By Jeff McDonald
Officially, training camp for the Spurs does not begin until Tuesday, but coach Gregg Popovich has already long been hard at work pondering tough personnel decisions.
“It’s probably fair to say Tim and Manu and Tony are going to make the team,” Popovich said.
As it has been for the past 10 seasons, the Spurs can chisel the All-Star troika of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker onto the opening-day roster.
For most everyone else, playing time is up for grabs.
With French rookie guard Nando De Colo injected into an already crowded and competitive backcourt mix, and the role of Duncan’s tag-team partner still open on the low block, Popovich is expecting a cut-throat kind of training camp.
“We’ll see who rises to the top,” Popovich said during a wide-ranging pre-camp interview Friday. “Whoever deserves the minutes, we want to win games, so we’re going to put them on the court.”
For a Spurs team that returns 13 players from last year’s squad that finished a league-best 50-16 and lost to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals, training camp 2012 arrives with a surprising dose of intrigue.
One such battle will be at backup point guard, where the Spurs never settled on a No. 2 behind Parker after T.J. Ford’s career-ending neck injury in March.
Gary Neal and Ginobili, shooting guards by trade, chipped in at times, as did Australian speedster Patrick Mills after his late March arrival.
De Colo, a 25-year-old former second-round pick who spent the past three seasons in Spain, should also figure into the equation. So could former Texas standout Cory Joseph, a second-year pro who apprenticed for much of his rookie season in the Development League.
Mills might have the inside track after a starring turn in the Olympics for Australia’s national team, coached by Spurs assistant Brett Brown.
“I don’t make any plans ahead of time for increased roles for people,” Popovich said, though he did praise Mills’ work for the Boomers in London. “I let them make those decisions for themselves and how they play in the preseason and in training camp.”
The Spurs are more settled on the wings, where Ginobili and second-year phenom Kawhi Leonard appear poised to hoard most of the playing time at shooting guard and small forward, respectively.
Neal, Stephen Jackson and Danny Green, last season’s breakout role player, will wrestle over the leftover minutes on the wing. De Colo also could see time there.
For 15 seasons, Duncan has been practically bronzed into the starting power forward spot (or center spot, if you’re so inclined), but the starting job next to him in the frontcourt remains in play.
DeJuan Blair started 62 games there last season before ceding the spot to newcomer Boris Diaw in the playoffs.
Spurs coaches, impressed by Diaw’s versatility on offense and pleasantly surprised by his defense last season, are open to leaving him in the starting lineup this season.
Third-year big man Tiago Splitter, at 6-foot-11 a more traditional NBA center, also will siphon some playing time.
A postseason afterthought after averaging 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds during the regular season, Blair made no effort to hide his frustration during the offseason. At one point, he said he expected to be traded before the start of his fourth NBA campaign.
Popovich said Friday he is glad to have Blair back, reiterating the 6-7 former Pittsburgh All-American will have to earn his way on the floor in some form or fashion.
“We don’t make any preconceived decisions on who is going to play what or how many minutes,” Popovich said. “If DeJuan plays better than Manu at the two guard, then he’ll start at the two guard.”
If the time ever comes that Popovich really must ponder starting Blair at guard, it’s safe to say something has gone wrong with the Spurs’ season.
“I’m probably going to wish I’d never said that,” Popovich said, grinning. “He’s going to start practicing his threes.”
SAVE THE DATES
Monday: Media day
Tuesday: Start of training camp
Wednesday: Intrasquad scrimmage (free admission, open seating) — 7:30 p.m., ATT Center (doors open at 6:30 p.m.)
Oct. 6: First preseason game — vs. Siena,? 7:30 p.m., ATT Center
Oct. 31: Regular-season opener — at Hornets,? 7 p.m., KENS NBA TV
Nov. 1: Home opener — vs. Thunder, 8:30 p.m., TNT