Thursday, September 30, 2010

The need at the wings and Greg Popovich's 3-man rotations

So most of the Spurs blogs I'm reading are currently talking about what to do about our wing situation.  Most will probably ask the question: "Who will replace Bruce Bowen?".  And while I understand the question from a skill-set perspective, I don't necessarily think that broad and simple question really addresses the needs that we really have.  If you haven't already, read the nice prediction post at 48minutes, because they succinctly sum up all the wing players currently at Spurs training camp.  I'm not here to talk about that.  I'm here to address the more fundamental question of what exactly we need, at the wings.

I'm not really an expert on the game of basketball, but I believe that the specific breakdown between SG and SF was created by the game's developers for a reason.  Granted we often use the term "wings" rather broadly sweeping both positions under the rug, but I think in this situation we need to get specific.  In regards to our closers we have an SG in Manu Ginobili and an SF in Richard Jefferson.  While Manu is, well Manu, we don't look to him for lockdown defensive prowess simply because we need his energy for the offensive end, and that suits us just fine, so long as he's decent to above average defensively, which he is.  From last season's showing, most of us are probably more than a little disappointed with Richard Jefferson, and by now (at age 30) we really can't expect him to develop into that Bruce Bowen-esque mold of defensive, 3-point shooting small forward.  So what do we need?  Well, ideally, it's someone who can slide between SG and SF comfortably, defending multiple positions (that's his primary job) while hitting those open corner spot up threes (that's his secondary job).  Someone that can, in our current situation, play next to both Jefferson and Ginobili.  In 1999 that was Jaren Jackson (next to Mario Elie and Sean Elliott) in 2003 that was Stephen Jackson (next to Bowen and Ginobili) in 2005, well 2005 was kind of a weird year, but we can use that as an analog as well, and in 2007 we had Michael Finley.

Ideally, we'd want someone like another Stephen Jackson, underrated passing and ball-handling ability, decent 3-point shooting.  Currently, we don't have anyone in particular super comfortable with that role, while George Hill is our touted defensive specialist, he can't guard the bigger players, making him more of a combo-guard defensive specialist similar to the mold of Kirk Hinrich or Delonte West.  While an ideal Bruce Bowen replacement may be someone like Tayshaun Prince or Shane Battier, I don't know that we can readily get them as we don't really have any assets worth trading (that I personally am comfortable parting with to match salaries for said players).  Okay, I wrote a bunch of stuff and I want to make sure everyone is still following me.

Historically, Pop has had the most success platooning three players across two positions, leveraging more versatile players to maintain the system that has driven the Spurs into the postseason.  However, what this requires is a player that can play across two positions.  From 1999 through 2003 Pop used an exclusive big man rotation of Tim Duncan, David Robinson, and Malik Rose.  This worked simply because Duncan could slide to C whenever Rose entered the game and then Robinson naturally played C, so any combination of 2 out of the 3 worked, because Tim Duncan is a PF that can play C (or as Kelly Dwyer puts it: a C that can play PF).  In 2005 in the Finals, Pop went with the rotation of Duncan, Nazr Mohammed, and Robert Horry.  While in 2007 Pop expanded the rotation to four players, if you considered Fabricio Oberto and Francisco Elson as the two-headed center that most did, it still kind of counted as three.  We're talking about wings here though.  Well, the best examples I've already given above: Jaren Jackson, Stephen Jackson, and Michael Finley.  Later we tried Keith Bogans and Ime Udoka, but they didn't work too well.  So the question remains, are there such players left in the league?  Well Stephen Jackson obviously still plays, and he's doing what we want him to do, just for a different team.  I think if you look hard enough, you'll find these players, players with the size and length to compete with bigger SFs but also the footwork to contest quicker SGs.  Here are my following wants, and please note, these aren't necessarily realistic possibilities, but I think they'd be great fits next to Jefferson and Ginobili:

Wilson Chandler (6-8, 220 lbs, currently on Knicks roster)
When Wilson Chandler first came into the scene, he was heralded as thus: "Renaldo Balkman with a jump shot", mainly because Isaiah Thomas drafted him a year after he drafted Balkman, another 6-8, 210 lb forward.  Both hustle on defense, while not with the effectiveness perhaps of Bruce Bowen (though I don't know that there would be a lot of players who would have that), he's done a decent job and has also developed a long range game, boasting a decently respectable 30.8% career 3pt shooting percentage.  While significantly lower than Bowen's career 39.3% if we go into the shooting breakdown, Chandler's shooting percentage was impaired by his inability to hit wing 3s.  However, from the right corner he was shooting a nice 43.5% and a decent 30.6% from the left last season for a combined 35.6% from either corner.  In his previous season he shot a nice 37.9% from the corners, 40.5% from the right and 36.1% from the left.  I attribute this dropoff to a confusion in his role, especially with Danilo Gallinari being healthy and throwing Chandler around the roster.  Chandler is also known for being able to finish strong at the rim finding most of his shots right at the basket, so he definitely fits the younger and more athletic mold.

