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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Spurs Run Past Mavericks, 100-79

The Dallas-San Antonio game on Friday night was a rematch and a preview wrapped in one. Dallas eliminated San Antonio in an epic seven game playoff series last season and the teams will open their 2006-07 seasons by playing each other on Thursday night. Not surprisingly, both teams played it pretty close to the vest on Friday, limiting the minutes of their key players and not revealing any new plays that they may have added to their repertoires. The Spurs emerged with a 100-79 victory, sparked by remarkable 28-37 shooting from the field by guards Tony Parker (9-11), Manu Ginobili (6-8), Brent Barry (4-7), Beno Udrih (5-6) and Jacque Vaughn (4-5). ESPN commentator Hubie Brown said that he had never seen a shooting display like that by an entire backcourt. Parker finished with 20 points, Ginobili scored 16 and newly acquired center Francisco Elson contributed 14 points and nine rebounds off of the bench. Tim Duncan had nine points, six rebounds and two blocked shots while playing only 24 minutes--in fact, no one on either team played more than 25 minutes. Josh Howard led the Mavericks with 15 points and seven rebounds, while Dirk Nowitzki added 13 points and four rebounds.

The early moments of the game provided no indication of the blowout that would ensue. The score was tied 11-11 halfway through the first quarter and Hubie Brown remarked that both teams looked sharp. Brown likes the Mavericks' addition of former Pacers point guard Anthony Johnson: "He knows how to play. That's the best compliment that you can give a pro player." Johnson started but played sparingly, scoring two points. Duncan scored two baskets, one of them as part of a three point play, to give the Spurs a 16-11 lead and San Antonio pushed that advantage to 30-22 by the end of the quarter. Parker got off to a fast start and Brown marvelled at the fact that he ranked third in the league in field goal percentage in 2005-06, a remarkable accomplishment for a small guard who did not have a reliable shot from beyond 10 feet when he entered the league. It is offseason work on one's weaknesses, Brown explained, that separates All-Star and All-NBA players from everyone else in the NBA.

Near the end of the first quarter, Jerry Stackhouse received a technical foul for elbowing Ginobili. Brown said that in the old days when only two officials worked games that such contact might have gone unobserved; he added that the current system of using three referees provides much better court coverage.

Dallas experienced serious problems in transition defense in the second quarter and San Antonio soon built a double digit lead. Brown noted that teams are experimenting with using zone defenses more to compensate for the NBA rules changes that limit defensive contact against perimeter players; using a zone enables a team to funnel driving players into areas where there are multiple defenders. The Mavericks briefly cut the margin below 10 before the Spurs raced to a 59-41 lead. Parker had 18 points on 8-10 field goal shooting in the first half and the Spurs enjoyed a 21-13 rebounding advantage. ESPN showed an interesting graphic during the second quarter: last year Nowitzki became only the third player to shoot at least 90% from the free throw line while averaging at least 26 ppg; the other players are Rick Barry and Larry Bird, who did it twice.

The Mavericks chipped away until they pulled within 62-50 in the third quarter but then Parker hit a floater, Ginobili made a runner and Duncan stole an inbounds pass and scored; Dallas only managed to make one free throw during that flurry and trailed 68-51. Mavericks' Coach Avery Johnson called timeout, one of several that he used at various points in the game to chew out his players, and Dallas responded with four straight points. After that, though, the Spurs went back to simply running the Mavericks out of the gym. Dallas' last highlight was a spectacular D.J. Mbenga block of Elson's two hand dunk attempt with 4.8 seconds left in the quarter. The Spurs retained possession, though, and Matt Bonner banked in a shot off of the inbounds pass, just beating the shot clock buzzer. "It's been that kind of night," Brown said.

Both teams rested their starters in the fourth quarter and various bench players fought for regular season roster spots and playing time.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:52 AM

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ESPN Retools NBA Shootaround

ESPN has shuffled the lineup for its NBA Shootaround pregame show. Fred Hickman is the new host and he is joined by former NBA players Greg Anthony, Jamal Mashburn and Kiki Vandeweghe. Stephen A. Smith is also part of the mix but he was not on Friday night's show because of a death in his family.

The rebooted NBA Shootaround has a toned down style compared to last year, when the cast indulged in a lot of schtick and did a lot of screaming at each other. Hopefully the show will stay on this path when Smith returns. There is nothing wrong with injecting humor in the broadcast from time to time but if viewers were looking for a steady diet of laughs then they would tune in to Comedy Central. Anthony, Mashburn and Vandeweghe are on the set because they played in the NBA, so it makes sense for them to primarily focus on analyzing the game.

