San Antonio Spurs: Has Youth Movement Made Them Lakers' Greatest Competition?
Heat or 3-Peat? That is the trendy theme for the highly anticipated 2010-2011 NBA season. Obviously, it is referring to the media’s already-decided opinion that the 2011 NBA Finals will host the star-studded Miami Heat and defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, who will be looking for the their second trifecta of championships in the Kobe Bryant era.
However, the San Antonio Spurs are prepared to surprise the NBA world (yet again) and pass up the Lakers as the best team in the West. With the new influx of youth they have brought in over the past few years, that possibility looks better than ever (or at least since 2007).
By combining young, athletic players like rookies James Anderson, Gary Neal, and Tiago Splitter, second year player DeJuan Blair, and third year player George Hill with several other savory veterans, the Spurs look to make a final push towards bringing home another championship (or two) before Tim Duncan sails into the sunset.
Despite what many may think, the Spurs are no longer the oldest team in the league. In fact, by average the Lakers (28.9 years old) are more than a year older than the Spurs (27.5 years old).
Both teams have five players that are 26 years or younger, but while the Spurs have only five players that are 30 years or older, the Lakers have nine. In both cases the oldies include key players such as Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili for the Spurs, as well as the entire starting lineup for the Lakers with Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, and Derek Fisher.
However, as many players such as Kobe (32) and Manu (33) have proven, age can be deceiving. Being in one’s thirties does not necessarily mean he is past his prime. What matters more is health, energy, and depth, which is where the Spurs’ youth movement comes into play.
Diamond In The Rough Draft Picks
The Spurs do not draft players the same way others do. Most teams, especially those with lottery picks who are trying to rise up, will chose the players they believe have the most talent and the most years in the tank (basically the youngest).
The Spurs like to bring in those who either already have experience at the professional level or played several years in college leading to more maturity, a higher work ethic, and a faster learning curve from its new players. They have made excellent choices with their last three draft picks. George Hill (26th pick in 2008) played four years at IUPUI. DeJuan Blair (35th pick in 2009) played two years at Pittsburg, and James Anderson (20th pick in 2010) played three years at Oklahoma State.
They all fell down to the Spurs for different reasons. Blair shed doubt on other teams due to his lack of ACL’s, Anderson had a hamstring injury that caused him to miss several scouting camps, and Hill was simply an unknown because he went to a small college that many had never heard of. The Spurs knew about these guys however, and I imagine if the last three drafts could be done over again each player would be drafted sooner.
Spurs Bring In Experienced Youth
As previously stated, the Spurs have brought in players who already have experience playing professional basketball overseas.
While Tiago Splitter (28th pick in 2007) and Gary Neal (undrafted) are relatively old for rookies at 25 and 26 years old, respectively, they each have several years of experience from playing in Europe. They have also played against NBA players before, whether it was in scouting camps or, in Splitter’s case, with his Brazilian national team.
Two current Spurs Stars, Tony Parker (28th pick in 2001) and Manu Ginobili (57th pick in 1999), were also brought in with experience in the European leagues and national teams. Look where they are today: three championships, four All-Star appearances, and a Finals MVP between them. Hopefully that's a good sign of things to come.
With Youth Comes Speed
With all these younger players, as well as a healthy Ginobili and Parker, the Spurs have been able to play at a quicker pace and score more points. Who would have thought the Spurs would be second in the league in scoring with 108.9 points per game? They can run the floor, gain more possessions, and cause more issues for opposing defenses.
Speed also allows them to keep up with quicker and younger teams, which has been proven in their high scoring wins against the Phoenix Suns and OKC Thunder. If they can keep up the scoring pace and maintain the defensive presence that has defined them over the last decade, they will be able to beat just about anyone, including the Lakers.
Depth Is Always a Must
The Spurs have always been known for their deep rosters, but it has never been this deep. They could literally go to anyone on their bench and count on something good to happen. They are all great shooters and defenders who can fill in at any position. Even if rookies Splitter, Anderson, and Neal are still learning the Spurs’ complicated system, they have already shown their great potential and will receive very reliable advice and leadership from the veterans.
Splitter is a reliable rebounder and plays a very similar style on both ends of the floor as his icon: Tim Duncan. Anderson came in perhaps more known for his shooting ability, which he has proven to be valuable, but he has also shown some fantastic blocking ability and speed to get back into plays on defense. Neal probably came in with the least amount of defensive skills. He has already seen himself benched despite his excellent shooting for missing one defensive assignment, and he is determined to get it right so he can stay on the court.
Combine these guys on the court with the already proven Blair and Hill, and they would surprise a lot of teams by lighting up the score board and playing good solid defense. That cannot always be said for second and third string players.
Pressure Is Off Of The Big Three
Probably the most important aspect of bringing in all these young, talented players is the attention, or lack thereof, that they will draw from defenders. It will be a tough choice for any opposing coach to decide how to defend these Spurs. They certainly cannot take their attention off Duncan, Ginobili or Parker. Each typically require at least a double team to be stopped.
However they are also good passers, and those who have tried to double team them or get complacent about the Spurs’ role players have been punished. With the excellent outside shooting and/or penetration ability of Anderson, Neal, Hill, Richard Jefferson and Matt Bonner along with the inside presence of Splitter, Blair, and Antonio McDyess, the Spurs are one tough team to guard.
Basically there is no way around it except hoping enough Spurs players have an off-night. Ultimately the Big Three will either have their way with teams who are too nervous to double team and leave somebody open, or they will get double teamed and have a field day passing the ball outside. It can’t go wrong either way.
Why The Spurs Are True Contenders to The Lakers
Ultimately, compared to the Lakers, the Spurs are younger, equally if not more talented, deeper, and healthier than the Lakers. With continuous health and injury problems for key players such as Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, and Derek Fischer, the Lakers will have a lot of trouble keeping up with the newly revamped and younger Spurs if they can stay fresh and healthy.
While the Lakers have won the last two championships, they did not see the Spurs in either of those years. The wear-and-tear of three straight seasons going to The Finals is also starting to show for them. It is important to note that before their current streak they did have three years in a row of early exits that lead to a lot of resting time (no playoffs in 2005, first round exits in 2006 and 2007).
While it was definitely disappointing for the injury-plagued Spurs to go out in the first and second rounds of the last two playoffs, it may be a blessing in disguise. They are healthy, refreshed, in shape, and have enough depth to rest their stars when needed. Therefore...
Watch out NBA World! The Spurs are back!