Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Lingering Problem

The Spurs have had this problem forever, well, it seems like forever, and it's something that's pretty hard to address, but something that we as Spurs fans need to continually realize. It comes on and off, and it's forgotten often when we win, but it's the most frustrating thing in the world. Some of you might have guessed what I'm talking about in the wake of the harsh 92-85 loss to the Chicago Bulls. It wouldn't hurt so much if this were a gritty, duke 'em out, the other team just played better than us, kind of loss to the Celtics or Lakers or even someone like the Nuggets. This was the Bulls. If you look at the box score, you can't even say that Derrick Rose or Luol Deng beat us, why? 6 players scored in double digits, Brad Miller was one free throw away from making it 7. Sure, Duncan had 28 points, 16 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 3 blocks and while that's great for the older Duncan, that's always been kind of par for him over the course of the years.

So what is this problem? Is it injuries? Obviously not since Manu is playing like Manu and everybody is healthy. While Pop is running an 11-man rotation, and there's a little confusion in working out a solid rotation, that's not really the problem either. What's the problem? Inconsistency on offense. This has always been an issue, and it's almost cliche to say that the Spurs are dependent on their role players. Yet while it's cliche, it's true, it's probably true of all contender teams, but I would say more so of the Spurs than any other. Duncan will get his own, that's just how good Duncan is, but we can't be asking Duncan to take over games, there's no doubt that Timmy probably could, but he's so respected that defenses throw a ton of attention on him, and honestly, it's not super fair to ask him to do that as sort of insurance when the other players can't deliver. It's something that is one of the most frustrating thing as a Spurs fan to deal with, and it's something I hope we can address soon. If we look back at Spurs success, the games we've won have often just ended up being whether or not our bench/role-players stepped up. Duncan doesn't often carry us through games, and I don't think it's fair to expect him to, and I don't know that it's fair to ask that of TP or Manu either. When the Spurs won it has been when players like Jarren Jackson, Avery Johnson, Sean Elliot, Steve Kerr, Nazr Mohammed, Robert Horry, and now Roger Mason and Michael Finley have stepped up to deliver. We need the players on our roster; McDyess, Mason, Blair, and especially Jefferson to step it up, keep it stepped up. Welcome to the big leagues fellas. This is what being a contender is about, sure McDyess and Jefferson have been there (Detroit and New Jersey respectively) but it's high time they remember what that's like.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How the Matchups Fall: Cleveland Cavaliers

Sorry for the lack of posts. Things have been pretty crazy, you know, with real life and all that. Still, NBA season is coming up, and I feel bad about neglecting you readers. So without further ado let's just jump into it.

A lot of people are on the Cleveland bandwagon after they acquired Shaq. Shaq does indeed give Cleveland an interior scoring punch they desperately needed. However, I'm not as convinced as others that Shaq is the answer. However, I do believe it was a smart move, low-risk, high-reward, you can't really ask for much more, well, except, a guarantee at a championship. While I'm not convinced that Shaq really puts Cleveland over the top, I still concede that they are contenders, though I would argue the weakest of the five that most pundits have listed out there (Lakers, Celtics, Magic, and Spurs being the other four). I might be somewhat biased, but I honestly don't see what's so great about the Cavs, especially considering they lost their offensive coordinator John Kuester to the Detroit Pistons, he was the one who purportedly revolutionized the Cleveland offense and was one of the primary factors that enabled them to make such a strong push last season. Naturally, they sought to improve this off-season, and I think they have, however, replacing 2 of your 5 starters there's probably a bit of an issue, in terms of chemistry, but that's something developed through the season, and we're talking post-season here, so I'm not really going to say a whole lot about it. There's the whole Shaq-LeBron ego thing, but let's not get into that.

