NBA 2011 Preview: No Panic, San Antonio Spurs Look Secure

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NBA 2011 Preview: No Panic, San Antonio Spurs Look Secure
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Last offseason, I wrote an article about how the championship window for the San Antonio Spurs was not closed and that they should have been considered contenders for the 2010-2011 NBA season.

Yes, it was a rather lengthy article giving insight on their personnel changes, player development and changing of the system. And how these factors were a precursor to why people should not close the window on winning a title for this once prolific dynasty of the last decade.

A lot of what I said was true; some was not. I have held off for close to a year to write about the Spurs, hoping that Duncan would be enjoying his fifth title right now, walking off into basketball glory.

But what I found out about the Spurs this past NBA season was something I never expected. 

The previous offseason, I had a few key points that led me to believe that the Spurs would at least contend, and most of it came true until the end of the season. 

In short:

  • Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker took the summer off from their international teams for the first time ever, in order to be healthy and fresh.
  • Duncan lost 20lbs to take of his body for the long haul of the season.
  • The Spurs infused young talent into their aging core with George Hill, DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter and James Anderson.
  • Richard Jefferson worked with Gregg Popovich all offseason to learn the system and how he could help the team.
  • Pop was going to change the system to run through Parker and Ginobili to save Duncan for the playoffs.
  • They would come out of the gate strong to make sure they had a higher seed for the playoffs, because they knew they needed home court advantage.

All of this would lead them to at least contend for a championship, barring nobody got injured, which is always a big if for the Spurs. Note that before the season, most NBA experts were predicting that the Spurs would miss the playoffs entirely.

Most of what I had forecasted played out just how I dreamt it would. 

Well, Pop did not really use Splitter like I thought he would. But that was possibly because he got injured during training camp, and Pop is known to have little trust with players their first year in the system. 

Anderson actually did what I expected; he was progressing really nicely, but got injured and never returned.

That turned out to be all right because no one expected Gary Neal to turn out like he did. It is pretty amazing how the Spurs continue to find guys like him.

Jefferson did look good early in the season, but it turned out he's just not as good he has been advertised throughout his career. Playing next to Jason Kidd in New Jersey made him look like a superstar. As a result, he was highly overpaid for his services. We can mark that one down as rare bad move by the Spurs.

Regardless, what I had predicted could not look more accurate. The Spurs were the No. 1 seed in the West, and had the second-best record going into the playoffs.   

Then Pop does something very un-Pop like, playing Manu in the last game of the season. Of course he got injured for a game that didn't matter. Maybe Pop should tell him not to play so hard all of the time; but anybody that follows basketball knows that could not happen.

I did say that an injury to a key piece would likely count them out as contenders. But I won't say that the reason the Spurs lost to the Memphis Grizzlies was because was Manu hurt.

The Memphis Grizzlies outplayed the Spurs in the first round, flat-out beating them. What really happened is that Memphis exposed what Pop was trying to hide all year.

The Spurs' defense was not even close to that of past championship teams. It was masked by Pop changing the offense during the regular season to faster style of play to compensate for the lack of defense.

If you follow the Spurs, Pop hinted at this all year. Though he preaches defense, at some point I think he realized it was not going to get better with the current team.

The Spurs used to just throw it do Duncan in the post and let him do his work. The double-team would come, and the Spurs would always make the right play. They would run down the shot clock, get back into the half-court defensive set and shut the opposing team down.

Pop was brilliant in changing the style of the Spurs play, realizing that Duncan could no longer carry the load at both ends of the court. This was coupled with the fact that the Spurs did not have another front-court player with size or that could resemble any kind of solid defense. 

In the past, Duncan could get by with guys like Nazr Mohammed, Fabricio Oberto, and Francisco Elson playing by his side. I mean he did win championships with them.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Those kind of mediocre players are obviously not an option anymore. The problem is that I thought Splitter would step in and provide some much needed inside help. He showed glimpses of this last year, but unfortunately he missed much of training camp with an injury and never got any consistent playing time.

He only logged 20-plus minutes 13 times during the regular season, most of which was in garbage time. For his size, Splitter is not a great shot blocker, but he plays great position defense and moves his feet very well. 

