Last offseason, the Spurs tried to do the backup point guard thing right.
Not long after the NBA lockout ended, the team signed T.J. Ford — a veteran, pass-first, traditional point guard straight out of central casting — to play behind All-Star Tony Parker.
And for all 14 games the former University of Texas star appeared in wearing silver and black, it worked.
When a spinal injury nudged Ford into early retirement, coach Gregg Popovich handed the backup job to Gary Neal, a converted shooting guard, and held his breath.
Eight months later, on the cusp of a new season, that’s exactly how the Spurs’ depth chart still stands.
“Somehow or another, we never end up with a pure point to back up,” Popovich said. “We have these guys we sort of push into it somehow or another.”
On a team that returns every major player from a squad that went 50-16 and made the Western Conference finals last season, backup point guard is the one spot that remains unsettled.
Neal would be Parker’s primary backup “if we had a regular-season game tomorrow,” Popovich said, but fan favorite Patty Mills and second-year player Cory Joseph remain in the mix.
The jockeying for the position continues tonight, as the Spurs play their second preseason game — and first against an NBA opponent — against Atlanta at the ATT Center.
“It’s a very competitive environment, and that’s what I love about it,” said Mills, an affable 26-year-old Australian who will miss tonight’s game with a sprained right ankle. “We come out here and go at each other really hard and make each other better. Then we go back in the locker room and laugh with each other.”
Neal was the first point guard off the bench in the Spurs’ preseason-opening win over Montepaschi Siena, ending with a team-high 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
He also logged two assists, made only one turnover and earned high marks for keeping the second-unit offense on track.
“He’s significantly better now at doing point guard-type things than he was last year,” Popovich said.
Score-first guards all, none of the candidates for the role of Parker’s backup would pass muster at the Steve Nash School of Pure Point-Guard Playing.
Mills’ claim to fame in his short time with the Spurs: Exploding for 61 points combined in the final two regular-season games last season.
Joseph, a 21-year-old former UT standout, spent much of last season in the Development League but made palpable strides in his shooting and ball-handling over the summer. He had 10 points, two assists and three steals in the preseason opener.
(Another one-time point guard hopeful, French rookie Nando De Colo, has seen most of his playing time so far at off guard.)
“They’re seriously fighting hard,” Parker said. “It’s going to be Pop’s decision, but all of them are working hard.”
Neal, who is entering his third NBA season at age 28, admits it took him awhile to grow comfortable as a point guard last season.
The fact that he had to replace Ford, a more conventional point guard, made the transition more difficult.
“My whole career, I’ve judged my game on how I shoot the ball and the points I score,” Neal said. “When you play the point, it’s not really about that.”
Like a baseball manager who will play a slugger out of position in order to get his bat in the lineup, Popovich used Neal at point to get his scoring in the rotation.
Despite the position change, Neal’s final numbers looked remarkably similar to those he posted during an All-Rookie campaign in 2010-11 — 9.1 points per game, 2.1 assists, 1.1 turnovers.
“For somebody who is such a prolific scorer and is so used to doing just that, it was a tough adjustment for him,” Popovich said.
“Under those circumstances, he did a great job of trying to figure out what we needed him to do.”
Though not quite out of central casting, Neal is doing his best to act the part.