Certain things in life are inexplicable, yet some people need explanation anyway in order to feel closure on a subject. On Friday night the Spurs defeated a hot Portland Trail Blazers team 99-83 at the AT&T Center, and they weren't supposed to.
At least that's what everybody was saying.
Logic and reason offer an easy explanation as to why the Blazers have been such nightmare for the Spurs in recent memory. You can point to their size, their athleticism, their youth - all things the Spurs have lacked during the longest title drought of Tim Duncan's career. Well, until this year.
San Antonio has always had a decided edge in one aspect of the game nearly every time it steps on the court: the Spurs are smarter than you. Since Gregg Popovich took over as head coach (which also conveniently occurred around the time Tim Duncan entered the league) there's been no team smarter. But plenty of those teams have been more athletic. The Spurs have become a victim of their own success, consistently entrenched toward the end of the draft, searching nooks and crannies for that diamond in the rough. Along the way they've passed up some big, athletic players that look good on television, opting instead for brains over brawn. And clearly it's worked.
But they had the luxury of picking and choosing the perfect fit. After all, they'd be able to attract some proven veteran to sign on and try to win a ring with Duncan - something they did with regularity. But then came the decline in athleticism from the big man. Little by little he became less able to do the things he wanted to do on the floor, and with that came the inevitable change in the Spurs' business structure.
When Duncan was in his prime you could get very good players at a bargain simply because they wanted a ring. But just as Timmy's production has diminished, so has the lure of playing in the Alamo City. Gone are the constant double teams that created countless wide-open shots for his teammates. Gone is the ability to go "four down" and just dump it down to Duncan when nothing else was going right (Well, that ability is still there ... it's just not quite the same). Every defense becomes more difficult to crack. We've now seen long, athletic centers in the league - guys he used to torture - give the best power forward the game has ever seen fits on the block. Suddenly, with the rest of the NBA getting younger and more athletic around the Spurs, it became more difficult to play the style of ball San Antonio liked to play.
It was no longer a guarantee the Spurs were a title contender, so naturally the luster of playing with Duncan began to wane. Veterans were signing for less money to play under the brighter lights of the bigger markets as San Antonio became more of an afterthought on the free agent market. When you're a title contender it's not always about the money. You can convince those who want to win to come play for you on the cheap. But if you are no longer viewed as an upper-echelon team it becomes harder to attract bigger names with less than lucrative contracts. Players wanted to get paid over playing with an aging Duncan, and the Spurs didn't have the money. This was a team that never touched the luxury tax threshold, and it never really needed to.
It's like any other business. If your company owns or is on top of the market in which it operates, you can have your pick of employees. Everyone will seek your available opportunities above all else because they know the stability is there. They know what they're getting and they know risk is minimal. But if you're a smaller company, the more you pay the more consideration you'll get from someone who might deem the difference in compensation worth it, obviously.
So as the Spurs became less attractive it became more difficult to attract those veterans they had been able to before, and on top of that there wasn't enough money to spend on free agents anyway. With other teams winning titles and the Spurs consistently being beaten by the best teams in the league, there had to be a change. The Spurs weren't getting those "missing pieces" they were able to attract before, so they had to rely on an annually terrible draft position. Usually San Antonio elected to take the draft-and-stash route, drafting players and letting them play overseas to hone their skills. When you're winning this is a great way to draft as it allows players to prepare themselves prior to their arrival in the NBA, but it's not something you can afford to do when you're losing.
But as big-market teams got better, spending gobs of money without an ounce of concern for the luxury tax, the powers that be decided to break the mold in San Antonio. And, as a result, the trade for Richard Jefferson will be scrutinized his entire career as a Spur. I think it's already safe to say he was and never will be worth $10-plus million to the Spurs. This contract hamstrung San Antonio in a big way as it prevented the Spurs from being able to spend money on anyone. But there's a reason this front office is considered one of, if not the best.
Without the extra money San Antonio did everything it could to add depth to an older, depleting roster, searching Europe, the D-League and the waiver wire while drafting well at the same time. And it's finally come full circle. The Spurs last five first-round draft picks, Tiago Splitter, George Hill, DeJuan Blair, James Anderson and Cory Joseph, are all still on the team or were a major part of a trade that brought the Spurs Kawhi Leonard. Add on your former European and D-League players Gary Neal and Danny Green and you can see the youth movement taking place in San Antonio ... on the cheap.
No, the double teams aren't there on Duncan anymore, but they don't need to be. This team now comes at you in ever-flowing waves, with depth and energy not seen from the Spurs in years. As Pop, Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have adapted to this team just as their teammates have to them, less of the burden is placed on their shoulders. They finally have some help again, and it's manifesting itself in different ways every night.
