Spurs Midseason Review: A Weekend Long Labor of Love

I just finished watching maybe the greatest football game of my life. Peyton finally got it done in the clutch against the wretched Patriots and I'll actually be excited to watch the Super Bowl in two weeks. Best of all, Simmons can finally shove it up his ass about the Manning and the Colts and realize that for once he was rooting for the bad guys here. Did you get a load of that "classy" Tom Brady quickly scuttling off the field at the gun without shaking anyone's hand? I thought him and Manning were good buds. I guess they're only friends when Tom wins. Funny how that works, huh? Better than Joe Montana my pooper.

Anyway, watching the game I couldn't help but think about the 2004 Red Sox. The parallels between their ALCS with the Yankees to finally get over the hump and this football game were striking.

Think about it. The Sox were glad the Yanks beat the Twins in the first round that year. They didn't want to end their curse by going through freakin' Minnesota. They wanted to slay the dragon. Similarly it wouldn't have been as satisfying for Indy to go through the Chargers. (Actually they probably couldn't have anyway). It had to be Brady, Belichick and the Pats.

The Logan Mankins fumble recovery touchdown to make it 7-0 New England when it looked like two Colts surely fell on top of the ball was the gut punch of Schilling getting shelled at the Bronx in Game 1.

Asante Samuel's interception return to make it 21-3 was the 19-8 Game 3 at Fenway. Not only was the series 3-0 Yanks, but the third was such a whooping, no one thought the Sox had a chance. When Manning threw the pick everyone at the bar thought, "There goes Manning, typically folding in the playoffs, the game's a rout."

After the Colts had another quick three-and-out the next series and the Pats returned the punt all the way inside Indy territory, it seemed for sure that Brady would engineer another score and that would be that. Just like Rivera warming up in the 9th in Game 4 with a one run lead.

But the Colts' defense held and actually drove New England backward and Manning and the boys managed to drive down the field for a field goal at the end to give the fans some hope and some life - Dave Roberts' steal of second base.

Just like that Indy charged out of the gates in the third quarter and when the dust cleared Marvin Harrison fell in the end zone with the ball to complete a two point conversion and tie the game at 21 and we had a brand new ball game, like Big Papi's two walkoffs to send the series back to New York.

Jeff Saturday's miraculous recovery of Dominic Rhodes' fumble to tie it up once again at 28 was the biggest break of the ball game, as sure as Tony Clark's liner hopping over the short porch in right field for a ground rule double was most fortuitous for Boston.

Finally, the last drive, Schilling's bloody sock, Peyton's thumb - `nuff said.

Incredible. Astonishing. I can't believe I just witnessed it. Now all they gotta do is stomp on the St. Louis Cardinals - oops, I mean the Chicago Bears.

Before we get to the first half grades (I'm as excited as you are) there are a couple of things rattling around my mind that I have to expunge. First of all, your humble narrator was very saddened to hear that my favorite college football player, WR Jeff Samardzija of Notre Dame, has chosen to forego the NFL draft to pursue his career as a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.

I really had high hopes for Samardzija the football player. The guy had great hands, very deceptive ability to make yards after the catch and a knack for making big plays in the clutch. I'm not sure he would have been the next great white hope at receiver in the pros, but I'm certain he would have fashioned a more than decent career for himself as either a great second receiver on a good team or an average first receiver on a bad team. The Manu of the NFL? Probably not, except for the schnozz. But I would have liked to find out one way or another for sure.

Still, I can't blame the guy for the decision he made. Gil Meche is making $11 mil a year for the Kansas City Royals and Jeff Suppan just signed a four year, 42 million deal for the Milwaukee Brewers. There's just more money to be made in baseball than football, especially if you can throw 98 mph with any semblance of accuracy. And now that Dusty Baker is no longer running the Cubbies, I suppose there's a chance his arm will be dangling uselessly off his shoulder by the time he's 26...

So R.I.P. Samardzija's football career I guess. Too bad, it would have been really neat to see someone trying to pull off a Bo/Deion two-sport career again. At least now I don't have to worry about him being drafted by the Falcons or Cowboys. And I'm more certain than ever that Philly needs to re-sign Donté Stallworth.

