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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

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.

POSITION ANALYSIS:

POINT GUARDS

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.

OFF GUARDS

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.

SMALL FORWARDS

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.

POWER FORWARDS

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.

CENTERS

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

13 comments

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13 Comments:

At Tuesday, October 24, 2006 6:33:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I would not be surprised if Duncan came out and had a monster year. He looked really hungry in the playoffs and I was impressed with his play. However, I don't think that will be enough. I believe that this is the year that age will start to show for the Spurs. Horry and Finley don't seem to have much left in the tank. I am also unimpressed by Tony Parker's playoff resume. I expect the Spurs to suffer an earlier exit than usual followed by a very busy off-season. The only way I think the Spurs can win a title this year is if Ginobili takes his game to another level.

Elgin Baylor made the All-NBA first team 10 times, but not consecutively. He missed it in 1966 while suffering from knee problems.

I think Tim Duncan is the greatest power forward of all-time. Having said that, however, I've always wondered why Duncan plays power forward instead of center (especially since David Robinson retired). In fact, the most distressing thing to me about the NBA today is the lack of legitimate centers. Shaq is the only decent true center (or for that matter, true low-post player) left in the league. It seems like every other moderately talented player 6'10" or taller would rather camp out in the perimeter than bang down low. I'm thinking of guys like Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal, Dirk Nowitzki. Even Duncan does this more than I think he should. I guess when most of these guys were growing up and developing their game, Jordan hype was at its peak and it wasn't sexy to be a low-post player.

 
At Tuesday, October 24, 2006 7:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

You are right that Baylor did not make the All-NBA First Team in 1966 and I have corrected the post to reflect that.

I just saw the TNT commentators' predictions on NBA Broadband. Barkley likes the Spurs in part because he thinks that Ginobili will be fresh because he didn't play this summer; I guess the Chuckster was not watching the FIBA World Championships!

I think that Duncan is the most underappreciated star in the NBA and that his Spurs will continue to be title contenders until he gets old and/or injured. Certainly, Dallas could beat the Spurs again in the playoffs but unless the Spurs suffer injuries to Duncan, Ginobili or Parker I would be surprised to see them exit the playoffs early.

Position designations are becoming increasingly meaningless. What you really have now are "bigs," "smalls" and "all-arounds." Duncan is a big, Shaq is a big, Yao is a big. Chris Paul and Steve Nash are "smalls." LeBron, Kobe, DWade, T-Mac, Dirk and many others are "all-arounds"--they can play multiple positions and are comfortable posting up, driving or facing up. Duncan has always been called a power forward but he generally plays with his back to the basket. I don't think that he faces up too much; he has a good bank shot and even when he faces up that is often just the prelude to a drive or a post move. KG, Sheed and Jermaine O'Neal definitely do not post up as much as they should. Sheed has a great back to the basket game but does not use it enough. O'Neal has a pretty good back to the basket game as well. KG has never developed that part of his game and I doubt that he will at this point; he has no go-to move on the block. Duncan has an assortment of moves: the face up bank shot if the defense backs off, a jump hook, an up-and-under and his patented move of sweeping his arms under the defender and going up, drawing contact and two foul shots. He is the modern version of McHale, although McHale had more post moves and a softer shot. Dirk has legit three point range and is better driving than posting, so I don't have a problem with his offensive game; KG rarely drives all the way, instead settling for a mid-range jumper. He gets his inside baskets off of lobs or offensive rebounds.