San Antonio Spurs

PG - Tony Parker, George Hill
SG - Roger Mason, Manu Ginobili, Malik Hairston, Keith Bogans
SF - Richard Jefferson, Michael Finley
PF - Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, Marcus Haislip, Matt Bonner
C - Tim Duncan, Ian Mahinmi, Theo Ratliff

Cleveland Cavaliers

PG - Mo Williams, Daniel Gibson
SG - Delonte West, Anthony Parker
SF - LeBron James, Jamario Moon, Jawad Williams
PF - Anderson Varejajo, Leon Powe, J.J. Hickson, Darnell Jackson
C - Shaquille O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauksas

So I swapped out Keith Bogans for Marcus Williams since it seems like Bogans is guaranteed whereas Williams isn't, though I could be completely off base. Anyways, it's only a 15-man roster with 13 active, so I highly doubt it really makes a huge difference who it is that sits at the end of the bench. The thing that Cleveland definitely has going for them is that they are, like all the other contending teams, ridiculously deep. While I'm not of the mind that one All-Star reaching his prime with another quickly fading are enough to necessarily carry the team, the fact that they have so multiple viable, near starting caliber yeoman options at each position gives them something of an advantage, especially in a slug-em out war of attrition. While the likes of Gibson, Parker, Moon, Powe, and Ilgauskas aren't anything that would normally have you trembling in fear, when you consider that this is entirely their second squad, it's actually farily impressive.

Naturally, the issue of how these matchups breakdown again revolve around the issue of first, how well LeBron can be contained, and secondly, how uncontainable our offense can work. I was watching some of the 2007 Finals against Cleveland, and I can see why their offense needed the revamping. Overall, the offense was horribly stagnant and revolved around a lot of standing and watching whoever has the ball try an isolation play against 4-5 Spurs defenders. Nauturally, given all the hype, it seems that the Cavs have moved away from that. In terms of pure matchups, Cleveland and San Antonio are fairly even, though I would give a slight edge to Cleveland's bench, as we still have the unproven factors of Blair, Haislip, Hairston, and company, however, overall the comparisons are fairly apt, with the advantage slightly trending towards San Antonio.

While a lot of people are going to draw attention to the whole "Can Richard Jefferson really contain LeBron?" story, it again comes back to a duel between big men, those being Shaq and Tim Duncan, which will probably be up there as a second headline of sorts. At this point in time, I think Duncan still has much more to offer than Shaq, at least on the defensive end. Offensively, both will get their own, they'll get their fair share of rebounds, their points, their passes out to shooters for assists, etc... From all this talk, it seems like it'll be something of a wash, and it probably will be. The issue ends up being who gets more minutes and who can exploit those minutes when the other big fella isn't on the floor? Duncan will probably see some combination of Varejao, Shaq, and Ilgauskas being thrown at him, I'm not sure what Pop will do on Shaq, but I would guess something along the lines of Duncan, McDyess, and maybe Ratliff, with a lot of help. While I like Duncan over Shaq, the issue in the frontline isn't necessarily with talent, but depth. While I think Blair can match up with Powe fairly well, the x-factors really become Varejao and Ilgauskas, and it really becomes the burden of McDyess, Haislip, and possibly Mahinmi to really work at containing these players. Naturally, Blair isn't tall enough to contend with either player, and already, McDyess is on the shorter side. While neither Varejao nor Ilgauskas are the most formidable of offensive powerhouses, games where they start getting double-doubles will prove to be deadly for any team.

If we take a look at the positional matchups, I believe that the most obvious advantage for the Spurs lies within the point guard position. While Mo Williams and Daniel Gibson are serviceable, they're really more three point specialists than anything else, Tony Parker and George Hill need to realize, that both aren't really good defensively, and need to constantly attack them, either making big shots and carrying the team or taking a lot of defensive pressure off other players by forcing help in the lane. Tony Parker has got to be the man this year and especially in this matchup because all the other matchups are so even, or possibly even disadvantageous for the Spurs.

Like all of my previous posts, my current stand is this, the wings just have to keep attacking. The comparisons between the Spurs wings (Mason, Manu, Jefferson, and Finley) are so simiar to those of the Cavs (West, Parker, LeBron, Moon) that the Spurs really just have to play within their game and not make stupid mistakes. Of the wings from Cleveland, all four have defended the premier players of opposing teams, and all four have done at least serviceable jobs of it, there isn't a whole lot of inherent advantage in there, especially since all four are fairly interchangeable (especially between West and Parker). If Hairston steps up to be a big time defender, that'll be a plus for the Spurs, but due to the depth of this lineup it's goin to be a tough matchup for the Spurs. Ultimately, it all comes down to how well Tony Parker can work Mo Williams, if he forces Mike Brown to put Delonte West on him, then it's all about recognizing the mismatches, ultimately, it's a matter of attacking Mo Williams on defense, that's the key.

