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Know thy enemy: San Antonio Spurs

October 25, 2009 | 10:43 am
Last Season: 54-28.  First in the Southwest Division.  Third in the Western Conference.
Key Additions: Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, Theo Ratliff, Keith Bogans.  Drafted DeJuan Blair.
Key Subtractions: Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto, Kurt Thomas, Drew Gooden
, Ime Udoka
Adaptation-6 As a professional courtesy, whenever I ask a blogger to provide content for ours, I go out of my way to emphasize that my request shouldn't become a burden.  After all, that writer may be juggling a job or two beyond his blogging duties.  Believe me, I know that particular drill.  Thus, I don't want a favor for Lakers Blog to feel like some mammoth albatross of a writing assignment hanging around their neck.  Thus, when I tapped Pounding the Rock's Wayne Vore for some tidbits about the San Antonio Spurs, I offered very specific instructions: DO NOT feel obligated to give me 2000 words for each question.  Vore's response?   

"If you think you're aren't getting 2000 words for each of these, you don't understand how excited Spurs fans are for this season."

Very well, then.

Andrew Kamenetzky: The Spurs' pickup of Richard Jefferson is being labeled by some analysts as the offseason's best Richard Jefferson droves move.  How well do you see  RJ fitting in and how dangerous does he make the Spurs this season?  In particular, I think he's terrific insurance for what feels (unfortunately) like the inevitable Manu injury.  Do you anticipate any issues with the Big Three becoming a Big Four?  In terms of balance, egos, etc?  Or will everyone gladly co-exist?

        Wayne Vore: Immaculately.  I just don’t see an issues with touches and a Big Four.  I think a couple interesting things have happened that will help.  One, Manu (Ginobli) flat out stated at Media Day that Tony (Parker) was the offensive leader of the team.  He said it as the lead-in to answering a question about how much Tim (Duncan) has left in the tank.  Manu said it just naturally happened.  Two, RJ said right up front that when the Spurs acquired him that his role was to be defensive stopper.  I finally got to watch him play last Tuesday against the Thunder and he looked great.  You could tell that he was really focused on working hard against Durant. 

Lastly, I don’t think the Spurs would have brought him in if they thought it would be an issue in any way.  They don’t take those kind of gambles.

Speaking of the Big Three, all have dealt with various health issues over the last season and offseason.  How have they looked so far?  I know Ginobli was held out a bit during preseason.  Does that create any concern?  Duncan swam during the summer- his original sport!- to slim down and lessen the wear on his body.  Can you see a difference?

        The Big Three have all been held out, but everybody over 23 has been held out.  Even Jefferson.  TonyTim Duncan shoots a hook shot looks great.  He sprained an ankle very early last season, but has been healthy ever since.  Well, I guess he banged a knee or something this summer at EuroBasket Qualifying, but he’s at full speed.  Manu looks good physically.  He doesn’t look great basketball-wise.  More than any other player on the Spurs, he is a rhythm guy.  It will take him a while to get his rhythm.  I expect a fully brilliant Manu about the first of December. 

     Tim is hard to judge.  He’s wearing a knee brace now.  When I saw him play, I didn’t think he looked  really athletic and mobile.  Then I realized that I had NEVER seen Tim play from the front row and that I’ve NEVER seen Tim be athletic and mobile.  He’s just always quietly effective.  If I have a concern, it is that his knee isn’t 100%.  We’ll never know if it isn’t and he’s hard to judge because he’s never been a high flier.  I do know this.  He is in fantastic shape.  He’s dropped about 20 pounds from last season.  I got the chance to see him from about five feet away in the locker room and he is ripped.  His body fat has to be under 2%.  It really caught me by surprise.  For a brief moment, I thought it was an internet ad and almost said, “Did you really do that in four weeks”?

DeJuan Blair is being talked up as the steal of the draft.  How impressive has he looked and how much time do you think he'll get on a veteran, elite team?

        Holy cow DeJuan Blair has been good.  Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress told me at Summer League that we were going to love him as he shook his head in disgust at the teams that passed on Blair.  I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but I think Jonathon was trying to tell me, “Really, you guys have no idea how good this guy is." 

        He’s not just a physical bully under the basket.  Two things about Blair really stand out besides his motor and rebounding ability.  One, he has fantastic feet.  His footwork is tremendous when attacking offensively.  He gets a great wide base, he spins, he fakes, he leverages his low center of gravity, and he is quick.  A lot of bigger men will have a hard time defending him in the blocks.  Two, he has unbelievable DeJuan Blair shoots a layup hands.   They are crazy strong and big which you would assume from somebody who rebounds like he does.  But, the thing that makes him special, is that he has great touch around the basket.  He’s a natural scorer.