I don't think that there is a paucity of great post up players as much as there is an increase in the versatility of big men. Look at the top 20 NBA scorers in 1985-86. The only centers were Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Joe Barry Carroll. Malone and Jabbar were near the end of their careers and Carroll is hardly an all-time great. Go back 10 years before that, to 1975-76. The only centers in the top 20 in scoring were Bob McAdoo and Jabbar, unless you want to count Elvin Hayes (who played alongside Wes Unseld) or Spencer Haywood, who was mainly used at forward. McAdoo was hardly a classic post up center. What about 10 years before that, 1965-66? That is the "golden age," with the Chamberlain-Russell rivalry at its height. Of course, Russell was hardly a traditional back to the basket "aircraft carrier," to use Al McGuire's parlance. Chamberlain led the league in scoring that year and Walt Bellamy ranked fifth but the other top centers were either defensive specialists or spent as much time facing up as they did on the block. Two things have changed. One, basketball conventional wisdom used to be to get the ball as close to the hoop as possible before shooting, either by posting up or driving. The increasing usage of the three point shot has led to a lot more driving and kicking and a lot more fast breaks that end in long jump shots instead of layups. Two, it used to be thought that a championship team has to be built around a great big man. Magic (when playing with an older, no longer dominant Kareem in 87-88), Jordan and Isiah showed that a skilled guard can lead a team to a title. Of course, Shaq and Duncan, the two premier low post players of recent vintage, have won seven of the last eight titles, so building a team around a great low post player is not entirely passe.

 
At Tuesday, October 24, 2006 9:35:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Indeed Jermaine O'Neal and especially Rasheed Wallace have good low-post games. This is why I get so frustrated watching them throw up jumper-after-jumper. Rasheed's change in style to a perimeter player can be seen partly in the way his field-goal percentage has declined over the years.

You are right that big men are getting more versatile, but I still feel like there has been a huge decline in the average quality of centers since the turn of the decade. I'm not sure it's fair to look at quality big men just in terms of scoring. For example, Vlade Divac was considered an average center in the mid 90s, but in the early 2000s he was probably the second or third best center in the league. There's no way Brad Miller would have been an all-star in the 80s or 90s. Every decent team in the 80s had a center who was better than Brad Miller. Jabbar, Sikma, Laimbeer, Cartwright, James Donaldson/Roy Tarpley, Daugherty, Olajuwon, Malone, Eaton, Ewing, Parish, Kevin Willis, etc.


You may wonder what this has to do with low-post players. One of the reasons for the lack of quality centers is that many talented young players who have the size to play center (Garnett, J. O'Neal, etc.) play power forward instead because they'd rather be jump shooters than low-post players.

Good point about the change in philosophy regarding the best way to score. I'd like to add though that I feel that part of the change in shot selection is due players being concerned with style. (I believe Oscar Robertson talks about this in one of your interviews.) This goes back to my point about a perimeter game being more glamorous than a low post game. As another example, people always talk about Kevin McHale's moves, but as I recall, he only used them when he needed them. If an easier shot was there, he'd take it. People remember Kareem's long, graceful sky-hooks, but more often, he'd power his way in for short, high-percentage shots. Now you've got guys like Kobe and Lebron and KG taking long fade-away jumpers when easier shots are available.


I'm glad that in your point about teams being able to win without a dominant big man you noted the 1988 Lakers and the Pistons. People like to give sole credit to Michael Jordan for showing such a thing was possible, just as they like to credit him with inventing the wheel and curing AIDS.

 
At Tuesday, October 24, 2006 9:38:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Oh, and my reference to the Oscar Robertson interview was meant to be general rather than specific: I know he was talking about dribbling and not shot selection, but it still boils down to a premium being placed on style.

 
At Tuesday, October 24, 2006 4:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

The interesting thing with Sheed is that he is a player who has the talent to be the first option and to average 20/10 but he prefers to be a complementary player.

There may be a decline in the quality of the players who are labelled "centers" but I'm not sure that today's "bigs" are not as good as the "bigs" from years past. As I said in my previous reply, position designations are becoming increasingly meaningless. We are moving toward something that Pat Riely first envisioned in the 1980s, when he said that eventually NBA teams would just put five 6-8 to 6-10 guys on the court who are basketball players; that was around the time that he had Magic, Worthy and McAdoo on the roster. Look at the Suns--Diaw used to be called a guard and last year he was nominally a center; what he really is is simply a good basketball player.

McHale definitely used his post moves to set up the easiest shot that he could get; he was not making crossover moves on the perimeter. He did his damage in or near the paint.