Kelenna Azubuike (6-5, 220 lbs, currently on Knicks roster)
Azubuike is another one of those D-League call-up success stories.  He's strong, athletic and finishes strong at the rim.  While probably not the best defender in the league by any stretch, nor even one of the better ones possibly, he's stalwart and works hard to defend his man.  After Baron Davis fled the Bay Area for sunny LA, Azubuike started to see a lot more playing time and he did much with it.  He is a career 40.9% 3 point shooter and only his mid-range game seems really suspect.  Since he was injured much of last season, let's look to the season before, where he shot over 40% on all 3 point zones.  While he seems to favor the left wing, he did shoot a combined 44.4% from the corners on a total of 54 attempts.  While he's a little shorter than many SFs, he has the size and strength to compete with the best of them.  If you're tracking my Spurs history analogs, think of him as a better Devin Brown or a more athletic Jaren Jackson.

Martell Webster (6-7, 235 lbs, currently on Timberwolves roster)
Webster was credited as one of the defensive specialists in Portland, playing excellent defense against Kobe Bryant during Lakers games.  Then, to make room for youngster Nicolas Batum, he was traded to the Timberwolves.  He also is credited with being a very streaky shooter.  He's fairly athletic and good at keeping with opposing wings.  As for his shooting, well, he is also something of a 3 point specialist finding a large majority of his shots from beyond the arc, and showing a decent 37.3% career 3-point shooting percentage.  Last season, he found a degree of success from the corners, nailing 40% from the right and 37.6% from the left, making him a viable threat from either corner at a combined 38.6% over 140 shots.

Dorrell Wright (6-9, 210 lbs, currently on Warriors roster)
Wright isn't a very realistic possibility as the Warriors just brought him in this season, for something we like in him, that is: defense.  He's long, and he's decent defensively, was slated as potentially the SF to play next to Dwayne Wade, but a series of injuries bogged him down and then he got stuck behind Michael Beasley and Shawn Marion on the depth chart.  Career-wise he's a 34.4% 3 point shooter.  Last season he shot 38.9% overall from beyond the arc, including 41.8% from the corners (39% from the left, 43.9% from the right on a total of 98 attempts).  He got almost half of his looks from the corners so, it's a pretty good fit I would say.

DeShawn Stevenson (6-5, 218 lbs, currently on Mavericks roster)
Stevenson really is more of an SG, so how well he'd fare against bigger SF players is questionable, but he was the defensive specialist on a Wizards squad that did decently.  Since Stevenson was traded and in limbo last season, and injured for much of the season prior, we jump all the way back to 2007-2008 for some of the metrics.  From the left corner he shot a decent 31.4% from the right a blistering 50%, combined that's 40.8% from the corners on 103 attempts.  As a side note, he also shot 40.3% on 243 attempts for his wing 3s.  While not entirely analogous, he did do this playing with the Wizards Big 3 of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antawn Jamison, granted, for a lot of that season, one of them was always injured.

Sasha Pavlovic (6-7, 235 lbs, currently free agent)
For metrics on Pavlovic, I'm going to have to go back to when he had solid rotation minutes, which was basically 2006-2007 when as the starting SG he helped the Cavs make it all the way to the NBA Finals.  Of his noted accomplishments that season, the premier was playing excellent defense against Vince Carter in the first round of the Playoffs against the Nets.  That year he hit 38.2% of his corner 3s, though mostly from the left as he only hit 27.3% of his right corner threes.  Career wise he's a respectable 35.2% 3 point shooter, and does a decent job of getting to the rim. 

Anthony Parker (6-6, 210 lbs, currently on Cavaliers roster)
Parker was once the second option behind Chris Bosh on the Raptors.  Oftentimes he drew the most difficult defensive assignments there too, and while he didn't shut anyone down, he did as admirable a job as anyone could have hoped for.  Parker is also known for his long range touch.  Last season playing behind Delonte West Parker shot 41.4% from beyond the arc which closely correlates to his career average of 41.5% long range.  If we break it down Parker definitely favors the corners, taking 167 shots (of his season total of 261 3 point attempts and 475 total FG attempts) from there, hitting 44.9% of his corner threes.  Having worked with Mike Brown, a former Greg Popovich man, I'd say he would fit into the system pretty well.

