The Spurs are off today (and have practice – actual practice – tomorrow), so I’m going to ask myself some questions that have been bouncing around in my head about the team and some of the players.
What Do the Talking Heads Think About the Spurs?
I predicted yesterday that there would be an ESPN article about the Spurs’ surge any day now and sure enough, John Hollinger did not let me down. As much as I like Hollinger – and I think he is the best guy on ESPN hands-down – this article is a little premature and somewhat optimistic. For those without ESPN Insider, the summary of the article is this: the Spurs have won 6 straight, 5 of them over +.500 teams; they are posting essentially the same point differential (his major stat to use as a predictor of playoff success) as the Thunder; they are 2nd in his daily statistical Power Rankings; the Spurs front office has been absolutely tremendous in finding and acquiring talent, even without any draft pick higher than 20 since the Duncan selection; and, even better than their selection of players has been their player development, where good players find their roles, play within themselves, and contribute to the team as a whole. Hollinger essentially says the Spurs bench is playing better than any bench in the league. On the whole, it’s a solid write-up about our favorite team and highlights how well they have done with very limited resources.
Two other articles which were interesting: one from Austin Link from TeamRankings.com (and also ESPN Insider) about 3 trades that could improve the Spurs; and two, from Henry Abbott on TrueHoop about Pop. Abbott is the only other ESPN guy I really like. The trade article is bunk; the three players that this guy suggested were O.J. Mayo from Memphis, Anthony Randolph from the T’Wolves, and Anderson Varajao from Cleveland. The only one of those guys I’d have any interest in is Varajao, and I still think the price would be too high. Link suggested Bonner, Kawhi, and Anderson for him; I think it’s fair to say Pop is personally going to veto any trade involving Leonard. Even without Leonard in the deal, I’m not sure Varajao picks up the Spurs system quick enough to be useful this year. The Abbott article was written 6 games ago, after the Battle of Dallas, where the bench crew almost pulled out a win. It’s good stuff about what that win might mean later and seems prescient after the results of the 6 games since.
Can the Bench Guys Get a Better Nickname than “Shock Troops”, as Bill Land Calls Them?
Yes. Now, please. Suggestions are welcomed.
What Does the Rotation Look Like When Manu Returns?
Ok, before we speculate, let’s look at some things we know:
- Pop has already said Manu will begin by coming off the bench.
- Tony Parker has been playing at the highest of levels and has developed excellent chemistry with Tiago.
- Blair plays his best with Manu on the floor.
- RJ has been struggling mightily in the last 10 games or so, both with his shot and his defense.
- Leonard, Green, and Neal have all started games already at the 2 with Manu out.
That’s what we know. Here’s what I think:
- I assume that the SG spot continues to be a committee by rotation, based on matchups, with either Leonard, Green, or Neal filling that spot.
- I believe Manu’s days starting are over; Pop will bring him off the bench for the rest of the season.
- I believe that Pop will bench Blair and start Tiago before we hit game 40; this will help play Tim and Tiago (and Tony) more minutes together and puts Manu and Blair on the floor together more.
- I think that RJ might move to the bench before the end of the regular season as well, which would give Leonard a permanent spot at 3. The 2 spot would probably be Neal, as it would difficult to put two non-shooters out there to start. But I also would not be surprised to see Pop go back to Anderson at some point either. If RJ does continue to start, I would see his minutes declining.
- Cory Joseph is headed back to Austin as soon as T.J. Ford can step on the court. I like the guy and I wish Pop would play him, but it’s clear (after a 24-second showing in Philly) that Pop does not trust him yet.
Is Tiago Really This Good?
Tiago is only averaging 20 minutes per game. His 40-minute numbers are impressive: 18 points, 10 boards, 2 assists and he has a PER (Hollinger’s super stat) over 19 right now, in his limited minutes. Can he replicate this if his minutes were expanded? I don’t know if it would be 18 points, but 15-16 is probably a pretty good number. His two key strengths offensively are his footwork and his mobility; those things won’t diminish against starters or decline with additional minutes. And against teams with inferior frontlines (this just in: there are a lot of them), Tiago can be dominate. As an example, take the Houston game Timmy sat out: 32 minutes, 25-10-4. He’s not going to do that against the Dwight Howards and Andrew Bynums of the world, but not many teams have centers of that caliber either. In short, I think Tiago is an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with and I’m ready for Splitter to get additional time on the floor to prove it. Free Tiago!
Is Kawhi Leonard the Bruce Bowen 2.0?