I guess Bo don't know Jeff

Secondly, I thought I'd add my two cents on the eight player trade between the Pacers and the Dubs. I don't really think it'll make either team any better in '07, but it was one of those deals where both GMs are looking ahead and thinking to themselves that they screwed the other guy. From the Warriors' perspective, they rid themselves of the salary albatross of Murphy and Dunleavy's contracts and it will put them in position to make a move or two in free agency in years to come. Also if they're less than enamored with either S-Jax or Bender, they're both a lot more moveable or outright releasable than the previous two were thought to be. As for the Pacers, I'm sure they're thrilled that neither Murphy or Dunleavy will be a threat to embarrass the front office anywhere outside of the court but will soon come to discover that both these gentleman are defensive liabilities and that neither could hope to contribute enough on end to account for what they allow on the other, no matter what pace the team plays with.

For Indy though the gem of the deal has to be Ike Diogu who really impressed me as a low post player from what I saw of him in his rookie season. I don't really understand why Nellie never played him this year, but I haven't understood half the moves Nelson has made over the years. Hollinger said something Diogu's defense being a problem, but since when has Nelson ever cared about defense? It's not like the guys he was playing could guard anybody either. If Diogu pans out I guess the Pacers can "win" the trade, but that might be a big if. Still the exchange rate between the respective talent level of the Western and Eastern squads is pretty steep, so maybe the guys the Pacers got will all magically flourish playing against softer competition on most nights.

Can crazy-ass S-Jax be had from the Warriors cheaply? If it'll get Bruce out of the starting line-up, I'm amenable to almost anything.

Finally, I read the other day that Jason Kidd's getting ready to divorce his wife Joumana and is claiming that she was physically abuse toward him during their marriage. Obviously I don't know the couple, but I have to say that at the moment I support Joumana in the matter because first Jason is only a Net in the first place because the Suns got rid of him for a domestic violence incident and second, she should be entitled to a lot of money for having to pass that sputnik sized man-baby's head through her hooha during labor. I mean seriously, have you all seen the size of JT Kidd's melon? That kid is like five and he's already got a bigger cranium than Tony Parker. It reminds me of that scene from So I Married An Axe-Murderer, "Head, move!!!"

Any chance she had a C-section?

Okay, anyway, back to the Spurs. Game 41 is behind us so the season is at its half-way point. We're on pace for a 56-26 record, which would tie for the poorest we've ever fared in the Tim Duncan era, not counting the strike shortened year (and that one worked out pretty well). What's alarming about the mark is that for the most part the big three have been healthy yet we're still struggling mightily. Not only that but the schedule looks a bit meatier in the second half, especially that extended rodeo road trip in February. It's not a panic situation yet, but let's just say I'd be a wee bit nervous if we don't have at least one guy in our rotation in May that's a member of one of the other 29 teams at the present.

So here are the mid-term grades...

Tim Duncan: B+ When the year started I used a picture of courageous Autobot leader Optimus Prime to symbolize my admiration and appreciation of the big fella, but after 41 games I've come to realize that he's looking a bit older, a bit creakier, way less explosive than I'd hoped, and perhaps even surlier than usual, thanks to the team's uneven play. So Ironhide, the curmudgeonly security chief is a better fit I think.

The positives for Timmy is that he is shooting as high a percentage from the field since his rookie season despite getting swatted regularly by opponents and, on occasion, the rim. Also, despite his indifferent and meek showings in the paint of late, he's still our second best rotation player in terms of points we give up per 48 minutes that he's on the court, (our leader in this category is a shocker, trust me) allowing only 87.3 points a game.

The negatives are numerous. His free throw % is a horrendous .620, the third lowest of his career, and his rebounding % and rate per 40 minutes is at a career low, even worse than last year when he was clearly hobbled. The likely culprit is tinyball, where Tim is the sole rebounder on the floor and too easy to box out if the opposing team commits to it. When Duncan challenges shots away from the rim and we have no other bigs to rebound the misses, we're in big trouble. Also, his turnovers are way up, a full turnover more than he averaged two seasons ago. Consider that in '04-05 he had only 127 turnovers in 66 games where this year he's already got 118 in 41 games.

