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.