Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Understanding the Spurs' Frontcourt Need

Look, we've been saying it since 2008, Tim Duncan isn't really getting any younger, and maybe it's about time we find someone to give him a hand in the frontcourt, you know, another shot-blocking, rebounding big, that can space the floor, and play next to Timmy and spot him some minutes. Of course, whenever any Spurs fan says that, we invariably think of David Robinson, and of course we go out of our way to say that of course we're not expecting another Hall of Fame center to waltz into the doors, especially at the bottom of the waiver wire or at the end of the draft or out of the obscure depths of the Euroleague, but secretly, you know we're all thinking something like that. Naturally names get thrown out, and people get all giddy about trying to get Tyson Chandler or Chris Kaman or Eddy Curry.

As much as we say we're not looking for the next David Robinson, the spectrum of range between "the next David Robinson" and "better than Matt Bonner" is pretty broad and expansive. I mean, let's realistically think about it, what made the Twin Towers work? It's because both Duncan and Robinson were interchangeable in the low block, they had remarkable basketball IQ, were good passers, rebounders, and shot blockers. It's really the lack of another player that has those last two skills in combination that I believe most Spurs fans are looking for. Of course that's understandable given that the bigs in the rotation around Duncan are currently Diaw, Splitter, Bonner, and Blair, none of which are exactly known for shot blocking and only Blair being any good at rebounding consistently, though for a variety of other reasons make him an unfavorable match with Duncan. Ultimately, what made the Duncan and Robinson combination lethal, and it's been said before, was their mobility.

Let's be honest with ourselves then, there are only three players that are the contemporaries of Duncan that I would argue would have fit well next to him, and frankly, once you have seen who they are, you'd understand why the Spurs probably never really had much of a shot with them.

1) Kevin Garnett
Beyond the fact that he and Duncan arguably played the same position, are the same size, and same age as each other, Garnett could be argued as the anti-Duncan. Garnett came into the league out of high school while Duncan completed his Bachelor's degree (in psychology, with honors) at Wake Forest. Duncan is the quiet, lead-by-example kind of guy while Garnett is the outspoken, in-your-face kind of player. Duncan relished the low post, while Garnett never really developed a legitimate go-to move. The Duncan/Garnett comparisons have been hashed out ad nauseum, but let's face it, despite all their differences, they would have been among the greatest big men ever paired together, their games perfectly complement each other. While Garnett prefers the jumper off pick-and-pops, he's solid enough inside to warrant attention, likewise, while Duncan is a beast on the low block, his mid range game is solid enough to need to be respected by the defense. Both are highly active on the defensive end, hounding players and altering shots, grabbing rebounds, etc...

2) Rasheed Wallace
Most people's impression of Wallace is a headcase who takes ill-advised three pointers. Those of us with a longer memory recall him as the guy Scottie Pippen hated playing with on the Blazers. Yet why I put his name here, is because of my re-evaluated perspective on Wallace after watching the matchup between him and Duncan in the 2005 NBA finals. Granted we'll never know what Duncan could have become had he not had to have knee surgery in 2000, but Wallace was one of those players that could give even Duncan trouble, particularly on the defensive end. He was relatively explosive a leaper, had long arms and solid post moves. He was mobile on defense, and as we all know, his range extended all the way to the three point line. While we hated him for taking so many of them, he could still knock them down at a reasonable clip.

3) Pau Gasol
I know that in recent memory Gasol has always gotten the "soft" label whenever the Lakers have underachieved. I mean, I understand that he doesn't like the spot light, the focal point of the defense, it's wearing, because the big men are also asked to do anchor their own team's defense too, which is what makes two way players like Duncan so remarkable. That being said, Gasol isn't bad defensively, while he may not have the reputation that perhaps Garnett or Wallace have, he is big and smart and is able to adequately swat shots and grab rebounds. Additionally, Gasol is a great high post player who passes well, which compliments Duncan wonderfully offensively, because Gasol is also a solid low post player and Duncan is a good high post player that passes well too. While Gasol I suppose would nominally be the center, I never thought for a moment that Gasol doesn't like player center, I think it was his subtle way of saying, he didn't like having to play in a frontcourt with Hakim Warrick.

