Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Forum Blue And Gold: Know Your Enemy - The San Antonio Spurs

This is the latest in a series at FB&G that will run through the start of the season, focusing on some of the top teams in the West and maybe a couple from the East. In this installment we’ll touch on one of our biggest rivals over the past decade, the San Antonio Spurs. (Cue the Deathstar music) ~Darius

Last Season Record: 56-26 (tied for 2nd best record in the conference with the Hornets, 3rd seed in the playoffs due to tiebreaker)

Last Playoffs: Lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals in 5 games

Offensive Rating: 107.2 (15th in the NBA)

Defensive Rating: 101.8 (3rd in the NBA)

As Reed pointed out in his epic “Know Your Enemy”: The Phoenix Suns post, the San Antonio Spurs are our most traditional rival in the last decade. They have the combination of Coach, GM, and players that have posed the biggest challenge to us since Phil Jackson first started (not) pacing (and really, just mostly sitting on) the sidelines and leading the Shaq/Kobe teams to post-season glory. They are a model franchise in the NBA, with 4 Championship rings in the Popovich/Duncan Era and contiue to make trips deep into the playoffs every spring. If there is one team (besides the Lakers) that will be remembered from the immediate post Jordan period of the NBA, it would be the San Antonio Spurs.

Last season was the typical effort from the Spurs. They battled their way to over 50 wins for the ninth(!) consecutive season and advanced deep into the post-season. And, just as in every other one of those stellar campaigns, it all started with Tim Duncan. Duncan continues to be the catalyst for the Spurs, and even though some have argued that he’s lost a step, he’s still one of the elite players in this league, combining fundamental play with exceptional basketball IQ to do what is needed to help lead his team to victories. His tremendous defensive instincts (both in one on one play and in the team structure) powered one of the NBA’s best defenses and helped smother opponents to the tune of 90.6 pts. allowed per game and also placed him on the All-Defensive (2nd) team, a feat he’s accomplished every season that he’s been a pro.

But we all know that Duncan is not alone. He’s flanked by two of the premier players at their respective positions in PG Tony Parker and SG Manu Ginobili. Parker continues to grow as a player and his game is now considered the prototype for an NBA PG. Lightning fast off the dribble and a one man fast break, Parker uses his speed and handle to blow by defenders, get in the lane, and finish amongst the trees. He makes his living off the screen and roll with Duncan, where he’s gained enough confidence in his jumper to be a threat when defenders go under the screen, and can turn the corner like the roadrunner and dash into the lane, setting up himself for the easy two or dishing to a teammate when defenders try to chase him over the top. He shot 49.5% on the season (his lowest in 2 seasons shooting 52% and 54.8% the previous two), which is amazing considering his size and the fact that he is not a natural jumpshooter (but, as I stated before is steady enough). Teaming with Parker in the backcourt is Ginobili, one of the best wing players in the game today. Manu is a fearless competitor with one of the most unique games in the league. He brings the soccer pitch to the hardwood every night (both in how he changes direction and embellishes to earn the whistle) and shows a creativity that is a pleasure to watch every single night. Just as dangerous off of the bounce as he is shooting the jumper, he uses his craftiness and shifty left hand to create angles that other players just don’t see and can finish with authority at the rim or with finesse around bigger defenders. The guy has a complete game, and is one of my favorite guys in the league.

But as a team, last season would not be the Spurs’ year. Coming into the season as the defending champs (which is already a strike against them, considering they’ve never repeated as champs in three previous tries), the Spurs had a tough hill to climb as injuries to key players and improvements from other teams made their quest to repeat an extremely difficult task. In the playoffs they easily dispatched of the Phoenix Suns in the first round, but were then pushed to the limit by the upstart Hornets (where only experience and some Game 7 moxie helped them pull out the victory), and ultimately fell to our team in a series that many thought would go longer than the 5 games that it actually took. And although the Spurs were clearly hampered by an obviously not 100% Ginobili in their loss to the Lakers, I think that they would have struggled to beat us even if Manu was healthy considering Kobe’s ability to score at will with his jumpshot and how the Spurs didn’t have the bench to play with our 2nd unit. So, as in seasons past, the Spurs look to retool on the fly and compete in a tough divion, and an even tougher conference, hoping for another chance to win a title.

