Playoff time is here and your old pal Stampler is positively inspired. So much so that I've gone on a road trip with my BFF Manoli and we're taking in the first two games of the Spurs-Jazz series in person. That's how much I'm in love with this team.
Note: We kinda did the same thing last year. Manu broke his arm while we were at a sports bar in Phoenix, on our way to San Antonio. We were there in Game 1 when Shane Battier hit the late three and Tony choked the game away. Good times. If something horrible happens this time, blame me I guess.
Anyway, I thought I'd give my grades on the Spurs in the regular season in this column, and tomorrow night, if you're good, I'll offer my thoughts on Game 1 some extend Spurs thoughts and observations. Cool? Cool.
P.S. This is like 9,000 words.
James Anderson: D+
We'll do this alphabetically, because I'm anal like that. We might as well start with Anderson, a fellow who has the unique distinction of being both the most enigmatic member of the squad as well as the most irrelevant.
Anderson, a shooting guard who can't shoot, looks to be out of shape for a wing. Really you could argue he's even more girthy for his size than Boris Diaw is. He's also fairly uncoordinated, as basic basketball concepts such as catching the ball and dribbling it seem to be beyond him. Given all that, one would think Anderson has no business on the Charlotte Bobcats, let alone our team. Even Anderson's jumping ability seems set on "random." Sometimes he can sky for an impressive throw down, other nights he gets blocked by the rim. He's a riddle I don't care about inside an enigma that bores me wrapped in a mystery that makes me long for sleep. The way ESPN sees the Spurs is how I see Anderson, basically.
You watch the games though and Anderson does things you wouldn't expect. For example, he rebounds at a similar rate to fellas like Kobe Bryant and James Harden, and isn't too far off from the Manu/Jack/Green level. Defensively, he's far better than one would expect and actually moves his feet pretty well for a slug. The Spurs actually gave up fewer points per 100 possessions with Anderson on the floor than Kawhi Leonard, even though the rookie played far more with Tim Duncan.
Even though Anderson's offensive statistics are anything but impressive, he's like a homeless man's Matt Bonner in that somehow, by hook or by crook, the plus/minus numbers completely flatter him. I can see how it happens with Bonner. He stretches the floor, plays good positional and team defense and gets to play with Ginobili a lot. Anderson? No clue how he's doing it.
A lot of people point to the Spurs narrow overtime loss at Dallas as the one that turned the season around. Supposedly it gave the young guys confidence to play so well with Tim and Tony on the bench and it unified the team and blah-blah-blah. Well, that's a bunch of hooey. The biggest "breakout" guy in that game was Anderson, and now he's our 13th man. That game did nothing for Leonard. He was on the bench too. Green may have benefited from it, but he actually went off at Miami two weeks prior.
Whatever. You look at the numbers and there is no real objective reason we should feel one way about Jackson and Leonard and Green and an entirely different way about Anderson. They're not that different.*** We just want to dislike Anderson, and the team's had a lot of success with his ample rear end glued to the bench, so we do. I can't even pretend to fake sentiments like I'll miss him when he's gone next year or that I hope it works out for him somewhere else, because the truth is he's just so meh, you know?
*** Yeah, yeah, I know the win shares per 48 minutes crowd loves Leonard. Humor me.
DeJuan Blair: C-
I want to hate Blair, I really do.
There is so much to not like about him. He can't shoot. Like, at all. He doesn't give a poop about his free throws, just laughing without a care in the world when he's at the line, flipping the ball up at the rim with no form or knee bend like Dennis Rodman used to, totally unconcerned whether the ball goes through the hoop or not. He travels, commits stupid offensive fouls and over-the-back fouls all the time. His defense is an abomination. This is Blair's third year in the league and he hasn't improved at all, right? It actually looks like he's gone backward in some areas, his explosion to the rim chief among them.
Then there’s his rebounding, or lack thereof. As a rookie Blair pulled down 14.1 rebounds per 40 minutes. In 2012 that number shrank to 10.3, which is pretty crummy, considering it’s basically his only skill. Blair ranked 65th among power forwards with a 16.3 defensive rebound rate. To give you an idea of how bad that is, Bonner, who is thought of as a horrendous rebounding big, was 68th with a 15.7 defensive rebound rate.
Blair was, without a doubt, San Antonio’s worst rotation player in 2011-2012, even worse all things considered than Richard Jefferson. Every single Spur was less effective offensively without him than with him and only Duncan and Leonard were better defensively with him than not, and my guess is that had less to do with Blair and more to do with a starting unit that also included Parker and Green.
Given all that, we should all despise him, right?
Here’s the thing I keep coming back to though. Dude is 6-6. Tall for you and me, average for an NBA wing, but downright shrimpy for a big man. Yeah his defensive shortcomings probably have more to do with not having intensity or paying attention to details than his height, but he’s 6-6. Yeah he should rebound better, but he rebounds pretty freaking well for a guy who’s 6-6. Also, if you want to get nerdy about it, his assist and turnover rates are both going in the right direction every season, as is his usage rate.
As I’ve mentioned before the main reason I don’t hate Blair is because I recognize the value in his basic existence. Yes, he’s crappy. But he’s not so crappy that it’s impossible to win regular season games with him, the way it would be if you or I (but mainly you) were on the floor with Tim and Tony instead.
The guy eats minutes. So many worthless, pointless, regular season minutes. 21.3 of them per game. That’s 21.3 minutes that Bonner, Duncan, Diaw and Tiago Splitter don’t have to risk playing and getting hurt. That’s 21.3 minutes that Pop doesn’t have to be tempted into playing small. To me, those are valuable minutes.