Anyways, enough with the dream scenario, let's look at where the Spurs are now. Excluding Duncan, the remaining big men on the roster are as we previously mentioned Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, Tiago Splitter, and DeJuan Blair. Now in looking at this, we understand that the best overall player that complements Duncan is Diaw, the biggest player is Splitter, the best rebounder is Blair, and the best floor spacer is Bonner, it's not really ideal, but it does give us a glimpse of what exactly it is the front office is looking for to put next to Duncan. That being said, we now need to look at the rotation, typically Diaw will start with Duncan and Bonner will come in usually with Splitter, I understand that Pop will try playing more with Splitter and Duncan sharing floor time but that generally doesn't happen too often, for two reasons. First, size, with both Splitter and Duncan on the floor for extended minutes may mean that there will be times when both of them will be off the floor at the same time, leaving the tallest player in the Spurs lineup one of Boris Diaw or Matt Bonner (or Stephen Jackson). Secondly, spacing, Splitter has no mid-range game so to speak, but you ideally want Duncan under the basket, then they both occupy the same space on offense, which ultimately means, for things to run smoothly, Duncan becomes the mid-range shooter full-time.

So, what then do we need ascertain what exactly it is that we're looking for in a big man. The biggest question that ultimately I have would be how much more can Tiago Splitter grow? The reason Diaw is such a good fit is because he can play well next to both Duncan and Splitter, he provides passing and has an adequate enough jumper to space the floor. So ultimately, if the player we want to get is to have any sort of meaningful (i.e. Matt Bonner's) playing time, he'll need to be able to do the same. That's asking a lot of a big man who blocks shots. Bringing in say a Tyson Chandler-type player would only signal to me that we've sort of given up on Splitter, because frankly that player can't share any floor time with Splitter.

It's not an easy answer. When I look back at the OKC series, besides Green and Bonner not being able to find a three to save their lives, one thing that stood out to me was the inability of Tiago Splitter to punish Serge Ibaka in the post when Perkins was off the floor. That's why a low post beast like Eddy Curry was an intriguing prospect to me. However, maybe this year Splitter takes a step forward with his post game. That's ultimately what I think it will take, we're probably not going to find a shot blocker type player that's going to meet our specific needs, but short of us landing LaMarcus Aldridge or Al Horford off the waiver wires, I'm not really sure we're going to do significantly "better than Matt Bonner". Who knows? I haven't really given up on Splitter yet, so maybe he steps it up this year, and we won't be talking so much about the need for a big man.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Changing it up with more of the same?

I recall there was someone pretty smart that once said:
"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." 
So when the Spurs front office decided to bring back essentially the exact same roster that lost four in a row to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Semifinals, I had to ask the question: are R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich insane? Now people can talk about coaching mistakes that perhaps Popovich made (i.e. pulling Matt Bonner and Danny Green for missing shots and thus destroying their confidence) or how Scotty Brooks figured it out (i.e. keeping Thabo Sefolosha in during crunch time instead of Derek Fisher) or some combination of the two and how awesome Kevin Durant is. The fact is, we lost, pretty embarrassingly so.

I'm not going to go into depth about how we fell apart, how we couldn't create offense, how our defense wasn't good enough, and how we missed a ton of shots. Popovich was in a precarious situation, on one hand he needed his role players to grow up, but on the other hand, his role players couldn't buy a bucket to save their lives. Was Pop right to bench Danny Green and Matt Bonner through the second half of the series? I think it's up in the air, but here's what we know, through the first 4 games of the series Danny Green was 4 for 21 from beyond the arc, that's 19%, that's worse than Baron Davis, and Green is supposed to be the sort of defensive three point specialist. That's when Pop pulled the plug. Bonner, also a three point specialist went 1 for 7 from beyond the arc in three games before Pop pulled the plug. 1 for 7, that's 14.29%. Sure, this is Danny Green's first playoff, sure, he didn't have training camp to get used to it, maybe he got the jitters, Matt Bonner's been consistently disappearing from the playoffs for the past 3-4 years, so... yeah, something's not working here.

