Thursday, December 30, 2010

Is the roster good enough as is?

The Spurs currently hold the league best 27-4 record.  With four losses coming from New Orleans, Dallas, Los Angeles Clippers, and Orlando, and having beaten each of the previously mentioned teams previously save Dallas, who they will play tonight.  Obviously, we're doing something right.  Gregg Popovich obviously has come up with something that is effective and gets the job done, changing the identity of the Spurs from the traditional grind-it-out defensive squad to a run-and-gun offensive nightmare.  Tim Duncan, like his predecessor, David Robinson, before him, has ceded the keys of the franchise to his long-time partners Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, letting the game flow through them rather than himself.  R.C. Buford has surrounded his Big 3 with a more than solid supporting cast, snagging young talent like George Hill, DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, and Gary Neal, as well as adding the veteran savvy of the likes of Antonio McDyess, and retaining the ever serviceable shooting of Matt Bonner.  Richard Jefferson took the time to work in the off-season with the coaching staff, and looks completely rejuvenated and a stellar fit in the Spurs' new look with the same feel, another championship contender.

Is this enough though?  Currently the Spurs have 13 players on their roster, and Pop is making fair use of all 13 of them due to injury troubles to George Hill, James Anderson, and earlier, Tiago Splitter.  Typically, Pop has preferred, especially in playoffs, the truncated 9-10 man rosters.  Essentially running a 3-4 man front-court and a 3-4 man wing rotation with a 2 point guard system.  With the high performance of the young guns (Hill, Blair, Neal) it can't be said that the Spurs are lacking in depth.  I, along with several other fans certainly cannot wait to see the emergence of James Anderson's full potential.  It's true that we currently can't really add anything without taking away from whatever mojo is working for us now, but I can't quite get this nagging feeling out from the back of my head that we could be better.  Granted, anyone we add now may simply be insurance, and perhaps Buford is holding off on tapping the ever generous pockets of the Holts until some kind of injury comes way, or perhaps quite simply there hasn't been anyone that fits well enough.  Since pre-season we've already gone through the likes of Bobby Simmons, Garrett Temple, Alonzo Gee, and Marcus Cousin.  Here's how the breakdown of the depth chart currently looks (presuming everyone is healthy):

PG - Tony Parker, George Hill, Chris Quinn
SG - Manu Ginobili, Gary Neal
SF - Richard Jefferson, James Anderson, Ime Udoka
PF - DeJuan Blair, Antonio McDyess, Matt Bonner
C - Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter

Immediately, the first and second unit kind of take shape, and frankly, they look pretty good.  The return of James Anderson will instantly put Ime Udoka out of anything except situational play, and it's hard to figure there will be any more playing time to the already highly regulated frontcourt, at least in terms of minutes.  While I'm still not a huge fan of James Anderson at SF (though I admit, from the few times I've seen him play, he certainly has the strength and athleticism to make it work), Gary Neal has been playing too well to not have him play.  Neal has easily taken the role of instant offense off the bench, in the molds of Jarren Jackson, Steve Kerr, Brent Barry, and/or Roger Mason, with his nice shooting touch, as well as his continually impressive overall play.  In any given game 12 suit up, and on that list, currently, only James Anderson is not active, due to injury.  However, when he recovers, as I previously stated, Ime Udoka no longer needs to dress for games.  I know Pop always likes to have a backup-backup point guard option; Antonio Daniels behind Steve Kerr, Steve Kerr behind Speedy Claxton, Jacque Vaughn behind Beno Udrih, etc... and here, that's Chris Quinn.

So it appears to me, that we have a pretty nice roster, while the names themselves aren't as flashy as say the depth in Boston, you certainly can't knock the front office for any of these moves/additions.  Given that, I think trading anybody is pretty much out of the picture if we were to make any moves.  So, as much as I would like to see the likes of Andray Blatche, JeVale McGee, or Kevin Love in silver and black, it doesn't look like it's happening.  Therefore, if we are to do anything, we are relegated to minimum contracts through free agency.  Certainly, we don't want to jump the gun, but I like options, so even he doesn't even play, I think it's a good opportunity to add some quality pieces.  Worst case scenario, we find a project and assign him to the Toros.  Here's who I think we can take a look at in the free agency pool:

Joe Alexander (6-8, 230 lbs, 24 years old)
Alexander (not to be mistaken with Seinfield star Jason Alexander) is one of those potential projects I was talking about.  An excellent physical specimen, there's no question about Alexander's athleticism.  Boasting a max vertical of 38.5 inches, this guy can get off the ground.  Unfortunately, teams have passed over him due to the lack of polish he has in his game.  However, he has stellar work ethic, and is simply raw, only having played 5 years of organized basketball prior to his stint in the NBA.  Unfortunately, no one has really taken the time or had the patience to work with Alexander on all the little things.  Given his attitude and work ethic, I think he would fit well with the Spurs, adding a great amount of athleticism.  Given how well one off-season sessions worked for the 30 year old Richard Jefferson, what if the Spurs staff took a little bit of time to develop a younger, equally athletic (albeit more raw) version of RJ?  Sure, Alexander doesn't have the 3 point shooting touch that the Spurs desire in their wings, but that can be developed.  It's there, and I think the Spurs would be a great place to tap this burgeoning talent.  We've seen flashes, in 10 games in the D-League he averaged 18.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 1.1 blocks on 48.3% shooting.

