The San Antonio Spurs: Older and Wiser--or Just Older?Tim Duncan has led the San Antonio Spurs to three championships in the past eight seasons. Last year, the Spurs pushed the eventual Western Conference Champion Dallas Mavericks to overtime in the seventh game of the Western Conference Semifinals before losing 119-111. Thankfully, the NBA has altered the playoff format so that the conference’s two best teams will not meet earlier than the Conference Finals. San Antonio’s brain trust of General Manager R.C. Buford and Coach Gregg Popovich decided to take a conservative approach in the offseason, declining to match inflated free agent offers for centers Rasho Nesterovic and Nazr Mohammed. Instead, the Spurs signed Jackie Butler and Francisco Elson, who are not as good as the departed big men but are better values considering the salary cap money that the Spurs saved. The Spurs’ plan is to stay in title contention for the next couple seasons. By that time, only Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker will be under contract with the team, so the Spurs will have salary cap room to make whatever moves are necessary to remain competitive at that point. The Spurs are not a young team—more than half of the roster has at least nine years of experience—so the strategy of making no major moves has the potential of backfiring if the Spurs lose again in the playoffs to Dallas, a team that upgraded its roster in the offseason.
Gregg Popovich has put together one of the best coaching resumes in NBA history. He ranks fourth in all-time regular season winning percentage behind Phil Jackson, Billy Cunningham and K.C. Jones. Popovich is sixth in all-time playoff winning percentage and only Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla and Pat Riley have won more championships. Discounting his first season as coach--when he replaced Bob Hill after 18 games—and the abbreviated 1999 season, the Spurs have won at least 53 games every year that Popovich has been at the helm. They have won 57 or more games every season since 2000-01. Popovich’s teams share certain traits: they focus on holding their opponents to a low field goal percentage; they play hard at all times; they make few mental mistakes; they share the ball on offense. He does not allow players to feel sorry for themselves or to make excuses. Popovich has played a big role in turning San Antonio into the model NBA franchise, basketball’s version of the New England Patriots. His leadership and Duncan's consistent greatness provide the Spurs an excellent chance to claim their fourth title since 1999.
Tony Parker had his best season yet in 2006, shooting a career-high .548 from the field, good enough to rank third in the NBA in that department--a remarkable accomplishment for a 6-1 point guard in a statistical category that is usually dominated by big men. He also wrested the team scoring leadership from Duncan. Parker is a shoot first point guard, so his assist totals will never be gaudy. He played less than 34 minutes per game but made enough field goals to place ninth in the NBA in field goals per 48 minutes and 18th in points per 48 minutes. Parker's breathtaking quickness enables him to break down opposing defenses with dribble penetration, creating open shots for himself or his teammates. When Duncan and Ginobili were battling injuries he was the Spurs’ best player, earning his first All-Star game selection. He appeared in more playoff games before the age of 24 than any other player in NBA history.
Parker’s backup Beno Udrih is adequate. He has a better outside shot than Parker but is not nearly as quick nor is he as clever with the ball. Jacque Vaughn does not figure to see a lot of minutes unless Parker or Udrih get hurt.
Manu Ginobili’s performance was so subdued for most of 2006 that his biggest fan, TNT’s Charles Barkley, even stopped shouting “GI-NO-BILI!” for a while. His final numbers only ended up marginally worse than the ones he put up during his All-Star season in 2005 but he missed 17 games due to injury and clearly did not have his usual impact on games. By the time the playoffs rolled around he was close to his normal self, although he did have some uncharacteristic late game errors in the series versus Dallas. Brent Barry nicknamed him “El Contusion” because of his penchant for diving for loose balls and the Spurs are clearly a different team when he is healthy enough to play with complete abandon. His toughness and energy played a crucial role not only in the Spurs’ 2005 championship run but also Argentina’s gold medal performance in the 2004 Olympics.
Michael Finley struggled a bit while adjusting to coming off of the bench after spending most of his career as a starter but his game seemed to come around down the stretch and in the playoffs. Brent Barry’s minutes and production have moved downward steadily in the past several seasons, so it is not clear how much the 11 year veteran has left in his tank.
