Q&A: What does Pop do now?

By Jeff McDonald and Mike Monroe

It has been two weeks since the Spurs were bounced from the playoffs by the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. That has given coach Gregg Popovich, in between haunting the bookstores and restaurants of New York City, sufficient time to ponder what went right in 2010-11, what went wrong, and how the Spurs should proceed. In an exclusive sit-down Thursday with E-N staff writers Jeff McDonald and Mike Monroe, Popovich shared some of those thoughts:

Q: Your team won 61 games, earning the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, then lost in the first round of the playoffs. What’s the takeaway from that?

A: The most hurtful part, the toughest part to get over, is to have played so well all year, and for everybody to have their minutes watched and with all the care the staff had, and then to have Timmy (Duncan) lose his rhythm those eight or nine games at the end of the season (after spraining his ankle). And then to have Manu (Ginobili) go out the last game (with a sprained elbow).

It’s just a crushing “poor me” sort of feeling. You say, “My God, how can this happen?” Because no matter how you slice it, if Manu ain’t healthy historically we go nowhere.

That’s the part that is most disappointing. It’s that fate got us, in that degree.

Q: What exactly is your assessment of what went wrong against the Grizzlies?

A: I asked my team one day, after the third or fourth game, I said, “Guys,” — my big mantra was — “it’s the playoffs. Give me the name of someone on Memphis who is playing poorly. Give me a name.” They stared at me. There’s no name to give. Starters and bench guys all played fantastic.?

Then I said, “Let’s be honest with each other. Name me someone on our team who is really playing well. You can’t name one person. You can’t do it.”

Richard (Jefferson) played well the first two games, then he was MIA. Tony (Parker) was absent the first three or four games, MIA. Then he played well the last two. Manu was Manu, Timmy was Timmy. They’ve got their reasons why they were just average. Then off the bench, you’ve got two or three other players that don’t show up.

The thing that’s frustrating about that is, we were in position to win every single game at the end of the game, in the fourth quarter.

Q: Based on that reading of the series, is there anything you’d do differently?

A: I feel good about that assessment. I wouldn’t change the game plan a lick. There’s nothing we’d do differently. It’s the playoffs. Players have to step up and play.

Q: Duncan just turned 35 and is entering the final year of his contract. How confident are you that he will be in a Spurs uniform when games begin next season?

A: Timmy’s given me no indication he’s considering retiring, or anything like that, if that’s what you’re asking.

Q: Duncan does have an early termination clause in his contract that would allow him to opt out this summer and restructure his deal. Have you talked about that possibility?

A: I did mention to him, as an aside more than anything because I’m not prepared, either, but I said, “Hey, we’ve got to talk about your contract. Are you going to play? Are you going to opt out? Are you going to play nine more years? What?”

He said, “Yeah, my agent is talking to me about that,” and I said we had to get together to talk about it. That’s as far as it’s gone.

Q: Will you meet with him before June 30, given the uncertainty of the collective bargaining agreement that expires on that date?

A: I’m going to talk to Timmy as soon as (general manager) R.C. (Buford) prepares me and Tim is willing. Then we’ll talk about it.

Q: For the second season in a row, your team finished out of the top 10 in field-goal percentage defense, one of your pet categories, ranking 12th in the NBA. How much of the offseason will be devoted to regaining your defensive identity?

A: If you ask me what our goals are, I start out the same way I have the last 10, 15 years: “We want to be the best team we can possibly be, playing the best basketball we possibly can come playoff time and be healthy.” I’ve never given any other goal except that.

For the first time, there is going to be a second goal, and that’s to do everything humanly possible to become a more elite defensive team. For a couple reasons: One, historically, good defensive teams go the farthest in the playoffs, as can be proven in a million different ways.

Secondly, for personal reasons I felt very uneasy all year long with our spotty defense that could not be consistently relied upon in fourth quarters. It drove me crazy. I think I just need to do whatever I need to do — personnel-wise, or drill-wise or demand-wise — to go from the middle of the pack back to four, five, six, seven, somewhere in there.

We can’t be one, two, three anymore. We don’t have that youth, that juice to do that. But I think we can be four, five, six, seven, instead of 12, 13, 14, 15.

Q: As with the Celtics and Lakers, much of the media’s reaction to your team’s early exit has been to say that the Spurs are too old to compete at the highest level anymore. Is that a fair critique?

A: They’ve been telling us we’re too old for six years or longer. It’s always intrigued me, because who’s old? Timmy’s older. ’Dyess (Antonio McDyess) is older. But that’s not the reason we lost the series. Timmy’s not Timmy, like he used to be. But that’s not why we lost the series. We didn’t lose it because ’Dyess is old. Tony’s not old, Manu’s not old, Richard’s not old. George Hill’s not old, Matt Bonner’s not old. It’s overstated.

I don’t care about the age, the “athletic” thing. I care about performance. That team won 61 games. I contend if Manu was healthy, we’d still be playing. I don’t have any doubt we’d still be playing.

Q: You keep coming back to Ginobili’s elbow.

A: We have less margin for error of any team in the league. Something like that happens to Manu, we’re sunk. All our pieces have to play well, because we don’t have a margin for error.

We’re playing under the (salary) cap. We don’t have 90 million frickin’ dollars. We’re playing with minimum (salary) people off the bench. If somebody gets hurt, Danny Green’s going to play, that kind of thing.

Q: As far as improving the roster, what are your offseason priorities? Younger and more athletic?

A: I feel good about this group, knowing full well if there’s a trade that makes us younger and more athletic, fine, but a lot of athletes can’t play basketball. Young and athletic has to come with some sort of a skill. Young and athletic is easy. I can go get five from the D-League who are young and athletic.

We’d like to find another skilled athlete to add to the mix. Our biggest need right now — depending on what ’Dyess does (with retirement) — is a starting four (power forward). We need to know who is going to be our starting four. Is it DeJuan Blair? Is it (Tiago) Splitter, where Timmy’s the four and Splitter’s the five? Is it Matt Bonner? Do you need to make a trade? We’re investigating all those areas.

Q: If you do talk trades, are there any players you’d consider untouchable?

A: Yeah, there are several untouchables, but I won’t name them.

Q: When it comes to the degree to which you seek to tweak the roster, do you view ultimately this as a team that won 61 games, or a team that lost in the first round of the playoffs?

A: We’re either good enough to continue to contend, or we’re not. But I don’t see us being less of a team next year as this year, even if it stays exactly the same. So long as we’re healthy.

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