Larry Hughes (6-5, 184 lbs, 31 years old)
Hughes kind of got a bad rep for playing so well in Washington then fizzling when the Cleveland Cavaliers signed him to such a lucrative deal.  That being said, Hughes adds one thing in addition to his hot/cold shooting and occasionally brilliant offensive play; ball-handling.  A lot has been said about Hughes's attitude, but how much of it was due to lockerroom leaders like Gilbert Arenas and LeBron James?  How much is just how he is?  Hard to say, perhaps it's enough to keep us away, definitely enough to keep us leery.   Nonetheless, he has the tools to be a solid defender, and offensive initiator.  He'd ultimately have a similar role to Ime Udoka, just a little more versatile though.  Think Roger Mason plus, or a poor man's (real poor man's) Stephen Jackson.  I'm not so keen as to whether Hughes can play the SF spot, primarily, can he guard the bigger stronger 3s in the league, but he would make a suitable George Hill-type 1-2 spot defensive stopper type backup.

Jonathan Bender (7-0, 219 lbs, 29 years old)
Boy, he retired early, but then, he had that mini-comeback with the Knicks last season.  While he certainly hasn't been as great as people have wanted him to be, he's a shooting 7-footer that can guard 3 positions, shooting guard, small forward, power forward,  There aren't a lot of 7-footers that can do that, Jared Jeffries maybe? but Jeffries has no offensive game.  How effective Bender's defense is, I'm not sure, but I'm sure his length can cause difficulties for a lot of players.

While I don't relish the idea of pulling old legs, and would rather see us get some young talent, what's there is there.  There is a high bar set for any role player on the Spurs, from the 3rd quarter heroics of Steve Kerr, to the amicable lockerroom presence of Malik Rose, to the clutchness of Robert Horry, to the intangible presence of Fabricio Oberto.  The Spurs are known to do their homework and are good at seemingly pulling talent out of no where.  It's an effective system, and it works.  Maybe the 14th and 15th roster spots aren't important, maybe I'm overly concerned with the last player on the bench to suit up, to me, better safe than sorry.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Because I can't leave well enough alone...

The internet is a hostile environment, I sometimes forget that.  I'm certainly glad on some levels that Fundamentally Sound doesn't really have enough of a reader base to create this level of controversy, especially among fellow fans of the same team no less.  Now everyone (or maybe just a few very loudly outspoken people) are getting up in arms about one blogger stating his opinion regarding how DeJuan Blair's skill-set as a central low-post offensive machine isn't a great fit with the current optimal lineup that the Spurs want to go with.  Does this mean I think DeJuan Blair is a bad player?  No.  Does this mean I dislike DeJuan Blair as a player?  No.  A lot of people are probably going to point at yesterday's game against Golden State where Blair netted 16 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 steals on 7-15 shooting in over 28 minutes of burn, and tell me that Blair can fit.  First, I think Blair can have good games, even in an ill-fitting system, second, it's against the Warriors, seriously.

I'd like to believe that as a player DeJuan Blair has gotten better over the summer.  His free throws look super smooth, and he looks lean and in very good shape, but if we look at his numbers:

Per game:

2009-10 20 SAS NBA 82 23 18.2 3.4 6 0.556 0 0 0 1.1 2 0.547 2.4 4 6.4 0.8 0.6 0.5 1.4 2.7 7.8
2010-11 21 SAS NBA 17 17 19.8 2.6 6.5 0.409 0 0.1 0 0.8 1 0.824 2.6 4 6.6 0.8 1.1 0.4 1.4 2.5 6.1

NBA 99 40 18.5 3.2 6.1 0.529 0 0 0 1 1.8 0.573 2.5 4 6.4 0.8 0.7 0.5 1.4 2.7 7.5

Per 36:

2009-10 20 SAS NBA 82 23 1494 6.6 12 0.556 0 0 0 2.1 3.9 0.547 4.8 7.9 12.7 1.6 1.2 0.9 2.7 5.4 15.4
2010-11 21 SAS NBA 17 17 336 4.8 12 0.409 0 0.1 0 1.5 1.8 0.824 4.7 7.3 12.0 1.4 1.9 0.7 2.5 4.5 11.1

NBA 99 40 1830 6.3 12 0.529 0 0.1 0 2 3.5 0.573 4.8 7.8 12.6 1.5 1.3 0.9 2.7 5.2 14.6

He's getting more minutes, more shots, and missing more.  Sure, he gets a whole steal every game now, but his rebounding numbers remain the same while his scoring numbers have dropped drastically.  Sure he's shooting 30% better on his FTs but he's getting to the line less than half as much as he used to.  From what I've seen, Blair is a better basketball player than he was last year, but still, he's performing worse?  You can argue that he has been moved to the starting lineup where he's playing next to Duncan more... so... Tim Duncan is causing him to miss almost 15% more of his shots?  Is this a case of Blair performing better off the bench than as a starter?  If we look at last season...

