In the middle of November, after a win vs. OKC, I posted that this year's Spurs team is a championship caliber team. I said the Spurs have a better chance than any other team in the league of reaching 70 wins. (But I not did not go so far as to say that it would happen). I mentioned that the offense and bench play might be one of the best the Spurs have had in recent years. Some folks here commented that I was being extremely optimistic and perhaps jumping the gun.
Well, the Spurs are now 35-6, with 41 to go before the playoffs. Even with James Anderson out with injury, the bench has played extremely well. Note: the 5 main 3-point shooters of the last title team of 06-07, were Ginobili, Barry, Finely, Bowen, and Horry. So far this year the main 3-point shooters have been: Ginobili, Jefferson, Neal, Bonner, and Hill in that order. You can add Anderson to that mix once he returns from injury in February.
During the 1st half of this season I had to reflect on why are folks outside of S.A. so surprised about this year's team? And second, why are some people are still in denial about how good this team is?
If I miss something, please add your comments. Please excuse the long sentences. That's the effect of studying theology in Italian for 2 1/2 years now.
I begin by recapping why so many people had this team written off before the year began:
S.A. won their last NBA title in 06-07. The 07-08 team did not repeat because they lost in the semi's to L.A. 4-1. If not for a failure of a no-call on a Brent Barry 3-point attempt, who was fouled in the closing seconds of game 4, (the NBA even admitted afterward that a foul should have been called) that series could have possibly gone the other way. But as it played, out the Spurs were out-rebounded and out played by L.A. They blew a 20-point lead in game 1, and a 17 point lead in game 5, both of which were in L.A. Perhaps it's tough to argue the Spurs would have won the title that year since the Boston Celtics won in such a dominant fashion over L.A. The Spurs would not have matched up well with their big men.
It was after this season that for some reason, perhaps bias against this team factoring in, experts working for the mass media made it sound like the Big 3 just couldn't play at the same level anymore and that they would only decline from that point on due to age. In fact the year before 05-06, when the Spurs last won the N.B.A. finals, they were underdogs going into the playoffs. Dallas and Phoenix were the favorites in the West that year. Apparently people thought the Spurs were too old back then. In my opinion, many people in national sports media were more than ready to shift their attention away from this small market team after their impressive run of odd year championships and "boring" fundamental style of play. Meanwhile Spurs fans, (myself included) and perhaps a few others, knew that that team lacked only 1 or 2 players (front court) in their supporting cast, and if not for that, they could have very well won another title or two.
So when the following year's 08-09 team, had a supporting cast that continued to decline, especially from a defensive perspective, all of these people were confirmed in their judgments. And even Spurs fans began to wonder if all the glory years with the Big Three were finished.
Bowen was in clear decline (no longer an All-Defensive 1st team). We had Manu play in only 44 games that season which concluded in a 1st round exit, 4-1 to Dallas. That year's team clearly did not resemble any of the past championship caliber teams. Manu had injuries and wasn't 100% in the play-offs, if I remember correctly. The lack of defense and scoring from the role players put more of a load on the Big 3. And since they could not carry the team deep into the playoffs, people began to think, "Well they had a nice run. We knew it wouldn’t last. It’s about time to trade Parker or Manu and rebuild the roster."
So by the Summer of 09 (only a year and a half ago), all the major media experts were in agreement, that with the same Big 3, this team would never become a true contender again in the west- much less a Championship caliber team. Sure they may continue to win games and make the playoffs. But that’s because they have a great coach who makes them play hard.
But when the organization traded Bowen and others for RJ, a minority of experts thought the move might make the Spurs a serious contender once again. But when that didn't go well from the start last year, the Spurs went even further into the rear view mirror of the Western Conference. They won quite a few games over the last 6 weeks of the season, but managed only the 7th seed in the ultra-competitive West. But a major first round upset over Dallas (which by the way I was expecting to happen,) raised everyone's eyebrows. They saw that George Hill is a rising star and that Manu still has game left in his career. Some media experts thought the Spurs had returned to championship form and therefore picked them to beat the Suns. But after Phoenix shot lights out, and their bench out played Spurs and they got swept, it became easy for those experts to correct their thinking and say that San Antonio merely had a good series against Dallas. They were not serious contenders to L.A. after all. The prevailing thought had returned: the Spurs can still win a lot of games, and get to the 2nd round of the playoffs but they are not up there with the best of the West.