While we could laud the likes of Josh Childress or Thabo Sefalosha, I don't know how entirely realistic or cost effective it would be to land the likes of said players.  I'm sure there are a lot more players out there that warrant our attention on this matter, but I'm just raising the issue of what I think our roster needs at the wing currently are.  If someone we have now steps up and fills that gap I'll be happy, but until then, we need to find a way to fit somebody around Manu and Jefferson, as it stands, I don't know that we have that somebody.  A lot of people think it'll be a combination of young talent and older folks, some combination of Alonzo Gee, James Anderson, and Bobby Simmons.  Hey, if it works, then it works.  We all agree this guy has to be a defensive specialist, we all agree he needs to be able to hit corner threes, I think we can all agree we're not going to find the next coming of Bruce Bowen, Richard Jefferson certainly isn't, and isn't going to be, but if Jefferson is to be our SF for better or worse at this point, let's compromise a little and meet in the middle.  If we take our last successful roster wing rotation of primarily Finley, Ginobili, and Bowen, and figure out who that third guy is going to be this season next to Ginobili and Jefferson, let's try this: better than Finley on defense and better than Bowen on offense, that's not so bad now is it?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Making those matchups: Dallas Mavericks

As long as I can remember there's always been some contention between Dallas and San Antonio, and despite Dallas's penchant for fading during the Playoffs (see 2006 and 2007 seasons) they are a legitimately good team.  There's no question about it.  I may be a little biased, but I personally still think that the trend (since 1996) no team from the Western Conference not called the Lakers or Spurs will win a championship.  I frankly don't think any of the Western Conference teams have what it takes.  Certainly OKC Thunder are up there, but that's another post for another time.  Dallas, while a good team, especially in the regular season, has failed to prove its mettle in the postseason.  That being said, it was Dallas that ousted us from the playoffs in 2009, in the first round no less. Unprecedented!

Anyways, the Dallas roster looks something like this:

PG: Jason Kidd, Jose Juan Barea, Rodrigue Beaubois
SG: Caron Butler, Jason Terry, DeShawn Stevenson
SF: Shawn Marion
PF: Dirk Nowitzki
C: Brendan Haywood, Tyson Chandler, Alexis Ajinca, Ian Mahinmi

Matched up against our own little roster of:

PG: Tony Parker, George Hill, Curtis Jerrells
SG: Manu Ginobili, Alonzo Gee, Garrett Temple, James Anderson
SF: Richard Jefferson
PF: Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner
C: Tiago Splitter

Since Tim Thomas decided to care for his ailing wife rather than play another season for the Mavericks, the Mavericks effectively are thin in the PF department.  Granted Dirk is going to sop up most of the minutes anyways, it'll be interesting to see how Rick Carlisle will work around that.  I personally see a platoon of Marion, Chandler, and maybe even Mahinmi/Ajinca behind Dirk depending on the matchups, but Dallas has the unique dilemma of being overly backcourt-heavy.  What do I mean by this?  Dallas has 5 starting caliber players at the PG, SG, and SF slots (if you recall DeShawn Stevenson was a starter, so yes I am counting him), plus the young emerging talents of J.J. Barea and Rodruige Beaubois and there definitely aren't enough minutes to go around for all the players that want to.  The addition of Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler definitely give Dallas the interior presence that Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop didn't in previous years.

Overall, the main issue with this matchup is containing Dirk and exploiting mismatches due to Dallas's awkward rotations.  Basically, my strategy remains essentially the same, attack Jason Kidd on the defensive end.  When Kidd is on the floor, he has to guard somebody, be it Jefferson, Parker, or Ginobili, whoever has Kidd guarding him on defense, he just has to keep attacking.  We all know that Kidd isn't stopping anyone anytime soon, so that's the kink in the armor.  Of course with the likes of Brandon Haywood and Tyson Chandler patrolling the paint, there is a more legitimate shot blocking presence than Erick Dampier, so that's something.  That being said, Caron Butler isn't really comfortable as an SG and Shawn Marion is just not comfortable on the court much anymore, still, we shouldn't be comfortable, the Mavericks are still a legitimate threat and good team, good enough to knock us out of the playoffs again if we're not at our top game.  Here's to hoping Dirk sees a bit of time at center, especially since I don't relish the fact that we have to contain so many offensive weapons (Dirk, Butler, Terry, at the very least), while I like the matchup overall, it's not one I particularly look forward to immensely.  Still all-in-all, I think we have a good shot.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Making those matcups: Los Angeles Lakers

