The ankle injury that Parker sustained on Friday night in Portland could end up being the best thing to happen to the Spurs in the early part of the season. Yes, I know he's the leading scorer. That's kind of my point.
So, why do I think the injury to Tony is such a good thing? Well, there's actually a couple of reasons:
1. It's going to be a key to sharpening the skills of at least two key players early in the season.
2. It forces the Spurs to win games on the defensive end.
Let's expand on that, shall we?
There are at least two Spurs players, and probably more, who are going to have to step up their games in Tony's absence.
Let's start with the most obvious one: George Hill. George is now the first option at the point, and is going to get a lot of minutes running the team. This is an immediate upgrade at the defensive end, but George is going to get into the practice of playing with all the starters on the team, and he'll be able to better learn what each of them can and can't do. Cubits also has the physical tools to run a drive-and-kick type of game, which we haven't seen much of from him. Hopefully, this opportunity will help him develop those skills a bit further. And obviously, George is important to out defensive schemes as well.
Another player that should benefit from the additional responsibility is Manu Ginobili. Manu doesn't have to develop skills as much as he has to re-discover them. I'd like to see Pop utilize Manu as the backup point guard while Tony is out. Everybody has probably noticed by now that Manu's not very sharp so far this season. The best way to get him back in the game mentally is to give him the responsibility of running the team. He's played some limited minuted at the point already, but now it's time to throw him into the fire. Offensively, Manu is easily our second best point guard, and giving him more time at the point can only help him get his mojo back.
The third player that might benefit here is Roger Mason, though not for the same reasons. Inevitably, Roger is going to get some time at the point. Due to his summertime weight loss and conditioning, he's better suited to play the point than he was last year, but I think we'd all prefer that Roger's playing time at the point is limited. But it's definitely conceivable that Roger could get some more minutes at the off guard position than he has been. For a gunner like Roger, more minutes means more confidence about how he can work within the offense.
There's one last guy who might benefit by Tony's absence. Tony is surely going to be on the inactive list, and the team is likely to move a guard off the inactive list to take his place during the time that he's out. There's only one guard on the inactive list, and we all know who that is. Malik Hairston is going to get the chance to prove that he deserves a spot in the Spurs' rotation, and he's going to get it soon. Look for him to get some minutes as soon as Monday night against Toronto. Unfortunately, good performances by Hairston are unlikely to end Pop's love affair with Michael Finley, but perhaps it will make him more willing to change up the inactive list on back-to-backs later in the season.
Learning to Swarm
Without their leading scorer, the Spurs are not going to be able to depend on the ability to simply outscore their opponents. This means they're going to have to win games the tried and true SPURS* way: they're going to have to act like an angry swarm on the defensive end.
(*capitalizing only the word SPURS is © SiMA, and was used without permission.)
There have already been signs of this: in the loss to Portland, the Spurs were playing decent defense in the first half. But after Tony limped off the court right before halftime, the Spurs came out focused on D in the second half. The Hill/Bogans/Jefferson lineup was an especially good combo, forcing lots of bad shots and even a few shot clock violations. The Blazers didn't get a truly open look at the basket for most of the second half. The Spurs limited Portland to 17 3rd quarter points, and their 28 4th quarter points were inflated a bit by some intentional fouling towards the end of the game. Keith Bogans got extended minutes, and seemed to bring an infectious energy to the defensive end. I, for one, would like to see Pop continue to use him in the starting lineup. Personally, I thought that the brief appearance of the "ugly", "boring" Spurs was the most comforting thing I've seen so far in this young season.
If the Spurs can get their bearings on defense, and become a top 5 defensive team (like they have been in every season Pop has coached), they will become nearly impossible to stop. Even with Tony out, there's enough offense on this team to win plenty of games. Where they stand on the defensive end is going to make the difference between being also-rans and being true title contenders. This injury is the best motivator I can think of to bring the Spurs together on that end of the floor. Let's hope we all see that swarming, tough defense we've been waiting for, and that the second half performance in Portland wasn't just a fluke.