I've given up the ghost on Tim ever shooting his freebies higher than the sixties, but he should make it a second half goal to give the ball away less and rebound more, especially on the defensive glass. I believe if we let Tony and Manu initiate the offense more, both of these goals could be accomplished.

Manu Ginobili: A- After a rough November, Manu has come to life ever since returning from the lower back injury. He's scoring is at a career high, as is his 3-point shooting and free throw percentage. Also his rebounding is back up to its usual standards after it really dropped off last year and his defense, in my opinion, has never been better. Firebat disagrees on this point and claims that Manu's defense has regressed to 2001 levels, so I will have to conclude that he got to watch a lot of Gino in his Italian league days whereas I haven't had the pleasure. Manu wasn't a Spur until November of 2002, and really not a regular member of the rotation until early 2003 thanks to a badly sprained ankle that put the kibosh on his Spurs debut somewhat.

All in all, by almost every conceivable measure, Ginobili is having a career season, even though most of sock puppets on ESPN are too dumb to notice because he can't jump like he used to. His PER of 24.32 is ninth in the whole league and third among shooting guards behind a couple of guys named Dwyane and Kobe. Meanwhile in 78.1% of the games he's participated in, the Spurs have outscored the competition during his time on the court, a team high.

However, despite all that gushing praise, something is amiss. For one, like Duncan his turnovers are up. For another, like Tony, his assist rate is down. Overall his play hasn't been as strong against the stiff competition as it has been against the patsies (although his last performance against the Mavs was encouraging) and while his numbers usually look good in the box score, one can't help but get this nagging feeling that the lion's share of his production manages to come in a short concentrated burst, usually early in the game or very late, but that there is a lot of floating going on. I would like to see a more balanced, sustained effort from him throughout the games and besides that he just needs to keep taking it to the rim strong yet somehow avoid injury.

Tony Parker: A- One thing you gotta hand to Tony. Every season he seems to improve a couple parts of his game. Even though his field goal percentage is down a couple of ticks from the redonkulous .548 he put up in '05-06, Tony has managed to increase his scoring thanks to a major spike in his freebies, from just under 71% last year to 78% this year. Also, his once clunky jumper is looking smoother than ever and Parker has definitely found a few comfortable spots on the floor through extensive trial and error. I might be talking out of my ass, but it seems to me he shoots them better off a pass when he's in rhythm than when he dribbles a bunch and then goes up with it, but either way it's markedly improved. Also, despite all the ribbing I've given him, Tony has actually lowered his turnovers from 3.1 a game last year to 2.6 now. His turnover rate is at a career best 10.5% despite him using more possessions this season than ever (up to 26.4 now).

Really my only real criticism of Tony, aside from his occasional defensive lapses and his sometimes questionable decision making in fast break situations, is based on his sagging play in January compared to his extraordinary December. Last month not only did Tony average 19.4 a night on 55% shooting, but he also dished it to the tune of 7.3 assists per game, with nine efforts of seven or more assists out of 15 games. Compare that to January where he's dropped to 18.6 per on 52% scoring wise (both still superb, obviously) but the assists have dropped to 3.9 a game and only one night with seven dimes out of nine games.

This is why I find all these "accept Tony for what he is" arguments absurd. I know the guy can pass. I've seen him do it with my own two eyes. If he couldn't do it, I wouldn't ask it of him. December Tony was fucking awesome and I don't think it was a coincidence that we went 12-3 that month with him playing as well as he did. Call me selfish or unrealistic, but I'd like to see more of December Tony and less of January Tony. January Tony gets us beat. 3.14 assists a game (22 in a 7 game series) from the starting point guard will not cut it against the Mavs if we face them in the playoffs again and I highly doubt we'd be fortunate enough to even last seven games against them if it's all he can manage. The coaches gotta pull out the tapes from the December games, see what worked and why and watch them over with Tony so that hopefully he can return to his All-Star caliber self.

Bruce Bowen: C- And now the ratio of flattery to criticism will take a sharp turn for the worse. I like and respect Bruce a lot, but at 35 it really is time for him to be moseying on. His continued presence in the starting line-up is just the latest in a long line of Pop's blind spots toward "established veterans" (see Van Exel, Nick). I said it in my last long post on Spursdynasty and I'm sure I've said it numerous times here, but I am extremely skeptical of this team returning to the promised land if Bowen is playing more than 24 minutes a game by May.