He drew numerous charges, and he had a solid game in the playoffs when the Spurs got desperate and gave him some playing time. Look for him to have a much larger role in the upcoming year. 

The point is Pop realized that Duncan can only do it all for so many years. But he also knew that that the Spurs still had players like Ginobili and Parker.

The offensive plan was to emphasize Ginobili and Parker while letting Duncan focus his attention on defense. Some people might look at Duncan’s stats and say he had his worst season and that he has seriously declined. But if you take a closer look, he actually had one of his best seasons on the defensive end.

What will Gary Neal role be this year?

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He was still seventh in blocks last year and had a great defensive efficiency rating. The Spurs defense was tremendously better when he was on the floor.

Yes, Duncan is not the player he used to be. But he is a cerebral player with great timing. He is still very effective on the defensive end around the rim. His lateral quickness has slowed a bit when guarding some of those speedy guards on pick-and-rolls. That’s why he needed some assistance instead of letting him do it all by himself like he used to do. 

On offense it is not as bad as it looks. His minutes were monitored to a career-low 28.9 per game, and like I stated above, the team's offense was no longer built around him.

The odd thing is that in the in the playoffs the Spurs turned away from their fast-paced style that they had in place all season and tried to slow the game down through Duncan, who was still not right after his ankle injury.

I don’t know if this was because Ginobili was hurt, but it’s hard to change your style of play when you have been doing the same thing all season. 

This can also be attributed to the fact of how the game is played in the playoffs. The game tempo slows down and teams are more focused on each possession. This is how the past Spurs playoff teams used to be built, grinding it out on every possession. 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It does not help that the Spurs came out of the gate fast and peaked early in the season. They usually start slow and peak at the right time, but they knew they could not afford to do that with some many good teams in the West now.

This year’s Spurs were more like the Suns of the past few years with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. They had a top-rated offense that had the capability of beating you any given night just by outscoring you. 

The problem is those teams never go far in the playoffs. Pop knows this and at some point during the season he put stats in the Spurs locker room showing them that basically only teams in the top 10 in defense have won a championship.

Of the last 10 NBA champions, eight have ranked in the top 10 both offensively and defensively in the regular season.

What I mean by top defensive teams is team defense. There are exceptions like the Miami Heat, who could get by on shear athleticism on the defensive end. But hey, they did not win it all either. 

All in all, the Spurs got exposed for what they were when they got beat up by the Grizzlies in the first round. Memphis did a great job of closing out on spot-up shooters, which was a big part of the Spurs' offense.

Pop did do a great job in working with what he had. The fact is the Spurs could have easily won that series. If a few things fell their way, they'd have made it to the second round. 

Zach Randolph played out of his mind, and everyone knew he could not keep that up for the rest of the playoffs.

The playoffs are also all about matchups. The Grizzlies were a bad matchup for the Spurs. They had two solid big men that could score and the Spurs only had one who could defend.

The Grizzlies also had a platoon of good wing defenders to put on Ginobili, who obviously was not 100 percent with a broken arm and missing Game 1.

If a couple of things went the Spurs' way, they would have played the Thunder in the second round, who they matched up very well with and dominated in the regular season. The Lakers were another bad matchup for the Spurs, but luckily the Mavs took them out.

Meaning the Spurs would have met the Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. San Antonio took them out the year before in the first round as a seventh seed. It would have been an epic series and, yes, the Spurs would have felt good about playing them.

This is all moot now, but I did learn something from this past NBA season.

Parker might have been right. He has been criticized recently for making comments about how this past NBA season was the Spurs' last shot as a contender in the Tim Duncan era. This was followed by all kinds of trade rumors.

Anybody who follows the Spurs knows that what he said after the season was the same exact sentiment he had before the season started. Before this season began, he said that this 2011 might be their last real shot for this team “in the Tim Duncan Era.”

He was not saying that he was done trying or that he did not want to play for the Spurs anymore.

He was simply being realistic.

There is nothing wrong with that statement. Duncan is 35 years old and will be entering his 15th season in the NBA. Superstars can’t play forever; big men especially wear down faster. Not to mention Duncan has been in the playoffs every year of his career (many of which were deep runs), only extending the number of games he has played. 