That being said, I like many Spurs fans, were looking for some kind of improved production from our front court, some sort of improvement. Names like Marcus Camby, Elton Brand, Chris Kaman all passed the lips, keyboards, and screens of many of the Spurs' faithful. Yet the front office, completely unfazed by last year, kept it familiarly quiet as they normally do. They re-signed Boris Diaw, Danny Green, and Patty Mills, then brought Nando De Colo over from France, while also quietly probing for trade interest in DeJuan Blair and James Anderson and seeing just how offensively mature Kawhi Leonard is. So our roster now looks something like this:

PG - Tony Parker, Patty Mills, Nando De Colo
SG - Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Gary Neal
SF - Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Jackson
PF - Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner
C - Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter

The above listed are just the people I think will break the rotation. Technically I believe Cory Joseph, James Anderson, and DeJuan Blair are still technically on the roster, though I'm actually a little iffy on Gary Neal's status as well.

That being said, all the players of questionable status will likely not majorly impact the rotation significantly. While we had that amazing streak at the end of the season, we lost it abruptly and at probably the worst possible moment. OKC is legitimately a good team, Durant, Westbrook, and Harden are that good and difficult to play against. Once we started stumbling, we picked a really hard team to attempt to recover against.

Now, do we still have roster issues, I think maybe, but perhaps with a full year of development and growth from Kawhi Leonard, coupled with a full season of understood expectations from Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw, we may be able to mitigate some of the shortcomings we ran into during the playoffs last season.

Do I think that we could use another big man? Certainly, but he has to be the right one, and that's hard to find. What made the Twin Towers of yore so deadly was not merely that their offensive games meshed or that they both were elite rebounders and shot blockers, but actually the simple concept of how active and mobile both Tim Duncan and David Robinson were for players of their size. Duncan in his advanced years certainly doesn't have the same amount of mobility, but the issue has always been finding him a partner after Robinson's retirement that would pair with him as effectively. In 2005 and 2007 Duncan was good enough to make up the difference moving from a player like David Robinson to the likes of Rasho Nesterovich, Nazr Mohammed, Fabricio Oberto, Francisco Elson, and Robert Horry, and since then has been asked to do the same for the likes of Antonio McDyess, Matt Bonner, Kurt Thomas, and Drew Gooden, something that's unfair to Tim Duncan.

When Tiago Splitter decided to make the leap into the NBA, we thought perhaps we had found the second iteration of the Twin Towers, someone (optimistically) for Duncan to pass the torch to or someone (realistically) to hold the fort until the next franchise big man emerged. Yet that hasn't been the case. It hasn't been that Splitter has played poorly, on the contrary, after recovering from his rookie year injury, he's matured greatly in his second season, adjusting well to the game that he's been asked to play. The fact that we don't have the effective frontcourt we as Spurs fans are used to speaks not of the deficiencies of players like Tiago Splitter but to the singularity of talents that are Tim Duncan and David Robinson.

That being said, what do we do about our frontcourt, what are we looking for? The biggest knock people have on our big men is that outside of Duncan no one is a really good rebounder or shot blocker. Frankly, no one has needed to be, because Duncan has been that good. Honestly though, it's true, the best rebounder after Duncan is DeJuan Blair, whose defense and offensive game make it difficult for him to mesh with the rotation, the next being Kawhi Leonard, who is not a big man. Bonner is asked to do little other than stay in front of his man and hit open threes, and neither Splitter nor Diaw are elite rebounders either. Yet, it's not as simple as finding a big body that can grab boards (i.e. Chris Kaman). The biggest issue that the Spurs run into is a matter of the offensive flow.

