Thursday, March 3, 2011

Best Record Beware: Does Barkley know what he's talking about?

There are a couple of things I'd like to go through on this specific post, and I'm kind of juggling ideas of how exactly I go about doing that while I'm actually writing this.  Somewhat unprofessional, I know, but not being a journalist, I'm okay with ditching professionalism for colloquialism.  So there are a number of things that spurred this post.  One of the major ones was a statement made by Charles Barkley:
"I got Dallas and the Lakers ahead of the Spurs to be honest with you.  To be honest with you, if the season ended today I think Oklahoma City can beat the Spurs because I think the Spurs are a little overrated to be honest with you because I think they play very hard, they play very smart but I think they are missing a big guy to be honest with you.  Tim Duncan is struggling on the downside of his career but I just don’t think they don’t get enough easy baskets because their two best players are Parker and Ginobili, and I love Ginobili, but I believe in jump shooters being your go-to guy to be honest, that was my only knock on Oklahoma City.  I always tell people you don’t win with jump shots.  They have gotten better around the basket defensively but I think Dallas and the Lakers are the two best teams in the West." 
Now, when I actually sit down and read that, it's really confusing to me, but I think I get the gist of it.   I think.  Essentially, Barkley is saying that despite the league best record, the Spurs aren't his favorites to win a championship, which can be a legitimate statement.  It was only in 2007 that we saw the league-best 67-15 Dallas Mavericks embarrassingly ousted from the first round of the playoffs by the Cinderella We Believe Golden State Warriors, lead by Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, and Jason Richardson.  We saw in 2009 66-16 Cleveland Cavaliers get destroyed by a Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight Howard pick-and-roll in the Eastern Conference Finals and then in 2010 the 61-21 Cavaliers saw LeBron James check out during the second round against the Boston Celtics.  So if we've learned anything from history, we do know that regular season record isn't necessarily indicative of anything.  In 2006 the 64-18 Detroit Pistons were upset by the Miami Heat, led by Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O'Neal in the Eastern Conference Finals.  So that means in the last 5 years, only the 66-16 Boston Celtics of 2008 both held the NBA league-best record AND won a championship.  That's not to say that there is a negative correlation, but rather, that they are probably less related than one might initially imagine.  Fair enough.

That brings me to the second point though, which is where Barkley thinks that all these other teams are ahead of the Spurs, which I'm not entirely sure about.  While it's fair to say that on paper, Lakers have an edge, I don't know that you can definitively declare the Spurs patently "worse" than the Mavericks and Lakers considering that the Spurs at worse can split the season with either team, having already beaten both teams twice out of their annual four meetings.  I mean, on paper, sure, the Lakers and Mavericks "look" better, but that isn't always telling.  I mean, seriously, when was the last time the Spurs "looked good" on paper?  2003? Yet with all these no-name players and journeymen and such, the Spurs have managed to cobble together consecutive playoff appearances and 4 championships since Duncan's rookie year in 1998.  However, I can still see that just based on intuition how Barkley would pick the Lakers over the Spurs (though maybe it's bias that causes me to dislike the Mavericks and wonder how anyone could think that team is good).  Let's look at all these teams that Barkley likes over the Spurs:

Tony Parker
Derek Fisher
Jason Kidd
Russell Westbrook
Manu Ginobili
Kobe Bryant
Rodrigue Beaubois
Thabo Sefolosha
Richard Jefferson
Ron Artest
Peja Stojakovic
Kevin Durant
DeJuan Blair
Pau Gasol
Dirk Nowitzki
Serge Ibaka
Tim Duncan
Andrew Bynum
Tyson Chandler
Kendrick Perkins

George Hill
Steve Blake
J.J. Barea
Eric Maynor
Gary Neal
Shannon Brown
Jason Terry
James Harden
James Anderson
Matt Barnes
DeShawn Stevenson
Daequan Cook
Antonio McDyess
Lamar Odom
Shawn Marion
Nick Collison
Tiago Splitter
Joe Smith
Brendan Haywood
Nazr Mohammed