Now obviously I realize that for a defensive specialist like Bowen, Hollinger's PER formula will never be an accurate measure of his contributions and I don't pretend to understand his methodology fully, but I'm bright enough to figure out that even though Bruce's PER wasn't impressive during his heyday, it's even worse now. Two years ago it was at 9.57. Now it's all the way down to 8.03. He's scoring less, shooting freebies even worse and turning it over more.

The biggest drop-off however is in his rebounding, which was never a strength to begin with. It is embarrassing and pitiful that a 6-7 guy can collect only 2.5 rebs a night, especially considering how much tinyball we're playing. Who does he think is supposed to clean the glass out there, Tony? No wonder we're getting killed on second chance points. He's got to man up and stick his nose in there these coming months.

I haven't even mentioned the precipitous decline of his defense yet. Just about any "name" player can toast him at will these days and the situation will not improve in the future unless both Bruce and the team radically change their philosophy. The days of funneling guys toward the bigs has stopped being an effective strategy, partly because Tim can't swat `em quite like he used to and partly because the big men (assuming there are any on the floor - never a given these days) either don't rotate effectively or can't do much even if they do. Maybe Bruce has to start playing these guys to drive and concede the open 20 footer. Better than being dunked on, right? Either way, aside from the rebounding, the point of having a "goal" for Bruce is useless. He is what he is. The best way he can help the team is to go to the coaches and ask to have a reduced role and I doubt that's gonna happen.

Fabricio Oberto: B Yes, I know, the resemblance is jaw-droppingly spooky. And I'm fairly certain that picture is as much of Evan Stone as I can show any of you without Matthew firing me. While by most accounts Fab's stats are rather modest, I'm giving him a "B" here because he's wildly exceeded my expectations. Then again, I had almost no expectations whatsoever. In preseason I thought this would be an Elson-Butler big man tandem by now and Oberto would be the 12th man.

The 11.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per 40 minutes is certainly respectable and the 57% from the field is very nice (though it seems he blows a couple of bunnies every night) and surprisingly enough his defense isn't as horrid as one might think, as he's giving up only 92.3 points per 48. Basically the guy's production has been somewhere between `Sho (bad) and T-Rex (decent) when it comes to offense and rebounding, but when it comes to defense he's much worse than the former and surprisingly a bit worse than the latter.

Yes, that's how far our defense has dropped. We were actually better with Nazr. I'm as surprised as you are.

In the right match-up, Oberto can be oddly effective. On a positive note we should remember that two of his best games came against the Suns (11 of 11) and the Mavs (7 of 7 before being mysteriously yanked in the second half). Certain teams with legitimate, athletic scoring centers like Houston and Utah he absolutely cannot play against. But otherwise, against the majority of the competition, Oberto is if not quite an asset, at least not a total liability for us and in almost any case I'd rather have him on the floor than a tiny ball line up. The only goals I can set for him is to focus even more on defense and to foul people harder if the refs are going to insist on picking on him, just so he doesn't give up any more and-1s.

Brent Barry: B- Going into this little project, I thought Brent might warrant the highest first half grade on the team, given his performance to what we expected of him, but actually looking at the numbers I realize he hasn't been nearly as good as I'd given him credit for. Basically, every aspect of his game has regressed except for his shooting and we just can't have this. Barry is too skilled, too tall and too well compensated to be just a Steve Kerr for us. We need a more complete effort from him or else it makes all the sense in the world to ship him out.

First though, here's the good: Despite his January slump with the old leather ball, Brent has been scorching hot as a marksman, shooting .485 from the field and .47 from downtown, good for third in the league behind Kapono and Nash. His true shooting percentage of 69.8 easily tops the league for both SG and SF (Martin of the Kings is second at 64.6) and even his free throws are back at the elite 90% range after last year's 66% abomination. Also, despite chucking a higher ratio of his attempts from three than ever (68% this year compared to 61 and 58% his first two seasons with us) he has managed to somehow get to the free throw line at more than double the rate he did last year.

