The Microscope: The Survival of San Antonio's Bigs (and More)
The Microscope is your recurring look at the NBA's small-scale developments—the rotational curiosities, skill showcases, coaching decisions, notable performances and changes in approach that make the league go 'round.
Coping with specific weakness in San Antonio
The Spurs' bigs are a curious bunch. Tim Duncan is still an effective defender, but doesn't recover from the pick and roll quite as instantly as he used to. DeJuan Blair is scrappy and bold, but often surrenders too much height to his opponent and too often bites on instinct at the cost of technique. Tiago Splitter is a bit more of a natural in coverage, but still has a tendency to trail a half-step on his rotations at times. Matt Bonner gets a lot of flak via typecasting, but he's no stiff; Bonner holds his own on the block when the size discrepancy isn't too glaring and moves relatively well, though without the ability to end defensive plays with blocks, drawn charges or intimidating contests. Boris Diaw could barely be bothered to defend in Charlotte, and although he's a bit tougher to budge in the post than, say, Bonner, he's also a fair bit larger than, say, pretty much every NBA player.
It's that strange lot of players that, for much of this season, has seemed to hold the Spurs back. San Antonio's D really hasn't lived up to the franchise's daunting defensive reputation this season, and a big part of that were their struggles in the pick and roll, the difficulty of defending teams with two productive bigs in the post and iffy back-line rotations in general. Duncan was only able to cover up so much, and the Spurs suffered for it.
But as the season has churned on, the specific weaknesses of San Antonio's defenders have been restructured into a far more manageable set. Although each Spur big man still brings his own very unique limitations, Gregg Popovich's willingness to completely change his rotation based on specific matchups has allowed the Spurs to engineer defensive lineups as precise counters. They still may lack a second top-flight defender in the pick and roll or a surefire way to halt opponents in the post, but between Blair, Splitter, Bonner and Diaw, Popovich has the ability to forge a pretty solid defense in patchwork. It's not impregnable, but as San Antonio showed on Tuesday night, it can work to mitigate even the most obvious matchup problems at times.
Charlie Villanueva sniffing playing time once again
Austin Daye is out, and Charlie Villanueva is in. Whether that rotational change in Detroit is Lawrence Frank taking stock of his roster or the culmination of his frustrations with Daye is unclear, but regardless of the intent, Villanueva has just recently been allowed to demonstrate his slightly productive but perfectly underwhelming game for NBA audiences once again.
It's hard to know what to make of good ol' Charlie V. On one hand, his limitations and flexibility would seem to suit a sixth man role rather perfectly. But at the same time, reliability is an essential attribute of a high-functioning spark plug, and consistency has never exactly been Villaneuva's strong suit. He's a capable scorer and decent rebounder when he's made to feel at home in his role with a particular team, but how exactly a team can grant him a comfortable role without unnecessary risk is still a bit of a mystery.
Baron Davis and a forgotten hope
In spite of all the unfortunate injuries the New York Knicks have faced this season, they're still incredibly lucky. Amar'e Stoudemire has been hobbled. Carmelo Anthony has been in and out of the lineup. But when things were legitimately at a tipping point, Jeremy Lin emerged from a blinding light to guide the Knicks out of darkness. Had Lin never had the chance to produce or been anything short of what he was, New York would be facing some tough questions at the tail-end of a losing season. The Knicks would have strung their last hopes for revival to Baron Davis and his sore back, and based on what we've seen from Davis thus far this season, they would have been sorely, sorely disappointed.
Even with Davis on the floor, the Knicks have been consistently functioning as a team without a point guard. Anthony's brilliance, along with the consistent movement and passing of Iman Shumpert and Landry Fields, has helped to disguise that fact, but Davis is, at best, something of a net-neutral force. He saves New York from having to endure even more playing time and responsibility for Mike Bibby, but that in itself may be his greatest contribution to the team thus far.
Lin may be gone from the lineup for the season, but the hope instilled by his ascendence remains. He couldn't have possibly saved the Knicks from their greater limitations, but he helped to save a struggling franchise from itself, and from its self-sustaining scrutiny. Otherwise, a world of expectation would have been held out for Davis' eventual return, and one can only imagine the fallout that would have resulted from that particular construction.
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