Waiting for Manu and Splitter to Return

I am pretty content.

Actually, given the context, content represents a rather facetious statement. If I'm being completely honest, the word that better describes my state is ecstatic because the Spurs have managed to build another legitimate championship contender. And, if I can continue with the Full Disclosure™: I didn't expect the Spurs to hold the No. 2 seed and a 24-10 record before the All Star break.

I'm an unapologetic Spurs fan, one who vehemently believes in PATFO, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and the endearing monastic persona of the team to endure even the most onerous hardships. Yet, I still wasn't ready for this season.

The Spurs, quite serendipitously, have exceeded my expectations. This has occurred despite 25 games without Manu, any semblance of productive practices or training camp and an increased reliance on unproven players (Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter).

This year, as we steadily transition into the new generation of Spurs basketball, has coincided with Timmy's 14th season. I feel like any thought of tearing the Spurs down when they struggle (remember when we were 3-8 on the road?) is a pyschosomatic trait evident in 95 percent of sports fans because our "bland" style of basketball (how can a system that relies on precision and ball movement be boring?) isn't exactly conducive to high TV ratings.

Frustrated Spurs fan rant over. Staying on topic, my original task was to preview the next two weeks as the Spurs will try to endure without Manu (oblique) and Tiago (calf strain). At first glance, it looks pretty difficult. Aside from the dreadful Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards, the Spurs will face six teams with above .500 records.

Here are five things to consider during these next two weeks.

1. There are no back-to-backs.

Not one. With teams like the Dallas Mavericks having the fortune ( or misfortune, depending on your perspective) of playing nine games in 12 nights after the AS break, the Spurs' eight in 17 nights sounds pretty manageable -- especially when seven of those are home games (where the Spurs are 13-1).

I think this is pretty important even though this Spurs team is often wrongly accused of being chronologically challenged. With a weeks' worth of rest for every Spur except TP, we should be able to combat the injuries with something approaching fresh legs.

2. We are playing inherently flawed basketball teams.

The New York Knicks are the second best defensive team we'll face during this stretch. Think about that. That doesn't mean the Knicks are awful in that regard but most people don't associate good defensive basketball with the Knicks. To their credit, they are eight in defensive efficiency.

The Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers are good basketball teams but they are one-dimensional offensive teams that have glaring defensive deficiencies.

The Bobcats and Wizards are awful on both sides of the ball.

The Orlando Magic are well-balanced and Dwight Howard can expose any frontline much less an already depleted one. If their offense is running smoothly, it's the equivalent of the Green Bay Packers. Free-flowing, fun to watch, high scoring, multi-faceted. Whether that be Howard exploiting the interior or their bevy of shooters spacing the floor, they will be hard to stop. The interesting part to consider before this game is the ongoing Howard trade talks.The trade deadline is Mar. 15. The Spurs play the Magic on Mar. 14. If the New Jersey Nets desperately want to appease Deron Williams, then they would have to make a move before then. Could we be getting a reprieve from Superman?

And, lastly, the Chicago Bulls and Thunder are on another level. The Bulls are in the top five in both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency and their point differential is first. We'll be playing OKC on the road where they are 15-1. I'd be really satisfied with splitting against these opponents.

3. Percentage of shots at the rim.

With Splitter out, the Spurs ability to limit attempts at the rim (27.2% compared to the average of 30.1%) will be severely tested. The Spurs have one of the worst block rates in the entire league and do not impose their will on players slashing to the hoop. What they do successfully is funnel help defenders into the paint and bait teams into shooting mid range jumpers while simultaneously preventing corner threes.

This won't be easy. Denver (1st), Chicago (4th), Washington (10th), New York (11th) and OKC (12th) are proficient in getting to the rim early and often. I'm especially interested in our game against the Knicks not only because of the Linsanity phenomena, but also because advanced statistics haven't effectively quantified Jeremy Lin's unprecedented run. The Knicks are still among the bottom third in offensive efficiency but since Feb. 4 (A.K.A. the night that altered the complexion of the basketball world) they have scored 99.9 points per 100 possessions.

During Lin's time as a starter, the Knicks have taken 27.9 shots at the rim, or about 34.9% of their total shots, which represents a huge increase.

It will be difficult to ameloriate the threat of a Lin-Tyson Chandler pick-and-roll when the possibility of a Carmelo Anthony ISO on the other side of the floor or Anthony-Amare Stoudemire screen action still exists. Just way too many options. If the Spurs want to continue their winning ways, defending the rim will definitely be an important factor.

4. Three-point defense.

Orlando, New York, Lob City, Denver and OKC take a lot of shots from behind the arc. The Spurs' three-point defense has been average at this point and they have taken over games solely because of hot perimeter shooting. Lately they have been able to take advantage of perimeter challenged teams and have connected on 18 more three-pointers than their opponents in the last seven games. They won't have this luxury against teams with talented shooters because their three-point advantage will be decidedly smaller.

5. Rotations.

This stretch of basketball will be interesting because the Spurs are finally home and will welcome some quality basketball teams to the AT&T Center. To win, the Spurs will need to be creative in managing minutes and employ more small ball lineups. Lineups without DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner as our big men would also be nice. I bet Pop will utilize the three man unit of Parker-Blair-Duncan often while using Green, Richard Jefferson, Leonard and Gary Neal interchangeably.

Here are a some lineups without Manu or Tiago that have been pretty successful.

Parker-Leonard-Jefferson-Blair-Duncan, 0.98 offensive points-per-possession, 0.97 defensive points-per-possession, +5.

Parker-Neal-Jefferson-Blair-Duncan, 1.17 offense PPP, 0.95 defense PPP, +34.

Parker-Green-Jefferson-Blair-Duncan, 0.98 offense PPP, 0.87 defense PPP, +14.

Parker-Neal-Green-Bonner-Duncan, 1.06 offense PPP, 0.77 defense PPP, +10.

Blair has been playing well as of late and Pop has shown a tendency to pair him with Timmy and not Splitter this season. I'm not sure where Bonner fits into the rotation because he was usually paired with Splitter but his overall minutes, like most Spurs players, should receive a slight boost. He's too much of a matchup nightmare (on both offense and defense) to leave on the bench.

So that's where my analysis stands of the coming games while we continue to wait for our fallen heroes to recover. What do you think is the biggest issue facing the team in their first stretch of games back from the All Star Break?

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