Now the bad: Even though he is playing three more minutes a night this year than last, both his rebound and assist numbers have stayed identical. Of course that means the rates have dropped, to career lows in both areas. 4.2 rebs and 3.2 helpers per 40 minutes for a guy of his ability is a joke. Also, the defense is every bit as crummy as we've suspected, a team worst 95.3 points allowed per 48 minutes. Even his turnover rate has gone up while his usage rate has gone down (which shocked me). Worse, we can't blame his crummy rebounding and assist numbers to him being bummed about the trade speculation because while his shooting has slumped in January, the other stuff was just as poor in December and not too hot in November. I like Brent a lot, he's probably my third favorite Spur after Manu and Tim, but unless he can raise the level of his game significantly in all areas besides the shooting, it's time for him to be moved.

Robert Horry: C And now we arrive at the anti-Barry. Old man Horry has managed to keep his rebounding, assist, block and steal numbers remarkably consistent to last season's despite playing slightly less. Both his rebound and assist rates are the best they've ever been during his Spurs tenure and perhaps his shooting struggles have raised his awareness and willingness to look for the open man because a higher percentage of his possessions are ending in assists than ever despite a sharp decline in usage the past two seasons. The real stunner though is that Horry is leading the squad in defensive ppg, allowing only 86.6 over 48 minutes, a lower figure than last year (only Gino and Fab can share in that claim). Similarly, this new found aptitude as a "stopper" probably has to do with Horry feeling the need to contribute more at the little things since he can't score anymore, but it also has to do with Pop protecting him out there by leaving him on the bench for certain potential bad match-ups (Carlos Boozer anyone?). Despite his cover-your-eyes level shooting, all the available data suggests that for the most part, it's been a positive for us to have Horry on the floor. Who knew?

But, and this is a Shaq Daddy sized but, his shooting has been SO awful. Unfathomably awful in fact. After a catastrophic November, RoHo actually put together a respectable December, hitting 45% from the field and 41% from the three. And he predicted he'd do even better once the league returned to the leather ball. Unfortunately that hasn't come to fruition as he's converting precisely one third of his shots both from the field and downtown so far this month. What's worse is that he's turned into a bigger weenie than ever, with more than half of his attempts coming from three land, only the second time in his career this has happened (and it worked out a lot better the first time around). The cruelest insult is that his confidence is so shot that he can't even make them from the charity stripe, where he's at a career worst 57.5%. I guess this isn't a big deal since he only averages like one attempt a game. Second half goal? Don't ever put it up unless it's a dunk. Seriously, not a single teammate has a worse chance of making it than you do, outside of Vaughn. Discretion is the better part of valor. Just. Don't. Shoot.

Michael Finley: D+ Well the bright side is that it's mostly Cuban's money he's stealing, not ours. Actually, it would never be ours to begin with, but you know what I mean. Findog, or "mini-Horry" if you prefer, is in the midst of a career worst slump, though to call it a slump after half a season is probably being charitable. Let's face it, he's sucked. Like Robert, the embarrassment of his futility from the field has brought out the pride in Michael enough to focus more on defense, where his 91.3 ppg per 48 is the second best on the club for reserves and on the boards, where his rate is better than last year's. However, unlike RoHo, Findog hasn't let his shooting problems discourage him to the point of bothering to pass the ball any better (both his assists and assist rate are career lows) and overall his defensive ppg is three points worse than last year's figure.

Also, like Horry, Fin talked a good game about shooting it better once the leather ball came into play, but has actually fared a lot worse with it, as both men have endured wretched Novembers, hopeful, cock-teasing Decembers and crappy reality-hammering-home Januarys. The good news is that with Michael, I actually can see light at the end of the tunnel as a scorer, whereas with Robert I cannot. His only real problem has been a maddening inability to make three pointers, where he's a `Toine-like .307 after last season's impressive .394 conversion rate. However his two pointers haven't slipped nearly that badly. In front of the line he's at .416 this year as opposed to .423 last year. Not good obviously, but not atrocious either. Plus, the guy is hitting 90% of his freebies, so one would think that it'd be a good idea for him to cut way down on the threes and take it to the basket strong. The best thing for Fin (and I've mentioned this before once or twice) would be to move into the starting line-up at Bowen's expense. He's been a starter his whole career and it's what he's used to. The bench isn't for him, even in his old age. Consider that at 33 Finley is still two years younger than our incumbent small forward. I'm not saying I want him playing 35 minutes a night, but I'd like to more of him with the big three, where they can get him open perimeter jumpers aplenty. Frankly, we need him to score more because unlike Horry, he can't really do anything else.