Key Matchups:

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The 8-Man Rotation

No, I am not trying to hedge in on what Skeets and Dwyer have going on with their 10-Man Rotation, I'm really not, please believe me, or not. I suppose this will make much more sense if I actually get down to what I'm babbling about with my rotation thing. Well, recently I've been watching the Spurs' former championship victories, and something occurred to me; Greg Popovich only uses 8 players ever in his rotations when playing in the Finals. While he's not quite Jerry Sloan-esque in his management of minutes, he's fairly consistent in who will play, when, and how much. Generally speaking, Popovich likes to have one reserve big and one ball-handler/three point shooter. My question isn't why Pop does this, but rather, who Pop will incorporate in the future. I highly doubt that all 12 players who do suit up will see floor time in any given game, in fact, I highly doubt even 10 will. So who's going to step up? Pop has versatility and flexibility in his roster, but even so, I don't think he would (and I wouldn't recommend) varying the roster too much. Let's take a quick trip down memory lane.

In 1999, the first Spurs championship, the starting lineup was as such:

PG - Avery Johnson
SG - Mario Elie
SF - Sean Elliott
PF - Tim Duncan
C - David Robinson

Off the bench we pretty much only saw Jaren Jackson, Malik Rose, and a little bit of Steve Kerr. Certainly we saw a little bit of Antonio Daniels and a few cameos of Jerome Kersey, but those were negligible enough to not really count for anything. So while Johnson and Kerr took turns bringing the ball up (though Avery did it most of the time) Elie, Jackson, and Elliott split the wing spots, with Duncan, Robinson, and Rose platooning the time at the frontcourt. It worked because either Duncan or Robinson could play center next to Rose, with Elie, Elliott, and Jackson all being pretty flexible at the SG and SF spots. While Kerr wasn't the best PG, he could be trusted to bring the ball up and pass it into the post to either Robinson or Duncan. Kerr was at least nominally the backup ball-handler and with Jackson also the 3-point threat, with Rose being the backup big man.

If we continue on with the 3 other Spurs championships we see that Pop generally follows pretty similar a blue print. In 2003 the starting 5 looked something like this:

PG - Tony Parker
SG - Stephen Jackson
SF - Bruce Bowen
PF - Tim Duncan
C - David Robinson

The frontcourt rotation stayed Rose, Duncan, and Robinson, with Speedy Claxton and Manu Ginobili taking the roles of Steve Kerr and Jaren Jackson as the backup ball handler and scoring spark off the bench respectively. While this moves away a little from the Pop's obsession with 3-point shooting, there being no real 3-point specialists on the team, Ginobili, Jackson, Bowen, and even Parker made enough. Again, Pop didn't just stick with these 8, he played Kevin Willis a few key minutes, but generally speaking, this was the core rotation. Generally speaking, the only time Steve Smith and Danny Ferry saw floor time was during garbage time.

Continuing to 2005, in the 7-game classic against the defending champs, the Detroit Pistons, the starters were:

PG - Tony Parker
SG - Manu Ginobili
SF - Bruce Bowen
PF - Tim Duncan
C - Nazr Mohammed

Now replacing Kerr and Rose were Brent Barry and Robert Horry respectively, with Beno Udrih and Devin Brown seeing some playing time, but for all extensive purposes they more or less split the amount of playing time one player would have been allotted, one backup player though we can argue he stretched to 9. Note though, that Pop used Beno pretty sparingly and liked to play Barry and Ginobili next to each other with Ginobili pretty much manning the point. Barry was both ball-handler and 3 point specialist, and Horry, well, there's not much to say about Horry, besides he was Big Shot Bob, he did a little bit of everything, played hard defense, drew charges, hit big 3s. While Duncan was the most consistently dominating player, Horry made the biggest plays (including the 3 at the end of Game 5 in overtime). While Glenn Robinson did see a bit of crucial playing time and make a couple of plays, like in 2003 with Kevin Willis, he wasn't really part of the rotation.