Here's what I mean, if Tiago Splitter is going to be a large part of the rotation, you want to put him somewhere where he will be offensively successful. Unless (until) he develops a jumper, that is going to be in the area around the rim. This is the largest issue you run into when you have Splitter and Duncan on the floor at the same time, because Duncan is also most effective around the rim. Granted Duncan does have a mid-range jumper that needs to be respected, but the only player that can punish opposing defenses in the post is going to be Tim Duncan. That being said, the Duncan/Splitter pairing is going to be limited, but they both are a valuable part of the rotation. So the issue then becomes, who is able to play next to both Duncan and Splitter. When you have a player next to Duncan like David Robinson, it's easy, you just need to find someone to fill the space and the minutes (like Malik Rose), however, Splitter, while good, is no David Robinson, and Duncan, while still very good, is coming on 10 years since he last played with Robinson. This is why Boris Diaw is such a good fit, and why Bonner still gets playing time, because their spots on offense don't overlap as greatly with either Splitter's or Duncan's. The issue of a big man for the Spurs simply boils down to this, if we like Splitter's game, which we do, who can we find that can play with both him and Duncan, the most effective route to take is to effectively make Duncan a C and finding an effective PF, which frankly we've been doing since 2003 by playing Malik Rose and Robert Horry for extended minutes. Unfortunately, what that also means is the player we get likely won't be a major shotblocker, and if he's outside of the paint a lot, probably will be out of position to be a good rebounder. Hopefully Kawhi Leonard can make up for some of that, but at the end of the day, I think the Spurs did the best they could with what they have.

That being said do I think the Spurs are done in their quest for a championship? Well, I'm not counting them out, certainly it will be tough, and many people wonder, and rightfully so, whether or not the Spurs have answered the questions raised by the OKC matchup. The answer is, I'm not sure. After the first 20 game blowout in Game 3 in the OKC meltdown, Games 4, 5, and 6 were lost by margins of 6, 5, and 8. There were a lot of reasons for missed shots, chippy OKC play, hard closeouts, good defense. I'm just going to say, if Danny Green and Matt Bonner had simply made a third, a below league average 33%, of their three pointers, that would've been 15 points. I know it doesn't work like that, but I'm just saying.

I'm looking forward to how things come together next year. Hey, it's odd.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mid-season moves?

As per usual around the time of the All-Star break teams are starting to consider if any roster moves are necessary to make that improvement to take things to the next level. Gregg Popovich is already thinking ahead with his benching of Tony Parker and Tim Duncan in their last game against Portland and gave the younger guys some burn, with Manu Ginobili, Tiago Splitter, and T.J. Ford all still out with injury we were looking at a rather limited rotation of Cory Joseph, Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard, Richard Jefferson, DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner, James Anderson, Danny Green, and D-League call-up Eric Dawson. Super. However, given the frenetic pace of the compact season, it seems that teams are thinking twice before pulling the trigger on any major moves. Some free agents have returned from China and J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin have both signed with the Knicks and the Clippers respectively. Wilson Chandler is expected to return and sign a deal with the Nuggets given that FIBA clears him.

While the decision to rest Tony Parker in his All-Star play and the new found youth in Tim Duncan's legs may have snapped our win-streak at 11 on the Rodeo Roadtrip, it was to be expected. We've seen Pop start to take fewer chances with his stars in order to have fresher legs come playoff time. That being said, the bench has been playing very well together and despite an extended injury to Manu, the Spurs role players have been coming together and making the Spurs one of the hottest teams in the league. However, despite that, the concern that is to be had given our frontcourt rotation is still, well, just that, a concern. Currently, Pop typically starts Blair next to Duncan, and brings in Splitter and Bonner in off the bench, however, the issue that is to be had is that Blair and Splitter cannot coexist on the floor at the same time, which somewhat limits Pop's rotations. While there have been great improvements, their defensive limitations do make a frontcourt pairing of Bonner and Blair somewhat questionable. So, what are we looking for? Well, ideally, we'd like someone that can play next to both Duncan and Splitter, as those two, I believe will be the key pieces to any run in the playoffs.