So after a look back at the past, we can see why the Spurs came into the 2010 regular season as not even a dark horse candidate for dethroning the Lakers. The Lakers were the clear favorites to three-peat. Dallas was once again the trendy pick for a new team representing the West in the Finals. And younger clubs like the OKC Thunder and the Jazz were considered as superior to the Spurs. After all, Duncan and Manu were a year older and the thought of them and Parker staying healthy seemed unlikely to happen. RJ was not expected to suddenly play like he did in his younger days in New Jersey. The bench had some new players on board. But none of them had yet proven themselves in the NBA so better to have modest or low expectations.
Meanwhile Spurs fans who really knew this team could and were hoping for more. We were used to this team winning with Duncan, Parker, Manu and Pop, and we did not want to believe that that this was going to change just because team was a year older. We saw a glimpse of past championship Spurs teams in the playoff series against Dallas. So it was conceivable for us that this team was only 1 or 2 players away from a serious shot at the Western Conference Finals. And it appeared that over this past off-season we had added one of those missing pieces by way of Tiago Splitter. So if the rookie Anderson could hit some shots and the Big 3 stay healthy, and RJ come out shooting and playing a bit better, then this team could, once again, be a serious contender for a Championship. Altogether it sounded like almost too much to expect.
But after 41 games, the Spurs look to be a lock to get a top 2 seed in the West. If they stay healthy, they may hold on to the #1 seed. They once again have a team that can do everything past championship Spurs teams had to do in order to win. Play good defense, shoot the three ball, and take care of the basketball. Their record is not exactly indicative of their consistency in these phases of the game. It's the scoring from their bench that has made up for other weaknesses.
Now after a few months of ball, the repeating headline about this year’s team has been their league leading record. But there is something people should be talking about much more than the franchise best start and stellar play of Manu and TP. The 2010-11 Spurs have their best supporting cast since the years of 06-08. That, along with a healthy Big 3, is all that this team has needed since their last title in 2007. That means it should be no surprise to see this team earn home court advantage for the playoffs. It should be no surprise to see them in the Western Conference Finals or bringing home another Finals trophy. For anyone who really knows or follows the Spurs, and understands what it takes to win in this league, none of that should come as any surprise.
But you don't have much hype around this team. People are not yet jumping on the bandwagon. The fact that L.A. has won Back 2 Back titles with almost the same roster they have this year, makes it impossible for the Spurs to be the front runners in the West. The elite teams in the East have earned a lot of attention. Boston has virtually the same roster that nearly beat L.A. in game 7 last year, along with Shaq who is still effective when given the opportunity. The Heat might have the greatest Big 3, at least on paper, in league history. The Magic have a new group of stars surrounding Dwight Howard. Throw in that S.A. is a small market compared to other major cities, and that they are not knows for much else nationally other than the Riverwalk, and the Alamo, then you can understand why they receive so little national attention.
From a roster standpoint, those who wrote this team off in 07, probably have a hard time believing that 4 years later, a handful of role players is enough to put this team back in the Finals. I think what it comes down to is many folks have a hard time believing that Duncan, Parker, and Manu can still outperform the other stars in the league, who by and large are considered younger and better than the Spurs' trio.
As a fan, I like how the Spurs are happy to go along and maintain their low profile. Duncan and company know that playoff performances are what speak the loudest. Deep down though, they have to believe that this team could be awfully good come May and June. Offensively, this is one of the deepest and dangerous teams the Spurs have ever had. This year the Big 3 have to do less than I remember them ever having to do, night in an night out. If the strong bench play continues, then Duncan, Ginobili and Parker should have the fresh legs needed for a deep run into the playoffs.
As for the 2nd half of the season, I'm paying attention to the team defense. I hope to see more improvement in the play of Blair, and a successful return to the rotation for James Anderson. It would be nice to see this team get even better over the 2nd half as they prepare for the playoffs.
Well, these are my thoughts from the eternal city.
Comments are welcomed.