Tuesday, February 9, 2010

To Tank or Not to Tank?

I can hardly believe that I'm actually writing this about the Spurs, but if you haven't already, please read Adrian Wojnarowski's column about Richard Jefferson and then Tim Varner's take on the need for chemistry. Once you do that, you can understand the gravity of this question, and the seriousness with which I present it. I grant, the Spurs have not been excluded from a playoff since drafting Tim Duncan in 1997, with winds of fortune landing the Spurs the first overall pick in the wake of a dismal season behind a season-ending foot injury to All-Star David Robinson. I guess you can say that's something of a similar situation, but I don't know that I'd completely parallel it. Honestly, I have no idea of what to really look for in the draft beyond what I read on the internet. Therefore, I can't really say that I have a comprehensive knowledge about who to take, in fact, the only name that I vaguely recognize is John Wall, and that's because he was supposed to be in the draft last year if it weren't for the 1 year rule. Honestly, I don't know if it's globalization or the fact that the Spurs have been so successful, but I've been somewhat disillusioned with the draft in years past, despite there being some tremendous talent, I don't see them falling to the Spurs, unless it's another windfall somehow, which the conspirator theorist in me says David Stern would never allow happen, the Spurs haven't really done anything in the draft for a while. If we trace back to since Duncan, here are the Spurs' picks:

1997: Tim Duncan (F/C, 1st overall pick)
1998: Felipe Lopez (SG, 24th overall pick, traded to Grizzlies for Antonio Daniels), Derrick Dial (SG, 52nd overall pick)
1999: Leon Smith (PF, 29th overall pick), Manu Ginobili (SG, 57th overall pick)
2000: Chris Carrawell (PF, 41st overall pick), Cory Hightower (G, 54th overall pick, traded to Lakers for 2 future picks)
2001: Tony Parker (PG, 29th overall pick), Robert Javtokas (C, 56th overall pick), Bryan Bracey (SF, 58th overall pick)
2002: John Salmons (G/F, 26th overall pick, traded for Speedy Claxton), Luis Scola (PF, 55th overall pick, traded for Vassilis Spanoulis), Randy Holcomb (PF, 56th overall pick, traded for Speedy Claxton)
2003: Leandro Barbosa (SG, 28th overall pick, traded for future pick),
2004: Romain Sato (SG, 52nd overall pick), Sergei Karaulov (C, 57th overall pick)
2005: Ian Mahinmi (F/C, 28th overall pick)
2006: Damir Markota (F, 59th overall pick)
2007: Tiago Splitter (F/C, 28th overall pick), Marcus Williams (F, 33rd overall pick), Georgios Printezis (F, 58th overall pick, traded to Toronto for future pick)
2008: George Hill (G, 26th overall pick), Goran Dragic (G, 45th overall pick, traded to Phoenix), James Gist (F, 57th overall pick)
2009: DeJuan Blair (PF, 37th overall pick), Jack McClinton (SG, 51st overall pick), Nando de Colo (PG, 53rd overall pick)

The jury is still out on George Hill and DeJuan Blair, but generally I like what we're seeing out of them, but I don't think they'll be difference makers. If I were to compare them to previous Spurs players I'd say they're closest to probably Mario Elie and Malik Rose, great role players, but not much beyond that. The fact that I only recognize a handful of the names is pretty disappointing, and honestly I really don't expect a knockout pick every year in the draft. However, after about 27 picks over the past 12 drafts or so, there have to be more than just 3 impact players on the team somehow. We're never going to get a steal like Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker again, but I can't say that we've done enough with the picks that we have had to be able to say we've done a good job about it. The most notable names outside of Ginobili and Parker were traded away: John Salmons, Luis Scola, and Leandro Barbosa. Maybe I'm reading too much into this but I no longer have much confidence in our drafting an impact rookie that will make the difference we'll need. We're still waiting out on Tiago Splitter, considered one of the premier centers in the European league, because we don't want what happened with Luis Scola and Leandro Barbosa to happen all over again, that is, have their rights traded and then come into the league and become studs.