Matt Bonner
Luke Walton
Ian Mahinmi
Cole Aldrich
Chris Quinn
Devin Ebanks
Brian Cardinal
Nate Robinson

On paper, I can kind of see where he's going.  I mean, the Lakers do have the formidable frontcourt rotation of Gasol/Bynum/Odom to continually deal with, and of course the machine that is Kobe Bryant.  Additionally, Blake and Barnes aren't significant steps down from Fisher (which I know isn't saying much) and Artest.  Now, I am somewhat predisposed to disliking Dirk, so maybe I underrate him a little, but with an aging Kidd and Marion and a shooter as streaky as Jason Terry, it's hard to say that an equal number of things has to right for the Mavericks as it does for the Spurs to win a 7 game series against any one of these teams.  Granted Tyson Chandler is the 7 foot interior defensive anchor that Erick Dampier never was and Dirk never will be, but can we really say that Beaubois and Barea are significantly better than Hill and Neal?  As for OKC, while adding Perkins and Mohammed give them one of the better defensive frontcourt rotations of Ibaka/Perkins/Collison/Mohammed, paired with the ultra-effective pairing of Westbrook and Durant, I can see this being a very good team.  I can understand who they might be considered a contender now, but first, Perkins needs to get back healthy, until then we have to reserve our judgment.  I wouldn't want to play any of these teams in the playoffs, but do I think we have a legitimate chance of beating each one?  Yes.  Certainly, "anything can happen" does apply in the playoffs, especially with teams as good as these four, but blanket statements like "I have the Lakers and Mavericks ahead of the Spurs because I think they can beat the Spurs in a 7 game series."  are just kind of ignorant, because on the flip side, it's so close that the Spurs could just as easily win said 7 game series.

Which kind of leads my rambling to my last point, which is simply, I don't think Charles Barkley has watched a Spurs game.  Essentially, he labelled Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili "jump shooters" and went on to say, "you don't win with jump shots".  Okay, fair enough.  76% of Ginobili's shot attempts are categorized as jump shots on, but so are 81% of Kobe Bryant's, 86% of Kevin Durant's, and 88% of Dirk Nowitzki's shot attempts, furthermore, Tony Parker only has about 52% of his shots categorized as jump shots, so essentially, the go-to guys on the Spurs are less jump shooters than all the other teams.  That was a lot of numbers, let's see if a chart can help:

Tony Parker
Manu Ginobili
Kobe Bryant
Pau Gasol
Dirk Nowitzki
Jason Terry
Kevin Durant
Russell Westbrook
% jump shot
% close
% dunk
% tip
% inside

Okay, so the premise is that the more shots you take inside, the easier the two points are.  Well, if that's the case, the Spurs get the most easy shots for its two stars.  I mean, the Mavericks are pretty much just jump shooters other than Tyson Chandler.  If jump shooting doesn't win, then the Mavericks shouldn't really be that good right?  Maybe I'm just confusing myself now.  Anyways.  My point is this, the Spurs may not be the clear favorites, but they have to be in the talk.  My take is that given all the ups and downs of this year, you can't really count them out, and there is no definitive favorite.  My other point is that Charles Barkley has either a) never watched a Spurs game, b) very ignorant about the Spurs' players, or c) all of the above.  That being said, I've never really taken Chuck too seriously when it comes to legitimate basketball talk, so I'm not going to start now.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Free Agency! Woo!

For some reason I love wandering in the realm of possibilities.  Specifically, the possibilities of something that would make the Spurs better.  In the wake of the flurry of trades that drastically altered the landscape of the NBA, sending Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to New York to join Amar'e Stoudemire, the one that sent Deron Williams to New Jersey, and Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City, now comes a slew of buyouts, through which, contending teams hope to shore up their rosters and improve their chances in both the playoffs but also in pursuit of the ever elusive Larry O'Brien trophy.  Among the names of players already bought out include names like Mike Bibby and Troy Murphy, of those expected to be bought out but weren't we have the likes of Samuel Dalembert and Joel Przybilla.  

