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Pop’s Lesson in Chemistry

There were more than a few observers who were quick to dismiss the chances of the San Antonio Spurs as they embarked on the lockout-shortened 2011-12 NBA season. The condensed schedule, it stood to reason, would favor the young, who could remain spry through tough, grueling stretches.

As it turns out through nearly two months of play, there happens to be another quality that can help teams navigate through a schedule heavy on games and light on practices: chemistry.

The power of chemistry is hardly a secret amongst NBA type, but it also isn’t something that can be readily acquired. Sure, you can find reputed “glue guys,” as Miami did in adding Shane Battier, or you can bring in a player that fits within your club’s construction and/or addresses an area of need, as Chicago did with Rip Hamilton. But chemistry speaks to a larger collective balance that encompasses the entire team and hinges upon everyone adhering to their expectant role.

As such, it is an impressive achievement that the Spurs, a perennial Western Conference power, seem to find that delicate balance so consistently year-in and year-out, with this season (and the team’s current nine-game win streak) being no exception. Even as they incorporate a slew of young players, including DeJuan Blair, James Anderson, Gary Neal, Danny Green, Thiago Splitter and rookie Kawhi Leonard into the regular rotation, San Antonio has continued to thrive within coach Gregg Popovich’s structured system.

If Popovich is the architect of the system, then it is the club’s long-time veterans that serve as the executors, making sure that everyone does their job and feels responsible for their part in the collective effort. Starting with David Robinson, the role has passed through players like Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley to the Spurs current veteran trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

“It starts with [Popovich], but then it goes right to Duncan, Robinson – kind of handed down through the players,” says Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who has seen plenty of the Spurs over the years through coaching stints in Seattle, Minnesota and Dallas. “If they have a bad egg in there, he doesn’t last very long.”

In addition to experience (33 years combined), the trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili aren’t lacking for credentials. Duncan is a four-time champion, three-time Finals MVP and a name that must be mentioned in any “Best PF ever” debate. Parker has spent the last decade as the club’s floor general, with three NBA titles and his own Finals MVP to show for it. Ginobili, meanwhile, is a proven winner (Olympic gold medalist, three-time NBA champ) but still plays with a level of energy that belies his age (34). When these guys speak, the young players around them may want to listen up.

“Our three best players have combined 35 [actually 33] years of experience and when you combine that with Pop, you’re talking about the core unit of our group having tons and tons of experience – more than anybody else in the NBA,” says Spurs forward Richard Jefferson. “When you have your three best players like that, everyone else just kind of falls in line; your roles are defined.”

It seems simple enough to hear Jefferson explain it, but it’s not particularly easy to find a trio of veterans with the pedigree of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, nor do coaches with the experience and know-how of Popovich grow on trees.

As a result, you have teams that are rich in talent but don’t quite know how to play together. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seem to be figuring it out in Miami, but nothing will be proven until the playoffs come along. The Knicks needed a spark from an unheralded sophomore from the end of their bench because the Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire connection hasn’t gelled. Out west, the Thunder remain under scrutiny based on the dynamic between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and even the defending champion Mavericks aren’t immune from chemistry concerns, with off-season pick-up Lamar Odom struggling to fit in.

Popovich, who happens to hold the GM tag in San Antonio in addition to his coaching role, understands what many other decision-makers in the game don’t seem to: talent is nice, but you need to be sure that the pieces fit together, as well.

Ask the man known as ‘Pop’ about chemistry and he’ll launch into something that seems less an answer than a soliloquy.

“[Chemistry] can’t be taught. You can luck into it, but mostly I think it’s the sources – the character – of the players; the professional intelligence they embody, the understanding of how things fit and what wins and what loses; people who are capable of empathy and love, of feeling responsibility to others; all those things create chemistry.”

Depth of talent remains a question looming over San Antonio’s postseason chances, something that tends to happen when you’ve been in the lottery once in the past 23 seasons (the year they drafted Duncan first over-all). But whether or not they have the firepower and skill to match up with the Mavs, Lakers, Thunder and Clippers (among others), there is no question that they’ll be the most prepared and will have given themselves every possible opportunity to succeed. Popovich, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili will make sure of it.

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