San Antonio Spurs NBA Report Card: Grading the Western Conference Leaders
Most astute observers knew the San Antonio Spurs would be good this season: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili led the team to a 50-32 record in 2009-10, which was actually their worst record in almost 15 years. That trio is as steady as the tides and the Spurs seemed sure to compete on the strength of their veteran leaders.
Realistically, though, hardly anyone could have foreseen this. As the new year begins, the Spurs sit at 29-4 and are in control of the Western Conference, leading the Dallas Mavericks by four full games. The ability of this team to spread the ball around and get substantial positive contributions from so many different sources makes the Spurs almost impossible to shut down, since any player can carry the team on any given night.
With the Lakers spinning their tires and the Mavs a bit less consistent and balanced, the Spurs look like the class of the Western Conference, and perhaps the NBA, yet again. Read on for report card grades on all 10 major contributors to the Spurs' cause.
In his second season with San Antonio, Blair has started every game. He still plays a mere 20 minutes per contest, but has averaged 6.5 rebounds and 7.3 points so far nonetheless. Crucially, Blair has become an impact defender in his sophomore campaign: He has 42 steals already, just eight fewer than he notched all of last season, and he has nine games with at least 10 rebounds on the year.
Blair needs to improve on his consistency and conditioning, as he has disappeared in a number of games this season and been forced to play sparingly, but he is only 21 and could very well mature even as the season progresses.
Bonner brings some really interesting elements to the floor and gives the Spurs extra dimension at both ends of the floor. He has come off the bench all season, but has played almost 23 minutes per game and has posted game averages of 7.1 points and 3.7 rebounds.
Whereas Blair is a physical specimen made for pushing people around the paint, Bonner has a soft touch in nearly every facet of his game. At 6'10", he is a sharp-shooter from the outside who can hardly be defended: He has sunk 48 of 97 three-point attempts on the season. He also provides the fluid quickness necessary to step out on wingmen as a defender and his ample length gives him value there.
Bonner's lack of physicality, which has led to an average of just 3.5 rebounds per game in his long career, is a definite weakness. San Antonio would surely benefit from more muscle at that spot when Blair is not on the floor. Still, Bonner has been solid so far, indeed playing even better than he normally does for the Spurs.
Ever the team player, Duncan has gladly accepted fewer minutes this season in the name of staying fresh. To make up for lost time, Duncan is grabbing rebounds with his usual aplomb and blocking more shots (again, in less floor time) than at any point in the past three years. Duncan's fundamentals never take a day off and his noted intensity at practice helps make him a leader between games as well as during them.
The scoring average continues to trend down and although San Antonio emphasizes defense always, they may need Duncan to find a few more opportunities and pour in some extra points if Blair does not step up and assume that scoring responsibility. Still, Duncan is a firm and effective presence at both ends of the floor, and the Spurs run like a well-oiled machine because of him.
In contrast with Duncan, Ginobili's minutes are at an all-time high and he is thriving with the opportunity. He leads the Spurs with 18.7 points per game, is dishing out nearly five assists per contest and continues his solid defensive play. Ginobili's expanded role in the offense has taken some of the ball-handling burden off of Tony Parker, and both men have enjoyed the change.
Ginobili's faults are as they have traditionally been: He turns the ball over too much, occasionally tries to do too much and can be overly aggressive on defense. Still, his overall effect on the team remains positive, as he acts as an eternal spark for the Spurs on either end of the court.
Hill is the Spurs' resident malcontent, even if he really isn't all that discontented. He simply seems to have a chip on his shoulder, which is a dynamic the Spurs badly need. Hill has also been drinking the Kool-Aid down in San Antonio, because in just his third pro season, he is becoming as consistent as his brilliantly consistent teammates.
Hill shot 47.8 percent from the floor in 2009-10. This season he is shooting 47.9 percent. He grabbed 2.6 rebounds per game last season. He has 2.8 per game this year. He turned the ball over 1.29 times per games last season. He has turned it over 1.29 times per game this season, too. Hill has been listening to the repetitious and brilliant mantras of coach Gregg Popovich and well he should. A small player with the makings of a Ginobili-esque play-maker, Hill must become a better and less selfish passer, but then, he is in the perfect place to learn how to do that.
It used to be that the best players in basketball, guys like Michael Jordan and Karl Malone, stayed on the court all the time, playing 36 or more minutes per game year in and year out, unafraid to top 40 minutes per contest. Richard Jefferson, who always longed to be that kind of player, sued to play until his legs gave out in New Jersey and it was often evident that he should have taken a seat long before he actually did so.
In San Antonio, in a new world in which the NBA's teams have begun holding as many of their players under 35 minutes per game as possible, Jefferson has found religion. He is shooting a better overall field-goal percentage than he has since 2006 and he is shooting the lights out from three-point range. He still grabs 4.5 rebounds per game and he almost never turns the ball over anymore. Even his defense, admittedly a weak spot in his game, he has gained something from the ability to put more effort into each play.
McDyess' career, always marred by injuries, is nonetheless impressive, and it would be great to see him get his first ring with the Spurs this season. Already 36 years old, he may be running out of chances.
In a rare case of an old dog learning a new trick, McDyess has made 78 percent of his free throws this season. His previous career high? He hit 70.8 percent of his shots from the stripe in 1996-97. In limited minutes, he continues to provide a modest scoring threat and respectable presence on the boards, and he never turns the ball over. McDyess is a low-volume, low-investment player who is giving the Spurs a good reward for their faith.
Towson University rarely produces better basketball talent than Gary Neal. He is smart, quick and provides a strong scoring threat off the bench in the Spurs' backcourt. Neal shoots well from the free throw and three-point lines and his surprising contributions to the team's strong rebounding (2.8 boards per game in narrowly 18 minutes of floor time) helps keep San Antonio doing what it does best.
Neal is relatively one-dimensional right now, a scorer who is elite neither as a passer nor as a defender. Working under Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, though, he seems well-placed to make forward strides.
For a point guard already considered among the elite, Parker has proved he still had something left in his bag of tricks this season. His nose for the basket is back, as he is scoring nearly 18 points per game, yet (with perhaps more differentiated weapons around him than ever in the past five years) he is dishing out a career-high 7.1 assists per contest.
With the defensive wizards around him forcing the ball into his man's hands more and more often, Parker has 47 steals through 33 games—18 more than he had in 56 games last year. He also has just 2.42 turnovers per game, a great figure for a point guard and the lowest number he has had since the 2007-08 season. Parker is having a career year and the Spurs are riding him toward the playoffs.
He may not be elite in terms of production, at just 4.6 points per game as a 26-year-old rookie, but Splitter wins the award for best name on the Spurs.
Splitter has tallied fewer than 12 minutes per contest, grabbing nearly three rebounds per game and scoring only by making an even half of his shots. He is nothing special, but the team needed a big player upon whom it could rely for decent minutes to keep elder statesmen Duncan, Bonner and McDyess fresh, and Splitter has provided it.