We then move to the embarrassment that was the was the 2007 NBA Finals, not because of anything the Spurs did, but because somehow, a team as bad as the Cleveland Cavaliers managed to make it to the Finals. The starters were:

PG - Tony Parker
SG - Michael Finley
SF - Bruce Bowen
PF - Tim Duncan
C - Fabricio Oberto

Now, Pop throws a few more names off the bench here, we have Manu as our super sixth man, Jacque Vaughn *shudder* as our backup ball handler, Robert Horry again, as our backup big, and Brent Barry as our 3 point specialist, and Francisco Elson as our second backup big. Here's my take on it, which ultimately boils it down to 8 player rotation again, Oberto and Elson were generally called the 2-headed center, because they platooned the time that would've otherwise been used by a single center, so for all extensive purposes, I consider them one player. The frontcourt rotation was essentially Duncan, Horry, and Oberto/Elson. As for Vaughn, I don't think he was the primary backup, that job again got platooned between Manu and Barry, so we treat him like we would treat Beno from 2005. So 8 players is about the extent of the rotation that Pop used for his championship teams, and while I'm sure that he'll come up with something come this year, it never hurts to speculate a little.

In terms of the roster, I see it essentially panning out to this for the starters:
PG - Tony Parker
SG - Roger Mason
SF - Richard Jefferson
PF - Antonio McDyess
C - Tim Duncan
Some have surmised because Pop likes spreading the floor he might keep Matt Bonner in the starting rotation, but I'd argue that McDyess is proficient enough in the 18 foot jumper that I don't think that will happen, or if it does, it will only beg for a short while. While McDyess will be listed at center, Pop doesn't really have a use for the big man references of PF or C, as he plays them more like big man 1 and big man 2. Off the bench we have these options:

Ball-Handlers: George Hill
Wings: Manu Ginobili, Malik Hairston, Marcus Williams, Michael Finley, Keith Bogans
Big Men: DeJuan Blair, Marcus Haislip, Ian Mahinmi, Matt Bonner, Theo Ratliff

Though this roster might be subject to change, I'm going to stick with it for now. Again, while theoretically this gives the Spurs an added degree of versatility, I don't see Pop venturing too far from a set 8-man rotation, especially as we draw nearer and nearer to Playoff time. While we all expect George Hill to be the primary backup ball-handler, we have to see if he'll be more like Speedy Claxton or Beno Udrih in how his minutes get allocated. Will Pop actually legitimately play him as a backup point guard or will he start trying to get away platooning two off guards with decent ball handling abilities and run a backcourt of Ginobili and Mason? Then that begs the question of whether or not Marcus Williams can be a decent point forward as well? Furthermore, who will be the next Robert Horry? Or will we go more the route of something like Malik Rose? All these questions, is Michael Finley our new three-point specialist (a la Jaren Jackson and Brent Barry)? Or do we forgo the 3 point shot and hope that our wings can hit enough of them to make it count like in 2003? Essentially here's who we have to wonder about in terms of subs (or in the case of 2007 the "not Manu starting SG").

In comparison to 1999: Jaren Jackson (wing/3 point specialist), Malik Rose (big man), Steve Kerr (ball-handler/3 point specialist)

In comparison to 2003: Speedy Claxton (ball-handler), Malik Rose (big man), Bruce Bowen/Stephen Jackson (wing/3 point specialist)

In comparison to 2005: Brent Barry (ball-handler/3 point specialist), Robert Horry (big man), Devin Brown/Beno Udrih (wing/ball-handler)

In comparison to 2007: Michael Finley (wing), Robert Horry (big man), Brent Barry/Jacque Vaughn (ball handler/3 point specialist)

Well, let's say for now we need a ball-handler, a big man, and a wing, with 3 point specialist attached to any one of them being something of a bonus. Let's do a quick cursory comparison of players today to players of yore:

George Hill (6-2, 190 lbs)
Category: Ball Handler
Best Comparison: Speedy Claxton (5-11, 170 lbs)
Like Speedy, I don't know that George Hill is a great shooter, at least from the perimeter. However, those features put both in the mold of someone like Avery Johnson. The question is, can Hill man the point full time? What Hill has in advantage to Claxton is size and length. There's no question that both finish, but Hill also has the makings of a pesky defender (something Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy called Jacque Vaughn, though I'm not so sure about that), meaning that he'll probably play better defense than Claxton. However, the second big question is, can he be less of an offensive liability as Jacque Vaughn? For all his issues, Vaughn at least could competently run the point, if Hill can do that and add onto his resume on top of that, "be a legitimate offensive threat" then I think we can expect to see good things.

