I know what you are thinking. Why today, ATS? Why today for a team preview when the preseason has just started? Well, today is my day. As part of blogger preview organized by Jeff at CelticsBlog, I've got the Spurs on Saturday, October 10th. So let's get down to it.
With the Spurs offseason acquisitions putting them well into luxury tax land for the first time, there is only one sufficient outcome to this season. Winning it all. Will they do it? Let's take a look.
The front court is where the Spurs have the most significant changes. I'm considering small forwards to be part of the back court. This may sound strange to non-Spurs people, but the Spurs use their 2's and 3's interchangeably. Roger Mason, Manu Ginobili, and Michael Finley are just as likely to be on the court as a shooting guard as they are as a small forward.
The Spurs have seven players on the roster for the two front court positions. Of those seven players, two played in a game for the Spurs last season: Tim Duncan and Matt Bonner. The Spurs added Antonio McDyess, Theo Ratliff, and Marcus Haislip in free agency. They picked up DeJuan Blair in the draft. Ian Mahinmi missed the season with an injury and has played about 23 total minutes in his NBA career. Those five guys will be replacing the contributions of Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto. With so many people around, minutes are going to be hard to come by. I expect Tim's minutes to be down, but not by much. Expect stiff competition for playing time in the Spurs front court this year. AND, a really big and, that stiff competition presupposes that Popovich doesn't play small ball with either Finley or Jefferson at the 4.
Richard Jefferson is the big new name. Bruce Bowen is now in retirement. Ime Udoka and Jacque Vaughn were not resigned. The Spurs just recently signed Keith Bogans. With the holdovers from last year and the signing of Malik Hairston this summer, the Spurs back court now consists of: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson George Hill, Roger Mason, Michael Finley, Keith Bogans, Marcus Williams, and Malik Hairston. Yes, that is 16 players on the roster. Williams and Hairston are both on unguaranteed contracts and one of them won't be on the team. Still, that's a lot of depth. How deep?
Well, George Hill IS the backup point guard. He and Tony will get all the point guard minutes this year. Manu and Jefferson will get the bulk of the minutes (I'm calling over half "the bulk") at the 2 and the 3. That leaves about 40 minutes per game for Finley, Bogans, and Mason with the winner of the Williams/Hairston battle getting nothing.
The end of the Bruce Bowen era and the addition of Richard Jefferson gives the Spurs a completely different look on offense. We no longer have a player the opposition can ignore on defense. That's not quite true. Teams couldn't ignore Bruce because he could bury that corner three. However, they could hide their worst defensive player very easily. You just had to be warm to be able to guard Bruce. Gone are the days where Steve Nash would spend his game covering Bruce. Now, he gets Richard Jefferson? I don't think so. The offensive balance and ability to attack mismatches will be something new for Spurs fans. We might see some different looks this year and a reduced role for Tim.
In his media day interview, Manu flat-out said Tony Parker is the offensive leader of the team. I don't think this year's Spurs will be running nearly as much offense through Tim in the low blocks. We had been moving away from Tim in the last few years, but I expect him to be much less of a focus this year. I think Tim will be getting the ball a lot more on the move and in the high post than as a set play down in the blocks.
The last couple years the Spurs have lived and died by their 3-point shooting. When they were on, they were hard to beat. When they were off, they couldn't win. Michael Finley, Roger Mason, Bruce Bowen, and Matt Bonner are all spot shooters. We routinely had at least two of them on the court at one time. Add in a Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto, who doesn't really shoot at all, and the Spurs played large chunks of games with three guys on the court who specialized in standing still and shooting.
This year, I think the Spurs will be able to be more consistent scoring the ball and less reliant on 3-point shooting. I'd like to think the additions of Jefferson and McDyess as guys who can put the ball in the hole will keep teams from forcing the ball out of the hands of our stars and putting it in the hands of one dimensional shooters.
Oh, and having Manu back healthy will be a huge lift on the offensive end. His ability to drive and create for his teammates IS what he brings to the team. This team will be good offensively. In fact, I think they will be one of the most efficient offensive teams in the league.
Defensively is where I have the biggest question mark for the team. Last year was a huge step back in team defense for the Spurs. Perenially one of the best defensive teams in the league, the Spurs in '09 were nothing but ordinary. Will the addition of Jefferson and a longer, stronger, defensive focused front court players turn that around? I'm not sure. I hope so, but this is the one thing the team will have to prove on the floor this year.
The additions of McDyess and Ratliff give the Spurs some extra rebounding and shot blocking ability. Shot blocking, or even shot challenging, was something we didn't get last year out of Thomas, Oberto, and Bonner. The addition of Jefferson adds some size and athleticism on the wing.
Last year, the Spurs didn't make teams uncomfortable. They played smart, position defense. If a team could hit the jumper, we were content to let them take it. Hopefully, this year, we can start making teams uncomfortable again.
Athleticism, Length, and Energy
Where I hope we see the biggest improvement in the team is in the intangibles. The new roster changes infuse the team with desperately needed athleticism, length, and energy. The additions of Jefferson, Ratliff, McDyess, and Blair; and the emergence of George Hill, should help the Spurs with all the smaller things we didn't do well last year. A team that scraps for offensive rebounds. A team that tips rebounds. A team that challenges shots in the paint. A team that collects loose balls. A team that creates turnovers. A team that gets some easy baskets. A team that can win a game against a good team without playing a perfect game.
The Spurs will be good this year. They will be very good this year. But, they will need to be great. Will we see greatness? That is the question to be answered and I really like our chances.