If HoopsHype is fairly accurate the current roster list consists of:

PG: Tony Parker, George Hill, Curtis Jerrells
SG: Manu Ginobili, Garrett Temple, Alonzo Gee, James Anderson, Gary Neal
SF: Richard Jefferson
PF: Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess, Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair
C: Tiago Splitter

The essential core of the roster, I think will be Parker, Ginobili, Duncan, Jefferson, Splitter, Hill, McDyess, and Blair/Bonner.  I'm not so certain about Temple, Gee, and Anderson, but I think they have a shot at making the rotation.  Nonetheless, it's a solid lineup, but every team (except maybe Minnesota) has been beefing up.  So essentially, let's consider who we have to be afraid of, or in other words, which teams will give us the most trouble, and maybe a few teams that won't.


Los Angeles Lakers

Naturally, when you're in the same conference as the reigning NBA champs, you have to fear the NBA champs.  I believe that the Lakers roster looks as follows:

PG: Steve Blake, Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar
SG: Kobe Bryant, Sasha Vujacic
SF: Ron Artest, Matt Barnes, Luke Walton
PF: Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom
C: Andrew Bynum, Theo Ratliff

This team is essentially the same as last season.  However, rumors are abounding about how after playing through all his hand injuries, his hand is now irreparable, but of course, everyone was noting how he ended up shooting better, I don't know that that's indicative of anything other than maybe Kobe's taking better shots because he knows he can't take as many, who knows?  Anyways, you can argue that the team has been somewhat upgraded, Steve Blake is essentially a white, right-handed, slightly younger Derek Fisher, a sound, safe ball-handler that can hit threes.  He's no stalwart on defense, but of course, he doesn't have the contract of Kirk Hinrich or the mental issues of Delonte West, all in all a good pickup.  Likewise, Matt Barnes is dogged on defense, less the craziness, sort of, but hey, he's solid.  He's a good defender, shoots the three, basically everything you want from one of the wings outside the triangle.  The addition of Ratliff adds a legitimate defensive big man outside of the Bynum, Gasol, Odom frontcourt trio.

As usual, the entire scariness of the Lakers (outside of Kobe) depends first on the healthiness of Andrew Bynum, secondly on the dominance of Pau Gasol, thirdly on the performance of Lamar Odom, and lastly their concentration in running Phil Jackson's triangle offense.

A healthy Bynum gives the Lakers a monstrous starting front court, but the bonus is that Bynum and Gasol don't necessarily fit into the triangle together as well as everyone thinks they should.  Nonetheless, a Bynum/Gasol frontcourt cannot be called anything except scary.  Should we be as scared as everyone else though?  Fortunately, now with Splitter added into the mix, we do have the size to compete.  As Splitter develops NBA size into his body, he is used to guarding those versatile European big men a la Pau Gasol.  While Euroleague hasn't thrown talent like Gasol at Splitter, the familiarity of the style is there.  Perhaps a switch of Splitter on Gasol and Duncan on the bigger Bynum.

To me, a on par Lamar Odom is a bigger issue.  Odom has the size of a PF but the ball-handling and versatility of a wing player.  Overall, he's just a handful, and frankly, I'm not entirely certain we have anyone with the size and/or versatility to really defend him.  No one really had the potential since Marcus Haislip, and obviously, Pop didn't think Haislip didn't have what it took.  He'll be a handful, but then, hopefully the additional presence in the paint of Splitter with Duncan might be sufficient help to throw Odom off his game.  It'll all be about rotations, and pressuring Odom into difficult jump-shots, which he doesn't like, or rather, isn't that great at.

There's no doubt that perimeter defense needs to improve, but hopefully with the improved interior defense that will come naturally.  The Lakers remain scary simply because they have 2 viable starters at three different positions, while superficially the Lakers haven't changed a whole lot, the added depth (which was always the weakness of the Lakers), especially at the pivot, the point, and the SF slots, really ease the workload if they all fit into their respective spots correctly.  While I do like the backcourt trio of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and George Hill, the lack of continued proven depth at the guard spots somewhat worries me.  Hopefully additions of Garrett Temple, Alonzo Gee, and James Anderson alleviate some of that concern.  Naturally, a lot of our hopes lies on Richard Jefferson figuring himself out, determining where and how he'll fit into everything.  It's still early to tell, but I personally don't really like our chances against the Lakers, but I'd have to say we have a better shot than most if it does come down to it.

