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Doomy and Gloomy as I Head East

By Michael Erler on January 16, 2008.

Hello once again, my pretties. I come to you from my humble home where I will lay on my humble bed for the last time this evening until January 23rd or so. I am off to the Big Apple for a week’s vacation where the itinerary has me attending my sister’s graduation from the CIA, (That would be the Culinary Institute of America, not the assassin academy. Then again, with her cooking…) spending the weekend gambling with greasy Italians in Atlantic City, (I’ve never been) and then sightseeing in Manhattan for a couple days before returning home. We’ll eat at insanely priced restaurants, take cabs driven by men with eight consecutive consonants in their surnames, and freeze our collective tuchuses off. I don’t know how many of the next four Spurs games I’ll be able to watch live, but I’m Tivo-ing them all and will get to them at some point. But yeah, don’t expect much contact from Stampler for a while.

Sadly, the truth is that this doesn’t even depress me, not being able to write. The Spurs are slogging their way through January in a fog, a daze, a slumber, whatever random noun you’d prefer. This is a team that couldn’t be less interested in playing basketball right now. You see it out there in their collective body language every night. I’d like to say it’s embarrassing, but that’s not even the right word for it. More like, it’s realistic.

I think with basketball and hockey, where each conference has so many playoff spots, and a handful of teams in each conference know they’re going to the playoffs before the season even starts, the regular seasons are treated almost like a chore by the veteran players, not much different than an extended training camp. I mean, the players and coaches all humor themselves and humor the fans by pretending that any of it matters, but deep inside we all know that it doesn’t. They could play their tails off every night and win 65 or they could act like 15 Robert Horry’s, throw their uniforms out there and win 45. What we inevitably get is something in the middle. The main goal for the players is to stay relatively healthy, cash the paychecks, get plenty of groupie sex on road trips, (I don’t care if they look like model husbands, no Spur having a mistress or ten on the side would surprise me, and that includes everybody – frankly it would explain why sometimes they don’t have their legs on game night) and to finish the regular season as something resembling a cohesive team.

Right now it looks like the guys are just plain sick of each other, the way families get sick of each other when everyone goes on vacation for a week and you’re forced to spend all of your time together, often in confined spaces. Consider the service time as Spurs for this roster: The Big Four (add Bruce) have been together for six years now. That’s an eternity for four teammates in the NBA, especially when you add all the playoff games into the mix. Horry came long one year later. Brent, a year after him. That’s six guys – half of what will be the playoff roster, barring trades – who’ve known each other for four years. Fab and Fin came along in ’06. That’s eight guys, three years. Bonner, Vaughn and Elson last year. An unfathomable eleven guys returning to defend the title. I’m not sure the ’05 Red Sox had that many. I think the fellas are tired of hearing the same speeches from Pop, doing the same drills in practice, hearing (and telling) the same old stories on the road. Even the new guy has to be ingrained by now, right? I’m certain by now that every last man on the team knows all about the life and times of Ime Udoka.

Maybe what we’re witnessing here goes beyond mere complacency and boredom and is starting to enter into the realm of bitterness and animosity. God, I hope not – these are the Spurs after all, the most professional team in all the land – but you see the signs. Guys seem to be annoyed more and more by their teammates’ weaknesses yet not at all uplifted or inspired by their strengths. You can only witness, as a member of the big three, so many Tim Duncan bankshots, Tony Parker lay-ups and Manu Ginobili three pointers as a teammate before you start getting ticked off by how many times Tim goes up soft and gets stuffed, how many times Tony tumbles into three people on the break instead of giving it up and how many times Manu seems content to merrily float along for three quarters before going into “hero” mode.

I’m not trying to start shit, believe me. But am I crazy or was the 1st half of that Piston game the most disjointed performance by the big three we’ve seen since 2005? It’s not that Tony and Manu played poorly. We’ve seen them play plenty of stinkers, and Tim too, of course. No, the problem was much more severe than that. Here, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this before, all three guys played selfishly – AT THE SAME TIME. Not only where they weren’t looking for each other, they were reluctant to pass the ball to anyone period. It was gruesome to watch and not representative at all of the Spurs basketball we’ve come to appreciate and expect. The highlight of the game was Charles Barkley telling America that Rasheed Wallace could be the best player in the NBA if “he had the killer in-stink.”

That’s what the world needs, an angrier, more violent ‘Sheed.

Anyway, the big three certainly seemed at odds with each other. Who knows what the problem is?Maybe it’s the All-Star fever in Tony’s case. Maybe Manu’s overcompensating for missing games with his finger injury and pressing to play at the level he was at for the first 20 games, which was, realistically, an almost impossible pace for him to keep up. Tim can’t seem to string too many solid games together and the guards never know what they’re going to get from him in terms of effort each night. It’s all very much a struggle and the offense that looked so seamless and unstoppable early on is now an eyesore.