The style over substance issue is indeed a problem, both in terms of dribbling and shot selection. This is part of the reason that Duncan is so underappreciated, because his game is focused on results, not style. Julius Erving has always said that he played the game for results, not effects, and that the effects flowed naturally from his game--dunking the ball was a high percentage shot for him and it also was something that fans enjoyed watching. MJ understood this also, but some of the players who have followed Doc and MJ have copied the moves without understanding how and when to utilize them to attain maximum results. Dr. J won two ABA titles and an NBA title and his teams were almost always championship contenders; the success of MJ's teams is well documented. The modern day high flyers have not always had such consistent team success.

Prior to Magic and Isiah, Dr. J showed that a non-big could lead a team to championship success, at least in the ABA. His Sixers were also perennial title contenders despite not having a dominant center and when he was finally teamed with one in '83 (Moses Malone) the Sixers became one of the dominant single season squads in NBA history.

 
At Tuesday, October 24, 2006 5:37:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I think Rasheed could definitely be a 20/10 player and a superstar. He was absolutely devastating in the 2000 WCF. But he prefers to be a role player. I will always think of him as one of the biggest underachievers.

It is an interesting theory that we are moving towards a time where positions are becoming less and less important. Indeed, everyone is getting closer in size and most players can shoot from the outside now. Sometimes, however, I think this goal is being achieved partially through the dismissal of certain skills from the average player's repertoire rather than players becoming increasingly more skilled in every facet of the game. I also think that the de-emphasis of positions has been seen in the past.

For example, Oscar Robertson has frequently pointed out that when he played there was no such thing as a pg or a sg. There were just guards and both guards were expected to be able to fufill the traditional responsibilities of a pg or a sg. (Indeed, people are always scratching their heads trying to figure out if Jerry West and Hal Greer, among others, were 1's or 2's.) Looking at today's teams it is often hard to distinguish between their pg and sg, but oftentimes this has to do with the fact that both players are slashers and shooters (like a sg) while neither is capable of running an offense like a pg.

In his new book (you should check it out, it's a good read), Walt Frazier also elaborates on how most modern players lack complete games. Frazier points out, among other things, that once when the Knicks played the Blazers and their tiny backcourt featuring Damon Stoudamire and Sebastian Telfair, Marbury and Crawford failed to take advantage of their relative size because (unlike Frazier and Earl Monroe) they lacked post-up games.

The interesting thing about Dr. J is that while he famous for his incredible moves, I actually don't think he was THAT flashy compared to today's players. For example, he never seemed to do a million pump-fakes and hesitation and cross-overs and spins. Oftentimes, in his "highlight" plays, there would be one particularly flashy part of the play, but every other part of it would be rather direct and fundamental. Indeed, his "highlights" seemed to flow naturally. Saying that Doc wasn't very flashy compared to today's players is not meant to take away from his moves. I'm not sure ANYONE today could have pulled off his legendary baseline move against the Lakers in the 1980 finals.

Another championship team without a dominant big man was the Rick Barry-led 1975 Warriors. I think one can also argue that the 1973 Knicks were a perimeter team (Willis Reed and Jerry Lucas were aging and mostly jump-shooters).

 
At Wednesday, October 25, 2006 2:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

While the distinction between point guard and shooting guard may not have been made so much back in the day, centers, power forwards and small forwards had pretty well defined roles. Now, as I said, you pretty much have bigs, smalls and all-arounds.

I agree that there is a dearth of guards who have a point guard mentality--Nash, Kidd and Chris Paul may be the three best true point guards now.

I've seen Frazier's new book, but haven't had a chance to read it from cover to cover yet. Of course, he is 100% right about Marbury and Crawford, two talented and yet limited (incomplete) players. Years ago I interviewed Johnny Bach when Crawford was with the Bulls and Bach lamented how many long jumpers Crawford shot even though he was much more effective using his athletic ability to drive to the basket. Bach indicated that no matter how much the coaching staff pointed this out to Crawford he was very reluctant to change the way he played.