Francisco Elson: B+ It's remarkable that even though their bodies and physical gifts are wildly different, Elson and Oberto have been eerily similar to one another in terms of production. Oberto gives us 11.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per 40 minutes while Elson is good for 11.4 and 10.8. The former is a bit more automatic from the field (57% to 53%) while the latter is much better from the stripe (88% to 63%). The former has more of a knack for offensive rebounds (1.8 to 1.3) while the latter is more dependable in his own end (3.7 to 3.2). Both guys allow exactly 92.3 ppg per 48 minutes on defense despite Pop's publicized dissatisfaction with Elson's grasp of the defensive system prior to his rotator cuff injury (hence the Pedro reference, der.)

Where Elson gets the slight nod over Oberto, in my view is his superior shot blocking - although neither are very good at it - and him being a touch better playmaker than the Argentine. Also, I'm probably being subjective here as opposed to objective, but I feel that Elson's athleticism gives him the potential to improve as the year goes on or perhaps cover for some of his mistakes, where Oberto's physical limitations won't allow him to get much better than he is now. For me the most encouraging sign about Elson is that the team seems to play well with him in there, as he's a + 93 despite only participating in 28% of the team's available minutes. Oberto is only + 82 in 39% of playing time while guys like Finley (+ 66 in 43%) and Udrih (+55 in 30%) are much worse. The bottom line is I'm glad Francisco has returned to the line-up and I'm hoping his minutes and role will increase as the year goes on. The only goals I have for him are to stay healthy and hopefully incorporate what he's learned from watching the past month into his play on the floor.

Beno Udrih: D I think it's safe to say that nobody on the roster has disappointed me more than the craptastic Bean Burrito. Pop handed him the backup job on a silver platter this November after admitting he fucked up royally in signing Van Exel last year but Udrih's ghastly shooting and less than ideal decision-making have driven both the coaches and the fans batty. How can a guy labeled at different times the club's best shooter and best passer by the head coach make only 36% of his shots (29% from three) while racking up only 5.3 assists per 40 minutes? It's so depressing to think about.

Contrary to popular belief, Udrih did not "peak" as a rookie. He actually improved most aspects of his game in his sophomore campaign when given a chance to play, but Pop stubbornly had his mind made up about Van Excrement and that was that. This was a guy who averaged 18.6 points and 6.2 dimes per 40 minutes last year (not too far of a drop-off from Tony actually) and put up an impressive 15.28 PER. Now though he's at the abyss. The only reason he's playing is because we really have no other options. Not only are the coaches as down on him as they've ever been, but one gets the impression that Udrih would welcome a trade because he'll never have an opportunity to be anything more than a reserve with Tony entrenched here. I've heard rumblings that despite his struggles, Udrih's work ethic in practice is as shoddy as ever and that he's a "last to arrive, first to leave" kinda guy. It seems as though the notion of him getting traded is no longer a matter of "if" but rather "for what." For what it's worth, he's put up four respectable efforts in the past half dozen games and the guy is only 24, so it's perfectly reasonable for him to turn both his season and career around, but too much damage may have already been done. What advice can you possibly give him besides play hard, play smart and see what happens?

Matt Bonner: B- The Red Rocket has been grounded (har de har har) until at least March with a partially torn MCL and it's a damn shame as he was just starting to take advantage of the opportunity afforded him by both Elson's absence and Horry's inability to contribute on segababas. While on the surface it may appear that Bonner was struggling mightily this year, shooting just 43% from the field and a pitiful 50% from the line, he's actually increased his production from his Raptor days thanks to a much higher usage rage. The extra board work doesn't hurt either and Matty boy was averaging an impressive 16.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per 40 minutes. His PER of 15.02 is easily the highest of any forward on the team whose surname doesn't end in "-uncan" (unless you count Brent as a forward).

