San Antonio Spurs: Rebuilding Front Line & Wing Positions Key to Saving Dynasty
I don't mean to kick the fanbase when they're down, but I was concerned about their front line depth and overall athleticism a long time ago. Spurs' fans busted my chops quite a bit for even suggesting that the league leaders would need to address roster issues back in February. They especially didn't seem interested when I voiced my concern again after the NBA Trade deadline.
Let me assure you that this is NOT an "I told you so" type of article. In fact, having absolutely idolized David Robinson as youngster and therefore followed this franchise closely for nearly the past twenty years, I can't begin to tell you how much I respect Tim Duncan, Greg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs in general.
Case in point, the best interview I ever had during my days as an NBA correspondent was sitting down with Avery Johnson, then coach of the Dallas Mavericks in 2006. We didn't talk about the Mavs, their Playoff run or anything current.
Rather, he graciously granted me nearly half an hour to chat about "The Admiral" and the Spurs teams of the 1990s. I think he enjoyed the trip down memory lane as much as I did.
Rest assured when I say that I want to see the Spurs continue their dynasty. I don't want to see the end of Manu Ginobili's prime and Tim Duncan's career spent on a competent Western Conference afterthought.
This is tough love here, but it comes from an admirer of the franchise, not a hater.
Let me be the first to tell you that I was NOT surprised at all to see San Antonio struggle in the Playoffs. Granted, I didn't think they would be so definitively ousted in the First Round, but I didn't feel they were Championship caliber, despite their winning 61 games this year.
Here's how the Spurs got to where they are, and why the dynasty doesn't have to end...
The Faster Pace Was a Mirage
The Spurs were hiding the fact that they were one of the least athletic teams in the league this year.
Sure, a lot was made about San Antonio's transition-game exploits, their ever improved three-point shooting ability and their noticeably quicker pace in general. Greg Popovich had made a stunning, and absolutely necessary, change to the Spurs' DNA.
Yet, the quicker pace and outside shooting were simply smoke and mirrors that hid more than a few hard-to-stomach realities (for anyone who loves the Spurs)...
Tim Duncan Is No Longer the Franchise Anchor
Tim Duncan's age/mileage has caught up to him. San Antonio did a great job of covering this up with more rest and by running a faster paced system around him.
What remained partially hidden during the regular season was unfortunately on full display during the First Round of the Playoffs: Tim Duncan has lost his lateral quickness and lift.
Duncan is still one of the most savvy post players in the league, but he can only score with position, leverage and timing nowadays. He can't rise up or spin past defenders more than once or twice a game.
I'm not saying that Duncan can't get the job done; it's just that he's playing fewer minutes than ever before and his moments of dominance are less frequent even when on the court.
More damaging is that his declining athleticism has hurt him defensively. He's still good because of experience, but Duncan is no longer an elite defender or rebounder. The Spurs tried to cover-up this fact, but missing their defensive anchor was badly exposed by the Memphis Grizzlies' interior physicality.
Richard Jefferson Is Only a Shooter, Role Player
Richard Jefferson is not a "4th star" in the Spurs universe.
He was brought in last year to lighten the load on San Antonio's "Big 3", provide athleticism, shooting and the ability to create shots.
The Spurs clearly recognized their need for this already last season.
Yet, "RJ" was only able to provide the shooting, and that was after struggling mightily to fit into San Antonio's system. His game was noticeably improved this year, but the 30-year old's ability to slash and create his own shot seems to have diminished rapidly.
Jefferson has become just another able shooter, but he's not a great defender either.
Suddenly, the Spurs have the exact same need they did two years ago.
San Antonio's Role Players Weren't Athletic Enough
San Antonio's role players were also unable to provide basket attacks.
Gary Neal and George Hill are quick off the blocks, but they're largely floor-stretchers.
Matt Bonner and Antonio McDyess are both fantastic role players and credible defenders, but both of them are jump shooters by nature.
Tiago Splitter is an intriguing prospect, but he didn't play enough to develop a confident role prior to the Playoffs.
