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Know thy Enemy: San Antonio Spurs

October 25, 2008 |  4:29 pm

Know thy enemy: San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs: 50-32 (56-26, 3rd Western Conference, 2nd Southwest Division)

Key Additions:
Roger Mason Jr., George Hill
Key Losses:
  Brent Barry, Robert Horry

"Don't trust anyone over 30"
                                         - some hippie                                                                          Me_cane_2

While the offended may counter with a point along the lines of life beginning at 40, when it comes to professional round ballers, it's generally agreed that the further an NBA player travels across the "30 years of living" threshold, the more worries there are about his athletic prowess.  Which brings us to the San Antonio Spurs. 

Any team that made it to last year's Western Conference Finals can't be poo-pooed, particularly one with as many smart, "been there, done that" and jewelry rocking dudes as the Spurs.  But I also couldn't help but notice how long in the tooth this crew looked at times.  Yes, that "step lost" can be offset by vet savvy,  Yes, an argument can be made that Greg Popovich is the best coach.  Yes, a trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli- once he's back in a projected mid-December return- is deadly at the top of its game.  But just the same, the role players surrounding them are getting up there and I'm wondering if this team will collectively hit a wall similar to what happens when Luke Walton is playing at 50-75% health: Any "high basketball I.Q." (for lack of a better and less beaten-to-death cliche') gets canceled out by a body that can't make the most of it. 

Of course, that's just one man's prognosis, so I decided to seek out another.  I threw a few questions at AusTechSpur from the fine "Pounding the Rock" blog.  Check out what he's got to say, and then I'll offer a few more thoughts. 

1) In my mind (and I'm aware it's not a stunningly original thought), the biggest question mark for the Spurs is age.  Save Tony Parker, they don't have one important/proven player on the good side of 30.  Manu Ginobli has been getting nicked up (as we speak, even).  Michael Finley, Kurt Thomas and Bruce Bowen may still be effective role players, but they're also at a career twilight.  Tim Duncan is still Tim Duncan, but he's also 32 now and, perhaps more importantly, may not have the cast around him to remain as effective.  Then again, this team is exceptionally disciplined, experienced and smart, which helped them beat a younger (and in my opinion, better) Hornets team in the semi's.  How big a concern is age in your mind?

  • AusTechSpur: Pounding The Rock -  I don’t give one rat’s ass about the Spurs age.  This is a Kovemanu team that made it to the WCF last year and was a Manu injury from competing in it.  I won’t say we would have won it, that would be insulting to Lakers fans, but we would have competed.  We are a year older, so what?  So are the Lakers.  So are the Suns.  So are the Mavs.  I think the age thing is a strange media talking point that really shows they don’t REALLY know the game.  If Marc Stein of ESPN, for instance, said something like – “The Spurs perimeter players have lost a step and are no longer able to play the defense that Gregg Popovich’s system requires from perimeter players”.   Or, “Tim Duncan doesn’t have the lateral movement to provide the help defense necessary in the system”. Then I might think twice.  But their analysis comes down to two things:  1)  The Spurs are old.  2)  It is an odd year. 

    Neither of those points make a damn of a difference in analyzing how good a team is.  The Spurs last year lived and died by their outside shooting.  If they shot well, they won.  If they didn’t, they struggled mightily to get a win.  End.  Of.  Story.  So, the thing that concerns me the most is “can the Spurs knock down outside shots at a high enough rate?”  Manu, Tim, and Tony can all score inside, but can we knock down outside shots?

2) How long can the Spurs keep a positive pace without Manu in the lineup?

  • I think having Manu out won’t hurt us much.  We’ll probably lose 2-3 more games than we would if we had him, but there are a couple plus sides.  Manu will be fresher for the second half of the year – Pop will seriously limit his minutes for the month after he gets back – and it will give the other wing players a chance to develop.  Those 2-3 games though, is the difference between 2nd/3rd and 5th /6th probably.  Not necessarily good, but that’s where we are headed I think.

3) A lot of casual fans (or at least ones on the west coast) may not be familiar with Roger Mason, Jr., but he's coming off a pretty good year with Washington, works hard, and can shoot.  But he's also hardly proven.  How much do you think he can make an impact for the Spurs, whether providing scoring or just some fresh legs.  And if it's not Mason, which player not named 'Tim," "Manu" or "Tony" needs to step it up to help keep this team at this decade's level?  Or, in the end, is it really about those three?

  • I’m not sure what he will give us, but I don’t think it will be athleticism.  My guess is that MasonManu_tim_tony_3 will be a very solid player.  He’ll be successful if he can knock down 3’s, occasionally drive to the basket, and play semi-harassing defense.  Make no mistake though, it’s about Tim, Tony, and Manu.  Nobody else on the team is capable of carrying the Spurs offensively for stretches.  But, either of those three can do it for long stretches and not many teams can say that.  However, they will need other guys to step it up in the rebounding and hustle departments.  I think the rookie George Hill will be a surprise.  He won’t score much, but he may give us a lot of everything else.