Perhaps the most interesting segment in Friday's show dealt with Amare Stoudemire's attempt to come back from microfracture surgery. Jamal Mashburn has a unique understanding of that issue as a former All-Star who battled numerous injuries in his career and never fully recovered from microfracture surgery. Mashburn said that after having surgery on his knee he could no longer explode to the hoop, absorb body contact and finish at the rim. The days of him using a crossover dribble to set up a drive to the basket were over and he had to settle for using that move to set up a pull up jump shot. Mashburn added that the other thing that happens after a knee injury is that there is a tendency to compensate by favoring the strong knee, which then becomes susceptible to getting injured as well. He concluded that he "had to manage (within) my limitations" and that Amare will have to learn to do this as well because it is unlikely that he will ever completely return to his pre-injury form. Mashburn supplemented his explanations by going on to the court on the Shootaround set and demonstrating the difference between the moves he made before and after he hurt his knee.

Mashburn's descriptions of the adjustments that he had to make parallel what James Silas and Austin Carr told me about the knee injuries that they suffered during their All-Star careers in the 1970s.

Hopefully, that kind of information and analysis will be the trademark of the new NBA Shootaround.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:16 AM

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Friday, October 27, 2006

Slam Online Provides Link to Yesterday's Nuggets-Lakers Recap

The Rolling Stones once sang, "It's only Rock and Roll but I like it." NBA junkies can say, "It's only preseason but I like it." Slam Online's Sam Rubenstein likes the preseason so much that he posted links to several sites that provided recaps of preseason games, including yesterday's 20 Second Timeout report about the Nuggets-Lakers game on TNT. Here is his article:

blllloggggiiinnnggggg

posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 PM

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Nuggets Rout Kobe-less Lakers, 126-108

The Denver Nuggets ran past the L.A. Lakers 126-108 at the Honda Center (Anaheim, California) in a preseason game broadcast by TNT. Carmelo Anthony led the Nuggets with 32 points, while Andre Miller had 14 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. Linas Kleiza scored 19 points in only 22 minutes, including 16 in the fourth quarter. J.R. Smith, who Denver acquired in the offseason to bolster the team's three point shooting, scored 14 points and made three of his eight three point attempts after hitting eight three pointers and putting up 26 points in Denver's previous game, a 127-107 loss to Utah. Andrew Bynum, starting at center for the Lakers in place of the injured Kwame Brown, had 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists; Lamar Odom added 17 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals.

Kobe Bryant did not play as he is still rehabilitating from offseason knee surgery. It is not certain if he will be able to play on Tuesday when the Lakers open the regular season versus the Phoenix Suns; the Associated Press reported that Bryant's movements were limited during pre-game warmups and that he seemed to be experiencing pain in the knee, which would seem to contradict what Bryant told TNT: that his knee feels better than it has in 10 years. Bryant watched the game in street clothes from the bench. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson is recovering from hip replacement surgery and was not on the bench, but is expected to return in time for the regular season. Denver's starting center Marcus Camby suited up but did not play due to plantar fasciitis; TNT's Kevin Harlan called it "plantar fasciitis in his foot" but that is like saying "a sprained knee ligament in his knee"--after all, you can't have a "plantar" injury anywhere other than your foot!

The Lakers got off to a quick start, taking 5-0 and 13-5 leads. They pushed the margin to 20-11 midway through the first quarter, feasting on five Denver turnovers. Bynum was impressive early, scoring 14 first quarter points, and the Lakers led Denver 40-34 going into the second quarter. It would seem that he is responding to the coaching efforts of Phil Jackson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. TNT's Doug Collins explained that an important part of the triangle offense is called "post lane sprint"--the team's big man sprints down the middle of the court, beats the defense to the post, receives the ball in the middle of the lane and scores. When Shaquille O'Neal played for Jackson's Lakers (and was in good enough shape to run the floor) he scored a ton of points in this manner. Bynum did this several times versus Denver. Acting head coach Kurt Rambis told TNT's Craig Sager at halftime that Bynum not only ran the floor well but that he also did a good job of sealing off the defender to prevent him from breaking up the play. Bynum is about to turn 19 and seems to have a ton of promise; he looks HUGE and his game is much more polished than it was last season. In the second quarter, he took Nene, an athletic, physical player (albeit one coming off of a serious injury) into the post, gave him an up and under move and dunked on him. "That is a big-time move," exclaimed Collins. Nene countered with a face-up jumper over Bynum on the next possession. Bynum is hardly a timid kid now, either--late in the third quarter he got good post position and screamed to guard Sasha Vujacic, "Pass me the f------ ball!"