Roger Mason (6-5, 210 lbs)
Category: Ball Handler/3 Point Specialist
Best Comparison: Steve Kerr (6-3, 175 lbs)
We all know Mason can shoot the 3, we all know he's not afraid of taking big shots. He can handle the ball decently, so in all respects he's pretty similar to Steve Kerr. Now, I have a hard time believing that he's actually 6-5, in fact, I think a listing at 6-3 is already going to be overly generous, and he's not great defensively. He's also not super efficient with his scoring, but he is what you see, nothing more, nothing less. He's a good 3 point shooter who doesn't have to have the ball, is decent at handling the ball, though probably not as a full-time point, and will net you about 11 points per game in steady minutes. Currently, I think he'll hold onto that starting spot next to Parker, but we'll have to see how things progress as we move forward, I'm not really a huge fan of him in the roster, but at this point in time, there might not be a better solution.

Michael Finley (6-7, 220 lbs)
Category: Wing/3 Point Specialist
Best Comparison: Jaren Jackson (6-4, 190 lbs)
The All-Star caliber days of Michael Finley are long behind him, there's no way he's getting back to the form he was in on Dallas 2000. He's liable to get hot, but he's equally as liable if not more so of being ice cold. I'm also in the bandwagon of using Finley sparingly. His defense just isn't there anymore, but hey, he knows the system and knows where to take his shots. I don't necessarily see him playing as big a role as Jaren Jackson did in the 1999 series, but maybe they'll keep him around like Steve Smith.

Keith Bogans (6-5, 215 lbs)
Category: Wing/3 Point Specialist
Best Comparison: Jaren Jackson (6-4, 190 lbs)
Like Jackson and Finley, Bogans has kind of been everywhere. He's a hardworking guy, but he's not much better than just plain serviceable. I was actually pretty unaware of this acquisition, but hey, it gives Pop options. There's not much for me to say about Bogans, except that he's a solid failsafe, a good backup plan if things fall apart. I hope we won't really see a lot of him, not really as a knock against him, but more that I hope other people do step up.

Malik Hairston (6-6, 220 lbs)
Category: Wing
Best Comparison: Devin Brown (6-5, 210 lbs)
I don't know a whole lot about Malik Hairston, I don't follow the D-League, I don't really keep in touch with scouting reports and stuff, only what I see in a resource like DraftExpress. From all reports Hairston is one of those hard-working all around players, he has a serviceable but not great shot, the ability to score in the lane, and hopefully is an energy guy who can play some solid defense on the opposing team's top players. He's young, so hopefully he'll continue to improve, but honestly, unless he comes in as an above average defender and with an improved shot, it's hard for me to see anything in the rotation for someone like him. As of right now, I might liken him a little to Desmond Mason based on what I've read.

Marcus Williams (6-7, 205 lbs)
Category: Wing/Ball-Handler
Best Comparison: Stephen Jackson (6-8, 218 lbs)
Please don't think I'm saying that Marcus Williams is going to replicate Stephen Jackson-like production. However, that being said, everyone's pretty excited about Williams and Hairston as D-League call-ups. Williams is supposed to have played some point-forward while in Austin, so maybe he'll be able to handle the ball some bringing it up the court and stuff when Tony Parker is on the bench, gives Pop a little flexibility with the roster.

Marcus Haislip (6-10, 230 lbs)
Category: Big Man/3 Point Specialist
Best Comparison: Robert Horry (6-9, 220 lbs)
Marcus Haislip is probably the one player that intrigues me the most in terms of what he can provide on the floor. While he was considered a bust after his first few years after being drafted 13th in 2002, he's had a chance to reshape himself in Europe for the past few years, becoming a rather effective player overseas. The reports show that he's able to be effective in limited minutes, is athletic, and shoots reasonably well from 3-point range. The critique on his defensive apathy is somewhat disconcerting, but I hope that the chance of redemption in the NBA given him by the Spurs help motivate him to work with the culture a little bit. My biggest question is can he keep up with smaller, faster forwards like Horry could at times? My hope is that he becomes more like Horry and less like an athletic Matt Bonner, but maybe I'm hoping for too much.

