Spurs ’10-11 Preview
One last run?
by Todd Spehr
Appreciation is usually something that grows after the fact, and not during. Perhaps that will happen to you with the San Antonio Spurs, or perhaps, it will happen now, as they make what looks to be their final run.
They are a constant in our lives, where striving for continued excellence isn’t merely a cute cliché but in fact an attainted, real thing. What they have done (“they” is perhaps used to broadly here, lets confine it to Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich, and general manager R.C. Buford) has never been done before: 13 consecutive years of .610 ball or better – .610 constituting a 50-win season – which is something even the game’s winningest, like Russell’s Celtics or Magic’s Lakers, cannot lay claim to.
While the Kings and Suns of the last decade drew the regular national television slots and were for a time reserved as everyone’s second favorite with their explosive offense and attractive stars, the Spurs were the anti-thesis to that in many ways. They represented a less appealing form of the game, a living embodiment to what, apparently, whether we liked it or not, was the best way to win (even if it wasn’t fun); it was tried and true, where hot opposition players would come in and manufacture something far less than their average dictated, where games were played and won in predictable fashion, and ultimately, unlike those aforementioned teams, titles were won.
Titles are really the only true measurement in San Antonio, so essentially, it’s been three very long years. Last season would make lesser teams content: A 50-win season and a first round upset (of Dallas), but the Spurs were then swept by Phoenix and the seasonal defensive statistics, statistics that glowed during the title years (like opponents points, opponents field goal percentage, opponents three-point percentage), were no longer upper echelon but instead middle of the pack.
There are, of course, questions. How much longer does Duncan, at 34, have as an impactful player? Will Manu Ginobili, now 33, hold up? Will Tony Parker, who has missed 49 games in the last three seasons and who is in search of a contract extension, even be around?
They are questions that management asked, and then responded to. Tiago Splitter, almost mythical in that he was often spoken of and seldom seen, finally joined the Spurs this off-season from the Spanish League, ready to begin his career at 25 and potentially, with his duty to bang down low, to help Duncan ease into the elderly stages of his career. George Hill has been working on extending his range, using the teardrop, and, at the request of the coaches, making his voice heard. DeJuan Blair reportedly shed some six percent body fat over the summer. And Richard Jefferson, an unequivocal disappointment last season, went back to basics – we’re talking pivots, jump-stops, ball-handling. Yeah, those basics. The Spurs see a window.
It of course starts with Duncan. Everything remains gradual, even his descent; there are no great ripples, no major plummet. His per game averages dipped slightly (to 18 points and 10 rebounds), but consider that he played just 31 minutes per game (the fifth straight year this his minutes have decreased) and his per-minute stats remain as healthy as ever. Age is catching him but the precision is still there – the footwork, the angles, the defensive coverage. He may not have captured fans in a way that the flashier, more marketable players did, but when you consider that of all active players only he was the best one on four title teams, he’s really the envy of them all.
Ginobili’s 2010 season was contrasting. His first half was marred by poor play and a desire for an extension; his second half saw some sort of self-solving revival, conceding that he went from angry to understanding to letting go over his contract, then promptly played up to his own (and our) expectations, followed by the Spurs offering him a three-year pact. There were stretches where he was his usual elusive, creative self – it was a healthy bounce back after an injury-plagued 2009.
Tony Parker finds himself in a similar situation. He wants to stay in San Antonio, the only place he has ever played, and he wants another offer when his six-year deal expires at the end of the season. His career year of two years ago was lost under the rubble that was 2010: A sprained ankle, plantar fasciitis, a strained hip flexor, followed by a break in his shooting hand. His season was robbed of any rhythm, and when he returned for the playoffs, his starting spot was held by the co-runner up to the Most Improved Player award, George Hill. Hill, who Popovich is quite nuts about, stepped in for Parker and provided some anti-Parker qualities: Tough perimeter defense and less shots. Popovich insists he will start Parker and will play these two more together, and everyone insists there is no rivalry. This much we know: There’s great depth at this position.
Splitter’s value perhaps won’t be confined to his own production, but Duncan’s as well. If he can reduce Duncan’s minutes and thus make those minutes more meaningful, as well as step in and make an immediate impact (which everyone unanimously believes he will), Splitter will have been worth the wait. The Spurs have sat back and watched their property operate at a high level since they drafted him in 2007, and after his MVP performance in both the regular season and Finals of the Spanish League, he was ripe for the picking. Splitter’s NBA orientation will be worth watching.
In a way, Jefferson needed orientation of his own, not last season, but in fact, this summer. 2010 was disappointing for Jefferson, his points were the lowest since his rookie season, but there was an uneasiness and reticence that even the numbers couldn’t enunciate. Popovich has long talked about getting guys to San Antonio that are “over themselves,” well, this summer, he basically made Jefferson get over himself. The details of his workouts became known recently and it was high school level stuff – but the Spurs want him to embrace a concept, learn a system, and embed himself in their proven culture.
The Spurs’ depth (health pending, of course) allows one to feel that, yes, they really can make one more run. DeJuan Blair was terrific last season. He is in even better shape now, and is even hungrier to prove himself; he provides energy, is a great position rebounder, and his knees are just fine, thanks. Antonio McDyess has conceded that this will be his last season, and Matt Bonner, who re-signed over the summer, will spread the floor. The Spurs run a good nine-deep.
Playoffs: Western Conference Finals.
Can the Spurs win the West, or perhaps more to the point, can they beat the Lakers? Probably not, but they can beat anyone else in their conference. Management has given Duncan another opportunity for a deep playoff run, and with a roster that at least feels promising, their season will be worth watching.
Previous Season Previews can be found in the archive.