SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 15: Head coach Greg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs motions to his players against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on May 15, 2012 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
No other coach in the league consistently turns lead into gold the way that Popovich does, taking cast-offs from other teams and transforming them into productive elements of the magical Spurs offense.
The Wikipedia entry for alchemy includes the following description:
The defining objectives of alchemy are varied; these include the creation of the fabled philosopher's stone possessing powers including the capability of turning base metals into the noble metals gold or silver, as well as an elixir of life conferring youth and immortality.
Which seems to make San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich an alchemist, if not an outright sorcerer or necromancer. Because no one in the NBA is more adept at turning lumps of lead into solid gold, and this year in particular, he seems to have found a source of eternal youth as well.
The Spurs took a commanding 2-0 lead in their Western Conference Semifinal series with the Los Angeles Clippers, defeating them in Game 2 105-88. Both of the Spurs' wins in the series have been impressive, and both have featured major contributions from unlikely sources.
In Game 2, Danny Green had an effective field goal percentage of 100 percent, making 4-6 field goals, all of them three-pointers -- 12 points on six shots. Not to be outdone, Boris Diaw's effective field goal percentage was 114 percent, as he made all seven of his field goal attempts including two three-pointers -- 16 points on seven shots. Along with Kawhi Leonard and others, the Spurs' roleplayers have been incredibly effective in the series. And these role players for the Spurs all have something in common: before arriving in San Antonio, they weren't nearly this good.
Diaw is a unique case. He's always been talented, but more than most NBA players, he needs to be in the right situation on a team that can take advantage of his unique talents. Diaw was probably the happiest person in the entire NBA back in March. On March 21 he was waived by the worst team in the history of the NBA, the Charlotte Bobcats, and on March 23 he was signed by one of the best teams in the NBA, the Spurs. Diaw won five times in 37 games with the Bobcats this season -- he won his first 10 with the Spurs, and is now 26-2 since joining the team. Diaw is a classic example of a great player on a good team who is a terrible player on a bad team. He is a terrible first (or second or third) option; he's an unbelievably good fourth or fifth option. He is one of the best playmakers at his position in the league, but he needs talent around him for whom to make plays. He's got that in San Antonio. But that doesn't really explain his transformation (or is it a transmutation?) since joining the Spurs. Diaw's effective field goal percentage in 37 games in Charlotte was a dismal 45 percent; in 20 games with the Spurs, it shot up to 65 percent.
Green was originally a second round draft pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009. As a rookie, he was only able to get on the floor for 115 minutes. During training camp in 2010, he was waived by the Cavs -- bear in mind, this is after a certain small forward had taken his talents to South Beach. Green was waived to make room on the roster for the likes of Manny Harris and Jawad Williams. He spent most of last season in the D-League before finding a home starting for the Spurs as they make another title run. As a rookie in Cleveland, in limited chances, he made 27 percent of his threes -- he shot 44 percent from deep this season, ninth best in the league.
At least Green was a shooter in college. When San Antonio traded George Hill to Indiana on draft day 2011 for Kawhi Leonard, smart observers knew that they'd gotten a very nice prospect. Coming out of college, Leonard had all the tools to be a great NBA defender right away -- he's long, he's quick, he's tenacious. But who knew the guy could shoot? In 70 college games at San Diego State, from a shorter three-point line, on a team that desperately needed his scoring, Leonard made 41 three-pointers in 164 attempts -- 25 percent. In 70 NBA games, including six playoff games, he has made 48 three-pointers in 124 attempts -- 39 percent. That doesn't happen. Twenty-five percent college three-point shooters don't turn into 40 percent NBA three-point shooters as rookies.
Diaw, Green and Leonard (and others) were NBA lead before they joined the Spurs. Base metal players of relatively little value. Popovich's system that produces wide open shots for any element fully willing to become a part of the experiment, transforms these pieces into, shiny, shiny gold. Mediocre perimeter shooters suddenly rank among the league's best when they play for the Spurs as if by magic -- but it's not magic, it's alchemy.
And what of Tim Duncan? Is there a better explanation than the elixir of life for the fact that 35-year-old, steadily declining Tim Duncan is suddenly playing like 25-year-old MVP Tim Duncan? In two games against the Clippers, he's averaging 22 points per game while shooting 62 percent from the field. In isolation he's been unstoppable, better than he has been in years.
With Tony Parker celebrating his 30th birthday on Thursday, the Spurs' Big Three are all now over 30. Meanwhile, the rest of the roster is comprised mostly of cast-offs and low draft picks. But Gregg Popovich knows the secrets that will keep the Big Three young and turn that roster into gold, most likely in the form of championship rings.