Sager interviewed Bynum after the game and asked him what parts of his game he had improved. Bynum replied, "I've improved cardiovascularly. Getting up and down the court was an issue for me last year. Over the summer I did sprints and now I get down the court, seal in the middle of the paint and go up for an easy shot."

Sager followed up by asking Bynum what he thought Jackson and Abdul-Jabbar would think of his performance. Bynum offered this frank and surprisingly objective analysis: "Kareem would tell me that I played good in the post tonight but on defense I wasn't really anchoring the paint. I kind of let my team down in the middle; they got a bunch of layups that I shouldn't have let go. I'm quite sure that Phil thinks the same thing right now. What they really need me to do is rebound and block shots. We've got Kobe who is going to shoot the shots and score and we've got Lamar Odom, so that's about 80% of the shots right there, so really I just need to get rebounds and block shots."

During the second quarter, Collins talked about the Lakers' prospects this season. Not surprisingly, a lot hinges on Kobe Bryant's health and productivity: "This guy is a brilliant basketball player," Collins said "and, to me, when he is healthy he is still the best player in the NBA." Collins added that the other Lakers players need to step up their play and he is optimistic that they will do just that: "Just watching this game tonight, I think that the Lakers could fool a few people. I think that they are going to be better than what people expect when they get all their pieces together and get Phil back on the bench."

Denver only led 63-59 at halftime but pulled away in the third quarter, when Anthony scored 13 points. Anthony exploded late in the quarter for nine straight points in less than two minutes, pushing the margin to 93-78. Denver took a 97-82 lead into the fourth quarter. A pair of Jordan Farmar fast break baskets brought the Lakers to within 10 but a Kleiza three pointer ended the run and put Denver up 112-99; the Lakers did not mount a serious threat after that.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:33 AM

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Rockets Cool Off Heat, 96-71

Dwyane Wade picked up where he left off in the 2006 NBA Finals, but the rest of the Miami Heat looked lethargic in a 96-71 preseason loss to the Houston Rockets. The game was televised by ESPN and played before a sparse Miami crowd; apparently, there are other things to do in South Beach besides going to a preseason NBA game--who knew? Wade finished with a game-high 26 points in 32 minutes on 11-17 field goal shooting but the rest of the Heat shot only 16-47 (.340) from the field; no other Heat player managed to even reach double figures--Shaquille O'Neal had nine points (in 22 minutes) as he shot just 3-8 from both the field and the free throw line. Tracy McGrady led the Rockets with 19 points in 31 minutes, but he shot only 6-18 from the field, 1-6 on three pointers and 6-11 from the free throw line. He had no trouble creating open shots for himself and his floor game looked good (five assists, four rebounds), but for whatever reason he was not making shots that he normally hits--his patented elbow jumper and pullup three pointers from the wing. Yao Ming had 14 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots in 32 minutes.

Neither team shot particularly well from the field (.444 for Houston, .422 for Miami) but Houston made nine three pointers and 23 free throws compared to four and 13 respectively for Miami. The Heat actually were ahead 21-20 after the first quarter, but Houston took a small lead early in the second quarter and never looked back. Houston had a 42-36 halftime lead despite Wade's 18 points on 7-11 field goal shooting. The Rockets really poured it on in the third quarter, pushing the margin to 63-45 when the Heat went through a stretch in which they missed 12 of their 15 field goal attempts. Of course, as I mentioned in my previous post, the preseason means different things to different teams, a point that ESPN's Tim Legler brought up during the halftime show. Miami is the reigning NBA champion and has made no major personnel moves; the Heat just want to stay healthy, get their players in shape and prepare for the long 82 game grind of the regular season. The Rockets, on the other hand, have made a lot of changes and did not make the playoffs last year, so it is important that they develop on court chemistry before the season begins. About the only second half drama, such as it was, came at the 2:07 mark in the third quarter when Miami's Alonzo Mourning was ejected after receiving his second technical foul; he got his first one much earlier in the game for arguing a call and the one that led to his automatic ejection was issued when he punched the ball into the crowd in frustration after Houston scored to take a 67-48 lead.

