SAN ANTONIO — The Spurs kicked off media day at their practice facility, and in the shadow of five championship banners that he helped raise, Gregg Popovich delivered a message that may be distressing to anyone who hasn't been paying attention.
“I probably shouldn't say this,” Coach Pop said, grinning and leaning into the mic. “But I'll say nobody here should go to Vegas with the thought of betting on us to win the championship. And I know someone will say, 'Gosh what a Debbie Downer. There's a chance, what if they work really hard?' It's probably not going to happen, but that's not the point.”
San Antonio had been a title contender for almost 20 years running, but they're now embarking on a full rebuild. Pop isn't the first person to acknowledge that a roster this young and raw probably won't reach the mountaintop this year.
"Very honestly, I could care less. You all know what I care about," he said. "The point is to develop this group and give them the best possible opportunity to have long NBA careers and enjoy the hell out of it. Whoever comes after me will have an opportunity to take them to the next level. So at this point, your job is really to start them out the right way. Just like a new baby, giving the baby all the nutrients it needs to develop properly. Everything else will take care of itself. Whatever success we might have will come from that."
Asked how he'd get players to buy in knowing that a title isn't a realistic goal, Pop had more jokes.
"Well, I trust all of you implicitly," Pop told the assembled media. "I'm not gonna say that to them! They'll never hear that because you would never... it's basically kind of our secret."
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A title isn't a reasonable expectation this year, but that doesn't mean this team has nothing to play for or work toward.
"Even when we were winning championships, it wasn't about wins and losses," Pop said. "We've never told anybody how many wins we felt we have that year that we felt were to win a championship that year. Never never came up. So it was the same standard as it is now: to be the best we could possibly be."
Many fans (and probably some in the front office) are hoping for as few wins as possible with a Gen Z roster and 7'3" Victor Wembanyama as the presumptive top pick next year. But the players in the locker room want to compete, as they should.
Josh Primo is just 19, but he's got an NBA season under his belt already and may be this team's starting point guard. He said they definitely want to prove people wrong, but they're going to take things day by day and try to be the best they can be on each of those days.
"We want to make the playoffs," he said when asked about reasonable goals for this team. "That's the consensus from a lot of guys here, and that's gonna be the goal for the whole season."
Primo will be asked to be more of a floor general on the court and a leader off of it, and he's looking forward to the opportunity. His friends and family also showed him your tweets about the muscle he's been packing on, and had a good laugh about it.
"I just went out there and tried to attack each weight room session as best I could," he said. "It's been so helpful, especially on defense. Being able to take contact, absorb contact and be able to stay in position, that's been huge for me in this offseason."
One guy who definitely will be in the starting lineup is Jakob Poeltl. The Austrian center is only 26, but he's the longest tenured Spur. Coach Pop and his teammates see him as a veteran and a rock for this developing unit.
"He's been so consistent, he's such a pro. He does his work night in and night out. Every practice, every shoot around, every game, we all know that," Pop said. "He's a great base. For us, for our group right now, he's what Timmy was during those championship years. A lot of stuff comes from this example on the court, just the way he conducts himself."
Poeltl downplayed the Duncan comparison, but said he's been growing into a leadership role since he got here, and he's trying to help the young guys as much as possible.
"If we take it with that mentality, just trying to improve every game, trying to improve every week, every month during the season we're going to be in a good spot. I think we're always going to keep our goals high, so we definitely want to compete for those like postseason spots. I think it's gonna be a challenge for sure. It's a tough ask of such a young team, but I think we can do it."
One part of the Duncan comparison that he does see is the quiet, lead-by-example approach.
“That’s who I am as personally, that's my personality," he said. "I can't fake who I am, so that's just what I'm going to do. Plus we already have Keldon who is going to be plenty loud.”
When Keldon Johnson screamed into the camera, the whole gym heard it.
Equally loud were his new signature shoes from Chinese company Qiaodan.
Johnson dislocated his right shoulder about three weeks ago, but he expects to be ready when the regular season gets underway. He also said that he's lost about 21 pounds since last season, allowing him to be a bit faster on the court. Last year he averaged 17 points per game and hit 40% of his threes. Asked about his personal goals for this season, his answer was simple.
"Just be the best Keldon Johnson I can be," he said. "Obviously we have a young team, I just want to go out there and be the best version of myself, be a leader. Be there for my young guys and just learn as much as I can from Coach Pop and the rest of the coaches."
"I definitely want to be the big brother role for any of the younger guys and be somebody that they can have an outlet, that they can come to and voice their opinions and I can be honest with them, because I had those things with Dejounte and DeMar when I came in, so I want to be that same outlet for them."
Dejounte Murray grew into an All Star last season, and the Spurs' decision to trade him to Atlanta for draft picks took many of his now former teammates by surprise. Pop said he'll miss him as a player, but he'll miss him as a person even more.
Devin Vassell will miss his friend and point guard, but he's another 'young vet' looking to step up as a leader. He's 22, but even he said it was a bit jarring to hear the rookies say they were born in 2003. Like Pop and the rest of the players, he spoke about continual improvement as the biggest goal.
"I think everybody is going to come into a bigger role this year," he said. "Everybody's stepping into a new role. So we've all just got to trust each other. It's gonna be a long season, we've all just got to work and just be ready. I mean, I think it's always next man up. You never know what's gonna happen, whether it's injuries, whatever it is. We just have to have that type of mindset. I think we're all excited though. It's a lot of potential, it's a lot of new opportunity for everybody. So I think everybody's excited."
Vassell and the other returning players said they've seen a lot from rookies Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley in open gym, from talent and basketball IQ to competitiveness that you can't teach. Pop said that he'll probably throw the teenagers into the fire, something he hasn't really had to do in his years at the helm here.
Sochan was the highest pick in that group, and he may even start right out of the gate. Poeltl spoke fondly about the "childish, foolish energy" he brings to the locker room, and called him an all around player. The worldly rookie showed up with his hair dyed fiesta colors, much to the delight of Spurs fans.
Keldon has taken to calling the colorful rookie "Sprinkles" and even said he'd let him dye his hair at some point this year. Before the draft, he spoke about how he felt he could come in and impact the NBA game right away. With a roster this young and the focus on development, he'll likely get a better chance to do it than any Spurs rookie since Tim Duncan.
"I think it's really exciting," he said. "And it's an opportunity that I need to work hard for, it's not just gonna happen, but I think there's definitely that opportunity and people see stuff in me, and I see stuff in myself. So I think hopefully it'll be a good opportunity."
Popovich was asked what motivated him to come back, and he laughed at the question a bit before saying, "my paycheck." He's been at this for long enough to have ample funds in the bank, though. He also has nothing to prove after winning five titles and more games than any coach in the history of the league. Now, he relishes teaching this young group the many things he's learned over the course of his legendary career.
“Knowing full well that each one is an individual, Pop said. "We live in a time where there's a lot of insecurity out there. People, especially young athletes, in many situations have been coddled or treated like they’re special. So notions like consistency, selflessness, discipline, to some people might be a little bit more difficult to get across. So in that sense, there's the challenge that you mentioned, to make sure that everyone understands those underlying principles that make you successful, whether you're going to be a banker, a doctor, a plumber, a bus driver, God forbid a journalist, anything like that.”
The expectation is the same as it always has been: to be the best they can be. And like he always has, Pop will extract that by focusing more on the human element than the basketball stuff.
“These guys present opportunities for growth," he said. "Each one is different, separate entity, different needs, different emotions, different buttons to push, different levels of talent. And so putting that all together between coaches is one of the ways you get satisfaction.”