Maybe. A lot of that depends on Chip Engelland, the Spurs’ shooting coach. We always talk about Bruce’s defense, which was exceptional. But Bruce stayed on the floor in playoff games because teams had to keep a man in the corner to guard Bruce. If the defender went to help, Bruce shot and made enough to keep defenses honest. That simple fact is one of the cornerstones of the Spurs offense. When that defender cannot help in the paint, everything runs smoother: the lane is more open for drives, the post can get a cleaner pass, and there is less traffic for screeners to find the man that needs to be picked off. If that defender does help, nail a trey. It’s really a simple offense from that perspective. Kawhi needs to live at Chip’s house this summer and shoot about 10,000 corner treys. Let’s talk about Kawhi again in November and see where he is before we anoint him. Don’t misread this at all: I love the guy. But he has to be an offensive threat if he’s going to get major minutes, especially in the playoffs.
Do the Spurs Have a Chance at a Ring This Year?
Ah, finally, the big question. The answer is yes, because in this nutty season, with a compressed schedule and teams that seem to be thrown together at the last minute (because they were), anything can happen. I think this is a year where seeding does not matter as much as health. So, healthy, fresh teams will perform better come playoff time than others. Pop will make sure his guys are fresh by limiting minutes, even at the expense of wins. If they are healthy, they have a chance. And the sky is blue.
OK, Smartypants, Do the Spurs Need to Make a Trade to Have a Decent Chance?
Now, that’s the real question. My gut says yes. I’m terrified of going into the playoffs with 3.5 bigs (Bonner and Blair only count as .75 of a big each, so 3.5 total), so it stands to reason that they need to make a deal for another big man to be competitive. Seems like each of the major contenders this season have a big that will outskill Bonner and overwhelm Blair with size.
But guess what? Every single NBA team is looking for a mobile big guy who can defend. That’s why a Jamaal Magloire made the All-Star team a while back – there are just not enough good bigs to go around. I think we have two really good ones who can score and defend. And two others who can score sometimes and defend sometimes. So, yes, a Varajao or Chris Kaman or someone would help. But can a new big get integrated into the defensive scheme during a shortened season? And more importantly, what assets would we have to give up to get that big guy? I don’t think RJ is in much demand trade-wise. That leaves some combination of Leonard, Blair, Bonner, Anderson, and Neal as legitimate trade bait. Not exactly a group that NBA teams are dying to have. I think 3 of those guys – Bonner, Leonard, and Neal – have more value in the Spurs system than anywhere else they might go.
Here’s the other factor that’s in my mind: chemistry is a fascinating thing. It is unmeasurable, untrackable, and creating it requires skill, psychology, experience, familiarity, and a lot of luck. But I think this team has it. Watching the bench guys rally in Dallas while the starters cheered like the A team rooting for the B team at a middle school game was one of my favorite moments of the season. The way the bench is playing – completely over their heads from a skill perspective – is indicative of a group who are more than the sum of the individuals. Watching this team – starters and scrubs alike – share the ball, cover and hustle on defense, rush to pick up teammates who fall down, and high-five their way down the bench after coming out – all of these are signs. This team likes each other, plays well together, and believes in each other. I think there is a special chemistry brewing in San Antonio and I think Pop is going to be reticent to mess that up.
So, I suspect Buford will make some phone calls about several guys, like Varajao, Kaman, Batum, Okafor, and others. And I also suspect that when the proposals are made, they will be deemed to high, because everyone will want Leonard and no one will take Jefferson.
And I think I’m ok with that. To be honest, if you asked me who to trade right now to get a big, I’d say there are only 3 guys to discuss: either Bonner or Blair (not both), James Anderson, and Jefferson. That’s it. Anyone else, unless it’s a ridiculous Pau-Gasol-to-the-Lakers kind of deal, and I say no. Because I love watching this team. I have not enjoyed watching a Spurs team this much since George Hill’s rookie year and before that, it was the 2007 title team. Chemistry is a fascinating thing. Bad chemistry makes talented teams look terrible (right, Knick fans?) and good chemistry makes average teams overachieve. I’d rather be in that second group.
So, if a no-brainer of a deal becomes available, you do it. Otherwise, let’s see how Pop’s chemistry experiment plays itself out. I think he’s a pretty good chemist and I think he loves watching this team as much as we do. As for a chance at a title, sure, it’s there, with or without a trade. And with or without a title at the end, I’m still going to love watching this team and the chemistry experiment it is, all season long.