While the game was basically a snoozer, there was an interesting second quarter exchange between ESPN commentators John Saunders and Jon Barry--a broadcasting rookie who just retired from the NBA--about O'Neal's well documented struggles at the free throw line. Barry did not discuss how O'Neal rebuffed his father's offer to help him shoot free throws more accurately and actually sympathized with the Diesel, saying that viewers at home should grab a softball and try to shoot free throws with it to get an idea of what it is like to shoot free throws when you are as big as Shaq. Saunders mentioned that Wilt Chamberlain shot poorly from the free throw line; it should be added that Chamberlain's rival Bill Russell also shot a low percentage, although for some reason that is not brought up nearly as often as Chamberlain's numbers are (Chamberlain shot .511, Russell shot .561 and O'Neal has shot .528 for his career). OK, so it seems like there is a pattern here of dominant big men who win championships despite not shooting well from the free throw line--but then Barry, who was a teammate of O'Neal's for one year, added that O'Neal routinely made 17 or 18 of 20 from the free throw line during practice. Barry went on to say that O'Neal might feel self conscious at the free throw line during games (something that some observers also felt applied to Chamberlain). Now we have a mystery on our hands, but I don't think we need Sherlock Holmes to solve it--even Inspector Gadget can figure out that if O'Neal consistently makes most of his free throws during practice (the same thing was also said of Chamberlain) then the size of his hands has nothing to do with him missing them during games; Inspector Gadget might even say "Go, go Gadget arms," grab an NBA Register and note that Russell was basically the same size as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, that Dirk Nowitzki is a 7-footer who shoots free throws well and that Yao Ming's 7-5 stature has not stopped him from shooting .812 from the free throw line during his NBA career. The simple truth is that O'Neal, like Chamberlain and Russell, has been able to be successful despite being a poor free throw shooter. I doubt that any of these three "made them when they count" (as Shaq alleges that he does) at a greater rate than they made them during the rest of the game and, in any case, if you make them early then maybe the game isn't close enough for them to "count" in the end.

One thing that is very interesting about O'Neal's free throw problems is that they seem to be regarded by most people as comic relief as opposed to a flaw in his game. The reason I mention this is that O'Neal is the only dominant big man in NBA history I can think of who is genuinely beloved by fans and the media--maybe Mikan was also, but that's going back many, many years. Russell's public image has undergone quite a makeover in recent years as he has assumed an elder statesman role, but he once said that he owed the fans nothing and he didn't even show up for either his jersey retirement or his induction in the Hall of Fame (Russell had some very understandable negative feelings regarding racism in Boston and the country in general, but it is safe to say that he was hardly a beloved figure--even in the city where he won 11 championships--during his career). Chamberlain said "Nobody loves Goliath" and was often the target of criticism from fans and the media. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was widely considered to be aloof and unapproachable. O'Neal is the only dominant, multiple-championship winning big man who seems to be a widely beloved figure (I would argue that Tim Duncan is respected but not beloved, much like Pete Sampras). I'm not sure why this is or what it means, but it is interesting, because fans generally gravitate toward the perceived underdog, not a player who is literally larger than life. O'Neal is so well-liked that he not only gets a pass for his bad free throw shooting but no issue is made of the disrespectful way that he dismissed Rick Barry's offer to help him (discussed in the 20SecondTimeout post cited above). If Allen Iverson shot .500 from the free throw line and rebuffed Rick Barry's advice by saying that Barry's resume is essentially worthless, would the media and fans just ignore that? What if the player in question were Kobe Bryant?

Longtime 20SecondTimeout readers know that I generally focus my attention on what happens between the lines and not on off court issues--so why am I comparing Shaq's popularity to that of other dominant big men? Simple--in my estimation, his popularity is unique among the members of this exclusive group and it affects the way that his game/skills are evaluated and discussed. Russell, Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar all received a lot of unwarranted and unfair criticism in their day but that is no reason to swing the pendulum so far in the other direction that we just ignore or dismiss a legimitate shortcoming in O'Neal's game.

