Monday, December 13, 2010

San Antonio Spurs: Off to a Fast Start

With all of the other teams making big splashes entering the 2010 season, the San Antonio Spurs have stayed the course and gotten off to a league-best 19-3 record at the quarter-season mark. Of course, the Miami Heat jumped in with both feet by re-signing Dwyane Wade while adding LeBron James and Chris Bosh via free agency. The Los Angeles Lakers aren't exactly sleeping giants. After all, they are the two-time defending champions with its nucleus of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Derek Fisher still in place. The best of the rest include the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic. Prior to the season, would anyone have had the Spurs in the top 5 of NBA teams, let alone #1? I certainly didn't...but I should have.

Popovich can still teach the Spurs stars, Parker and Ginobili, a few things

San Antonio is led by head coach Gregg Popovich. He has helped guide the Spurs to four titles during his tenure on the bench (1996-present). The team's best player has been Tim Duncan since entering the league in 1997 as the #1 overall selection in the draft. The power forward / center has been an elite all-around player and the absolute epitome of consistency until this year (more than 18 points and 10 rebounds per game from 1997-2009). In the early days, he and David Robinson posed a formidable inside presence - two players that could score, rebound, block shots, and play very unselfishly, which alleviated any potential ego problems. After Robinson retired in 2003, Duncan carried the team as the go-to guy. While Duncan was still an exceptional player, the NBA is a league where you almost need two superstars on your team because defenses can take away one option much more easily than defending two gifted players. Duncan couldn't do it alone. 

Maybe the quietest superstar of the past decade, Tim Duncan's play on the court speaks volumes.

Enter Tony Parker. He fits the Spurs perfectly with his knack of driving the lane, creating his own shots while running an offense that still relies on Duncan to get the tough baskets. Parker quickly matured from being a promising young player in his first few seasons (2001-2003) to becoming the catalyst of the Spurs methodical offense. Parker has averaged better than 15 points and 5 assists each year since his sophomore campaign (2002-2003). But, Parker isn't what you would call a superstar. He's more of a building block. Parker, a Frenchman wasn't the only late draft choice where the Spurs found something special from an international player.

Those that expected Tony Parker to stumble this year on the court due to the impending divorce from his wife, Eva Longoria, were incorrect. 

Next was Manu Ginobili from Argentina. When Ginobili entered the league (2002), his game was most certainly geared for international play. No one played the game quite like he did. His drive towards the basket was unorthodox yet effective. In the beginning, Popovich commented that Ginobili would do something each game that would leave you scratching your head...sometimes amazing, other times frustrating. Through the years, Ginobili still brings the hard-charging play, yet it is somehow more refined now. His play fits the offensive scheme better, or perhaps the scheme just allows for more creativity on his part. Whatever the case may be, Ginobili is now a more complete player, and has overaken Duncan as the leading scorer for the first time this season.

Typical Ginobili shot: off balance, well-defended, but likely two points

 San Antonio has always plugged in role players effectively, and this year is no exception. The years of Bruce Bowen's harassing defense may be gone, as are Robert Horry's and Roger Mason's three-point making abilities.  But, Richard Jefferson has gelled nicely on this team as playmaker and willing shot-taker.  DeJuan Blair is extending Duncan's career by providing strong minutes as an interior player, taking more of the low post body blows against bigger opponents.  This has allowed Duncan a bit more rest than in years past. George Hill is a sparkplug at the backup point guard position, averaging double digit points and keeping the team moving when Parker takes a breather.

It's rare that a coach can fit players into his system and make it work, but Popovich does it extraordinarily well (Jerry Sloan in Utah and Phil Jackson in L.A. also come to mind). Night in and night out, the Spurs do what it takes to win games. That explains their stellar 19-3 record. I think that they will maintain a high winning percentage throughout the season and finish with 60-63 wins, perhaps gaining the #1 or #2 seed in the West. Their approach to the game is one of fundamentals - teamwork, rebounding, solid defense, and timely scoring. 

There may no longer be a superstar on this team, but it's refreshing to watch a team not fully rely on a one-on-one strategy to win games as nearly every other franchise does. However, that's the cunundrum - the NBA is so geared towards superstars that I don't foresee the Spurs having the ultimate team success this year. The NBA Championship will likely go to a team with a superstar that can take over a game - Kobe or LeBron come to mind.

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