Individually, they’re all struggling in different ways. Tim has no lift and some days he’s more aggressive with his post moves than others. Also his defensive focus comes and goes. But he was very good the second half vs. Detroit and almost singlehandedly kept the team from getting embarrassed badly by some humiliating score of 90-65 or something. The next couple games after that he was back in the teens in scoring and had only nine combined free throw attempts. Through it all, he’s the one I’m the least concerned with. He’s earned the most trust, the most leeway, you know he’ll be there when it counts, and by now he’s mastered the art of incrementally building up his game and his focus so it’ll be at its peak in April. Slowly yet surely his offensive numbers are inching up to where they should be. He’s breaking out different post moves here and there and cutting down on the turnovers. The final piece for him, as it was last year, is becoming dominant in the defensive end. Right now that’s what’s missing.

Tony I’m more worried about. He was sensational in November, averaging 20.6 points, 7.3 assists, shooting 52.5% and giving it up only twice a game. These past two months though he’s been shooting under 50% and the assists are around 6.0 and the turnovers are over three. He was absolutely horrid against the Pistons, decent vs. the T-Pups and below average vs. Philly. Teams are determined to keep him out of the lane and are packing it in on him more than ever and Parker’s jumper seems to have largely deserted him. Unfortunately, he’s still forcing it to the rim too much and it’s led to some gruesome turnovers and frustrated teammates. I don’t know why he doesn’t use his teardrop floater more, it’s always been a reliable weapon when he can’t quite get all the way to the basket. I don’t think Parker is a 100% healthy but also he isn’t playing nearly as smartly as he was earlier in the year. I don’t know what it is, maybe he’s putting too much pressure on himself to be a star or what but right now his game and sense of timing -when to pass it, when to take it himsel
f- is all off. Even Pop seems to know something is up with him because Vaughn is getting a ton of minutes of late, although most of that is on merit as Jacque has been quite solid these past few games. Parker will in all likelihood shake himself out of the funk he’s in, but he needs a game where he gets a few easy baskets to get back in a good rhythm. Maybe the Cavs, who he whipped up on en route to the Finals MVP trophy will be the impetus to get him going.

Manu meanwhile doesn’t look quite himself either. His turnovers are way up, he’s yelling at teammates (both Elson and Bonner have been scolded by him these past couple games) and he doesn’t seem to be having much fun on the court at all. He hasn’t made a lay-up his last two games and he’s really not aggressive going to the rim at all of late. The explosion that was so evident early in the season isn’t there now and he always looks like he’s restraining himself, not going all out. I don’t know how much the bandage is bothering him or if something else is wrong but he just seems agitated out there on the court playing with crappy teammates against crappy teams. More than anyone else he seems truly bothered by the rut the team is on yet he doesn’t seem to know how they can get out of it. I think he just wants the All-Star break and the trade deadline to come and go so he and everyone else on the team know who they’re going to war with and what the roles are. But honestly, he might snap one of these days if Pop keeps running Elson or Horry out there to play with him.

In short, I never thought the team would miss Brent Barry so much. It’s not just the three point shooting, though God knows we could be better there. He spaces the floor for everyone else, he’s got a great offensive IQ, and he helps everyone else get a couple easier baskets. Both the team on the floor and the bench seem looser when he’s playing. You can’t be the same cut-up when you’re in a suit during the game. The guys don’t look at you the same way and Barry is probably not as chipper missing all these games. They need him back in the worst way to regain some of their offensive flexibility. I just hope Pop the defensive genius sees it too and doesn’t put Brent on some leash in favor of Udoka. Not that I hold a grudge against Ime, mind you. Far from it. In fact, I’m starting to come around on him a little. But as I’ve stated before, I think any minutes he gets, they should come at Bruce’s expense, not one of the offensive players. I get mighty ornery when Bowen and Udoka are sharing the court.

In fact, as far as combinations that piss me off, from least to most the order would be:

4) Fab-O and Frankie van Hoojdunk.
3) JV and The Wee Rapping Frenchman.
2) Ime and Mr. Potatohead.
1) RoHo and anybody.

As for Pop, he’s just sailing along. Whatever dark thoughts he has about his team, he’s keeping them to himself. He and Robert had a little “chat” on the sidelines during the Minnesota game after Pop yanked the four guys on the court with Manu and replaced them with four other guys (to no avail really). For the time being Oberto seems to be back on Pop’s good graces, but you never know who Big Man #3, 4, and 5 are. Whoever’s the fifth, that guy won’t play in the playoffs except garbage time. Whoever’s the fourth will probably lose out as well in favor of tinyball lineups featuring Fin, Brent, Udoka et al. Is it crazy to suggest that Big Man #3 is currently on some other NBA roster right now? Stranger things have happened. For some reason I think this time around something is going to happen to this club. Pop will never publicly announce he’s looking to make a deal. He’s more of the “speak softly and carry a big stick” type. I just have the feeling a move will be made. The guys are too familiar with each other, too tired of each other, and the team needs new blood and a fresh face. I’d love to say Robert will be the one to go, but he has less than zero value. More likely I think it’ll be Elson who’s flipped and maybe a small with him like Brent. Don’t be shocked is all I’m saying. Barry has maybe two weeks or three to prove himself indispensable.