Dr. J was not "THAT flashy" because he was not trying to do things for effect but he was still quite spectacular because moves that were fundamental for him were impossible for most other players. A finger roll or reverse dunk was an "advanced" fundamental for him--the highest percentage shot available. However, I'm not convinced that today's high flyers are doing things that he couldn't do. I've heard that years after Doc retired he could still do dunks that Stackhouse (then a Sixer) could not--supposedly, Doc could stand on the out of bounds line under the basket, jump up and dunk in one motion (I read about this years ago but have not personally confirmed that Doc did this or that Stack couldn't). Doc's big hands and amazing broad jump ability ("hang time") enabled him to do some pretty unique things.

Yes, the Rick Barry Warriors and '73 Knicks are two more good examples of championship teams that did not have a classic dominant low post player.I love the old Sport Magazine cover that blared "Rick Barry is Superman."

 
At Wednesday, October 25, 2006 9:55:00 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

David,

Nice job and great blog. My name is Michael De Leon and I'm the founder of http://www.projectspurs.com and the ProjectSpurs blog and Spurscast. I'm actually expecting to see Vaughn take some minutes away from Beno. He's looked pretty solid in preseason, and Beno is in Pop's dog house once again and just coming off another injury. If Manu develops a stop and pop mid range jumper, he'll be dangerous and might even make it past the 30 minute a night barrier. I think Tim Duncan with a full offseason of rest and rehab from the plantar fascitis will have one of his better seasonas and possibly his best at his prime. He was in MVP form before the injury and I think he's going to have a great year. Also, Look for Elson to come out of the pack to stat at center a some point. He gives the Spurs something they havent had at center, mobility and athleticism.

By the way, I'd love to get your opinion on my season preview located at:
http://projectspurs.com/preview/spurspreview.php
Thanks!

 
At Wednesday, October 25, 2006 1:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Michael:

I like your Spurs' site and I think that we pretty much agree about what kind of season the Spurs will have this year.

I think that you and your cohorts would be interested in my three part series about James Silas. Here is the link to Part I:

http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/basketball_spotlight/114366

You can find links to Part II and Part III on the right hand side of 20 Second Timeout under the heading "Links to my articles at other sites." My interview with Hank Egan would be of interest to you as well; he talks a lot about his time with the Spurs.

 
At Wednesday, October 25, 2006 2:26:00 PM, Blogger Therealmarin said...

Garnett does have a go to move, it's a fade-away jumper off the extended block. It's a ridiculous go-to move for a guy his size, but it's nearly impossible to stop.

 
At Wednesday, October 25, 2006 2:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

A move that takes the player out of offensive rebounding position, is unlikely to draw fouls and leads to a low percentage--albeit nearly unblockable--shot is not my idea of a good go-to move. That's not the shot I want to see going up at the end of a game when I need a basket to tie or win; of course, KG's lack of a true go-to move is part of the reason that his teams often look to other players to shoot last second shots. The T-Wolves' best year was the season that Sam Cassell (or Sprewell) took those shots instead of KG.

I know that Wilt Chamberlain used to shoot a fadeaway, too, but when I interviewed Dolph Schayes--one of Wilt's coaches--he called that a "foolish" shot and talked about how it drove him crazy when Wilt shot it. Wilt, of course, also had many other moves, shot a better field goal percentage than KG and was a much better rebounder and shot blocker.

 
At Sunday, June 17, 2007 6:58:00 PM, Anonymous dinobrya said...

"I think Tim Duncan is the greatest power forward of all-time. Having said that, however, I've always wondered why Duncan plays power forward instead of center (especially since David Robinson retired). In fact, the most distressing thing to me about the NBA today is the lack of legitimate centers."

In truth, my friend, he is playing Center. He is merely "listed" at power forward. Note the responsibilities he assumes on the court. Almost 100% overlap with that of an ideal center

 
At Sunday, June 17, 2007 10:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

As I mentioned, positional designations have kind of blurred now. Instead of point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center we have "bigs," "smalls" and "all-arounds." Duncan is a great "big" who is consistently listed as a forward and who is voted to All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams as a forward, not a center. I agree that his on-court responsibilities overlap those that are traditionally handled by a center.

 

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