As a starter:

23:36:08 4 7.3 0.508 0 0
1 2.4 0.495 3.04 5.3 8.4 1 0.8 0.7 1.65 3 8.8

Off the bench:

16:07 3 5.5 0.55 0 0 0 1 1.8 0.545 2.2 3.4 5.6 0.7 0.5 0.4 1.25 3 7.4

Sure, it's only Blair's second year so we have a very limited sample size, but across the board his numbers are pretty much down with the exception being steals, even from being a starter last season and I'm pretty sure most of those were next to Duncan too, in fact only 4 of his 23 starts were not next to Duncan, and that was because Duncan didn't play those 4 games.  Did Blair's off-season training fail?  Is he just hitting his sophomore slump early?  No and maybe.  As it has already been pointed out, Blair has been working on developing an outside jumper, one that he doesn't have, so despite his improved free throw form, whatever he's developed off-season isn't translating in game.  As people have mentioned, the fact that he's shooting a worse percentage and not getting to the line means either he's not getting calls, he's getting blocked, or he's just not making shots.

I'm always speculating on random trades, and my point is simply this; can we afford to wait until DeJuan Blair fits in?  Maybe.  It's a risk either way, and I'm not adverse to exploring the risk of trading Blair for someone else.  Am I bailing on Blair?  If that's what that's called, the fine, yes, I'm bailing on Blair.  He's not going to magically develop a jumpshot halfway through the season, especially if all offseason hasn't worked.  To me, variable minutes isn't player development, it's Pop figuring out what will work to win the game (and the next), because that's what he's paid to do.  If that means I have no idea what I'm talking about in regards to player development, then paint me ignorant, but from what I've seen of Pop, you get pulled because something's not working (unless it's a blowout). 

While I think DeJuan Blair can be a good, even great basketball player without ACLs, you also have to consider the risk that is involved without a balancing mechanism in an up-and-down sport as intense as basketball.  Does it decrease his shelf-life?  Maybe.  Granted it's a risk you take with every player, but I'd rather "plan for the worst, hope for the best".  What can we get for Blair?  I don't know, but that doesn't mean I'm going to not consider the options.  Anthony Randolph and Bill Walker?  It's an intriguing notion.  We're all biased when we come to this, if you don't like Randolph, you're going to think that if he hasn't been able to develop into Lamar Odom in 3 seasons then it's never going to happen, or rather, DeJuan Blair just has more upside, and brings more positive impact.  I've never met any of these people so I can't say whether or not the Spurs environment might be exactly what Randolph needs to tap that potential we saw.  Which can beg the same question: can we afford to wait for Randolph to develop?  Also legitimate, and maybe that will be the nix on this trade.  I personally find that Randolph mitigates a lot of the defensive liabilities that Blair brings to the table off the bat, so in some sense yes.  Is Randolph better than Blair?  Will he become better?  Hard to say, they're both brimming with potential, but what they bring to the table here and now is important too, and regardless of the ceiling that each player has, Randolph's defense is a better fit than Blair's offense.  Here's a per 36 comparison of their rookie years for you stat junkies:

DeJuan Blair 2009-10 20 82 23 1494 6.6 12 0.556 0 0 0 2.1 3.9 0.547 4.8 7.9 13 1.6 1.2 0.9 2.7 5.4 15
Anthony Randolph 2008-09 19 63 22 1129 6.3 14 0.462 0 0.1 0 3.2 4.5 0.716 4.1 7.5 12 1.6 1.3 2.4 2.6 4.5 16

Even with these trade speculations we are somewhat shackled by the bounds of reality.  I think Blair can become a stud, given time, even on the Spurs, unfortunately, time isn't exactly a luxury we have a lot of.  With Duncan seeing fewer and fewer minutes and adding more and more mileage onto those knees of his, too much has to go right with frontcourt pairings any two of Blair, McDyess, Splitter, and Bonner to compensate.  Let's find a way to mitigate that.  If Blair's play pans itself out, and he ends up being the answer, awesome.  If it's Splitter adjusting to the game and putting Blair on the bench, awesome.  If it's trading Blair for someone else (doesn't have to be Randolph), it is what it is, and hopefully, it pans out and we get better (and win another championship).