Anyway, I never thought we were going to lose the Minnesota or Philly games, not for a second. The team hasn’t sunk into that much of an abyss quite yet and those teams are too awful to not get in their own way. The second half of the Pistons game was more competitive, but I think Pop was thrilled they got punked as badly as they did in the first 24 minutes. It was an eye opener for all involved I’m sure. Maybe Brent and some good health are all we need to get the offense going, maybe not. Pop doesn’t give a shit. He’s more concerned with the D and that’s much more of a work in progress. First there needs to be the commitment from the players, and that right now is missing. The Cavs and Rockets are competitive clubs, the Bobcats game is a real trap (they’re frisky at home and it’s a ridiculous early MLK day start, they got thumped in Chicago last year in that same circumstance) and the Lakers are playing very well these days, even without Andrew Bynum. We’ll know more about which way the team is trending after these four games. 4-0 seems wildly unlikely given their present state, but I’m not as fatalistic as to think 1-3 either. The over/under would be 2.5 wins and I’m going under. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve hit rock bottom quite yet.

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  1. e January 16, 2008

    I live in NYC, maybe you’ll see me in my PTR t-shirt.

    PS. Can we get SD shirts? I’d prefer one that says. PTR SUCKS! SD Rules!

    or for the “others”


  2. Schwazz January 16, 2008

    Don’t discount the possibly of Popovich pulling a slight tank job. Do you really think he wants to coach the all-star game?

  3. Dingo January 16, 2008

    “Is it crazy to suggest that Big Man #3 is currently on some other NBA roster right now?”

    I don’t think so. But who could we trade for? What about Nazr? He’s averaging 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds in the last four games for the Bobcats.

    No, I’m not being serious.

  4. Anonymous January 29, 2008

    The Spurs began the year looking like champions, roaring out of the gate 17-3. Since then, they’re only 11-12, and it’s not a particularly good 11-12. Thirteen of the games were at home, and only one of the victims had a winning record.

    An optimist would point that there was only one truly bad loss in the bunch, Saturday’s 102-78 waxing by the Hornets, but that misses the larger point. Over the past 23 games, San Antonio has beaten all the bad teams and lost to all the good ones. In other words, they’ve been an average team.

    Average doesn’t cut the mustard in these parts, which is why the Spurs still look like a team trying to find itself. We saw that again Monday, as coach Gregg Popovich continues to search for combinations that work. For instance, Matt Bonner sat the first three quarters but played nearly the entire fourth, primarily because Robert Horry and Francisco Elson once again delivered little.

    On the perimeter, the absence of Brent Barry and struggles of Bruce Bowen are hampering a team that depends on the longball. Bowen has made five of his past 28 3s and is 10-of-51 from the field in his past 12 games. In an increasingly common sight, he lost crunch-time minutes to Ime Udoka Monday — at least until Udoka’s moronic ejection with 1:27 left in a two-point game.

    That was the other shocking thing Monday — some of the mental stuff seemed downright un-Spurlike. The Spurs took bad backcourt fouls with the Jazz in the bonus, got the killer tech on Udoka and another on Tim Duncan, and degenerated into a Manu-on-five offense any time the second unit was on the floor. They made 20 turnovers, and only a rare bout of free-throw accuracy (25-of-28) kept things interesting.

    Of course, we shouldn’t begin composing epitaphs just because the Spurs lost on the road by six to a fellow title contender on a rare night when Andrei Kirilenko couldn’t miss a jumper. Let’s face it, at least two-thirds of the league’s teams would kill for San Antonio’s problems. The Spurs still have the fourth-best record in the conference — two games ahead of the Jazz, mind you — and a solid plus-4.7 average scoring margin. Given that, how can we say there’s a 1-in-4 chance they’re headed to Lottoville?

    Here’s how: Unlike Utah, the tough part of the Spurs’ schedule is still to come. Like I said, the computer doesn’t know San Antonio’s history in past seasons on the rodeo trip. But given the Spurs’ recent play and the upcoming games (Phoenix, Cleveland, Toronto, Washington and Boston, among others), it looks like a doozy.

    And not only are the Spurs’ next eight games on the road after they played 25 of the first 42 at home, but even after the rodeo trip the schedule is rough. The likes of Dallas and Phoenix have been backloaded into March and April to create national TV games, meaning many of the cupcakes are already out of the way — 25 of the Spurs’ final 40 games are against teams with winning records.

    Even with all that, it’s still hard to imagine a San Antonio team with the likes of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili missing out on the playoffs entirely. But throw in an ankle sprain to one of those three and put them in a conference where 48 wins might be needed to gain entry to the postseason, and it’s a different story. That’s why the Playoff Odds say there’s a 1-in-4 shot of the unthinkable happening.

    In the meantime, San Antonio obviously has much loftier goals than just making the playoffs. Yet as the rodeo trip begins, Utah looks much closer to being championship caliber than the four-time champs do. Maybe that’s because the Spurs are lying in the weeds, like they’ve often done, and busily preparing their annual February surge.

    Or maybe something is truly different this year. Based on how the Spurs have played over the past month and a half, we shouldn’t dismiss that possibility too rapidly.


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