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E-Mailing with the Enemy: San Antonio Spurs

Dennis Velasco asks Steve Tallent of Pounding The Rock some questions about the San Antonio Spurs in anticipation of tonight's match-up at Barclays Center.

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1) The San Antonio Spurs (36-13) are currently on top of the Southwest Division and second-best in the Western Conference behind the Oklahoma City Thunder. This current state of excellence has been one constant in the NBA since Tim Duncan came into the league in 1997. From a Spurs fan's perspective, is this more about Duncan and other players in his crew through the years (David Robinson, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, et al.) or Gregg Popovich and his system? I feel it's a bit of both, but confirm it for me. Are there any other factors beyond the obvious two?

It’s a great question and one that I’ve struggled with myself. But how can you separate them? The beginning of the Popovich era, pretty much coincided with the beginning of the Duncan era. We have never been able to see what one could do without the other. But I would have to guess it is a bit of both, and that there are other factors. If you look at the history of the Spurs franchise, it has ALWAYS been a good franchise. Since 1967, the franchise, under various names and including time in the ABA, has had 8 losing seasons, and missed the playoffs 5 times. That’s 46 years of excellence. When Peter Holt bought the Spurs in 1993, it ushered in a new era. He hired Popovich, and Popovich started setting up shop his way, including hiring guys that fit his model, like Avery Johnson and R.C. Buford, and getting rid of guys that didn’t, like Dennis Rodman. The regular season success since he took over as head coach and Duncan joined the team has been unprecedented in modern sports.

Imagine if Duncan had gone to another team, like say, the Cavaliers. Imagine further that he even got a coach like, say Mike Brown, who worked under Pop for a while. Would he have been as successful? If Lebron, arguably the best player on the planet since he turned pro, couldn’t win it all with the guys assembled around him in Cleveland, could Duncan? So the front office has a lot to do with it as well.

I guess if pressed, I would have to go with the recent success being more about Popovich. He assembled and trained the front office. He assembled the coaches. He created the culture. He makes everybody better. Popovich is a fantastic coach who seems to get the most from everybody that buys in. Look at Diaw. Look at Belinelli. And if you remember back, Parker was a skinny turnover prone PG who couldn’t shoot, and Manu was a turnover machine. Would they be what they are without Pop? Doubtful. Duncan is a fantastic talent. Popovich is a fantastic coach, and player manager, and leader for this whole organization. Together they have made a lot of history.

2) Kawhi Leonard broke out during the last postseason and before breaking his hand, Leonard was basically putting up the same type of numbers this season as last. Looking at the numbers is one thing, but watching him play every game is different. That said, there was a lot of hype about Leonard stepping up this season, but it seems like he hasn't. What has his development looked like this season. Will it be the case where he'll show up big during the playoffs again if he can come back healthy? And what's the status on his injury?

He’s supposed to be back in a few weeks. He can’t be back soon enough to suit me. Thankfully the All-Star break is coming which allows some extra time to get our injured guys back. Our defense is really suffering. Especially when he AND Splitter were out. Kawhi is the ONLY true small forward that the Spurs have. It really stinks to have so many injured during the Rodeo Road Trip. That’s traditionally the time when the team comes together, starts playing better, and gets ready for the push to the playoffs.

Regarding his play, I think Kawhi is constantly adding facets to his offense and his defense is already stellar, and probably getting better, although it might be too subtle for us to see. I think the real problem is not that he can’t step up, but that he isn’t NEEDED to step up. Look at the weapons on the team. I would have liked to see him be healthy during this time when so many others were down with injury, so that he COULD step up more. I would like to think that there will be more fire in him and the other players as we get closer to the end of the season. I think the Spurs are one of the best at pacing themselves during the long season, and that means, emotionally as well as physically. Sometimes to us onlookers who want to win every game by 30, that comes across as apathy, and gives us a lot to gripe about after the games.

3) I'm of the mind that Tiago Splitter will be a significant X-factor in the Spurs' success this season. Now that he's back after missing some time, how much better will the Spurs be, especially when it comes to the five position where Jeff Ayres is undersized and Aron Baynes is underwhelming?