This is going to be the last year of Duncan’s contract and, depending on how this season goes, if there is even an NBA season, it could be the last time we see the greatest power forward ever play.

What will Tim Duncan's Stats look like next year?

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Even if it is not his last season, how many could he have left? Two? Maybe three?

The point is, Duncan is not going to leave San Antonio seeking one last ring on another team. 

He built the Spurs and he is going to go out with them.

So was Parker wrong in what he was saying? No, not really. He did not say that the Spurs would never win another championship. He said “realistic shot in the Tim Duncan era.”

If there is not an NBA season next year, who knows Duncan might not even come back. 

Maybe Parker was a little premature in his statements. Because it is likely Duncan will play another couple years if he can.

Either way, the disappointments of this past season are out of the way, so let’s look into the future of the Spurs.

Something that is understated in the media, but known around the league is that the San Antonio Spurs organization is exceptional at evaluating talent, retooling to fit financial constraints and rebuilding on the fly.

After Parker's comments, there were all kinds of trade rumors saying he'd be shipped out.  Which I do think the Spurs definitely considered, given he is their most tradeable asset. The problem was they were only willing to do it if a team also took Jefferson and his horrible contract.

The talks usually ended right there. 

People who really understand the business of basketball know that shipping out fan favorite Hill was the right move.

Obviously the Spurs loved Hill and he was Pop’s favorite player. This deal, like every other one in the NBA, was about business, and it was a very hard decision for the Spurs. 

Hill’s contract was going to be up after this next season, and the Spurs were most likely not going to be able pay him. Especially with the new CBA looming which will likely have stricter cap restraints.

The best option was to trade him now for a position of need now. And try to get someone with equal potential in Kawhi Leonard and a stash players in Europe like Davis Bertrans, Erazem Lorbek and Adam Hanga.

If San Antonio would have let Hill walk at the end of the next season, they wouldn't have anything to show for it.

The other option would be to trade him at the deadline, which does not make sense because there is no point in breaking up a team when they are making a final push with their core.

So the real question: Is the Tim Duncan Era of championships over?

Maybe, but not necessarily. 

Does this mean the Spurs organization will crumble when Duncan and Ginobili hang 'em up?

I highly doubt it. The Spurs are always looking ahead and it has showed throughout the years.

The Spurs don’t have a No. 1 pick like David Robinson or Tim Duncan to build around for the next 10 years, but they do have a solid base of young talent.

Last October, right before the start of the season, I wrote that the Spurs would contend for a title. This time I am writing earlier while a roster has not been set for the season and the NBA season in jeopardy. But it might be good to look and see where the roster stands now.

One thing is for sure, the Spurs are not done with the roster moves. But we will most likely have to wait until the new CBA is settled to see what they are going to do.  

The roster at it stands right now:

- Tony Parker/Corey Joseph

- Manu Ginobili/Gary Neal/James Anderson

- Richard Jefferson/Kawhi Leonard

- Dejuan Blair/Tiago Splitter

- Tim Duncan/Matt Bonner

With a mix of Da’Sean Butler, Danny Green, Steve Novak, Chris Quinn, Antonio McDyess (if he doesn’t retire) rounding out the roster. 

The Spurs will most likely be looking for a veteran point guard behind Parker and another big to fill the void left by McDyess.

Let’s look at the biggest prize for next year in Kawhi Leonard. He has been compared to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Gerald Wallace. He is a hybrid forward with terrific length. He has longer wing span than Andrew Bynum at only 6’7", and his hands are ridiculous, measuring the same size as Shaq’s. He is known for his high motor and plays the game with a lot of energy.

Leonard is an agile athlete, his strides are extremely long, and he covers a lot of space on the floor. He has the potential to be the best rebounding small forward in the league if given minutes.  And he's definitely quick enough and long enough to guard any small forwards, and even some power forwards in the NBA.

He might be a little light to man the post against thicker power forwards in the league, but no one is going to out-length him. At only 19 years old , he will have time develop an NBA body with time.

He is not the Bruce Bowen from previous Spurs teams, but Leonard is going to bring a defensive intensity that this team needs. I think what the Spurs saw in him is his worth ethic. Leonard lives in the gym and is willing to work on his deficiencies. The Spurs' coaching staff is going to love him.