Would I want Shaquille O'Neal as my franchise center despite his bad free throw shooting? Of course I would, just as I would have wanted a young Chamberlain or Russell; the advantages of having a dominant big man far outweigh the disadvantage of that big man being a bad free throw shooter--but that doesn't mean that failure at a basic fundamental of the game should be laughed off or that we should make lame excuses for O'Neal's free throw shooting or just treat it like a big joke.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Hope in Gotham? Knicks Topple Sixers, 113-102

The New York Knicks pushed their preseason record to 4-1 with a 113-102 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, a contest broadcast by NBA TV, with the announcing duties handled by Gus Johnson and Walt Frazier. The Sixers played without Allen Iverson (sprained left hand) and Samuel Dalembert (hamstring injury) and the Knicks did not have the services of Stephon Marbury (right foot injury). Jamal Crawford and Nate Robinson led the Knicks with 19 points each, while Chris Webber and Kyle Korver topped the Sixers with 17 points apiece. Steve Francis added 13 points for the Knicks, all of them in the first half; he also had seven assists and six rebounds, turning in his best performance in the preseason in Marbury's absence. This brings up perhaps the Knicks' biggest problem: their two most talented players, Francis and Marbury, basically play the same game--(over) dribble and shoot--and their games do not complement each other. It would seem that for the Knicks to achieve maximum success, one of them will eventually have to be benched or traded. Meanwhile, the Knicks have other guards who take up a lot less salary cap room but can be quite productive: Robinson shot 5-7 from three point range, while rookie Mardy Collins made all four of his field goal attempts and had 11 points and four assists in 14 minutes of playing time.

Renaldo Balkman, Isiah Thomas's surprise selection with the 20th overall pick in the draft, scored six points in 16 minutes of action. Frazier said that Balkman "is becoming a crowd favorite because of his vivacity." At halftime, Fred Carter added, "Renaldo Balkman really impresses me. Why? Because he brings a lot of energy off of the bench and he has a way of finding open spots on the floor...he does a great job." While many people have mocked Thomas for drafting Balkman so highly, the simple fact is that Balkman can play and will be productive; it will be interesting to look back on this draft in five years and see if that can be said of all of the players drafted ahead of him, let alone those taken after him.

The Knicks are averaging over 106 ppg in the preseason after scoring less than 96 ppg during the 2006 regular season. As I mentioned during my Tuesday appearance on BetUS.com Radio, the preseason means different things to different teams: teams like the Heat (1-4), the Spurs (1-3) and the Nets (1-4) have stable rosters, expect to be playing deep into May or June and are obviously not placing a big emphasis on winning preseason games; on the other hand, teams like the Knicks, Raptors (5-0) and Warriors (4-0) have made significant roster and/or coaching changes and need to play their key players substantial minutes in the preseason. As you can see from the records of these teams, the NBA's preseason standings look upside down--perhaps that is why NBA.com does not even post them. So, a few October wins for the Knicks are no reason to start having parades. Still, it is interesting to see how the Knicks play under new coach Isiah Thomas--and who is getting playing time. Thomas believes in an offense he calls "Quick," a melding of the philosophies of John Wooden, Bobby Knight and Tex Winter that Thomas implemented during his stint as Pacers coach. As I noted in one of my posts about this year's summer league play, Jermaine O'Neal and Brad Miller blossomed into All-Stars under Thomas' guidance. "The thing you notice about this offense," Johnson commented, "is that the ball barely hits the floor."

Eddy Curry showed off some of the post moves that he learned this summer from Knicks' Assistant Coach Mark Aguirre, scoring 10 points on 4-4 field goal shooting in 22 minutes of playing time. It's nice to see guys like Aguirre, Moses Malone and Henry Bibby on the bench; the latter two are assistant coaches to the Sixers' Maurice Cheeks and I think that the presence of such "old school" players represents excellent learning opportunities for younger players, provided that they are receptive to the instruction and guidance that Aguirre and the others provide.

Frazier noted that true, back to the basket centers are becoming a dying breed and that the NBA seems like it is becoming a 6-7 and under league--that is a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but recent NBA rules changes and new points of emphasis definitely favor smaller, quicker offensive players. Frazier added that 7-footers like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett play power forward instead of center because of their versatile skills and that "they have added a new dimension to the game."

As for the Sixers, they are so dependent on Iverson to score and create scoring opportunities for his teammates that it is difficult to say much about them regarding a game in which Iverson didn't play, other than the obvious: whether or not they will be a good team with Iverson, they are clearly not a very good team without him.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:12 AM

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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

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