Okay, so why am I going about this? Well, obviously, it means we have to retool our roster somehow, in some way, in some form. I grant that if next season we can get Tiago Splitter to enter the NBA, and his game translates half as well as what we've heard and expect, then Spurs have once again a frontcourt that can compete and contend night in and night out. However, in order for a successful retooling of the Spurs roster it takes an understanding of what the Spurs need. I agree with Pop and Tim Varner that chemistry is important, we can't just try to find the most talented guys and throw them around Timmy and hope for the best, the team has to gel play well together on the hardwood. Honestly, I can't say I know enough about the personality of the players to say who would meld well with the system, with each other, with Pop. Now I can name a list of players that Spurs are likely not going to get that I would've loved to see Duncan mentor, names like Al Horford or LaMarcus Aldridge or even Emeka Okafor, but the Spurs weren't and likely aren't going to get a top 5 pick. I can't say that I have anything I can hoist out of my brain and into the Trade Machine, and so while I know this probably isn't really doing much to remedy the situation, it's my analysis of it, and maybe you can come up with something.
Wow, that was a pretty hefty preface to this, but I think a necessary one. Now, before we rail on RC Buford and throw out suggestions, I recommend we look at the needs that the Spurs have been trying to address in this past off-season. Basically it can be summed up as: younger and more athletic. To address this need the moves made were thus: trading Kurt Thomas, Fabricio Oberto, and Bruce Bowen for Richard Jefferson, drafting DeJuan Blair, signing Marcus Haislip, Keith Bogans, Antonio McDyess, Marcus Williams, Malik Hairston, and Theo Ratliff. Were we successful? Well, I'd say generally, the Spurs achieved their goals, they got younger, while still retaining a veteran core. However, I don't think we can really ascertain the success of the off-season via how well the front office filled some general needs.

So what exactly did the Spurs need? Well, I've kind of gone over this before, but the needs for Pop's system are fairly simple, a wing defender, preferably one that can hit threes, and an shot-blocking presence in the paint. At the beginning of the season I was willing to say that the Spurs had foregone the latter in pursuit of the former. What do I mean by that? Well, the focus was more on getting that wing player to replace Bruce Bowen, than that shot blocker to play next to Tim Duncan. While I don't think the additions of McDyess and Ratliff are insignificant, I don't see them as the difference makers, the improvement over Kurt Thomas is I feel, marginal at best. Therefore, the obviously large acquisition of the off-season was the bolstering of the wings in Richard Jefferson, and to some degree the signing of Keith Bogans.

So now that we have this bloated backcourt rotation what's the deal? Shouldn't we be incredibly deep? It hardly seems the case as the Spurs stumble into the All-Star break barely taking the 6th seed in the West with a barely respectable 29-20 record. What's going on? I think I might blame part of the fact that there are at least 7 players (Parker, Ginobili, Hill, Bogans, Mason, Jefferson, and Finley) vying for playing time at 3 spots (PG, SG, SF), this isn't counting the D-Leaguers Malik Hairston and Marcus Williams, and the potentiality of playing Marcus Haislip as a tweener forward. Normally, that doesn't seem like too bad of a depth chart, but the fact of the matter is, the entire system gets screwy because Pop uses them all fairly interchangeably, especially once you get past Parker and Ginobili. It's probably not as uncommon as we'd like to see four of the above named players on the floor at the same time. This raises two issues:

1) Learning the chemistry of various rotations, which I suppose should be expected of players of this caliber

2) Lack of a specified role. The best example of this is George Hill. Is he supposed to be a defensive specialist? a backup point guard? I'm not really sure anymore. From all appearances, he appears more the former than the latter, something along the mold of Delonte West.

Beyond this simple issue is the fact that no one outside of Parker and Ginobili are really super effective at creating offense, either for themselves let alone for the rest of the team. Hill has had some success, but Jefferson at the very least has been a major disappointment. Part of it I think is that he's thinking and trying too hard, and not really playing in his game. He's tense because of the pressure, probably, at least that's my guess, I honestly can't say. As well as Bogans has been playing defense, as much promise as George Hill is, as nice as Roger Mason's shot is, to be honest the only facilitators in the backcourt still remain Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. You could argue that this is a backcourt comparable to the 2003 championship team, where Bogans and Jefferson are likened to Bruce Bowen and Stephen Jackson respectively. While Bogans is the defender that can hit threes, and it's irrelevant whether he's actually as good as Bowen was, there remains a crucial flaw in the comparison: the difference between Stephen Jackson and Richard Jefferson. For all his foibles, there is one thing that Jackson was and still is that Jefferson isn't and won't be, and that was painfully obvious when they faced off in the 2003 Finals: Jackson is very underrated as a play-maker and passer. At best I find Jefferson to be something akin to a Vince Carter that can't/doesn't pass, he's an aggressive finisher that can become instant offense, but once he loses even that, he's just a behemoth contract that has some flashy plays and dunks here and there. Jefferson needs to find his game again, he needs to find that aggressiveness from his time with Jason Kidd. While he's not going to get the easy cuts and flashy looks that Kidd would've gotten him, he's a player that's good enough that he can do it with the likes of playmakers like Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan. This was Buford's answer to the issue of athleticism in the wings, and it was the wrong one, so far. I don't know that I've completely given up on Jefferson yet, but, he's got a lot of work to do turn the whole thing around. It'd be a wonderful Cinderella story.

