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NBA PM: Spurs Surviving Without Leonard and Parker

The Western Conference is loaded, but the Spurs are keeping pace without Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker.

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With a 25-point lead in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs had the chance to defeat the Golden State Warriors on the road and take home court advantage. Of course, playing the Warriors means that no lead is safe with their ability to score in bunches quickly. Where that game would have gone had Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard not gone down with an ankle injury, after center Zaza Pachulia went under Leonard’s legs on a jump shot, is a question that will never be answered. The Warriors went on to win the championship and the Spurs were left to tend to their wounds.

While the team’s chances of beating the Warriors, or even being competitive, went down with Leonard, the Spurs suffered additional misfortune when point guard Tony Parker went down in Game 2 with a quad tear. Parker has not been relied upon to the same degree but his loss is still significant as he has been a pillar of the team’s championship success for many years.

Fast forward to the present day and the Spurs are still licking their wounds. Thirteen games in and neither Leonard nor Parker have played a regular season game. Some estimates have Leonard returning around the end of November.

When asked recently to comment on Leonard’s status, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich confirmed reports that his recovery from a quad injury (which also relates back to the ankle injury) was not progressing as quickly as the team had hoped.

“He’s just coming along more slowly, for whatever reason,” Popovich stated.

The Spurs eagerly await the return of Leonard, whom is their best player and arguably the best two-way player in the league. In the place of Leonard and Parker, younger players such as Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray and Bryn Forbes have stepped up, in addition to veterans Rudy Gay and Danny Green.

“It’s given other people an opportunity to come in and play,” Patty Mills stated. “[I]t’s also given other guys a sense of responsibility to be able to fulfill their roles. And not just guys in Kawai’s position but everyone around him as well.”

Recent reports have Parker coming back at the end of November as well, which would be well ahead of earlier estimates that had him coming back around January.

“Tony [Parker] is at the point where he has been going five on five and that sort of thing. He’s not totally confident. It will be a few more weeks. But he’s definitely going in the right direction,” Popovich said while coming back to the subject of Leonard. “[A]nd so is Kawhi. It’s just been taking a little bit longer.”

While many players have played well and stepped up for the Spurs, the strong play of Murray to start the season has been particularly important. Murray started the first seven games of the season at point guard and immediately began to demonstrate what a future without Parker could look like.

Murray has demonstarted a game more developed than many expected. He also brings athleticism and defensive potential that the Spurs haven’t always had available at the point guard position. There are still kinks to work out in Murray’s game, but the Spurs have to be thrilled with how effective he has been in the early going this season.

 

Despite the encouraging start to the season, there have been some missteps along the way. The Spurs lost three straight games, falling to the Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics. On November 2, Popovich then made the switch to Mills as the starter. Popovich knew that he could rely on the steady hand of Mills, a successful career back-up point guard. While Mills has never averaged more than 22 minutes a game, he is a known commodity for Popovich. Now with Mills starting at the point, the team is 4-2 and appears to have settled on Mills starting.

With his time on the bench behind him for now, Mills spoke highly of the virtues and difficulties of coming off the bench.

“The benefits of coming off the bench is that you get to see how the game is being played. How the other team is defending certain situations. How the game is being reffed a certain way,” Mills stated. “You get to come in and inject yourself into the game. The tough thing is being warm and being ready to be effective and not get warmed up in the first minutes of the game.”

Mills then spoke about why the move could be to the benefit of Murray.

“It’s not a sprint [the NBA season] as we all know, it’s long and one of the hardest things in a league like this is to learn on the fly and I think both of those guys, Dejounte [Murray] and Bryn [Forbes] do a great job of that,” Mills stated.

The issue of who starts at point guard gets even more interesting when Parker does return. Parker has started 98.9 percent of the regular season games he has played in and 96.3 percent of playoff games over a career spanning 16 seasons (and multiple championships). Parker was already guilty of losing a step (or two) before his injury and now has to do his best to regain his agility and athleticism during his rehab. Even if he makes a full recovery, it’s not clear how effective or consistent Parker will be in his 17th NBA season.

Depending on Parker’s recovery, Popovich will have to determine how to manage his stable of point guards. If Parker is healthy, will he reinsert his longtime starter, allow Mills to continue to man the ship or even allow Murray another shot at starting? That question has yet to be answered as the team continues to recover and look forward to returning to the postseason. For now, Popovich and his players are doing a solid job of keeping pace in the deep Western Conference.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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