If form holds, Bruce Bowen will provide these things for San Antonio: 82 games played, 31-33 minutes per game, reliable three-point shooting from either baseline and flypaper defense that will elicit both praise and charges of dirty play. Bowen has made the All-Defensive First or Second Team for six straight seasons. He has not missed a game since 2001-02, his first season in San Antonio, and has been remarkably consistent in terms of his minutes played and his production. Bowen does not provide the big scoring numbers or flashy plays that are the specialty of the league’s high flying small forwards but by containing those guys and punishing teams for double-teaming Tim Duncan he is a perfect fit for this team.
Barry, Finley and Eric Williams will all play some minutes at this position as well. Barry and Finley are primarily scorers, so the Spurs hope that Williams, who arrived in a trade from Toronto, can bring some grit and defensive intensity to the second unit.
Tim Duncan is quite simply the gold standard for power forwards in today’s NBA. Injuries caused him to have a down year in 2006, but Duncan still put up 18.6 ppg, 11.0 rpg and 2.03 bpg, good enough to make the All-NBA Second Team. That snapped a streak of eight straight All-NBA First Team selections, dating back to his rookie season. Only Bob Pettit (10), Larry Bird (9) and Oscar Robertson (9) had more consecutive All-NBA First Team selections to start a career. Duncan averaged between 20.3 ppg and 25.5 ppg in his first eight seasons. His rebounding and shot blocking numbers have been even more consistent, ranging between 11.0 rpg and 12.9 rpg and 2.03 and 2.93 bpg. The only blemish on his game is his free throw shooting. Duncan has shot .685 for his career but shows none of his trademark consistency in this category, with seasonal averages as low as .599 and as high as .799. Considering his nice touch with both the bank shot from the wing and the jump shot from near the top of the key it is puzzling that he does not shoot at least .750 from the free throw line.
At this point it is certainly legitimate to ask if the “Big Fundamental” is the greatest power forward ever. Pettit set a high standard for power forwards, averaging 26.4 ppg and 16.2 rpg during his 11 year career. He led the St. Louis Hawks to the 1958 NBA title, scoring 50 points in the decisive sixth game of the Finals versus Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. That tied Bob Cousy’s mark for the most points scored in a playoff game—except that Cousy needed four overtimes and 30 free throws to score 50.
Duncan has not matched that singular moment, but his consistent, sustained excellence at both ends of the court for nearly a decade is most impressive: his resume is headlined not only by the All-NBA First Team selections but also two regular season MVPs, three Finals MVPs and nine All-Defensive First or Second Team selections.
Kevin McHale was a one man clinic for low post moves and possessed a defter shooting touch than Duncan but was neither as dominant nor as durable. Karl Malone put up monster regular season numbers but not only did he never win a championship, his teams exited the playoffs in the first round in nine of his 19 seasons. Kevin Garnett once bragged in a commercial that he puts up 20, 10 and 5 year after year. Unfortunately, KG lacks a go-to offensive move from the post and, despite his athleticism, is nowhere near the shotblocker that Duncan is. Add up those two things and Duncan is able to have a much bigger impact at both ends of the court down the stretch in close ball games. Take KG if you are putting together a fantasy league team but stick with Duncan if you are trying to win playoff games in the real world.
When Duncan needs a rest, the Spurs will turn to Robert Horry, who still provides versatility and clutch shooting off of the bench. The Spurs acquired Matt Bonner primarily because of his ability to spread the court by making three pointers. Fabricio Oberto, Ginobili’s teammate on Argentina’s national team, is still adjusting to the NBA and played less than 10 minutes per game in his rookie season.
This position is a big question mark for the Spurs—actually, to be precise, two big question marks. The departed Nazr Mohammed and Rasho Nesterovic did not set the world on fire but they were the center tandem on a championship team. Jackie Butler and Francisco Elson’s NBA resumes are skinnier than Reggie Miller’s arms. Duncan will of course carry most of the weight down low but the Spurs must get some minimal production out of this position. Butler came to the NBA straight out of high school and the hope in San Antonio is that playing for Popovich and alongside Duncan will add some much needed maturity to his game. Elson has shown some promise and will certainly get more minutes in San Antonio than he did in Denver. In crucial moments, the Spurs can also shift Duncan to center and put Horry, Bonner or Oberto at power forward.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:00 AM