Nonetheless, also in the wake of the trade deadline is a major injury to Tony Parker, sidelining him for 2-4 weeks.  Even had Parker stayed healthy, I expected the Spurs to be a major player in the free agent market, as their seemingly perennial hunt for a championship makes them one of the few small market teams that veteran players look at.  Currently as stands, the Spurs roster looks like this:

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

I know, Anderson should technically be classified an SF and Blair a C, but let's not split hairs over these things okay?  For all extensive purposes, this is our roster.  With Parker out, I anticipate Hill to start with Manu essentially being the de facto point guard.  Quinn might see some (more) minutes, but all-in-all I see much of the ball handling duties going to Manu and Hill with Anderson and Neal taking the other minutes available.  So what exactly is it we need then?  Well, in my opinion, and those of several others in Spurs fandom, two things; a legitimate wing defender and size.  Arguably the former is easier to find than the latter, but should that be our priority?  I would argue no.  Why is that?  Wasn't I the one constantly pushing for the Spurs front office to sign a shot-blocking presence of some sort?  Well, yes.  However, as the season has unfolded, it's really hard to see where another big would fit into the rotation given how well Blair, McDyess, and Bonner have been playing.  This is amply demonstrated by the fact that Tiago Splitter (granted he's had his rookie woes), the biggest player on the team, cannot find a consistent spot in the rotation.  As much of a defensive revelation as Anderson has been, we still don't necessarily have someone that can hassle the opposition out on the perimeter.  Now, granted, we have to temper our expectations, we're not going to find another Bruce Bowen, but that doesn't mean there aren't players out there to look at.  Additionally, we have to consider who's available from buyouts and from a free agency perspective.  Logically, we would only really consider the buyout candidates since the players that are still free agents are still free agents for a reason.  We know that Mike Bibby is going to sign with the Miami Heat (probably), and one of the few bigs to be bought out, Troy Murphy, will sign with the Boston Celtics.

Here are my top picks:

Corey Brewer (SG/SF, 6-9, 188 lbs, 24 yrs old)
Brewer, taken at 7th overall in the 2007 NBA draft, was part of the Florida championship team that featured the likes of Al Horford and Joakim Noah.  While his NBA career hasn't been quite as stellar, Brewer at the very least has three things going for him.  First, he's young.  Second, he's long.  Thirdly, he's used that length to establish himself as something of a defensive player.  While his three-point shooting is suspect, unlike most young players, he knows his three-point shooting is suspect, and thus doesn't take many of them.  It's not the perfect fit, but certainly I believe that if any team can work with him to improve that it would be the Spurs.  In the interim he'd definitely be a solid backup to Richard Jefferson, in the long haul, he'd definitely be a potential steal if the Spurs are able to lure him to San Antonio and keep him there and he picks up that Spurs winning mentality.

Al Thornton (SF/PF, 6-8, 235 lbs, 27 yrs old)
Old for his draft class of 2007, I recall Al Thornton being a surprise scoring sensation on the Clippers.  However, I also recall him being something of a black hole.  Since then, he's been on the Wizards, who, with the additions of Rashard Lewis and Mo Evans has found it difficult to crack the rotation, especially since Josh Howard has recovered and returned to the roster.  That being said, I like Thornton also because he's known to be aggressive and physical on defense, which is something Pop appreciates.  Granted Twitter is reporting that Thornton would prefer to get solid amounts of playing time rather than sit more for a contending team, also indicating he'll likely end up on the Warriors, he's still someone to at the very least consider.

Kelenna Azubuike (SG/SF, 6-5, 215 lbs, 28 yrs old)
I've always been high on Azubuike, and granted, he's something of an older, more battle-tested James Anderson in more ways than one, he's a solid player overall.  Of course, the fact that he was waived from New York during his rehab from major knee surgery is something we should be cautious about, he is a player that can make an immediate positive impact.  While not a stellar lockdown defender, he is a 40.9% career 3 point shooter, which definitely helps, not to mention he's a plus on the athletic end of things.

Aside from that, I also expect the Spurs to take good hard looks at players that they've already seen before, reports include Garrett Temple.  Personally, I'd also like to see the possibility of some D-League call-ups, including Marcus Cousin and/or Joe Alexander.