The San Antonio Spurs: old, aching and incapable of winning without Tim Duncan at 100 percent. This has become the norm of opinion from non-Spurs fans looking to write them off as contenders in the West.
Perhaps the Spurs' lack of media attention has helped stimulate this misunderstanding. Only two of 16 games on national television will do that to a team, especially when it's against teams like the Clippers. (I'm sure Spurs and Dallas Maverick fans alike are wondering how the Houston-Charlotte game was chosen for Friday night ESPN over the much-anticipated IH35 Rivalry game.)
Either way, Duncan's falling statistics and increasing nights of single-digit scoring have overshadowed the Spurs' early-season success to many outside of South Texas. However, if they saw how the Spurs as a whole are playing so far, they would understand why this is a good thing.
For all of those who haven't had a chance to see the Spurs play this year, here is an update as to why they can afford for Duncan's minutes and stats to fall and still remain true title contenders.
One of the reasons why Duncan's scoring average is down to 14 points per game is his decreased floor time (29 minutes per game). Both are career lows so far, but the Spurs have proven that they do not need any more points or minutes from him so far.
With less minutes comes more rest. The more Duncan can sit and rest his aging knees, the healthier he will be for the always-tougher second half of the season and playoffs: a time he will be needed and ready to go for his team.
One of the Spurs' weaknesses since the retirement of David Robinson in 2003 has been a lack of reliable big men. However, that is not the case anymore. Duncan's lack of minutes has opened the door for the next generation to gain valuable time and experience.
With a reliable veteran big man in Antonio McDyess to fill in for Duncan, the Spurs can afford to play rookie Tiago Splitter and sophomore DeJuan Blair more often to allow them to learn the system and get more experience on the floor.
While Splitter may not be the next Duncan, he is about the best post player the Spurs have had since Robinson, and he will only continue to improve while working under Duncan's wing.
Blair appears set to become the next Malik Rose, who was a long-time fan favorite known for his hustle and willingness to do all the dirty work. If Blair can learn to use his strength to make up for his lack of size, he will continue to see more playing time as the season progresses.
Duncan's scoring average (14 ppg) has fallen by five points since last season, and yet the Spurs are still scoring nearly seven more points per game this year (101 to 108).
Manu Ginobili is averaging a team-leading career high of 21 ppg, Tony Parker is second with 18 ppg, and Richard Jefferson is third with 15 ppg.
Add on the nearly endless amount of reliable three-point shooters on the team, and the Spurs' offense has skyrocketed despite Duncan being only fourth on the team in scoring.
This is a sign that points are no longer the most important statistic Duncan can provide for his team. With so many other great shooters for the team to rely on, Duncan's 14 points is plentiful.
Not being pressured to score or carry the load on both ends is a huge help for Duncan. Here is an example of how spreading the wealth and not relying on one player to score is a plus:
In the Lakers' four losses so far, Kobe Bryant has shot an average of 26.25 attempts per game, compared to 18.85 attempts in their 13 wins. That's a whopping 7.4 more attempts in losses.
This suggests that Kobe feels the pressure to take the entire game on his shoulders when his team is down and does not trust his fellow teammates to get the job done.
Duncan in the mean time has averaged 11 attempts per game in the Spurs two losses and 10.25 in their 14 wins. This suggests that Tim knows his teammates will get the job done and is under much less pressure than other stars like Kobe.
This will pay off in crunch time during the playoffs, when no one will know who the Spurs will rely on to take the last shot.
Even if Duncan is no longer the automatic go-to guy, every player and coach knows they still can't ignore him. They may not double-team him as much compared to the past, but it still happens sometimes, especially when he posts up.
From there, he can easily pass it to other players who are open on the perimeter or streaking down the lane.
One of the more overlooked aspects of Duncan's career is his ability to pass the ball with great efficiency for a big man.
Defenders will either isolate him and let him take them one-on-one, or they will double team and let him pass it off to someone else. With all the reliable shooters the Spurs have, it's a win-win situation either way.
Duncan's efforts on defense have never gone unnoticed. He has been on either the First or Second All-NBA Defensive Team every year of his career, and if anything ends that streak this year it will be the minute decrease.
He is still as tough as ever to score on and will typically be assigned to the opposing team's best big man.
By not having to focus so much on offense due to other reliable scorers around him, Duncan can spend more of his energy on the defensive end of the court, where he is needed the most.
Also, with the Spurs playing at a quicker pace on offense and playing more of a transition game, Duncan can hold back on defense and be ready for a counter attack by the other team.
Duncan will always be there. Ultimately what it all comes down to is he is still the same, reliable leader he has always been, just in a different role.
If there's one thing we all know it's that when his team needs him the most, he will be willing and ready to step in and do whatever is asked of him.
In the meantime, he is happy and content to take on a new job as a role player who does all the little things to make his team better.
He doesn't have to lead the team in scoring, and he doesn't have to be on the floor every minute of every game for the Spurs to win.
Whether he's asked to score, defend, rebound, or simply being a good leader, Duncan will always play with a team-first attitude, and that's what separates the men from the boys and the champions from the pretenders.