Last year, they did a great job of remaining in contention despite injuries. But during the second round against Phoenix, you could see that Tim Duncan isn't as dominant as he was and that small ball can hurt them.
The Spurs can go small themselves, and Gregg Popovich has changed with the times and has been able to match up with the high-scoring teams. But the ability to slow down and feed Duncan is not the strength it used to be. So they do need another big guy to help Duncan remain effective, and that's why it's so important for Tiago Splitter to become a big member of their frontcourt and give them a chance to stay where they are or maybe even push for a spot in the Western finals.
Splitter looks like an NBA player. He has size [6-foot-11, 232 pounds] and knows how to score around the basket. It's hard to forecast how his game will translate from Europe, but there is no team better at developing players to fit its system. I saw it with George Hill, especially in terms of him being able to run pick-and-rolls.
With Duncan, you see more teams not having to double him as much in the post, going with more single coverage instead. Part of that has to do with the Spurs going with more shooters around him. You can also see on defense he's not what he used to be. People are scoring on him more, and he's not as quick to come over against the drives. He doesn't show out to the three-point line and still get back inside like he did. But that's all natural for someone with his mileage.
I see Duncan as a center, whether they go with four smalls around or they pair him with DeJuan Blair or Splitter or Antonio McDyess. They can call him a forward, but he has to play like a center and guard the bigger guys.
Let's not write him off. He's a pro whose ego is built around the needs of the team. Hes not stuck in the "I'm Tim Duncan, give me the ball" mode you see from other stars as they get older. I get the impression he's very honest with himself as far as what he can and can't do. All he really cares about is winning the games, and he's nothing like Patrick Ewing was at the end when he was just out there. Duncan is still effective. He's just not dominant.
That face-up bank shot is still money, and when he does get a double team, he is excellent at reading the defense. He directs his defense by figuring out what teams are doing with their counters and he communicates it to his teammates, not just during the play but also in between plays when you can see him speaking with and leading the younger guys like a coach on the floor. He might not be able to solve the problem by himself, but he can understand what the solutions are and work his teammates to get it right.
Manu Ginobili continues to amaze me. He's a much, much, much better pick-and-roll player than he was in the early parts of his career. He's as good in the pick-and-roll now as anybody. And his shooting is better than it used to be when he was known mainly as a creative finisher and streaky shooter. You still want to let him prove that he's shooting it well, but overall he's a better shooter with range than he was.
When I hear rumors of Parker leaving the Spurs, I don't think it has as much to do with the improvement of Hill as it has to do with improvement of Ginobili in the pick-and-roll. In those situations, Ginobili is basically the point guard and Hill is the guy who can spot up and shoot with much better range than Parker. But it's because Ginobili is the one making the plays and tilting the defense, and that makes Parker somewhat redundant.
Hill showed great progress last year. He already had a really nice shooting stroke coming into the league, and now he clearly feels more comfortable handling the ball and bringing it up the floor and running the pick-and-roll out of their set offense. Hill fits the style of the scoring point guards you see in the league today. Defensively, he's better than Parker in a lot of ways, including the fact that he has longer arms and can contest shots more consistently.
I haven't seen a drop-off in Parker as long as he's been healthy. There was a time when everyone was raving about the way he'd developed his shooting. But the truth is he's still not a good shooter. That said, Parker will have a lot of teams interested in him as a free agent next summer. Unless Hill has a setback, I just don't see them being able to afford to keep Parker.
Blair was very good at hitting the offensive board as a rookie, and he was excellent at reading the screen and then waiting for the right moment to roll to the basket. That's the kind of timing you usually see in an older player who knows how long to wait in that little pocket area. It showed me he has a good basketball mind. He's not tall and we all knew about his knee issues coming into the draft, but his ability to finish around the basket was very good. He carves out space inside and makes himself available for easy passes. Blair's lack of height is a challenge. As a defender, even though he's strong enough to keep big guys from going to their spots, there's only so much he can do inside against the longer scorers.
McDyess finished last season well. He has become a reliable mid-range shooter toward the end of his career, and he's an older guy who is going to make all of the fundamental plays. He's the kind of guy who becomes most valuable during the playoffs.
Richard Jefferson took time to find out how he could fit into their system, and it also took time for them to see what he was all about. There was probably some resistance from Jefferson based on what he thought of himself, and for a while I thought they were going to give up on him. You could see he was pressing. They gave him one play consistently to try to get him going -- they flexed him off and put him in the post and that became his play. Instead of featuring him within the system, they decided to run a play for him. His role appears to be as a post-up small forward. It's still not a beautiful marriage, but I guess it takes a while to get used to the Spurs' habits.
Matt Bonner is a good fit as one of the top-shooting big men from the three-point line. When he comes in, you have to be aware of him and he changes their look. He's no Robert Horry, but he's filling the same kind of role.
Popovich has been at it forever, but he still seems like a competitive guy who loves a challenge. He looks like he enjoys coaching the younger guys -- Hill, at least -- and isn't as frustrated as he used to be.
Deep down, they probably feel like the Lakers and the Heat are superior to them. But anything can happen -- all it takes is one injury -- and they can fall back on their experience and also say they haven't been completely healthy for a while, and so what could we do if we were healthy for once?
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