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Early Season Logorrhea: In the Land of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King

By Jeff Koch on January 9, 2012.

The games are just coming too quickly to keep up with them in a timely manner, let alone get recaps posted for each one. So let’s bite off a huge chunk at once and just throw some scattered thoughts and observations out into the world about our beloved Spurs and the NBA.

–In the early going of this season, it seems that teams with strong continuity will at times have a really strong advantage. And no team has better stability than the Spurs. Most of the supporting cast has changed, but no trio (along with coach) can even come close to touching Tim, Manu, Tony, and Pop’s time together. Hell, how many players currently playing were still with the same team back in 2003? Only Kobe and Dirk come to mind, and with completely different coaches and systems. The first few weeks have produced some ugly basketball, but those three working together is pretty reliable. Expect some wins (especially in the first half of the season) just based on continuity.

–More than any season I’ve closely followed, scheduling is dictating outcome. Every game seems to have a clear “energy mismatch” which can often point to the winner. Because of the condensed schedule and frequency of games, home-court seems to be an even bigger advantage. With every team exhausted, being at home counts even more in your favor, as you sleep in your own bed, can more closely follow your daily habits, and can get a boost from playing on a familiar court with supporting fans. Case in point: the Spurs have won all of their home games, and lost all of their road games…two of which were the second night of back-to-backs. Our other road loss was in Minnesota, when we lost Ginobili to an injury and ran into about as hot a shooting team as you’ll find in the Timberwolves.

–League-wide, the numbers bear out: as Sean and Bill pointed out in a recent telecast, the average margin of victory across the entire NBA is about 12 points. There aren’t many close games being played right now; it’s a war of attrition.

–Another obvious advantage in this season is a deep bench with some youth. Despite our reputation, the Spurs actually have a little bit of both this year. We’re still thin in the frontcourt, but we’re suddenly stocked at the wing and have our first true back-up PG in years. And Tim and Manu are our only players over the age of 32. We’re a lot younger than we look.

–Spurs fans talk a lot about the “post-Tim Duncan” era; in many ways, we’re already in it. Yes, Duncan still plays. But the dominant player is gone. He can survive a few more years on skill, intelligence, and reputation, but Duncan is no longer a cornerstone player. Most nights we don’t even play him in the 4th quarter, win or lose. Offensively, he’s a complementary player and not much else; defensively he is still good to very good and our defensive anchor, but no longer an overwhelming presence. As a few analysts have quipped, Duncan is currently shooting the second lowest percentage in the league from the post. Think about that: quite possibly the best post player of his generation is not only no longer a threat, but could actually be a hindrance in many ways from the post.

–To put a more positive spin on that last point, we’ve said for years that the starting “Center” that starts alongside Duncan needs to be able to stretch the floor and be a good passer from the high (and low) post to complement Duncan. But isn’t Duncan really that player right now? While his shooting from the post is quite poor, his shot from the top of the key is actually quite good: above 50% for the year. And he’s been a fantastic passer for years, both from the high and low post. It’s just as easy to run the offense through him at the high post as it used to be to run it through him at the low post. And with his wide frame, he still sets great screens.

–I bring all of this up because I don’t think that DeJuan Blair is the right starter for the Spurs next to Duncan. I love Blair, and when he’s got his scrappy hustle game going, there’s no one more enjoyable to watch. But Blair’s game is predicated on energy and hustle, and is not reliable night to night. Plus, he suffers defensively (and usually offensively) against the bigger front lines of the NBA. Blair is really best suited to come off the bench, change the energy and pace of the game, and score and rebound in bunches. Plus, bigs coming off the bench in the NBA are more prone to be undersized like DeJuan, hiding many of his deficiencies.

–I’d really like to see Tiago Splitter eventually starting next to Duncan. He’s got a raw low-post game, but you can see the potential there. Plus, he’s a smart player in the pick-and-roll and a wonderful interior passer. Most importantly, though, he is probably our best interior defender. And, paired with Duncan, gives us the best rim-protection we’ve had in years. As Tyson Chandler showed us last year, in this wing-penetration league, having a strong presence defensively at the rim is vital to having any sort of defensive chance.

–Tony Parker is struggling. He just looks off. His jump shot isn’t there, he doesn’t seem to have his usual instincts of knowing when to push, when to attack, when to score his own points, when to pass. He’s not playing poorly, per se; he’s just playing well below his usual standards. With Manu out, we need at the very least “normal” Tony; “below average” Tony will catch up to us eventually. When Tony is at his worst, he always seems really disinterested and disengaged to me. That’s probably just his demeanor, which doesn’t necessarily say anything about anything. But I always wonder how Tony must feel after years of always being in Manu’s shadow. Manu is clearly the better player, but the difference between the two isn’t so great as most Spurs fans would have you believe.