4) My brother and I think- and you can feel free to disagree- the Spurs are so experienced (not to mention, well, old) that they look to conserve energy early on, keep the foot off the gas and not worry much until February and March.  From there, they look to hit stride and peak right around the playoffs.  If you agree, are they still capable of pulling it off?  Also, what should we be looking at until then to get some kind of idea what this team is about?  Individual performances? How they close games?  How healthy everyone appears?  The sincerity of Pop's confidence (or concern)?

  • Absolutely the Spurs wait to turn it on.  I think the Spurs plan, much like the way Phil Jackson coaches, is to focus on getting better throughout the season.  It’s a long season and the goal is to win the last game, not the first game.  For the Spurs, with their surplus of experience, it’s about working new guys into the system to see what they can provide.  Then, when February comes around, Pop decides who can provide help to a championship drive and goes with it.  Yeah, I think they are capable of pulling it off this year.  I pay attention to two things during the first half of the regular season to gauge our chances:  1)  How well we perform in the last 4-5 minutes of close games.  This is when we see our ability to execute with our best personnel.  Pop will play a mish-mash of lineups during the game, but in the last 4-5 minutes he’ll play to win.  2)  How well the second unit guys develop.  We’ll need 1 or 2 of those guys to make a step forward this year.  If it’s Udoka or Mason hitting 3’s or Mahinmi/Tolliver/Hill playing defense and rebounding.  We will have to get something out of them. 

5) When in doubt, do Spurs fans ever just remind themselves that it's an odd numbered "every other" year, which puts history on your guys' side?  Can that magic maintain this season?   Has destiny made this a "numerology done deal" of sorts?

  • I know some Spurs fans fall back on the “odd year” thing but, as I said earlier, I think that’s about as much crap as the age thing.  Again, how many prognosticators have said the Spurs are Rounders56 old but you can’t rule them out in an odd numbered year?  Of course, maybe they are all numerologists and I have some learning to do.  I think a lot has more to do with the Spurs preparation and philosophy than age and numerology.  The Spurs enter every year just like a professional poker player enters a No Limit Hold ‘em tournament.  You prepare, you make good decisions, you execute, and you need luck.  How many Spurs players are overweight?  How many come to camp out of shape?  How many are overly muscular?  None.  The Spurs come to camp ready to play.  They don’t play their way into shape.  Players who are overweight or over bulky are prone to injury.  Players who don’t maintain their health are prone to injury. 

    Winning a championship is about being good, being talented, being healthy, and being lucky.  It’s about making a lucky shot.  It’s about a twisted ankle and not a sprained ankle.  In 2000, Tim Duncan missed the playoffs.  In 2001 (or 2002), Derek Anderson – the Spurs second option on offense – got hurt in the Mavs series and was a no-show in the Lakers series.  Last year Manu was hurt.  The Spurs benefitted from Joe Johnson fracturing his eye socket one year and another year Nowitzki hurt his knee in the second game of the series.  Those are all potentially series changing injuries.  So, it’s like Hold ‘em.  It’s about improving your odds from beginning to end. Getting lucky.  Taking advantage of other people’s misfortune. Executing your game plan.  Health in the West this year will be huge. The Spurs will need Tim, Manu, and Tony.  The Hornets will need Paul, West, and Chandler (they won’t be worth a damn without Chandler).  The Jazz need Williams and Boozer.  The Lakers are loaded.  They need Kobe, but they could lose Gasol, Bynum, or Odom and probably still make a run.  The Mavs need Nowitzki, Kidd, and Howard.  The Suns need Shaq, Nash, and Amare.  Houston needs Yao and McGrady.  None of those teams can go deep into the playoffs without their guys healthy.  Any of them, with their guys healthy, are dangerous

Bonus question: While it might unintentionally serve to remind fans that this team ain't getting anyGreggpopovich_2 younger, how freaking awesome is Greg Popovich's beard?  No matter how the season shakes out, if he keeps it through 82 games and the playoffs, the season was an undeniable success, in my opinion.  Agreed?

  • Pop’s beard is awesome.  That’s my avatar at PtR.  Unfortunately, he trimmed it Wednesday and it looks rather ordinary.  I really wish he grew it out all year because it would have been fantastic.  I mean, I can’t grow that much hair on my head as fast as he grew a beard.  Think about it.  He grew an inch plus of beard in 5 months.  Just think what he could have done over the next 8.

(AK's note: I didn't find out until after sending out these questions that Pop cleaned up his ZZ-Top look.  Very disappointed, but I'm hoping that upon seeing that at least two members of the media think his beard length could make or break a season, he'll do the sensible, right thing and let his freak flag fly again)

Clearly, my man Aus and I don't see eye to eye on the age issue (or that it is an issue).  But even if I concurred that a month and change without Ginobli ain't no thang, AusTerSpur's acknowledgment of the sixth man's importance to the big picture makes his fragile ankle a scenario less than ideal.  But still, these guys have proved themselves to the point where at least some doubt benefits must be extended.  Thus, I still consider them an upper-echelon opponent.  But I'm predicting this will be the year we see definitive evidence that Father Time may be the ultimate unschoolable foe.

Prediction: A win total in the low 50's and 5th in the west.