DeJuan Blair (6-7, 265 lbs)
Category: Big Man
Best Comparison: Malik Rose (6-7, 255 lbs)
I think Blair has the potential to be one of the biggest impact rookies in the league this year. I can't say that I've seen Blair play, but based on what I've read, I'm very encouraged. While there are reports of him being not quite where we'd like him to be defensively, I think that it's something developed with time. The fact of the matter is, he has the energy and work-ethic of Malik Rose, but also a better skill-set to build off of, he's a better rebounder, and hopefully, can work well in the rotation. Unfortunately, since Pop doesn't have the luxury of the twin towers in Duncan and Robinson to work with any more, as he did when he played Rose, it's possible that Blair might see his minutes suffer a little due to Pop's desire for another shot-blocking presence on the floor when Duncan isn't. I don't think that Pop would go the route of undersizing his frontcout with Blair and McDyess.

Matt Bonner (6-10, 235 lbs)
Category: Big Man/3 Point Specialist
Best Comparison: Robert Horry (6-9, 220 lbs)
For all extensive purposes, Matt Bonner is the Robert Horry replacement that can only shoot threes. He's not really that good on defense and he really doesn't have much else of an offensive game despite everything his +/- numbers tell us. He's pretty much a known factor, and like Finley, someone who will play if the new guys don't step up.

Theo Ratliff (6-10, 235 lbs)
Category: Big Man
Best Comparison: Kevin Willis (7-0, 220 lbs)
Honestly, I don't see Ratliff making a huge impact in the rotation. Pop likes to have old guys who know what they're doing and can make an impact in spot minutes though. Kevin Willis didn't play a whole lot in the post season, but he made a difference when he did. Pop likes to keep about 3-4 players that are older and perhaps past their prime to shore up the end of his roster, other such names include Danny Ferry, Steve Smith, and Glenn Robinson. While Ratliff may be the only other legitimate shot-blocker on the roster aside from Duncan, I don't know if that alone will warrant him extended minutes.

Ian Mahinmi (6-10, 250 lbs)
Category: Big Man
Best Comparison: Francisco Elson (7-0, 235 lbs)
I can't rightly say I know a lot about Mahinmi, and honestly, what I've read so far has been somewhat disappointing. The only real good things I hear about him are all buzz and potential. Flashes of brilliance, but also streaks of downright frustrating playing down the stretch, which is why I don't really know what to make of him, I mean, based on that alone, I'd have to compare him to someone like Tyrus Thomas at the moment. I think he'll be serviceable when healthy, and won't break the rotation unless he has a breakout year. Like Elson, I think he'll have to battle to be in the rotation, but at the moment, I feel, is a little lower on my scale in terms of playability. Mainly, I see Pop using him as a minute sopper to keep McDyess and Duncan fresh and limit their minutes.

To be honest I really don't know anything about Curtis Jerrells or Dwayne Jones to make any sort of assessment whatsoever. While it's possible we see Pop doing a lot of the two-headed monster thing that he did in 2007 with Elson and Oberto with perhaps Hairston and Williams or perhaps Haislip and Blair, I don't know that he'd do it extensively, especially when the playoffs roll around. Of course, Pop is always known to be pretty flexible with most of his subsitutions, making moves on the fly so as to throw off the opposin team's rhythm and adjustments.
Honestly, I can't say I'm super happy with any of our choices at the wing positions, though if either Hairston or Williams turns out to be something like the next Kelenna Azubuike then I might be able to swallow it a little more. If I were to settle in a rotation, I'd probably want Hill as my backup point, Hairston/Williams as my wing, and Haislip as my big. This is of course assuming the ideal situations in terms of development and playing to potential. Realistically, I'm going to say we'll start with Hill, Mason, and Bonner. I'm sure Pop will figure it all out as the season goes along, but I don't see him getting really far into his bench. While the Spurs do have a large degree of versatility, they're still hindered by the amount of defensive presence they can put into the paint, if that becomes a huge issue, Ratliff will be seeing more minutes than anyone had really anticipated.

I cannot wait for the season to start. While the roster isn't ideal, I see potential. I trust Buford to make the right move if we have to make one.