While we can take something of the 2005 Championship frontcourt rotation route as a model, we need to remember that Duncan is 6 years (and thousands of basketball minutes) older, and while Tiago Splitter looks to be way better than Nazr Mohammed, Matt Bonner is no Robert Horry. So who is available? Well, that question is difficult enough as it is, but the question that we need to understand before that is who do we have to offer? This is presuming a trade scenario presents itself. Generally speaking, the offense is still largely based around Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan, and the key role players have been Leonard, Splitter, Neal, Bonner, and Green, which means who do we have available to trade? Richard Jefferson, DeJuan Blair, James Anderson, and Cory Joseph. More the latter three as I don't know that anyone really wants Jefferson's contract. In total, Anderson, Joseph, and Blair probably sum up to around $2.5 million in salary, so we'd have to get something comparable back.

With that, who are we looking for? Well, if we're considering someone that can play next to Duncan AND Splitter the immediate players that come to my mind are Splitter's Brazilian teammate Anderson Varejao, Tony Parker's French teammate Ronny Turiaf, or maybe the Birdman Chris Andersen. However, I don't know that we can make anything work. While the Nuggets are suffering through some major injuries, requiring the minutes of Birdman, they also already have a high energy big in Kenneth Faried, thus making Blair not very attractive in a package. While they are decimated by injuries the return of Wilson Chandler may make the wings unnecessary as well.

Honestly, I can't say I've been doing my homework in paying attention to what's going on this season, but from a cursory glance, it doesn't seem that we can find someone to work with, I personally think Ronny Turiaf might work if Washington is just looking to shed salary, and he's slated to return from his injury soon as well. With the crowded frontcourt of Andray Blatche (also due to return from injury), JaVale McGee, Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin, and Jan Vesely it's hard to imagine that a veteran role player like Turiaf would find a lot of time in there when Washington is looking to develop its youth. However, with that youth I don't know that we'd be able to package anything that would be attractive to the Wizards as well.

James Anderson might be the biggest trade piece available, and with the development of Tristan Thompson and Samardo Samuels it's possible that Varejao is the most available, especially with the wings at Cleveland being hit hard with injuries, James Anderson might be able to find a chance there to show his stuff, however, that being said, there's no guarantees there either. It's been said before that it's hard to make a trade in the NBA, and that's true, particularly in this shortened season where healthy big men seem to be at a premium. I could probably putz around for something that would work, but honestly, there's not much that I can think of that would be appealing to another team. It's not that the package we have would be bad, it's just that it's actually a little redundant to the rest of the league. Maybe something I haven't thought of will come up, I trust Buford, and this little thought exercise was just a way to consider things down the line. With injuries mounting, it may not be the best idea to shop around, but rather to stick with what is working, and maybe I'm being pessimistic about our chances in the post season, but hey better safe than sorry. I mean, it's not like the Lakers would just give Pau Gasol away.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Oh the Linsanity!

Will somebody think of the children?

Anyways, I figured that given last week's peek into how everyone has been writing about Jeremy Lin, it was my turn to take an official stab at what I think of him. Naturally, as an Asian American NBA fan, I'm ecstatic that Jeremy has made it this far and has gotten this sort of recognition. I won't vehemently declare that "I told you so" because frankly, I will honestly (and rather sheepishly) admit, I didn't know a lot about him, and I didn't think he was THIS good. Of course, we only have a five game sample size where he's played over 30 minutes, in a PG-friendly Mike D'Antoni offense, but despite the fact that his amazing victories come over the Nets, who really don't have anyone except Deron Williams who isn't really a defensive standout, the Jazz, who have an old Raja Bell who lives mostly on his reputation and Devin Harris who has lost all confidence in everything basketball, the Wizards who basically pay $56 million for a glorified pick-up team, the Lakers on the wrong side of a back-to-back (the flip side of which was a great OT win over Boston), and Minnesota, who frankly, I'm not entirely sure what make of, but really isn't known for its defense either. That being said, in those five games Lin did average 26.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 8.0 assists, and 2.0 steals on a blistering 58.8% shooting. I mean, sure, on the flip side he did average 4.6 turnovers and only shot 17.6% from beyond the arc, but the raw stats really are something to behold.

