San Antonio Spurs in 2012: 5 Reasons the Spurs Will Contend
When the San Antonio Spurs sat atop the Western Conference at 6-2 after having dismantled the reigning NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks, they once again resembled last season's Spurs: the team to beat.
Two games later, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Milwaukee Bucks did just that. Gregg Popovich's team can be forgiven for letting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden seemingly score at will. They're good, they're young, and they're hitting their grooves as a force in the Western Conference.
We can also forgive Tony Parker for struggling mightily in the first half against the long arms of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins (the Thunder blocked eight shots as a team on Sunday). And, in this congested schedule, we can certainly understand Popovich seemingly giving the game away to rest his starters.
The loss to the Bucks is a bit harder to stomach. It undoubtedly has many Spurs fans asking if Manu Ginobili would have made the difference.
And in a three-point loss, he very well may have.
Needless to say, San Antonio will have to beat teams like the Bucks with or without Ginobili if they are to position themselves for success in the 2012 postseason. Thus far, San Antonio has won each of its seven homes games and lost each of its four away games. Might be a good year for a little home-court advantage come playoff time.
Amidst the conflicting signals this team is sending us, there's no better time to ask–can the Spurs contend in 2012? Yes, for the following the reasons.
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If there was ever a coach who could make do with the personnel on hand, it's Gregg Popovich. That might sound a bit ridiculous about a man who coached Tim Duncan in all but his very first season as interim head coach in 1996-1997.
But when you compare what Pop has had to work with to the superstar tandems that graced Phil Jackson's glitzy career, the results are all the more impressive. Ginobili looks like a superstar from time to time and Tony Parker is a very good point guard, at times even elite.
Duncan, meanwhile, has faded for several years now. And yet, this team always looks capable of getting the big win.
That starts with the coach.
Popovich has orchestrated a marked shift in strategy for a team that once lived and died by its post-game. Today's Spurs push the tempo and can score in bunches (the team scored almost 104 points per game last year for sixth best in the NBA).
Knowing Pop, picking up the pace had little to do with ratings or ticket sales. It was a deliberate reaction to the team's personnel strengths—with Duncan no longer carrying the scoring load, it reasoned for quicker players like Parker and Ginobili to get out and run.
Popovich has consistently found ways to maximize the value of his role-players throughout the last 15 years. From somehow turning Avery Johnson into the floor general of a championship team to helping Richard Jefferson settle in as one of the most accurate corner three-shooters in the game, Pop knows how to put players in a position to succeed.
It should come as no surprise, then, that over the last five regular seasons, San Antonio has still managed to go 37-31 in games without Manu Ginobili. That may be a far cry from the 70% win percentage in games with Manu, but it should be good enough to keep the team afloat until "El Contusion" returns.
Tim Duncan Is Better Than You Think
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More than a few onlookers have taken note that the "Big Fundamental" doesn't seem quite as big as he used to be. Once widely regarded as the best power forward in the game, these days he isn't even ranked among the top 10.
Duncan has lost a step. This we all know. But the tales of his demise are a tad exaggerated.
Duncan has only played more than 30 minutes in three games this season. Most of San Antonio's contests haven't been close (seven of their 11 games have been decided by 10 or more points), so the 35-year-old has had his chances to rest.
For the three games in which Duncan has gotten steady minutes, here's what the "shell of his former self" did:
Jan. 11 vs. Houston: 17 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks in just over 38 minutes.
Jan. 10 vs. Milwaukee: 20 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 steal, and 3 blocks in almost 36 minutes.
Jan. 4 vs. Golden State: 15 points, 11 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 steals, and 3 blocks in 31 minutes.
Most teams would pay good money for the kind of has-been that averages 17.3 points, 10 boards, 4.3 assists, 2.3 steals, and 2.6 blocks in games he's played more than 30 minutes.
Sure, it's a small sample size, but it's still a much better indicator than stat-lines distorted by Duncan's 20-minute cameos on court.
Given the playing time, Timmy is every bit the player the Spurs need him to be. And come playoff time, he might just let a few people know.
Tony Parker Is Ready to Be the No. 1 Option
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In the six games San Antonio has played without Ginobili, Tony Parker has averaged 17.5 points and 7.5 assists per contest, a nice bump from the 13.2 points he was recording in the five games with Manu. All but two of those last six performances have been stellar, featuring Parker at his best as both a scorer and distributor.
His numbers against the Mavericks on Jan. 5th (11 points, 8 assists) would have been better had be played more than 29 minutes in what was a total blowout. The only real blot on his record of late was the stinker he turned in against the Thunder, a team whose length and quickness proved overwhelming.
Most recently, however, Parker reminded his fans what he's capable of when called on to be San Antonio's first option. The Houston Rockets took notice as well.
Parker had 28 points, 8 assists, and 5 boards while shooting the ball at 54.6 percent. He came up big when it counted too, hitting four clutch free-throws in overtime.
Parker won't do that every night and might struggle to carry the load in the playoffs. But, he's only three years removed from averaging 22 and 7. Two years before that, he scored 24.5 a game against Cleveland to earn the NBA Finals MVP trophy.
If there's a consistent criticism of Parker, it's that he sometimes fades in games and becomes more deferential than a scorer of his status should. When Ginobili is on your team, that's understandable.
And that's why, in a strange way, Ginobili's injury may be the best thing that could have happened to these Spurs. Manu was on pace for a monster season, a season that could well have seen Parker take a quiet backseat.
Without him, Parker will have to step up. And so far he has.
Come post-season, Parker will be more aggressive and more comfortable playing the role he did in San Antonio's last title run. If he gets off to a good start in the first round, count the Spurs a contender.
The Return of the Manu Ginobili
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Some will call it spin, but there's truth to this notion that Ginobili's injury was a blessing in disguise for San Antonio.
Ginobili's fractured fifth metacarpal will cost him another five weeks or so. If all goes according to plan, he should have all of March and April to regain his form and make sure his hand still works.
And when he does return, he will be rested and primed to help the Spurs find their groove in the weeks leading to the postseason.
Before his injury, Ginobili was playing out of his mind. In three Spurs victories, Ginobili averaged 23.7 points, four assists, and four rebounds a game. By the way, he did that while averaging just over 27 minutes, which is exactly how many minutes it took him to lob the Clippers back to Los Angeles in a 115-90 yawner.
If this is any indication of what Ginobili can still do against the Western Conference, the Spurs are a contender.
This Is Not Your 2011 Spurs
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You hear a lot about how the Spurs are a year older, a step slower, another season removed from the splendor of 2007.
And, while Duncan and Ginobili are well into their 30s, the rest of this team is young and getting better each game.
Twenty-year-old rookie Kawhi Leonard has averaged 14.3 points, seven rebounds, two steals, and a block over his last three games.
Perhaps more impressively, he's averaged about 35 minutes in those games, earning a remarkable amount of trust from a coach who rarely gives rookies big minutes. Even the insatiable Gregg Popovich is praising Leonard's defense (comparing it to Bruce Bowen's, no less).
After only 11 games into a season that was prefaced by a shrunken training camp, that's not bad.
In their second and third seasons respectively, Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair are off to strong starts as well, both averaging points in the double-digits thus far.
Being another year wiser is perhaps most important for these two. Both are clearly capable of making an impact, and both are searching for a consistency they can take into the playoffs.
If Leonard, Neal and Blair can remain a legitimate supporting cast to the "Big Three," the Spurs will contend.
It might sound like there are a lot of "ifs" surrounding San Antonio's chances this year, but that's true for every team. There are no sure things in the NBA.
Just don't be too surprised if San Antonio gets number five.