–On a happy PG note, TJ Ford has been my favorite new Spur of the season, and that’s saying a lot with some of the new faces on the team. He’s kind of like Tony Parker-lite, with his speed and ability to break down a defense just by penetrating and resetting. I didn’t know much about his game before he was a Spur, but I’ve been very happy with him. He’s not quite a starting-level PG in the NBA, but he’s a little bit better than a back-up PG. He’s proven to be a very good and crafty passer, and the second-unit is thriving like never before, as all of the bench players are getting good scoring opportunities. It’s nice to have a true PG on the second unit, rather than relying on non-PGs (George Hill, Roger Mason, Jr.) or Manu. Manu is obviously a wonderful ball-handler and facilitator, but I still prefer him as a 2-Guard.

–In many ways, our second unit has been the strength of our team. It seems that our leads often balloon in the second quarter and the end of the third quarter when the second unit is playing. As mentioned above, I love the way Ford is running the second unit, especially the way he is getting Splitter lots of easy baskets at the rim. I’m also quite happy with Richard Jefferson’s role as the (sometimes) primary scorer with the second unit. It’s good to give him a few minutes as a primary offensive threat, and the trust is paying off. He is having easily his best year as a Spur, and while his percentages aren’t that different from last year, his stroke just looks so much better. Last year, I was convinced every shot he took was going to brick; this year, his stroke looks so good that I’m convinced they’re all going in. He’s still an expensive player, but not amnestying him is turning into another prudent move by the front office.

–I love watching “the kids” play. Leonard, Anderson, Neal, and Green. I think they are all valuable rotation players, and with their youth and athleticism, they bring an energy to the team that we haven’t ever really had in the Big 3 era. I feel like we’re just a lot scrappier than ever before, with more steals, deflections, offensive rebounds, getting to loose balls, etc, than ever before. Leonard can’t shoot at all, but his hustle and court awareness alone can get him 6 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals a game. Anderson is in a shooting slump, but he’s got the body and moves that will get him lots of free throws. And they both defend fairly well and very hard. I’ve always loved Neal’s game, and think he is a much more complete offensive player than the scouting report probably suggests.

–But the revelation of the early season has obviously been Danny Green. In all facets of the game he has shocked. Offensively, he’s a good slasher and a much better shooter than I imagined. But where I love his is defensively. The memory of Bruce Bowen looms large over the Spurs, and, for my money, Green might be the closest thing we’ve had since. He’s got the that in-between height with long arms that allows him to guard PGs, SGs, SFs, and even some undersized PFs, much like Bowen did. He’s not flashy, he just moves his feet and stays attached at the hip. But what really reminds me of Bowen is his ability to get his hands on the ball once the shooter has gone into his shooting motion, even from behind. There have been a few plays where he was seemingly beat and still got the block from behind. And sometimes he just bottles up the player completely. It’s fun to watch. The next few weeks will be especially telling. Now that he’s gotten some attention, and he’s gone from “pleasant surprise” to “rotation player”, it’ll be interesting to see if his solid play keeps up, and if he can keep improving.

–Obviously the biggest story of the young season is the injury to Ginobili. Considering his penchant for getting injured right before the playoffs, it might work out for the better. Assuming he can make a full recovery and that the Spurs can continue to win some games, a healthy and rested Ginobili for the last 6 weeks of the season and the playoffs might pay off bigger dividends down the road. Also, giving the likes of Leonard, Anderson, and Green a chance to get some real minutes and real comfort with the system and the team could be very beneficial in the post-seaon. In our last several playoff losses, it really seemed like everybody save for the Big 3 became completely unreliable in the big games. With Duncan’s increasing decline, any long-term success, more than ever, is going to have to be spread out over many shoulders, rather than carried primarily by just 2 or 3. Now is the best time to strengthen those shoulders.

–Luckily, we have a coach who always has the longview in mind. Expect the full depth of the roster to continue getting lots of playing time. Which, for my money, makes this season very exciting. For the first time in a long time, the NBA seems very unpredictable. And there’s just something very rewarding about watching TJ Ford and Danny Green eke out the win for us, rather than it just be Manu or Tim. I suppose it’s re-energized my enjoyment of watching the games.

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