One of the biggest effects the lockout has had on this season is the inconsistency of the level of play from night to night. And it's difficult to find too much fault to assign to anyone. There will be nights like last where the two sides combined for 41 turnovers in the game, but watching to see who wins that type of game will be interesting. Every win is crucial during LWM, but it's been the adventure of guessing who the next big Spurs contributor would be that night that's been so enthralling.
From Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard to Neal and Splitter, young, athletic players have found a niche in Pop's offense playing alongside the Big 3 - two of them, at least.
A this type of schedule, without question, favors the home squad. Teams will very rarely experience two or three straight days off this year, so traveling during a back-to-back or on your only day off doesn't exactly sound like a restful time. When you combine the fact these teams aren't playing their best basketball with the fact they're probably exhausted from previous games and travel, you're automatically inclined to give the home team the advantage. Home court has really helped San Antonio this year, as it's now an undefeated 8-0 in the AT&T Center and winless at 0-4 on the road.
At a time when most teams are the worst they'll be all season on the floor, the Spurs are operating at a high efficiency, relatively speaking. Ideally, by the time most NBA teams are rounding into form, Ginobili will be ready to play for a stretch run to the playoffs. And with the bench playing at the level it is right now, this experience could be extremely valuable during that time.
Every night it's been someone different. Tim and Tony have certainly been a major part of what this group is doing on both sides of the floor, but it's been the contributions from the bench and changeup of the lineup that have really fueled some tough defense and timely shot making. The San Antonio bench is turning out to be as deep as I can remember, and that's crucial for this season, especially at home.
WIth Duncan not playing well, several very young players stepped up big in this one. Several different players took turns carrying the load offensively, and you might be surprised by a couple of them.
The Spurs were able to survive, going down by four to end the first quarter despite the fact they committed 10 turnovers that resulted in 13 points. It was a weird 12 minutes, especially for Duncan who collected two quick fouls within three minutes of the contest's tip and had four turnovers in just more than seven minutes of play. DeJuan Blair did a great job early in the quarter as he was able to avoid Portland's length on his way to eight quick points. But this game began to turn once Danny Green made his way on the floor.
Green, the former Tar Heel, made an instant impact in the first with a steal and three quick points, but it was the second quarter when he really came alive. The third-year pro scored eight points in the frame on the strength of two 3-pointers and a couple of free throws. His play on the defensive end was once again a weapon for the Spurs as his constant activity, along with Leonard's, is wreaking havoc at times. With Duncan far off his game Friday night, the bench was awesome.
At times this season we've seen the Big 3 put up nice numbers and get help from RJ or maybe a sixth man off the bench. But right now the Spurs are getting help from all over. Pop inserted Splitter quickly in the third quarter after Blair picked up a foul, running a big frontcourt to match the length of Portland. It worked. Splitter dropped nine points in the quarter on his way to 14 for the game. He looked as good as he's ever looked in a Spurs uniform last night. He was aggressive as ever and the Blazers were having much difficulty doing anything about it. His footwork around the rim and even his developing hook shot were things of beauty to watch on this night (OK, maybe I can't call his hook shot a thing of beauty yet). We're on the right path.
Then it was time for the starters to close it out (plus Danny), and it started with Kawhi. The rookie continues to impress in clutch situations as he led a Spurs attack that blew out on a 14-2 run to start the final quarter. His combination of scoring, passing and athleticism is invaluable to a Spurs team that needs fresh bodies. But when it was time to close it was time for the old guard. Tony Parker scored 12 of his team-high 20 points in this in a little more than five fourth-quarter minutes, and once again he attacked the rim at every possibility, getting into the teeth of the defense and creating as well with nine assists.
Some things in life aren't completely explainable, like when logic doesn't seem to apply and everything we thought we knew is wrong. When guys like Manu go down, it's a natural reaction to temper expectations from there on out, but perhaps we've focused too much on the impact of the injury instead of truly realizing what this team has in San Antonio. I'm still trying not to get ahead of myself (especially given the fact the Spurs have yet to win on the road), but could there be more than what meets the eye?
It was an easy decision: a team without Manu and T.J., it's top two passers, is playing a group of guys in Portland it hasn't really been able to beat in recent memory. And while it's easy to recognize the difficulty of the schedule and the unfamiliarity the teams have with this kind of workload, maybe it's much more simple than that given the fact that everybody's in the same boat. Maybe you don't need a reason why the Spurs were able to pull off what appeared to be an upset on Friday night, because perhaps it wasn't even an upset at all. Maybe what's different is this Spurs team.
They just might be even better than we think.