His motor is going to give an energy level on defense that will be contagious. He is a proven winner and works very hard. Some players have that gift and bring it every night to make the team better, and I think that is what the Spurs really liked about him.

He does have to work on his shooting, which he has been doing offseason, his ball-handling and lateral movement on defense. 

Luckily, the Spurs do not need ball-handling from the small forward position and they already have plenty of shooters. 

What they need is versatility, high energy, rebounding and defense from the small forward position, which he will bring as soon as he steps on the floor. This is something they thought that Jefferson would bring.

I think the Spurs are major winners in getting Leonard. Hill was a good perimeter defender, but he was constantly playing out of position with Parker and Ginobili ahead of him. Leonard will fill a need for the Spurs where as Hill was more like a plus off the bench. 

The other young player coming to the Spurs is Texas point guard Cory Joseph.

Many criticized this pick in the draft, but it was the player the Spurs had their eye on at Number 28 the whole time.

Joseph is another step in the direction of getting back to a defensive-minded Spurs team. He is a unique point guard because he already has a very well-rounded game. He is a very good decision maker and, like Leonard, a proven winner. 

I watched Joseph play a lot as a Longhorn, and what people might not know is he has a surprising athletic burst to go along with his elite floor control. He has a very good feel for the game, which a lot of prospects who enter the NBA do not possess.   

He has shown that he can transition well from being a distributor to a scorer, which George Hill always struggled with. The Spurs' coaching staff always pleaded for Hill to pick his spots and be aggressive instead deferring to other players. I think Joseph will step up and command the offense.

He also shoots the ball much better than most point guards and, most importantly, he is an elite defender standing at 6’3" from the point guard position. This will be very valuable considering Parker has never been known to be a defensive stopper. 

The most important aspect of his game is that he is ready to step in and play defense in the NBA right away. The rest of the game will come to him with time. 

So what does the future hold for the Spurs?

Well a lot of things have to be worked out before we know what this team will look like next year.  But what we know is that the Spurs still have the Big Three, Pop on the bench and a much younger team then they have ever had at this point. 

Splitter, Blair, Leonard, Anderson, Neal and Joseph are all solid young players who will be the foundation of the future. Parker is also only 29. He might seem old, but he entered the league when he was 18. 

I am not saying that one of these six players will be a Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker, because that is kind of far-fetched thing to expect of anybody coming into the NBA.

However, the Spurs are not a team full of stars at the end of the careers that hold the fate of the organization for the next ten years. We see it time and time again in the NBA. Teams panic when their stars are getting near the end and force trades and start to rebuild for the now, hoping for the best.

These teams then become irrelevant for the next 5-10 years until they land a superstar to start building around. 

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Tony Parker was highly criticized for his comments
The Spurs are not going to do this, because they are not like most other NBA organizations. Even when Duncan and Ginobili do finally walk away from the game, the Spurs will still have a core of young players waiting in the wings. These young players will be watching, waiting and learning from some of the NBA greats.

The Spurs are not picking up old vets who are looking for a chance to win a ring with the Big Three anymore. They are using the trio as long as they are serviceable to help the young guns prepare for the next era.

For now, Duncan, Manu and Pop are still relevant. In the next three years or so they might be sorely missed, but the Spurs will be ready.

It was not a fluke that the Spurs had their best regular season in the Tim Duncan era last year and who says they can’t give it another run. I would like someone to tell Ginobili the Spurs do not stand a chance and see how he responds.

One thing is for sure, the NBA lockout provides a lot of uncertainty for this upcoming NBA season.

What will happen next season in the NBA?

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Where there even be a season?

How about possibly a shortened season?

Last time the NBA had a shortened season was in 1999 when Duncan and the Spurs won their first NBA title. Wouldn't it be great to see Duncan start and end his career in the same scenario?

Can these young guys give Duncan the last hurrah the way that he provided Robinson in his twilight?

There is always a chance with one of the top organizations in sports. 

But to quote the wise words of Charles Barkley, “Hope is a horrible thing”. 

The reality is that the Spurs are not hoping for anything. They consistently seem to be a step ahead of the rest of the league. The Spurs organization knows where the future of this franchise is headed and the future looks very bright indeed.

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