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Poor Gary Neal

By Jeff Koch on January 19, 2014.

Milwaukee 82, San Antonio 110

Unlike the game in Milwaukee where the Spurs jumped out to a quick 9-0 lead and never looked back, the Bucks kept this one close for about 6 minutes. At which point the bench came in, went on a 15-0 run to close the quarter, and essentially put an end to the contest.

Poor Gary Neal, stuck on this Bucks team. In the broader perspective of life, I have no sympathy for Neal. He gets paid a handsome amount of money to play basketball, and he’s had a great amount of success doing it. But in the context of purely basketball? Oh my. What a transition it must be going from the Spurs to the Bucks.

Context matters night to night in the NBA, but it also matters in careers. Success begets success, losing begets losing. This is why we see so many teams continue to be poor, and teams like the Spurs stay at the top. Unlike other sports, the NBA is a league in which you have to learn how to win, and without a strong foundation (or once in a generation player), those lessons can be hard to come by. This is why we see so many successful players on great teams leave those teams and never be heard from again; and why we see so many journeyman find there way to successful teams and have immediate impacts. Neal didn’t suddenly become an invaluable role player; Belinelli didn’t suddenly learn how to play team basketball. Context matters. Neal, by all accounts a good person and good locker room presence has found himself in a basketball nightmare that he alone can’t extricate himself from.

Context matters for the greats, too. Duncan was supposed to play for the Celtics: they had the greatest odds in his draft. As great as he is, he surely would have still been a great player, perhaps still even an all-timer. But without Pop and the tutelage of Robinson and coming into a situation in which the system for success was already established, does he still win 4 titles? Is he still a 2-time MVP? Perhaps he gets just one, and his career plays out more like Garnett’s? I’ll argue anyone that Duncan is a better all-around player than Garnett, but context matters. KG could have very easily had Duncan’s career drafted into such a well-run organization.

There’s a reason the Spurs continue to uncover gems in the draft and ‘win’ trades with other teams and find players off the ‘scrap heap’. They develop, they assess strengths and ask players to play to them rather than focus on weaknesses, and they have a system in place that has proven success. Kawhi Leonard could very easily be a nameless player on this Bucks team. Context matters, and the Spurs often provide the best story.

These are the thoughts I often have during game like these, as Kawhi grabs a rebound and goes coast to coast for an unimpeded dunk; as Ayres cuts to the rim and receives another perfect pass from Ginobili and throws down his 3rd slam of the game; as Mills uses his boundless energy to create havoc and hits open 3 after open 3; as Cory Joseph gets to start a professional basketball game for one of the best teams in the league and make positive contributions, rather than wasting away on another team’s bench until he’s eventually out of the league by age 25. How many players have been ruined by context?

I hope Neal finds his way in this league; but I bet a day doesn’t go by that he doesn’t wish he was still on the Spurs.

Context matters, and the Spurs tell one hell of a story.

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