Richard Jefferson can make a big difference because he can score on the drive and he runs the floor so well, which gives them somebody to play in the open floor with Tony Parker. He can play the 2 and the 3, and he is still a good defender. If Manu Ginobili is healthy like they say, they can make a big championship run. If he is hurt off and on like usual during the regular season, maybe they can survive it because Jefferson can step in and fill the role of getting them 20 points a night.
Jefferson is a guy with Finals experience during his years in New Jersey. He has played a lot of different styles and he has been coached, so he's going to fit in real easy. There are plenty of ways to plug him into their playbook, and he understands the team concepts from his years of playing with two very good players who controlled the ball in Jason Kidd and Vince Carter. Coming over from a losing team in Milwaukee, he's going to be happy every day. I keep thinking of the easy baskets he's going to get from running the floor with Parker. They've kept trying to draft kids or bring in guys to do that, but they've never had the complete package they're getting from Jefferson.
If everyone is healthy, I figure their best lineup in the fourth quarter is going to be Parker, Ginobili, Jefferson, Tim Duncan and Antonio McDyess -- which is really good. It's why I'm picking them to win the championship.
As far as the health of their key players, the most important one is Parker. If he goes down, that's a big hole that can't be filled because Parker has already been through it all playing for Gregg Popovich. His point guards have to be strong-minded people who can think on their own. George Hill was good for a while last year as a rookie backup until people started game-planning against him and Pop started demanding more from him. They lack a great backup point, and they may miss Jacque Vaughn for the few reliable minutes he used to give them.
After Parker, Duncan's health is the next most important. If Timmy is hurt here and there during the season, they can still have McDyess as somebody who can score in the same areas of the floor. They can afford small injuries during the season and still come in with a high seed. But they need to find a way to have everyone healthy going into the playoffs.
I thought Duncan looked pretty good last year. They can't depend as much on him as they used to, and most of the time he's playing center instead of power forward, especially on defense. He can't play the 4 and guard Dirk Nowitzki all over the floor. By defending the center, he can use his intelligence, skills and size to guard Erick Dampier or other big men. On offense, his role doesn't change much. He doesn't run the floor and finish coming down the lane like he used to. He has continued to improve his passing over the years. I don't think he's as active blocking shots, but he still affects the game that way. He's still among the league leaders in rebounding. He shoots a high percentage and his free-throw shooting is improving.
McDyess will end up playing a lot with Duncan, and then he'll shift into Duncan's role when he goes to the bench and they go smaller. Jefferson could even play some 4 in those lineups.
McDyess was a great pickup because it's been a long time since they've had a second frontcourt scorer they could depend on. Plus, he has been a tremendous rebounder the last two years. He's a 35-year-old who has missed hardly any games because of injury over the last five years since he had his knee surgeries, so they may be playing with fire a little bit there because they need him to stay healthy.
Ginobili is their biggest health risk. His game hasn't changed very much over the years, but I wonder if Pop wishes he would change some more -- that he pick his spots and wouldn't play with reckless abandon all of the time so he could stay healthier. As far as changes, whereas he used drive and finish with a dunk, he's finishing with a lot more layups now, though he'll still dunk on you if you fall asleep on him. He used to run floor all the way, but now he runs to the three-point line more. When he runs to the three-point line, he runs there to get you to bite and then he's going to up-fake and drive the ball inside. Maybe his consistency in finishing is not quite what it used to be, but I don't see a big drop-off in style.
Parker is the second-best point guard in the league. I still have Steve Nash at No. 1 with Parker just behind him. Parker is up there so high because he does a lot of different things and he's done it at the championship level. He doesn't shoot the three as well as some of the other top point guards, but he has gotten better every year, and at 27 he's not much older than Chris Paul or Deron Williams. He's just as fast as any of those other point guards, and he takes smart shots and shoots a higher percentage than they do. He hits big shots and he does all of that while still running his team at a championship level, which is the biggest thing of all. He has won conference championships and NBA championships, while Paul and Williams haven't achieved that level yet.
Roger Mason has the ability to back up Parker, so maybe Mason's ability to play both guard spots enabled them to let go of Vaughn. Mason's minutes should be down a bit this year, though he'll still be an important guy in the rotation because he can shoot the ball. He was another guy who was making those big shots at the end of games until teams started to game-plan against him, and then once he had that attention and teams were taking away some of his stuff, he didn't have an answer for it. But he still shoots the ball well, he makes his free throws and he plays good defense. He seems to have a lot of positives, though I just don't know if he's been through the wars enough for Pop to depend on him when it really matters.
Michael Finley still makes shots and still plays hard. He's smart enough to take advantage of opportunities when he gets them. Matt Bonner isn't a great driver, but he shoots the ball so well out to the three-point line that it takes pressure off Duncan because you have to guard Bonner out there. He plays hard, and though he's not a great defender, he is crafty and he guards well enough to let Duncan stay back in the paint. He's bought into everything they've asked him to do.
If they can get anything out of rookie forward DeJuan Blair, that would be a bonus. Everybody seems to be high on him, but I'm not so sure. He's really short and heavy, and if he's not playing a lot, he can become really heavy. That alone worries me more than all of the talk about his knee problems. Another new big man for them, Theo Ratliff, is as serviceable as any of the guys they've had in the post in recent years. He can still run the floor and block shots here and there. I like the pickup of Keith Bogans because he's another multidimensional guy who can defend and knock down threes while fitting in with their style of play. Marcus Haislip, who came over from Europe, will end up being a guy who can fill in. He is a pretty good athlete who is more of a face-up shooter like Bonner. He has the skills to give them as much as they got from Kurt Thomas the last couple of years.
I wonder if they see potential any longer in young big man Ian Mahinmi. In the summer league, he never does anything that makes you say, Wow. Occasionally he'll run the floor for a tip-dunk. He's long, he can block shots and he runs, but overall I don't see it.
Let's not put too big of an emphasis on the players at the end of their rotation. If they go deep in the playoffs and challenge the Lakers, that means their Big Three as well as McDyess are all healthy, which enables the other guys to serve as seventh, eighth and ninth men. And in that kind of limited role, I would have confidence in them too.
One reason Popovich is so successful is that he's his own boss. He doesn't have to worry about keeping his job every day, and so he can rest his players and pace them through the season with more confidence than a lot of other coaches. But they've also built a philosophy based on the whole team rather than the individuals. If one guy is out one night, they have somebody who steps in and knows the role well enough as the backup guy because they drill him on it so well. He promotes a lot of confidence among the guys who aren't starters. The best thing about Pop is that he holds everybody to the same standard. If Duncan or Parker messes up, he'll get on him just as hard as he'll get on Hill when he messes up. So everybody feels like they're part of the whole on the same level. And even though there obviously are differences in who is playing and who isn't, he holds everybody to the same standard of accountability. As a guy coming off the bench, you can appreciate that.
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