The second issue that wasn't, I feel, as aptly addressed by the front office was the issue of who plays next to Tim Duncan. The general consensus is that if Duncan can have a legit 7-foot, shot-blocking presence next to him, then the frontcourt is solid. Duncan of course had the luxury of playing with the legendary David Robinson for the first 5 years of his career, albeit an aging, declining, post-injury Robinson, that doesn't make him any less legendary, and in the meanwhile, earned two championships. Now why were the Twin Towers so fearsome? It was perhaps because they were the most complete inside-outside big men in the entire league. Either could hit mid-range jumpers and thereby spread the defense allowing the other isolate in the low post. During those years, Popovich was content to leave the rotation to Duncan, Robinson, and Malik Rose, however in later years after the retirement of The Admiral, only one of the Twin Towers remained. To compensate, RC Buford acquired the veteran services of Robert Horry to fill in the holes in the offense. Added for his defense, rebounding, and hustle was Nazr Mohammed, who later was replaced with the serviceable all-around play of Francisco Elson as well as the smart passing of Fabricio Oberto. While I believe that Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair are overall more attractive players than Nazr Mohammed, Francisco Elson, and Fabricio Oberto, they both lack something the latter three have: height. As good as McDyess and Blair are, they will never be shotblocking deterrents in the paint, ultimately, in the system, they don't prove to be a significant improvement over Kurt Thomas. I still find the rotation next to Duncan of McDyess, Blair, and Bonner to be inferior to that of Elson, Oberto, and Horry. While I think Ratliff helps a little, I get the feeling he's more of an insurance signing than anything else. Additionally, as the gambles on Mahinmi and Haislip both haven't panned out, the somewhat lateral movement in the direction of the frontcourt does nothing to mitigate the advancing age of Duncan.

If we could somehow land a big man that could make plays like Duncan and Robinson did, we can get away with not having another playmaker in the wings. However, the essential thing is finding that other playmaker, which is difficult, unless Jefferson pans out. Especially as the minutes of Duncan and Ginobili will continue to be limited due to age. I don't necessarily believe that flushing out our backcourt will bring us a viable solution, I believe we do need some more structure there, unfortunately there really isn't anyone right now outside of Parker and Ginobili that Pop seems to be able to trust outside of spot situations. I'm still firmly of the belief that the frontcourt situation needs to be addressed and remedied, and while I have no doubt of Antonio McDyess's work ethic, desire, or ability, I don't necessarily see him as a the answer to the problems. Of course, given the current assets that are available for trade it's also difficult to ascertain a workable solution. The most obvious answer is to search for a team trying do a firesale and ultimately pick up something along those lines. However, that will be costly in the long run. Ultimately I feel our most worthwhile trade assets are the expiring contracts of Michael Finley, Roger Mason, Matt Bonner, and if necessary Manu Ginobili. Like most Spurs fans I'm fairly reticent about trading Ginobili, unless we get a big man that is a playmaker, and I believe maybe Buford is holding out for Tiago Splitter. Therefore, if we limit it to expiring contracts, throwing in the possibility of Hill, Hairston, and Williams, what can be had doesn't seem like a whole lot. Some have mentioned the possibility of taking on Corey Maggette's contract with the possibility of snatching up the high potential of Anthony Randolph. I'm not entirely against that, but it's a matter of what's being given up. I don't doubt Maggette's abilities as a pure scorer possibly rate up there as much as Jefferson's, but it's been said he's a poor shooter of corner threes and I'm not convinced of his defense or playmaking beyond trying to shoot free throws on every possession. Since we're not giving up Jefferson for Maggette, the comparison is irrelevant. It's got it's merits, Randolph is a very high reward player whose rookie per 36 numbers rivaled David Robinson's, and I believe with Duncan's guidance, could become a great player, but I don't know that it might make the immediate difference. Honestly, I don't have a solution, something of a patch may help, but is it worth the sacrifice of future budget flexibility? Perhaps Brendan Haywood or perhaps Andray Blatche from the Wizards could be had for expiring contracts? Is Marcus Camby available from the Clippers (I doubt it but maybe)? Jeff Foster or Troy Murphy? I'm really just kind of floundering for ideas here, but something has to change, it could be as easy as Jefferson finding his game, or as drastic as trading Ginobili, but it needs to happen fast if Spurs don't want to be faced with the ugly decision of trying their luck again in the draft.

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