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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Requiem for a Heavyweight

The Dallas Mavericks eliminated the San Antonio Spurs from the playoffs with a 106-93 win on Tuesday. This is the first time that the Spurs suffered a first round loss since 2000, when Tim Duncan missed the playoffs due to injury. The Mavericks deserve credit for getting out of the first round for the first time since 2006--when they advanced all the way to the NBA Finals--but there will be time to talk more about them in the next few days; the Spurs' early departure seems to signal a changing of the guard in the West. Although the Spurs rather seamlessly transitioned from a Duncan-David Robinson nucleus to a Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili trio, it will be tougher to rebuild the team now: while Duncan is still capable of playing at a high level, he is also showing signs of age and it is fair to wonder if Ginobili will ever again be healthy enough to play All-Star caliber basketball. Seven of the 12 Spurs who played in the playoffs--including Duncan--are at least 31 years old and Ginobili (who was not on the active roster) is an "old" 31. Parker is their only good young player but, as great and dynamic as Parker is, I just can't see the Spurs winning a championship with him as the best player (yes, he was the 2007 Finals MVP but Duncan was still the best player on that team even if Parker was deemed to have performed the best in that series).

The Spurs won four championships between 1999 and 2007 and they have been the league's model franchise for the past dozen years or so but the Mavericks basically ran circles around them save for game two when Parker went nuts (38 points on 16-22 field goal shooting). Duncan and Parker were the only Spurs who averaged more than 8 ppg versus Dallas but just as troubling for the Spurs is that their vaunted defense has sprung some leaks--and that is a disturbing trend that began long before the playoffs: under Coach Gregg Popovich the Spurs used to always rank in the top five in defensive field goal percentage but this season they dropped to ninth, which is still decent but no longer elite. Former defensive stopper Bruce Bowen is 37 years old and he averaged his fewest mpg (18.9) since 1999-00. Duncan seems to have lost some range defensively and some bounce (he has always been more athletic than most people think but he is not as athletic as he used to be), so the Spurs could really use an athletic, defensive-minded seven footer to help anchor their defense in the paint.

The best case scenario for the Spurs is that Ginobili returns fully healthy next season, Duncan stays reasonably healthy and does not decline in terms of his skills, Parker remains an elite point guard and the Spurs acquire an athletic big man and one more wing scorer--preferably someone who can create his own shot. If all of those things happen then the Spurs could be right back in the championship hunt--but it is more realistic to expect that Ginobili will never be quite the same (based on his age/recent injury history), Duncan will decline slightly and the Spurs will not strike gold this time the way that they acquired Duncan to pair with Robinson and then found Ginobili/Parker just as Robinson was on his way out.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:26 AM



At Wednesday, April 29, 2009 9:08:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Their run is over. They had a great run in the Duncan era. The Spurs have the highest winning percentage in sports since he got there in 97. There was no way they were going to win with no Ginobili, bench players turned starters, and an old Tim Duncan.

At Thursday, April 30, 2009 1:43:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Their defensive woes had much more to do with starting and giving heavy minutes to Bonner, Finley, and Mason than with Bowen's and Duncan's decline.

When Pop put Bowen on Terry, he coudn't score. He put Bowen on Barea, boom contained. He was still making his corner 3s. Duncan did his job in the paint, but nobody was helping him rebound. They were giving up open 3 after penetration after open 3.

They failed against the Mavs because the offensive minded players that they used could not produce any offense, and were already defensive liabilities to begin with.

Why Popovich didn't use George Hill, Bowen, Udoka, Thomas as much is a mystery to me. If you only have 2 guys who can score, might as well keep the game in the 70s. Why he starts 3 of the weakest rebounders for their respective positions is beyond me. If Bonner, Finley, and Mason are not making shots, they contribute nothing. Just like Horry and Finley last year.

For the past decade, the Spurs won with defense and rebounding. They didn't sign dynamic scorers because they chose guys who played defense. I have no idea what brought about the philosophical change.


At Thursday, April 30, 2009 6:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As I said in the post, the Spurs need to pair Duncan with an athletic seven footer; then they could bring Bonner off of the bench. Finley and Mason started because Popovich apparently felt that Bowen could not play heavy minutes for an entire season (Bowen's minutes went up during the playoffs but not being able to use him so much during the regular season may have cost them some wins and thus a better seeding).

I suspect that Popovich's rotation choices had to do with matchups, age and his belief that he had to try to get some offensive players on the court in certain situations to try to match Dallas' firepower since the Spurs clearly could not just shut them down. The Spurs were shorthanded, so in retrospect it is apparent that whatever Popovich tried probably would not have worked (I say "in retrospect" because I actually thought that the Spurs could win this series but now it is obvious that the Mavs are really clicking on all cylinders after an injury hit season).

At Thursday, April 30, 2009 2:34:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

If the Spurs can somehow get Tiago Splitter next season (pry him from his contract with perhaps help from the world's crumbling economy), is there an athletic wing player in the draft near the Spurs draft position that could fill their need? Or, do you think potentially signing someone like Ben Gordon is the answer. Gordon's not a great defender, but he's obviously excellent at getting and making his own shot. The backcourt would be small, but if they have Duncan and Splitter, then it won't be that much of a detriment. Or, how about someone like Dahntay Jones? No way the Nugs let him go?

At Thursday, April 30, 2009 5:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

I have not looked at the Draft or the potential free agent market in terms of which specific players the Spurs might acquire; in this post I merely described in general terms what I think the Spurs need to do.


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