Sunday, June 26, 2011

Unfettered Optimism: The next big thing

Fact: Spurs haven't had a top 15 pick since Tim Duncan.

That is, until now, until Kawhi Leonard.

While it's sad to see George Hill go, you can't help but be excited about a guy who is athletically as gifted as the San Deigo State product. Tack on the hard work ethic and the Spurs excellent coaching staff, you can't help but get excited. I have to say I'm excited. Then again, I'm always excited at the prospect of fresh young talent. With James Anderson fully healthy and Tiago Splitter a whole season acclimated to the NBA, you can't help but smile at that glimmer that will be the 2012 season, provided there is one with this whole lockout that's looming. However, with an infusion of young blood and the level-headedness of our savvy vets, you have to think that we have something good going on here. I'm intrigued to see what R.C. Buford will do with the impending free agency, but this isn't about that, this is about the draft. While I'm somewhat intrigued by the talents of Davis Bertans and Erazem Lorbek, the immediate here and now force us to look closely at the games of Kawhi Leonard and Cory Joseph.

Let's start with the big name: Kawhi Leonard.

If you took the 3 minutes to watch the Sports Science video above, you'll have learned that Kawhi's arms are longer than Andrew Bynum's and his hands are as big as Shaquille O'Neal's. Wow. Despite standing only 6-7, that's impressive, majorly impressive. Tack onto that the fact that he is laterally quick enough to defend SFs and may eventually develop the strength and bulk to defend PFs, we have an amazing defensive tool in our hands. If his DraftExpress profile is to be believed, Leonard's upside is that of Shawn Marion, and I'm pretty sure they are referring to the 2007 Phoenix Suns Shawn Marion (though the 2011 Dallas Mavericks one does now have a ring), with a worst case scenario of Luc Mbah-a-Moute, who is still one of the more able perimeter defenders on a defensive-minded Milwaukee Bucks squad. Besides, Leonard does have one thing on Marion, his shooting form actually looks decent, and he's working on it. You can't help but think that Spurs are excited to have a young athletic player, willing to work on his jump shot, who has been actively working on his jump shot working extensively with shooting coach Chip Engelland is going to turn out something special. Adding Leonard also does another thing, it forces Richard Jefferson to fight for his playing time. Added motivation, good stuff. While Leonard doesn't entirely solve the problem of a shot blocking big man next to Duncan, he does provide a viable option to play small, being long and versatile enough to probably play some PF for stretches. We'll see how much of an offensive repertoire he develops, but if he can even just develop a decent jump shot (letting Chip do his work), then Leonard will become an immediate boon to the rotation, adding size and defensive tenacity to the squad.

Now let's look at the less heralded name: Cory Joseph.

There's actually some pretty good reasons to be excited about Joseph as well.

Now Joseph, being the 29th pick of the 1st round wasn't a huge household name coming into a weak draft year. Now here's a familiar story, a not-really-PG type that the Spurs reached for. Does that sound familiar? No, I don't think Cory Joseph will become the next George Hill, but I do think he has the potential to become a solid rotation player that can make an impact as a backup PG. While not a stellar ball-handler, Joseph has the tools to shoot from almost anywhere on the court, I don't see him playing huge minutes, but enough to give Tony and Manu a breather. Unlike Hill, Joseph will only be asked to run the offense, which he does reasonably well, reading through various scouting reports, it's hard to gauge Joseph's skills as a PG, but there is hope as he is known to play low-mistake basketball running the point. I could hope that he would become something of a poor man's Kirk Hinrich, but that might be asking for much, but it does give you an idea of the mold that I think he could fit in. He's not extraordinarily large at 6-3, nor extremely athletic, but he does have a reputation for being a pesky defender, and that, combined with his vast offensive arsenal, in a controlled setting may be something that the Spurs can use in a backup PG. While there are questions about Joseph's ability to play PG, I think things might work out alright, especially as Pop will likely still run the offense through Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

Looking at the Spurs roster currently, there are still a number of questions, but certainly things are looking up:

PG - Tony Parker, Cory Joseph
SG - Manu Ginobili, Gary Neal, James Anderson
SF - Richard Jefferson, Kawhi Leonard
PF - Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner
C - Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter

While we are lacking solid playmaking ability in Joseph, Neal, Andeson, or Leonard, I believe that if Joseph just plays smart, low-mistake basketball, then the little time that he gets when both Parker and Manu are on the bench won't be as big of a liability as we might suspect. Additionally, it's hard not to get excited when Leonard's strengths are precisely what works in the Spurs' system: grabbing the rebound and making smart outlet passes. While I'm still not enamored with our frontcourt rotation, I think all-in-all, things are looking up. We're in a good spot, and we'll see (after the lockout) what we can get out of these kids.

Monday, June 6, 2011

What Made the Twin Towers so Special?

I was reading this post about how Mike Brown may attempt to bring back the Two Towers in LA and while you do have two talented 7-footers on the Lakers in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum (and possibly third 6-10 versatile forward in Lamar Odom), I'm pretty convinced, it won't be even close to the original iteration of Tim Duncan and David Robinson that won the 1999 championship.  Maybe I'm wrong about Andrew Bynum, but let's consider the skill sets that were in place to make Robinson and Duncan so successful, so far as winning two rings running a 3-man frontcourt rotation with Malik Rose.

1.) Dominant low-post threat that draws double teams

We can't deny that David Robinson was an explosively athletic player, and he had a solid low-post game to go with it.  For years, he single handedly carried the Spurs deep into the post season.  I've also heard tell that (in his prime) Tim Duncan in the low post is probably the closest thing you can get to an automatic two points (I want to say Chris Webber said that but I don't know).  So far though, this doesn't limit our options, because if we look at it, a lot of players had this skill, Shaquille O'Neal first and foremost, but I would posit that Shaq would not have brought a revival of the twin-towers.  So far though, for our comparison, let's say that both Pau and Bynum meet this requirement.

2.) Solid mid-range shot that demands respect

Essentially, this is the role of every single big man that played next to Tim Duncan after David Robinson retired.  Antonio McDyess does this admirably, but players like McDyess and Bonner and even Robert Horry don't give Duncan rest in the low post.  This basically is a way to show that the big man is still in it even if he's not in the low post.  Robinson had his 10 foot straightaway jumpers from the free-throw line and Duncan had his 12 foot wing bank shots.  You have to respect those shots.  Defenses are forced to choose between some pretty potent poisons when determining defensive matchups, I imagine it was quite a nightmare to figure out who to matchup against Duncan and Robinson, the Knicks in 1999 showed us that.  They got away without it with the savvy play by Fabricio Oberto, but you could hardly call him a second tower next to Duncan.  Pau for all intensive purposes meets this criteria, he's got a solid mid-range game (better, arguably than Duncan's).  Bynum's limited range limits the effectiveness of any matchups that can be exploited.  If the defense isn't worried about Bynum's mid-range game, then Pau Gasol's effectiveness in the low post becomes mitigated, because Bynum's man can roam and help.

3.) Ability to pass out of double-teams and find the open man

A lot of big men have fairly underrated ball-handling skills and passing games: Shaq, KG, Yao, C-Web, and I would posit that Duncan and Robinson are among those.  Robinson, I don't know if he had elite passing for a big man, but at the very least, it was good enough to get the job done.  Simply put, you can't punish double teams if the ball can't get to the open man.

4.) Defense - Shot blocking

This is pretty obvious, so it would seem, but essentially it's like two lines of defense, so many shot angles at the rim are taken away, it's hard not to get swatted.  I mean, we're talking a combined 5 blocks PER GAME average between Duncan and Robinson in the playoffs of their '99 championship run.  That doesn't count all the altered shots (but consider they averaged 21.4 rebounds per game in the playoffs, 15.8 of those defensive).

I don't know if I covered everything, but these are the basics for a Twin-Tower type offense to work.  Does Mike Brown have that to work with in LA?  Hard to say.  It helps that like Duncan, Gasol can guard both PFs and Cs so they can always keep one of the two big men on the floor, but can Bynum step it up and be the second piece of that?  Only time can tell.  My gut says no, but I could be wrong.