Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Regular season success: Is that all we were made for?

Being a cynic, there's always something bitter-sweet about having to say "I told you so."  Because, while I do relish being right, I don't like being right about bad things.  While I may be completely off base in saying that the reason the Spurs are down 3-1 in the first round of the playoffs has anything to do with any analysis I may have put out previously, it still bothers me that we are down 3-1 to the Memphis Grizzlies without Rudy Gay.  It makes me sad.  Of course, I could just be continually underestimating the likes of Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Sam Young, Tony Allen, Shane Battier, and Mike Conley.  Adrian Wojnarowski has already declared this the death of a dynasty, and frankly, I don't know that I entirely disagree with him.  While he pays lip service to never writing the Spurs off because of the classiness of the organization, he already has.  As Graydon Gordion has surmised, Gregg Popovich was out-coached, which I also may or may not agree with.  Why am I so ambiguous?  Well simply put, it's because I haven't really watched the series too much, but Graydon brings up an excellent point: we should be winning at least 4 out of 5 of these matchups, but we're still losing the game.  Why?  I don't know beyond the fact that the Spurs are playing like crap, which I can't say for sure, but if they weren't, we wouldn't be down 3-1 against the Grizzlies after an embarrassing 18 point rout in Memphis last night.

Given we're in this position it's hard not to draw comparisons to the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks of 2007 and their first round defeat at the hands of the 8th seeded We Believe era Golden State Warriors headed by Baron Davis and the maniacal coaching of Don Nelson.  Already, writers are throwing out the possibility of only the second 8th seed upset (since the Warriors in 2007) since the first round series moved to seven games.  The only question that we as Spurs fans have to ask is, how did it all come to this?  Shouldn't we, the top seeded playoff powerhouse, be standing tall over the team that has been among the laughingstock franchises of the league since trading Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, and the rights to Marc Gasol?  I could go on spouting how I thought Popovich should have played Tiago Splitter earlier in the series to mitigate any damage Marc Gasol would do to us, I could say any number of things, how we needed another defensive big man to be a shot blocking presence in the paint, but what's done is done, and frankly, the regular season had me convinced I was wrong anyways.

I've always touted a couple of things that the Spurs needed this season to be successful, a shot blocking presence and a defensive minded wing player, neither of which we really addressed (no I don't consider Richard Jefferson or James Anderson really an answer to the latter issue).  But then I thought, hey, what do I know about basketball?  From the box scores, my immediate reaction is that the offense is stalling.  While Duncan is rested, we can no longer expect him to take over a series, while both he and Antonio McDyess have shown that you can extend your career through smart playing and veteran savvy, it's not 2003 anymore. While Tony Allen claims Manu "faked" his elbow injury, I think if that were the case the series would be 3-1 in the Spurs favor.  From all appearances, we're not playing Spurs basketball which we need, but that's not why I'm here.

Let's look at our roster really quickly:

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

That is our roster.  Sure you might throw Chris Quinn in there, but I wouldn't consider him a major part of the rotation.  We played a wheeling and dealing offense that honestly stunned a lot of teams.  However, a lot of it predicated on so many things going right.  Now, people have argued with me that every team needs a lot of things to go right in order to win a championship, but my reservation with the Spurs was simply that we didn't have much wriggle or buffer room.  This is no longer 1999 where would expect Duncan and Robinson to combine for almost 60 points, 30 rebounds, 10 assists, 12 blocks per game in a low possession 90 point game.  This isn't 2003 where Tim Duncan could single handedly score at will and dominate a whole series on both the offensive end and the defensive end.  Sure Duncan can still put up numbers, but the onus of the offense now falls to the backcourt tandem of Parker and Ginobili.  Now, I still believe that there is no one in the league that can stop Ginobili other than himself, but as we've seen time and time again, as great as Ginobili's competitive spirit is, his body has betrayed him enough to give him the consensus label of "injury prone".  While few guards can stay in front of Tony Parker, he's not one you would expect to take over a game for you.  Despite being arguably the best transition guard in the game, you cannot win a series purely on the transition game alone.

Where does that leave us?  Expectations have certainly been high, but have we really just been deluding ourselves into nostalgic dreams of grandeur?  A lot of pundits and fans would say yes.  I think we can squeeze one more good run out of this team though, and while there have been pleasant surprises, there have been drastic disappointments.  Richard Jefferson was never the game changer we needed him to be.  Certainly, he's filled into his Sean Elliott/Bruce Bowen/Michael Finley type role quite nicely, but unlike either Elliott or Finley before him, Jefferson certainly has not taken over any game.  Gary Neal has been a stellar find but let's be realistic, isn't he just a marginal upgrade over Roger Mason?  Am I asking for the impossible?  Maybe.  I know we probably won't get another star in the near future.  Few players these days want to play for an old-school small-market franchise, even if it is one of the best franchises in the league for the past decade.

We had the best record in the regular season, and as the Cleveland and Dallas have shown us, that means little in the post season.  It's easy to lament things past at this point in time, but in the face of another humbling playoff exit, we really have to ask ourselves: do we have what it takes to win a 7 game series?  Maybe it's a mental thing, but my call is just that we're seeing really how precariously built this Spurs team was in the first place.  I hate to say it, but: I told you so.