So, DeJuan Blair was San Antonio's only front court player who was athletic enough to finish above the rim, and he fell out of Greg Popovich's rotation right before the Playoffs began.
Tony Parker & Manu Ginobili Were the Only Consistent Paint Threats
Because Tim Duncan can no longer anchor the paint for more than short stretches, and because Richard Jefferson has not been able to create shots, the Spurs largely relied on transition baskets, plus Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili's ability to get into the lane.
During the season, those two were able to drive and facilitate enough to open shooters and cutters. Add that to occasional retro performances from Duncan, fantastic ball movement and stellar outside shooting, and the Spurs were definitely deserving of all 61 wins.
Yet, with Manu Ginobili's late season injury slowing his driving ability, the Spurs suddenly discovered that Tony Parker was the only player capable of getting into the lane. With the Grizzlies' enormous front line and long-armed wing players hampering Parker's basket attacks, along with Tim Duncan also having recently returned from injury, the Spurs were suddenly unable to do anything more than shoot jump shots.
Greg Popovich basically even admitted this much on Saturday.
Stand-still shooting and moving the ball around the wing is never as effective as inside-outside basketball. The Spurs found this out the hard way.
The Spurs Lost Their Identity
The Spurs' front-line was physically incapable of moving Zach Randolph or Pau Gasol off the blocks.
This might have been alleviated had San Antonio possessed a credible shot-blocker. That used to be Tim Duncan. But again, none of their current bigs could play above the rim.
The late season injuries were certainly outside of San Antonio's control, but they should have known better than this.
For years they have beaten up-tempo teams whose great outside shooting, high scoring regular seasons and fast pace folded come Playoff time because of no inside scoring and shaky interior defense.
I hate to say this, but the Spurs had suddenly become the Phoenix Suns.
Key Offseason Needs
Now, as offseason decisions loom, the San Antonio Spurs can reboot the dynasty without having to completely reformat the team.
Don't be surprised if Tim Duncan DOES exercise his contract option, only to re-sign with the Spurs for about half of the $18 million per year that he's making now. Antonio McDyess and his nearly $5 million per year are also retiring.
The Spurs will potentially have anywhere between $10-15 million in open cap space, depending on what Duncan does.
Whether it be via this money and/or trade, San Antonio needs to acquire a slashing wing who can create his own shot and a big man who can either: 1. Finish above the rim and block shots. 2. Create low post baskets for himself. 3. Do all of the above.
This may be easier said that done, and San Antonio management certainly hopes that James Anderson and Tiago Splitter will develop into these type of players, but the Spurs will not survive without addressing these needs.
Free Agency Options (Restricted & Unrestricted)
The Spurs already have plenty of shooters. They have enough technically-sound defenders, competent ball handlers and solid rebounding.
What they need is athleticism.
Tyson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, DeAndre Jordan, Sam Dalembert, Kris Humphries, Andrei Kirilenko, Chuck Hayes and Earl Clark are all athletic bigs who could bolster the Spurs' front line in needed ways. (Some of those guys are shot blockers, while others would create the dirty work and energy baskets. Only a few could do both.)
J.R. Smith, Reggie Williams, Jason Richardson, Thaddeus Young, Mickael Pietrus, Marcus Thornton and C.J. Miles are all wings whose ability to get to the basket would be greatly appreciated in San Antonio.
The Dynasty Doesn't Have to Be over
If reasonable signings can't be worked out, then, even as much as fans seem to have embraced him, Richard Jefferson and nearly every Spur besides Duncan, Parker and Ginobili need to be considered expendable in pursuing these needs.
Tim Duncan is good enough to remain a starter, but only with athletic help, and only if he becomes a role player in reality.
Manu Ginobili has a few good years left, but he's becoming more of a shooter than a finisher.
Tony Parker can continue to carry this team, but can't be the only one capable of getting into the paint.
With superlative coaching, a great front office and a proven system in place, the Spurs' window is never closed. They just need to open it a little further.
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