However, it hasn't been all rainbows and unicorns and beautiful, willing, big-tittied women for the Matt Bonner experience. His assist rate is down, his turnover rate is up and his defensive ppg per 48 minutes is the second worst on the team after Barry's. Also, for some reason, while Bonner manages to stand out on the floor, he doesn't seem to bring out the best in the guys around him for whatever reason as he's only a + 20 in 16% of the team's floor time, a worse rate than even Finley's + 66 in 43% or Beno's + 55 in 30%. And with him out there we score only 95.4 points per 48 minutes, a figure that tops only Fin and RoHo among rotation guys. Basically what I'm saying is we might not miss Bonner as much as we think, especially if Elson returns to form from his injury. Besides returning to health Bonner's main goal for second half has to be - as strange as this sounds - trusting his teammates more when he's out there and sticking to the system at both ends of the floor.

Jacque Vaughn: D Jeff Feagles (a onetime Eagle) is my favorite punter of all time. He's the best coffin corner guy in NFL history and it's not even close really, which is why he's been able to stick around in the league for so long. I'm paying homage to him here because when Vaughn's on the floor for us, we might as well just the ball out of bounds on every possession because points will be mighty hard to come by. Not only is he stroking it at the horrifying .314 clip, but his playmaking isn't nearly good enough to compensate as we're putting up only 83.5 points per 48 minutes when he's the floor leader. I mean, what more needs to be said when he can't even beat out Beno for the the backup job when Udrih has given him all the opportunity in the world to do so? If Vaughn could do anything out there, he'd be playing right now.

By the way, do not be fooled by the superb assist ratings, they were mainly the result of one ultra-flukey night last December against the Nooch where Jacque-daddy came up with 11 dimes (but really ten, trust me) in 19 minutes of mop up duty. About the only positive thing I can say for Vaughn as a point guard is that he isn't a turnover machine or a sieve on defense, but under no circumstances do I want him on the floor in a meaningful situation. A good second half goal would be to purposefully play terrible defense against Beno in practice to raise his confidence.

Eric Williams: C+ I certainly gave him some playful abuse early on, but really I'm sort of stumped why Williams hasn't been given a chance by Pop to play the way he gave Bonner and Vaughn chances. It's a riddle that I can't solve. He's only gotten decent minutes when Manu's been injured, but when he's in there he seems competent enough and I'm kind of curious to see what he'd do. He might be a decent option to give Fin or Bruce the odd night off to rest on a segababa or whatever. All he can do in the second half is stay ready I suppose and possibly be trade bait thanks to his expiring contract.

Jackie Butler: D- The merciful amongst you will claim that the worst grade Butler deserves thus far is an "Incomplete" since he's hardly ever suited up, let alone played, but I have to cast at least some of the blame for his predicament on Butler himself. He's looking as chunky as ever on the bench so it seems that he hasn't been able to find the proper motivation to get in the kind of shape the coaches want. Also, for a while there with both Elson and Bonner out the team was in really dire straights for bigs, and if Butler showed anything in practice I'd have to think that Pop would have given him a shot. Dude's gotta realize that nothing will be handed to him on a silver platter and if he wants to play he has to act like it.

Gregg Popovich: C* Forgive me for not being overwhelmed with a 28-13 record considering that the big three have only missed a combined six games. We really have no excuses for our record, especially at home and vs. good teams. The team has repeatedly struggled to maintain its focus and intensity for the full four quarters and has been guilty of taking numerous teams too lightly. Some games like @ Chi and vs. Hou, they never showed up. Others like @ Min and vs. Cha, they woke up too late. Ultimately the responsibility lies with Pop. He has to find a way to cajole the spirit of this team and make them realize they're not the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, capable of flipping the switch in May, no harm done. While capturing the best record is almost certainly out of the question, it is up to Pop to get his guys to play better and better as the year goes on so their burden doesn't seem so insurmountable in the playoffs. And if he discovers that the mix he has is not good enough (as it's most likely not) then it's on him to acquire the players to make it so.

Tactically, I'd like to see less Bowen, less small ball, fewer three pointers and way less turnovers. Also we need more Elson, Finley in the starting line-up if he's to play at all and more passing and kicking from both Manu and Tony. Tim has to be made to understand that his highest priority above all is defense and we need the big three to become more vocal leaders as the words of Horry may ring hollow. Also, of course, free James White!

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