The San Antonio Spurs open training camp next week with one of the deepest rosters in franchise history, but one item on the summer shopping list remains.
In my estimation, it's a big one.
GM R.C. Buford convinced two-time Spanish League MVP Tiago Splitter to bring his pick-and-roll defense and seven-foot frame stateside. He will bolster the Spurs' sagging interior protection and save Tim Duncan lots of regular season wear and tear. He will rebound at an advantageous rate and contribute a few buckets, too.
The team selected scoring guard James Anderson in the June draft. Buford and Gregg Popovich were ecstatic when the Oklahoma State star and reigning Big 12 Player of the Year fell to them at 20.
An injury forced him to miss Las Vegas Summer League, and he was not cleared for full-contact practice until last week. Still, if he plays anywhere from 10-20 minutes a night and drills three-pointers at a 40 percent or better clip, the Junction City hero will earn his keep. Some of his biggest supporters think he can do more than that.
Sharpshooter Gary Neal impressed Spurs staffers so much in Vegas that he snagged a multiyear deal and a chance to lock down a rotation spot in training camp. The Towson University standout's rocky past paled in comparison to his knack for knocking down long-distance bombs. The team's three-point shooting accuracy last year was among the worst in the Duncan era.
Buford also re-signed plus/minus extraordinaire Matt Bonner. In a limited-minutes role, he thrives as an outside shooting forward/center and a proficient rebounder. He also competes on the defensive end, even if he is often overmatched.
George Hill and Dejuan Blair spent the offseason locked in a gym. The two youngsters should see another playing-time bump as their games and roles expand.
Buford inked much-maligned acquisition Richard Jefferson to a multiyear contract, affording the athletic forward a fresh start and preventing a desperate search for a replacement. Jefferson's deal becomes an albatross in two years, but the more economical annual salary up front—he will pocket between $7 and $8 million—made sense for both sides.
The Spurs boast one of the deepest backcourts in the NBA. It also ranks as one of the best in team history. If Tony Parker and Hill start at the one and two, a probable decision on Popovich's part, Manu Ginobili, Garrett Temple, Anderson, and Neal will come off the bench. Hill can take over point guard duties when Parker sits. Ginobili, in a pinch, can run the offense.
The five-man frontcourt of Duncan, Splitter, Bonner, Antonio McDyess, and Blair features size, rebounding, defensive muscle, and plenty of acumen to go around.
One roster question, though, still perplexes me. When Jefferson sits, or worse, if he suffers an injury, who plays small forward? Do the Spurs still need a reserve three?
The 6'6" Anderson could see some minutes at the spot, but will his defense progress quickly enough? Ginobili can defend and occupy the role in an emergency. Hill is competitive enough to apply for the job. He did ask to guard Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki last year. Alonzo Gee, also 6'6", is athletic enough to garner consideration for those minutes.
Those scenarios should leave Popovich unsettled. Every other squad with which the Spurs will compete for the 2010-2011 crown boasts at least two capable small forwards. The L.A. Lakers employ Matt Barnes, Luke Walton, and Ron Artest. The Boston Celtics hope Marquis Daniels can forget the disappointment of last year and lock down opponents as Paul Pierce's backup.
You get the picture. The names still on the market at the position do not inspire images of a Larry O'Brien trophy presentation. I explored 10 possible reserves a few weeks ago in this piece.
Aw, shucks. Adam Morrison is gone. I am kidding, of course. He did not make my list. Eight of those 10 free agents, curiously, are still available. Utah and New Jersey have not re-signed honorable mentions Kyrylo Fesenko and Josh Boone, but those two are big guys, not small forwards.
Of the players who fit best at the three, Trenton Hassell, Jawad Williams, and Jarvis Hayes intrigue me the most. Is there a hidden undrafted gem that could fill the vacancy? That seems less likely.
The Spurs do not have anyone who can nullify LeBron James or Kevin Durant, but then again, no defender can do that. Even if Artest can harass Durant into a dismal shooting night, he cannot keep him off the free-throw line. Great players find a way to score, no matter the one-on-one pressure.
Popovich does not need another lockdown perimeter pest so much as a hardworking defender who can do more on a consistent basis than Keith Bogans. Hassell, Williams, and Hayes could each satisfy that roster requirement.
Buford signed Bogans one week before the start of camp last fall. Can he find an ideal rotation fit before the team convenes at its practice facility Sept. 28?
The front office is almost home free, but basketball convention, which says a title-worthy roster should include two naturals at each position, leaves the franchise brass stuck in the grocery store. One last item. A short time to find the right product on the right aisle.