That being said, I, like every other person out there who didn't watch the games, voraciously devoured any and all YouTube highlights that were out there. Recently, someone asked me who I thought Jeremy Lin reminds me of by his play, he also mentioned some people likened Jeremy Lin to a Rajon Rondo-lite. I don't really quite buy that, while I'm not entirely enamored of Lin's jumper, it's serviceable, that being said, I finally figured out who Lin reminds me of. Frankly, being an Asian American Spurs fan you can all see where this is going, but honestly, if we all think about this reasonably, I think people can see how this is a fair comparison. Who does Jeremy Lin remind me of? Why, our very own Tony Parker of course.

So... what does a 23 year old 6-3, 200 lb, Asian-American Harvard graduate from Mountain View, CA have with a 29 year old 6-2, 180 lb, Frenchman have in common? Where do I begin?

While both being relatively unheralded, as Parker, drafted in 2001 (with the 28th overall pick), was picked up by San Antonio when European talent was still largely untested and more of a novelty than a norm, Parker was, at the very least, drafted, in the first round no less. I'm not saying that all first round picks are good, but at least someone thought he would be good. Lin on the other hand, was passed over by most major college programs and ended up in Harvard, which is one of those schools that you want to go to, but not for sports. Parker has 3 rings after ten years in the season, basically came in as the de facto starting point guard after the departure of Avery Johnson. Lin, started, in Summer League, after not getting drafted, and only really got extended minutes due to the injury to Summer League teammate Rodrigue Beaubois. He then got picked up by the Warriors, his "hometown" team, and played garbage minutes behind Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, and Acie Law (or something like that). After bouncing back and forth between the NBA and D-League, he got cut before workouts of his sophomore year by the Warriors, picked up and cut shortly thereafter by the Rockets, and finally picked up by the Knicks, and then was almost dropped by them, but was given one last opportunity and from there it's history. I mean, ultimately he was in the right place at the right time. Mike Bibby hasn't been a relavent name since Chris Webber was a King and the Toney Douglas and Imam Shumpert experiments were, to put it kindly, utter failures, and Baron Davis was hurt and/or out-of-shape as per the Baron Davis norm. So what did D'Antoni have to lose, let's give the only other guy on the roster that has actually played some PG a run, and the Knicks win 5 in a row.

Wait, I thought they were supposed to be similar players... Well, it's actually all in the game, not in the history. First, let's consider both Lin and Parker, while we have a significant smaller sample size from Lin than from Parker, I think it's pretty safe to say that both players like to look for their shot first. If I were to think of a way to describe them, they are the consummate shoot-first team players. Wait? What? Here's what I mean, both players make their teams better by shooting. Now, I don't mean Gilbert Arenas pull-up 30 footers, but when their shots are falling, they can better get their teammates involved. Both of them like to attack the basket. While Lin is slightly bigger and Parker probably faster, they both do something that guards aren't always known for doing much, scoring in the paint. How it manifests itself may be different, Parker gets around defenses faster while Lin can absorb more contact, both are relentless in their attacking of the rim, with little twists, turns, and flips. I haven't seen as big an arsenal of shots from Lin (i.e. Parker's patented running tear drop), but the general style of play is basically the same. As noted by their extraordinary FG percentages (for guards). They both excel at running the pick-and-roll. Now granted both D'Antoni and Popovich's offenses live off of the pick-and-roll, both of them do the job well. Both have serviceable, but not great jump shots, extending, at times, to the three point range.

Off the court, Lin reminds me of another great Spur, while their games couldn't be more different, I believe that Lin has the potential to be that nice guy like David Robinson. You can tell both players genuinely enjoy playing the game, which makes the game that much more enjoyable to watch. Beyond the fact that both players are devout Christians, I thought it was great to have David Robinson Twitter endorse Jeremy Lin.

Again, even Jeremy Lin ends up being closer to Toney Douglas rather than Tony Parker, I still think he's made his mark. He's shown us a willingness to face the odds, and to make the most of his opportunities. While I don't think he'll be a Spur anytime soon (thought that would be pretty awesome), I look forward to seeing how he grows in this league. While expectations are high, I'm have to say, I'm pretty dang proud to have been around to see his emergence.