The Kids Are Not Alright

The Youth Movement and the Sustainability of the San Antonio Spurs

On March 17, 2015, the basement-dwelling New York Knicks beat the reigning NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. In overtime.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

The Spurs, which had been leading by as much as thirteen points at one point during the game, squandered that lead and allowed the Knicks to not only tie the game during regulation, but to finish them off in OT. In the aftermath, Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich rightly ripped his team, saying their performance was “pathetic” and they “didn’t respect our opponent”.

This isn’t the first time that Popovich has called out the Spurs for playing lackadaisical ball this year, especially against sub-.500 teams. With every seemingly improbable loss, one of the Spurs (usually Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, or Danny Green) gives an appropriately remorseful sound bite to reporters, citing the better ball movement and hustle of the other team, and how the Spurs just need to play better. Lather, rinse, repeat. This gets old after a while and, as the playoffs are fast approaching, the Spurs have been having increasing moments like they did against the Knicks, like they weren’t overly concerned about defending their fifth championship. Fans can’t say we weren’t forewarned: Popovich stated his concerns about the run toward a sixth championship way back in September of 2014:

“I’m worried for one reason,” he said. “They are human beings. They are going to feel satisfied.” — Gregg Popovich, Head Coach, San Antonio Spurs

Still, that doesn’t excuse some of the head-scratching losses the Spurs have incurred this season to lesser teams: the Brooklyn Nets on December 3; the Utah Jazz on December 9 and February 23; the Los Angeles Lakers on December 12; the New Orleans Pelicans on November 8 and December 26. Granted, most of these losses took place during the rash of injuries that plagued the Spurs around this time, which had their best players down (Patty Mills recovering from off-season shoulder surgery; Kawhi Leonard with conjunctivitis, then a hand injury; Tiago Splitter with a calf injury; Marco Bellinelli with a groin injury; Parker with a hamstring injury). Still, when everyone was back at full strength and playing like the team that showed up and showed out against the Miami Heat last June, there weren’t supposed to be any more moments like the tomfoolery that went down at Madison Square Garden on St. Patty’s Day.

What is the problem? Fans have been asking that in increasingly vocal tones for the past few months. First, it was injuries of key players. That’s understandable. Then it became more of a mental issue. That seemed to be resolved with the six-game winning streak that ended when Kyrie Irving lost his mind for 57 points in the Spurs’ loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 12. Yes, the recent ankle injury of Manu Ginobili stung, but fans were cautiously optimistic that the Spurs could hold on for the week or so that he would be on the bench. Then the Knicks happened, and fans are once again asking, “WTF?” (or, since the team is based in San Antonio, “¿Qué?”). What is it that the players are failing to grasp, despite repeated call-outs by Popovich, player-only meetings, media embarrassment, and assumed dressing downs by Duncan, who is the team captain and resident OG?

It may not be a team mentality so much as a player mentality. Or rather, the kids aren’t listening to the grownups.

Ten of the fifteen players on the Spurs active roster are age 30 or under. That’s two-thirds of the entire roster. While age is not necessarily correlated with maturity, the fact of the matter is that this is a relatively young roster. They haven’t been in the league as long, and most have not been around for the majority of the Spurs championships, or any other team’s playoff run. Despite Popovich’s doctrine, despite the guiding veteran hands of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, these guys are still young. They are old enough to know better, but young enough to not care when they really need to. And, like most youngsters, they often tune out the grownups until it’s too late and they look back to see that the grownups were indeed right. This may be what’s going on with the Spurs right now. Underestimating teams like the Knicks, the Jazz, and the Bucks because they are sub-.500 (and even younger than the Spurs) is a young mentality. Not playing each regular-season game (especially this close to the end of the season) like it’s game 7 of the playoffs is a young mentality. Blowing off the advice of the veterans is a young mentality. And the Spurs are paying for this youthful rebellion, having dropped back to the seventh seed in the Western Conference after that Knicks debacle.

Assuming that the Spurs will bring the young ones back again next season, these are the future of the franchise, given that Duncan and Ginobili will retire within the next few years (along with Popovich), and Parker will be a few years behind them. The upcoming NBA draft may bring in more help, but that help will be young as well, and will be transitioning to the NBA game as 2014 Spurs pick Kyle Anderson has this year. Offseason transactions may bring in more veterans, which may or may not help for next year, depending on fit. But that’s in the future. The time to get it together is now. It’s time for the Spurs’ young guns to grow up.

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