Ayers is playing better. He’s catching passes and dunking, instead of fumbling them out of bounds. That’s good. He seems to be getting to know the system better, but still looks like a great big kid out there at times. Not sure we could label Baynes play any better than you have. Splitter has been amazing. He was always known for his offensive work around the basket, but also been labeled, not inappropriately, as soft. I think he’s playing better on offense, and all of the numbers say that he has become one of the best defensive big men in the NBA, and therefore the world, despite not being known as a shot blocker. And you probably won’t hear Stephen A. Smith saying Tiago Splitter’s name with disdain any more. 

He’s living up to his new contract. He’s a player. And that’s not soft. Splitter's not so much an X-factor this season, as he is a pillar of the Spurs success so far, and a key component to the success they can enjoy.

4) Marco Belinelli is so annoying! He always seems to get up to play the Nets, specifically when he played with the Chicago Bulls. How has his offseason acquisition by the Spurs worked out thus far this season? He seems like a perfect fit for the team and is the foreign version of Danny Green from the perimeter. How happy are you with him and what has he been able to do for the team that you didn't expect upon his signing?

There are players that I find annoying like that. Role players that seem to just light up the Spurs every time they play. I’d always kinda liked Belinelli’s game, but hadn’t seen him play much. I read a preview on PtR after the signing that was meant to cool off the hype of Belinelli being the second coming of Manu, and warning us not to expect that much from him. So, I didn’t. Then Belinelli happened. Shooting over 50% from 3? It’s a no-brainer to say that the acquisition has worked out fantastic, better than anybody could have expected. He does have a great outside shooting touch, like Danny Green, but he brings so much more with his ability to pass, handle the ball, trigger the offense, and he has a lot of different shots inside the arc too. Not sure you had a chance to see him playing with the second unit, affectionately termed "the Foreign Legion" at the beginning of the season, but they were literally destroying teams. The ball movement with Belinelli, Diaw, Manu, and Mills on the court at the same time was deadly. In fact, there were a lot of games where the starting unit had a negative +/-, but the Spurs won by a large margin. It was a beautiful sight to behold and so much fun. Things changed when Belinelli moved into the starting lineup to try to bolster that unit, but he is still playing great. I love Belinelli and hope he stays on the Spurs for a long, long time.

5) What are three to five other things about the Spurs that Nets fans should know? Give us a final score for tonight!

1 - Watch Diaw. He’s starting to get some recognition for his defense this season, and he seems to still be shocking people by taking younger/smaller/faster players off the dribble. He has a big body, but he’s pretty quick. Deceptive. Plus he’s usually good for an unusually clever pass.

2 - Look for Nando De Colo - the lost looking guy that has a name to make women swoon. Aka - the human victory cigar. Usually seen when the game is well in hand, therefore, the moniker. You can usually tell if the Spurs are winning a game big by just following @didnandoplay on Twitter.

3 - Spurs fans wish that Richard Jefferson had remained on the Nets until retirement. Actually, we don’t really care about who the Nets keep on their roster, but you could have saved Pop And The Front Office (PATFO) from a rare mistake. We need somebody to blame for those wasted years. Where do we file a claim?

4 - The numbers say that Matt Bonner is a better post defender than our eyes would have us believe. Perhaps part of the reason for this is players salivating when they see that he is guarding them and slipping on their own saliva, or getting over anxious and picking up their pivot foot. Tell your guys to settle down. Don’t go through the buffet line too fast.

As far as a final score prediction, I give you Spurs 103, Nets TBD. It totally depends on which team shows up for the Nets. Will it be the lethargic, disconnected, disengaged, frustrated group that we have seen a number of times this season, or the team that so many hoped and predicted would come from this collection of big names? I do wish that Brook Lopez was playing. I love watching his game.

DV's Prediction: San Antonio Spurs 98, Brooklyn Nets 101... a win in honor of NetsDaily's 10-year anniversary!!!