        I’d say he’s a guaranteed first team rookie for another team.  On the Spurs, he’s going to have a hard time getting minutes.  This will probably be THE story (besides health) of the Spurs season.  Popovich wanting to give minutes to McDyess and Ratliff so they can learn the system for the playoffs, and Blair’s play forcing Popovich to give him more minutes.  Already every question from the media is about Blair.  I expect it to continue.  He’s got special written all over him and he has a mammoth chip on his shoulder.

(AK's note: Vore's take on the Blair/Pop/Dice-Ratliff situation isn't just an interesting observation.  It reinforces a point BK and I have repeatedly made when people claim that "unlike other coaches, Phil Jackson won't play rookies" or "unlike other coaches, Phil Jackson prefers veterans and hates taking chances on young players."  Aside from said claims often being grossly exaggerated, the truth is that EVERY coach would rather play a veteran over a rookie/undeveloped player, particularly on a very good team.  Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule- Courtney Lee's debut with Orlando last season providing a nice example- but overwhelmingly, most coaches will lean on experience over inexperience every day of the week.  It's not a "PJ thing.") 

Another very good pick up was Antonio McDyess.  How is he fitting in and how instrumental can he be in keeping Duncan fresh and mentoring Blair?

        I don’t watch much basketball besides the Spurs, so McDyess has been off my radar for a couple years.  I don’t know what he can bring.  So far, he’s looked solid but not spectacular and that is what his role will be.  If he’s scoring 8-10 points per game and grabbing 8 rebounds per game then the Spurs are ecstatic.  I think his role is more than "keeping Duncan fresh."  I think his role is "making us much better."  He’s a better rebounder than any of the big men we had last year and I think he gives us a chance to be more aggressive.  That needs some explaining, but it comes later on.

George Hill's rookie season was a very pleasant surprise.  How big a step can he take next season and how important is it for the team that he does?

        George was a nice surprise last year, and he looks so much better this year it is scary.  Popovich has repeatedly called Hill the best player in camp and his play in the games has supported that claim.  I could not be higher on George.  His defense really stood out last year and he struggled on offense.  It’s very early, but it looks like he figured the offense thing out.  The only thing keeping me from being even more enthusiastic is the story of (Jordan) Farmar last year.  Everybody was raving about how good he looked in preseason and that he was going to be huge, then he ended up losing playing time to Shannon Brown.  I’m betting George is great, but I also have the preseason crazies.

Call me a bandwagoneer, but I consider age and injury (which, to some degree, go hand in hand) the biggest issues for SA.  I mentioned this when I posed questions to you last season.  You responded by saying you "didn't give a rat's ass" about age, since every team ages every season.  Do you still feel the same way, given how hard the injury bug hit the Spurs in 2009?  What are your concerns about this team, if any?  Are there any weaknesses that didn't get addressed?

        Yeah, I know, I know.  Strong words always come back to bite you, but I swear it wasn’t age it was bad luck.  Ha.  I guess I still don’t care about the Spurs age.  I care about their health.  When you care about age, you are talking about whether guys have lost a step or not, and whether they can still perform athletically at a high level.  In that sense, I’m not concerned at all.  Injuries?  Yeah, that’s all anybody talks about.  You have to be healthy at the end of the regular season.  If they had a weakness from last year that they didn’t address in the offseason, I’d say George Hill addressed it himself.  The Spurs were really needy at the backup point guard position last season.  After that, I guess I would say a lockdown wing defender.  RJ won’t be a Bruce Bowen, but those are kind of hard to come by.

Even if you aren't concerned about age, it appears the front office is.  They threw caution to their typically "cost conscious" wind and absorbed Jefferson's contract, signed Dice, etc.  Those moves feel like an acknowledgment of Big Three's window is shutting and last season's first round exit.  Do you agree with my observation?  Do you agree with the notion of a window shutting

        I think the front office saw two things.  Yes, the window is starting to close.  Tim Duncan said it straight out at media day that his window was closing so I think you can consider that an organization-level feeling.  However, I think there was a little bit more to it than that.  I think they also saw a buyer’s market.  This isn’t the Blazers, Nuggets or Mavs of years past going way over the cap to have mediocre to mid-level playoff teams.  I think the Spurs believe they put themselves right at the top of the league with a handful of teams that have a chance to win.  As a businessman, when you take a risky move it had better be one that Popovich-thumb-200x160separates you from others.  I think the Spurs did just that.

(AK's Note: Very interesting point about "the buyer's market."  I never looked at San Antonio's moves that way, but the rationale makes sense.)

I haven't seen Pop this preseason.  Please tell me grew that crazy hillbilly beard again.  If not, any  word of plans to do so.  I know we were both fans of that look.

        CastawayUnfortunately, the Castaway beard is not back.  I haven’t got up the nerve, yet, to ask him about his grooming.  Maybe a little later in the season.

 (AK's Note: "Castaway beard."  That's solid.  Much better than "crazy hillbilly beard."  I wish I'd come up with that one.  Damn you, Wayne Vore!!!)

What are your impressions of this year's team?