This upcoming season will be an interesting one for the Spurs. Over the past few seasons, they watched their role players get old and have not been able to find young players capable of stepping in to replace the production that their steady veterans have provided. But this year, they will not have a choice and will need some of their young players to make strong contributions. Gone are Robert Horry and Brent Barry. And while Michael Finley and Kurt Thomas return, they are now just spot players and should not be counted on for major contributions, even if they are feeling younger by practicing some new training techniques. So the Spurs will be looking for solid minutes from younger players that are unproven in this league. Guys like Ian Mahinmi, their 2005 first round pick out of France who’s shown very good improvement over the past year in the D-league and has flashed good athleticism that could help boost the Spurs frontcourt. The Spurs understand that Mahinmi is still raw, but he’s got talent and they’ll be looking for his size, length, and the bounce in his step to add a dimension to their rotation. They’ll also be looking to Salim Stoudamire, the former Hawk whose long distance jumper and ability to handle to ball (some) will hopefully replace some of what Brent Barry has provided recently. Besides them, rookie guard George Hill from IUPUI will get some run and try to help bolster their PG rotation after they traded away Beno Udrih early last season (if Hill’s name sounds familiar, it should. He’s the player that the Lakers brass was supposedly very high on in this past draft, hoping to snag him with our 2nd round pick, instead picking up Joe Crawford). However the one young player that the Spurs were hoping they could rely on will not be available to them this next season. Tiago Splitter is the Brazillian big man with first round talent whose rights are owned by San Antonio. He’s played very well in Europe over the past two seasons and the Spurs were hoping to bring him over this next season to have him bolster their F/C rotation. Splitter’s bruising style on offense and defense combined with his hustle and energy would be valuable to any NBA team, but match what the Spurs need to help Duncan almost exactly. But Splitter decided to stay in Europe instead and signed a contract to remain with Tau Ceramica of the Spanish League. Splitter’s decision was doubly hurtful for the Spurs as many think it was their reliance on a future this upcoming season with Splitter that swayed them to trade Luis Scola to the Rockets before last season.

Can the Spurs make another run? Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili remain. And while Ginobili is still on the mend from surgery, the team (and even more importantly the head coach) has a positive perspective as he can now, finally, heal from the injuries that plauged him during the playoffs and the Olympics. Injuries that sapped him of his trademark explosiveness and ability to play to his full ability. And even though some of the Spurs players are getting older, they are still contributors and continue to fill roles that help win games. Bruce Bowen, though not the all world defender he once was, is still a major irritant to wing scorers and can still hit that corner 3 pointer. Jacque Vaughn is still a decent back up PG that has refined his mid range jumper and avoids mistakes. Fabricio Oberto is still a quality big man that works well in tandem with Duncan, hustles on defense and the glass, and brings a craftyness and savvy that few big men operate with. And Ime Udoka is becoming the new Bowen…making timely jumpers and providing perimeter defense, putting a strong body on the leagues top scorers and playing within the Spurs team defensive concepts. There’s also new addition Roger Mason (from the Wizzards) who is another wing player that can hit the 3 pointer and play a good enough all around game to crack the rotation, helping to replace the departed Brent Barry and be a contingency for a declining Michael Finley.

In the end, the Spurs are still a western power. Especially when they have 3 all-star players and a head coach that I’d take over every other coach in the NBA not named Phil Jackson. Can they combine new pieces with their veteran core to make another run? I’m not sure (I wouldn’t bet against it, though). But I do know that, when healthy, they’re as tough an out as any team in the league. Ultimately, I see the Spurs competing hard for their division title with the Hornets and the improved Rockets and still in contention for a top 4 seed. If they can survive the first part of the season when Ginobili is out and have Duncan and Parker stay healthy, they’ll be in the mix. Their time is not over yet, and though there are other teams that are improved and will be strong as well, I see our longtime rival being right there this season…again.
Surprisingly good breakdown from the enemy's perspective. The Spurs vs. Lakers rivalry has never been stronger, and it's unfortunately been tipping to the wrong side lately. Hopefully this year will be our chance to even out the scales.

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