Spurs can't regret off-season decisions

I decided to write this quick post after reading some excellent posts on 48minutesofhell.  The first was one about how Luis Scola is absolutely dominating in the FIBA world championships, and thereby rubbing in the Spurs faces their off-season for trading his draft rights to the Rockets after 5 years of waiting.  The second was another article regarding how the age-old Spurs tradition of finding solid role players (think Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, Fabricio Oberto, Malik Rose, Steve Kerr, Matt Bonner, etc...) to fit around the stars (think Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, or David Robinson), and how it doesn't work anymore.  I think both articles are on point, but they really should be taken more as a grain of salt moving forward and how to do so more so than a scathing review on how R.C. Buford screwed up because Scola finally decided to come to the NBA in 2008.  Sure, Scola is better than Splitter, and maybe Splitter doesn't have the star potential, but it's what we have.

I lived in California for a couple of years and if you want off-season or draft miscues you need look no further than the Golden State Warriors.  Don't believe me?  Ask any W fan, they know this by heart.  At least the Spurs scouted the talent, they just couldn't wait.  Warriors fans are still cringing at the 1995 draft, and that was 15 years ago, for taking Joe Smith before Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, and Kevin Garnett.  That's 3 All-Stars that were taken after a journeyman.  Todd Fuller was taken a year later over the likes of Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, that's two MVPs taken after a guy I frankly have never heard of before until I researched this.  There will always be regrets, but that's the risk we all take going into the draft.  In 1999, no one thought that the New York Knicks had a prayer without Patrick Ewing, but they made it to the finals.  Let's not count anyone out yet.  We may not have the best team on paper, but that doesn't mean we can't go all the way.  There's always a chance, and while it's slimmer, it's a chance I'm willing to root for.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Someone for Richard Jefferson to Emulate

I know I've said this a lot before, and I'll say continue to say it.  We all know that Richard Jefferson isn't going to be much of a defensive specialist a la Bruce Bowen.  He's not going to be shutting anyone down and gaining the reputation of his contemporaries in Tayshaun Prince, Shane Battier, or Ron Artest, let alone the all around two-way talent of the likes of Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace (perhaps even John Salmons).  On the flip side, his offense is waning and he cannot be expected to rely on his athleticism as of old to get to the rim at will like he used to.  If we go back to Spurs championship formulas of old I think it's relatively unrealistic to think that Jefferson, at this point in time, will ever develop the court-saavy of Bruce Bowen, or somehow develop the ball-handling capabilities of Stephen Jackson.  As dismal as Jefferson's performance was last season, we can still use it as a kind of baseline:

12.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks, on 46.7% shooting and 31.6% from beyond the arc in 31.1 minutes of play.

Way shy of his previous season in Milwaukee of 19.6 PPG and the season prior in New Jersey of 22.6 PPG, Jefferson does have the unenviable position of moving from becoming a key cog in the offensive rotation to more of a role-player.  Seeing his shot attempts drop from 16.2 to 14.9 to 9.6 season after season, though it wasn't the result we were looking for, it's not totally unreasonable for him to have struggled to fit into as complex an offense as Greg Popovich's.  It may not be the most perfect analog but I think a former Spur that Richard Jefferson would do well to emulate is Sean Elliott.  We look at Elliott, and at age 30 (which Jefferson is at now), when they won a championship in 1999, Elliott had comparable numbers:

11.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.3 blocks, on 41.0% shooting and 32.8% from beyond the arc in 30.2 minutes of play.

Okay, so the numbers are similar, Elliott used to be a 20 PPG contributor as well, until Duncan came along.  How did Elliott adapt?  During the 1999 Finals, Duncan and Robinson dominated I would say almost 3/4 of the possessions, but Elliott was a key part of that success, how did he do it?  Firstly, Sean Elliott started with picking his shots.  The offense is a constant motion, and while Elliott doesn't put up flashy numbers, he made some crucial shots.  That requires quick split second decisions on taking the shot or throwing it back into the paint.  Secondly, Elliott got aggressive on defense, I know he wasn't the stalwart that teammate Mario Elie was, but he worked hard at it, being aggressive on the perimeter and hounding the ball-handlers on the wing.  Sure maybe it was because you had two massive shot-blockers in Robinson and Duncan patrolling the paint, but I would also like to believe that someone who alters shots as well as Tiago Splitter will help Jefferson be aggressive as well.  Jefferson ultimately needs to learn to move without the ball and make those quick decisions when he does get it.  Sean Elliott, Mr. Jefferson, emulate Sean Elliott.