        Dangerous.  Very dangerous.  I think the Spurs are significantly better on both ends of the floor this
year.  You need to know two stats about the ’09 Spurs.  They were by far the best defensive rebounding team and by far the worst offensive rebounding team.  I don’t think anybody would have guessed the first one.  The Spurs grabbed 78% of their defensive rebounds.  Nobody else was significantly close, statistically speaking (Orlando was next at 76%).  The Spurs only grabbed 22% of offensive rebounds and nobody was even close to that bad.   I think the Spurs commitment to defensive, both keeping guys back to defensive rebound and not trying to offensive rebound, hurt their offense a lot.  If Tony Parker wasn’t scoring on his one-man fast break then the Spurs weren’t scoring in the open court.  Therefore, I think the additions of McDyess, Blair, and Ratliff will allow the Spurs to be more aggressive about leaking an extra man out to run the floor.

        In the offensive sets, I think teams are going to have a lot of trouble defending the Spurs.  We had too many guys last year that were one-dimensional.  We had a LOT of spot up shooters who were ineffective off the dribble.  Once you forced Tim or Tony to pass, all you had to do was run at whoever caught the ball.  (Matt) Bonner, (Michael) Finley, Udoka, (Roger) Mason, Bowen.  Did any of those guys scare you once you forced them off the 3-point line and they were attacking off the dribble (add to those guys Oberto and Kurt Thomas)?  No?  Well, they scared me.  I think that changes now with Jefferson and Hill and Blair.  We have additional guys that can attack you from the inside.  I think it may be a subtle thing and none of those individuals will have great numbers, but the floor balance and diversity will be pretty overwhelming for a lot of teams.

        Which gets back to the earlier points about health and rest.  I believe the Spurs will be a very deep and diverse team on the offensive end this year.  They won’t have to work Tim hard.  They won’t have to work Manu hard.  Last year, our non-Big Three were all role players who fit in with a certain skill.  None of them could create a shot.  None of them really could even make a play defensively.  We were hoping at best to play you even.  Now, I think we have a bunch of guys who can make plays.  The addition of Jefferson gives the ability to always have two very good offensive players on the court at all times.  Hill, Blair, McDyess, and Ratliff can make the hustle plays.  Block shots.  Get steals.  Get offensive rebounds.  Yes, I know McDyess and Ratliff are old and may not be your typical energetic young second unit,  but remember, I’m comparing them to Oberto and Thomas and Matt Bonner and Ime Udoka and Jacque Vaughn.

         We’ll still rely on the Big Three or Four to win in the end.  Those guys are great players and you win with great players.  I think we have a far better supporting cast that may be able to make some regular season games against lower level teams easier, and help make plays in the playoffs.

        Right now, I think the Lakers and Spurs are far and away the top 2 teams in the West.  I’d put the Lakers just above the Spurs.  I think the Spurs have to prove they can get back to playing really good defense (which took a big step back last year) and that they can get a several new people comfortable in the system.  I think the Lakers have to prove that (Ron) Artest can fit in.  When you are at that level of nitpicky in pointing out a team’s weaknesses, you are just looking for something to say to fill out the ‘negatives’ box on the form.  Injuries will change the landscape of the season.  They weed out some teams every year.  They got the Celtics (and to a lesser extent the Spurs) last year.  Who will they get this year?

Another very solid scouting report from PTR (and you have to respect Vore's lack of "homer-ism," placing the Lakers ahead of the Spurs).  It's hard to disagree with any claim that, health provided, San Antonio is primed to at least push the Lakers for "Conference Best" honors.  Having said that, however, I'm predicting any comparability in talent won't be reflected by comparability in record, because, as Vore noted, "they won't have to work Tim hard." 

I would actually take it one step further.  To some degree, I think the Spurs will be working anybody too hard.  Not that games will get the "Cliff Clavin" treatment, but in order to make a playoff push, San Antonio needs healthy bodies.  What they don't need, however, doesn't need home court advantage.  Five members of the team have at least one ring, and I don't picture Jefferson, McDyess or Ratliff getting rattled by boos.  Because of the way I'm picturing San Antonio's season being paced, their record in mid-April might not reflect how dangerous they'll be in the days that follow. 

If the San Antonio Spurs of the last ten years were a book, their author would be someone with the respect of a Mark Twain, so I'm not sure why anybody would judge them by their cover (i.e, their W-L clip).  But if you happen to be one of those who geeks out on book jackets, check yourself before reading too much into this novel's cover art.  It may not immediately catch your eye, but there's likely to be something worthwhile brewing on the page.

Prediction: 53-29.  First in the Southwest Division.  Fourth in the Western Conference.


Photo: Richard Jefferson drives the lane.  Credit: Jerry Lara/Express-News
Photo: Tim Duncan shoots a hook shot: Credit: Kin Man Hui/Express-News
Photo: DeJuan Blair shoots a layup.  Credit: Jerry Lara/Express-News