’s on a 60-win team and one contending for a title. Expectations in OKC are different, and the same thing will be in place for whoever the Thunder take with the No. 12 pick.
But that’s never stopped Popovich and the Spurs. Routinely, the Spurs sit their key guys and let younger players play. It’s mostly to give the old guys a rest as they manage an 82-game schedule, but it’s as much about making sure the Splitters and Josephs and Greens get some reps too. The Thunder are OBVIOUSLY in a much different place in that even Durant and Westbrook are still young players that are growing, but is it really that necessary they play 45 minutes in a December game against the Wizards?
Now, Lamb and Jones (and Jackson, Liggins and Daniel Orton) spent their fair share of time getting plenty of minutes in Tulsa with the 66ers. A lot of people grew frustrated with that, but it’s a lot better for them to be playing SOMEWHERE instead of sniffing Gatorade fumes on the end of the bench every night. Lamb had a wildly successful and encouraging D-League campaign, routinely dropping upwards of 30 points a game. The tools are obviously there. But it’s a different game in the D-League, and nothing can simulate real life NBA action. Something of which Lamb only got twice this season, in terms actual meaningful rotation minutes. Once against the Pistons where he looked woefully lost, and then again against the Hawks a few weeks later where he splashed a couple 3s, grabbed a few rebounds in five minutes and kind of looked… good.
But then he didn’t play again outside of garbage time until the final game of the season where he played 41 minutes in a meaningless game.
So what gives? Why aren’t the Thunder following San Antonio’s lead and playing the young guys during the season?
Early on, the Thunder DID develop players live. For one, because they had to. There really wasn’t anyone else on the roster to play. But two, and the best reason, is because they could. The team was in a transitional phase of clearing the floor and starting over with a new, young core. It was understood that this was going to be a painful growth process and that the team would likely suck as these kids found their way. So there was no pressure to play savvy vets over Durant, Westbrook, Harden or even Ibaka.
Half the time, coaches are coaching for their job, and that’s why many have the inclination to go with veteran players. Even if there’s an understanding the team is building young players, fanbases and media grumble over 20-62 seasons. So coaches lean towards trying to win the game in front of them rather than taking the long view. When Scott Brooks took over for P.J. Carlesimo, it had less to do with the Thunder’s early struggles and more about the fact it was obvious the developmental process was stalling. Durant was playing out of position and not advancing, Westbrook wasn’t even starting. So Presti made a wise decision and canned Carlesimo who was tilted towards nightly results and appointed Brooks who was charged with making these kids better. When coaches get that kind of leeway, that kind of grace, they can play young guys and watch the losses pile up. As long as there’s progress, it’s OK.
The Thunder progressed alright, at speeds only seen in this galaxy by the Millennium Falcon. Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka, even Thabo Sefolosha, Jackson, Eric Maynor — they all made significant steps forward. Leaps, really and with them, so did the Thunder. Guys like Cole Aldrich and Byron Mullens didn’t. Is purely coincidental that the ones that went through the program and came out studs on the other side were the ones that, you know, actually played in games?
As the Thunder struggled to find offense without Russell Westbrook in the postseason, calls for Lamb increased. It was obvious the Thunder needed an extra offensive punch, some kind of floor spacer or spark. But playing Lamb then would’ve been a massive desperation move for Brooks and a complete mistake.
Because unlike the Spurs, the Thunder would’ve been trotting a rookie onto the floor in the second round of the playoffs against one of the league’s best defenses only to watch him getting eaten alive. At that point, it was way too late. And it proved the point that Brooks’ short-sighted approach with Fisher was a major gaffe because without Westbrook, the Thunder’s otherwise ridiculously talented roster looked comically thin and inept after Durant, Jackson and Ibaka. Again, Lamb played TWICE in the regular season, both for about four minutes. He wasn’t prepared for anything. Brooks great mistake there wasn’t not playing Lamb in the playoffs; it was not playing him in December.
I get it, though. It’s hard to trust young players. They screw up. They do dumb things. But more than any other coach in the league, Brooks should be understand and forgiving and accommodating to those growing pains. Seeing as, you know, he just took one of the youngest rosters in NBA history to an NBA Finals and all. If anyone should trust youth, it should be Brooks.
Like Henry pointed out with Lionel Hollins oddly trying Jon Leuer in Game 3, or when he dusted off Austin Daye randomly in Game 1 against the Thunder, that stuff doesn’t work. What the Spurs have done, incrementally preparing and developing over the course of a season or really, seasons plural, works.
I really respect and admire the Thunder’s patience. It’s what separates them from a lot of other organizations. There’s no rash rush to change or leap for something risky. Stability and consistency almost always win out in the long run in sports. Knee jerking rarely does. It’s why you’re the fan that sits on your couch and plays on the Trade Machine and they’re the ones actually running the team. Everything is within the plan and calculated. Sometimes that yields frustrating trades and situations, but you have to give it to them that they’re staying on message and task.
Next season is critical though for these young players. It’s fine if they spend some time in Tulsa, if they aren’t playing 30 minutes a night. But what’s the point of stockpiling young talent on the end of your bench if you’re not going to use them? Perry Jones needs to play. Jeremy Lamb needs to play. Reggie Jackson needs to play more. Otherwise, get rid of them. Because what’s the point?