The 2010-2011 NBA season is less than a week away, ladies and gentleman. Players, analysts, and fans can finally stop yapping about who is going to do what and watch the action unfold. It’s time to shut up and play.
My NBA Finals matchup is not a popular one. I have pitted the “old” Boston Celtics with the “less old” San Antonio Spurs. I have outlined in a previous article the reasons for my prediction. I will hold true to this prediction through thick and thin as the regular season plays out. Any analyst or fan predicting a result outside the established norm has to have a strong conviction. That is what I have, and am subsequently here to instate it. The projected three-peat champion Lakers will fall this year due to a vastly improved Spurs roster. There are a number of keys in order for this to come to fruition.
Warning: What follows may shock some readers (especially delusional Laker “fans” caught up in the mystique and inaccurate belief that they are the only championship team in the West)
Note: I am not a Laker hater. I’m just a man who believes in the improbable.
Blair is coming off a rookie campaign in which he averaged 7.8 points per game and 6.4 rebounds per game in just 18 minutes. He is looking to build on that this season, one in which he will be getting more playing time. In fact, he could possibly be starting for Coach Popovich.
I think Blair was underutilized last year. He could have definitely seen more playing time. Popovich usually doesn’t like to play young guys major minutes in the playoffs especially, which is understandable. In the two games where he started in place of Tim Duncan, he posted a pair of 20-20 performances. That is the first time a rookie has had two 20-20 games in the same season. Not too shabby.
Blair has worked on his overall game this summer, even developing a mid-range face-up game. His incredible appetite to rebound will always be there. All that was needed was a little maturation in his skill set. His stature at 6’7" is pretty small for the PF/C position, but what he lacks in height, he makes up for in size. He has a massive frame, allowing him to outmuscle and out hustle a number of guys on the court.
I’m excited to see the progression he’s made. He certainly has looked good in the preseason.
The Brazilian big man Splitter was one of the biggest offseason acquisitions this summer. His three-year $10 million deal is one of the thriftiest and best contracts, considering the talent they are receiving.
Splitter is expected to come in and make a tremendous impact on both ends of the floor. The area where he will prove most effective is on the defensive end. Duncan’s mobility continues to fade, and it reflects on the defensive end more than anything. With the arrival of Splitter, he can defend the opposing team’s best low post scorer as well as the pick-and-roll.
He was the MVP and the top big man in the Spanish League. He knows his way around a basketball court, and he is a lively 25 years old. His arrival with the silver and black fills two major needs in another competent big man alongside Duncan as well as improved defense, something that killed them against the Suns in last year’s postseason exit. He will be vital in guarding the Lakers’ bigs and even offsetting their offensive production.
The Big Three’s health has usually been a concern in the years where they didn’t play for a championship. In the 2008 Western Conference Finals against the Lakers, Manu Ginobili was essentially playing on one leg. He was nowhere near his normal self and it cost them. Last year, Tony Parker was in and out of the lineup as he missed 26 games. Duncan will always have those creaky knees and that bulky brace until “the wheels fall off,” as he so eloquently put it.
Duncan’s minutes have steadily declined with his health in mind during the regular season. It’s a smart strategy. They will be able to rest him with more confidence this year because they have other able bodies that can perform in Splitter, Blair, Antonio McDyess, and Matt Bonner.
Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker didn’t play basketball over the summer as opposed to other years in which they incurred a number of ailments. A healthy core means a healthy team. If they can all stay healthy, this team is without a doubt tops in the West. And let’s not forget the Lakers are also struggling in this category.
Everyone loves trade rumors. Parker has seen and heard his fair share with this being his last year of his contract. Two years ago Parker averaged a career high 22 points a game. Last year that number dipped to 16, largely due to his shoulder and ankle injuries.
In order for this team to become a major player in the loaded West, Parker has to have another career year. I believe he can pull it off. Let’s not forget this guy is a Finals MVP.
Ginobili virtually carried the Spurs to the playoffs at the tail end of last season, earning him a contract extension. I think Parker can and will perform his way into a new contract this year. He was once considered one of the best point guards in the league until his injury mishaps last year. He can reach that plateau of special players once again with an outstanding year.
With new, young talent this year, Popovich has emphasized his desire for this team to run the fast break more often. In two preseason games, they scored 29 and 30 points in transition. No one is expecting them to be the run and gun Warriors or Mike D’Antoni-led Suns, but an increase in transition scoring adds another level to the already exceptional half-court group. It’s not exactly a foreign concept either, as the Spurs beat the 2005 Suns at their own game, scoring over 100 in all five playoff games.
The guy that will have the biggest impact in this area of the offense is without a doubt Richard Jefferson. RJ’s production suffered last season. He looked indecisive and out of place in the offense. That was partially due to the inactivity on the break. The 2009-2010 Spurs averaged a lowly 12 fast-break points. In Jefferson’s days with the Nets, he had Jason Kidd leading a number of fast breaks where he would grab a rebound and bolt up the court to create something. This is where RJ is the most effective and is one of the reasons why this team will run more.
In half-court sets, at least in the preseason, Jefferson’s indecisiveness is gone even if his production is still the same. That can improve through an 82-game season.
As the cliché goes, defense wins championships. The Spurs have lost some of their tenacity on that end of the floor since their last championship in 2007. That is what happens with the departure of the best in Bruce Bowen and the aging of their best interior defender in Duncan.
Popovich has always stressed defense. During training camp, he was looking for a small forward in particular to provide defense. Whether it is Jefferson, George Hill, or even newcomers Bobby Simmons and James Anderson, he wants a defensive revival. It may not be much better than last year, but it can improve. Splitter and Blair are sure to help down low. Hill is looking to improve one-on-one defense, something he struggled with at times last year even with his length.
Team defense is a key for any title hopeful team. The Spurs had that in their championship years. They have lost that in the last couple of years, but it can still improve. A team can only do so much against the Lebron James’ and Kobe Bryant’s of the league. Team defense takes on an elevated meaning on teams with that kind of talent.
Do all of these keys need to happen in order for the Spurs to knock off the Lakers? Probably. Is it out of the question? Absolutely not. This franchise has won four titles riding on the coattails of impossibility. Who’s to say they can’t get one more?
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