Also, as I’ve stated before, Blair is a wonderful guy to have because typically his best six minutes in a game is the first six, when neither team is quite into the game just yet, the fans are still at the concession stands or the bathroom, and everyone is just settling in. It’ll be a Tuesday night in Detroit in January or a Thursday night at Minnesota in March and before you know it it’s 18-13 Spurs and Blair has 10 points. Sure, his guy scored 11 on the other end and Blair will finish the game with like 13, but still, he’s the only guy out there ready to play.
Do I ever want to see him out there in the playoffs? Not unless we’re up 25 points in the fourth. Still, here’s a tip of the cap to Blair for his regular season contributions, such as they were. Now have a seat and quit glaring at Pop that way. It’s not his fault you suck.
Matt Bonner: B
As much of a litmus test Manu is as far being able to tell if the guy (or gal) you’re conversing with or whose article you’re reading knows a lick about basketball, to me the true barometer of whether that person is worth your time is the Red Rocket. If they see the white, goofy ginger bastard who runs like he soiled himself and tell you that he’s not a quality player then that’s all you need to know. You don’t need to argue with them, you don’t need to show them the numbers, you don’t need to challenge them to actually watch the games. You just need to exit the conversation ASAP and remove that person from your life forever.
I don’t know how it is at PtR (I don’t visit here much), but at Spurstalk Bonner is now the resident villain of the team, even more so than Blair, now that RJ is gone. People see him as pretty much a playoff choker and the guy who got abused by Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Dorrell Arthur in the playoff loss to Memphis. Telling those folks that Bonner actually shot far better in that series than in his past two postseasons (admittedly not a high bar to clear) or that he had the best plus/minus of anybody on the team outside of Manu and Blair does nothing to change their minds.
Unfortunately, no matter how much success the Spurs have by playing as a team, there will be people out there, poor simpletons whose brains have been rotted by ESPN and shoe commercials, who see basketball like they see baseball, as a series of individual matchups wrapped around a larger team concept. They’ll see Bonner in a vacuum instead of a member of a five-man unit and will always come away unimpressed (often rightfully so).
If you look at Bonner’s statistics not only do you not understand Bonner’s game, but you don’t understand basketball as a whole. If his overwhelming plus/minus numbers extend to just a month, or just one season, we can dismiss them as a fluke. If they were just with Duncan or with Ginobili, we could say it’s the byproduct of those guys’ individual brilliance and that Bonner is living off their reflected genius. But when the numbers are the way they are for like four years running, when they’re as strong regardless of which of the big three he’s paired with and when they’re as consistently dominant, eventually you just have to give up, shrug your shoulders and give the man his due.
Matt Bonner is an excellent basketball player who just happens to be annoying as shit.
He doesn’t get many steals or blocked shots (though he gets more swats than Blair), but Bonner defends against post scorers very well according to Synergy Sports and he’s more nimble hedging on the pick-and-roll than people give him credit for. He doesn’t rebound, but he boxes out well. On offense he is basically allergic to turnovers. He doesn’t set bone-crunching screens, but never the less he spaces the floor enough for Parker and Ginobili to get to the rim.
The Spurs were +13.4 per 100 possessions with Bonner on the floor. Literally every single member of the team averages more points per 100 possessions with him than without him, and only Blair has a worse scoring differential overall with Bonner than without (the two of them together can’t guard anybody). The Spurs scored 116.4 points per 100 possessions with Bonner on the floor. That was fourth in the entire league. When he, Splitter and Ginobili were on the court together, it was almost unfair.
In conclusion, I’d just like to say that I hope Bonner can hit a few shots in the playoffs because most fans are so stupid that it’s literally the only way they’ll ever be able to appreciate him. If Robert Horry was as good of a regular season player as Bonner is, the Spurs would’ve never lost a damn game.
Also, I’m knocking him down one full grade because his stats stink.
Boris Diaw: B+
With the Big Three, Boris is 20-1. Heck, with any of the big three, he’s 20-1.
I fully admit I was wrong about this one. I wanted Chris Kaman. I watched that Charlotte game. Diaw was fat. He couldn’t even run up and down the floor. He was sweating gravy. Yeah, he can pass a little, but so what? He was soft, literally as well as figuratively. I figured he’d be a complete embarrassment on defense, a non-factor on the boards, Pop would quickly be fed up with his lackadaisical play and that would be that.
Then came that first game against Dallas, where Diaw completely ruined Dirk Nowitzki’s shit. I mean good god. Has any Spur ever defended him that well? I know Captain Jack did a hell of a job on him in the 2007 playoffs, but that doesn’t count because he was with the Warriors then. I came away from that game thinking that Diaw had as much to do with the win as anybody, and he played 16 minutes, had two points, three rebounds and one assist. It’s like playing with Horry 2.0 except he’s chubby, has an annoying accent and he’s terrified to shoot, even though he has no reason to be.
Initially I thought that Jackson would be the more meaningful in-season addition to the Spurs, if for no other reason than he’s not Richard Jefferson, and while Jack has been an asset overall Diaw has been the more valuable pickup all things considered. He leads the Spurs (yes, even Manu) with a 15.8 net differential per 100 minutes, and while he’s a perfectly respectable fourth on the team in offense in that regard (115.4 points), where he’s really shined has been defensively, as he’s the only Spur allowing less than 100 points per 100 possessions (99.6). It’s not just a Duncan thing either, as Diaw has been stingy regardless of whether it was Splitter, Bonner or even Blair flanking him. His rebounding hasn’t been as good as Splitter, but it’s better than Bonner.
From what I’ve seen Diaw is hit-and-miss as a post defender and commits too many soft, unnecessary fouls for my taste, but he’s a lot better on pick-and-rolls and on the perimeter in general than any other big we’ve got, and it’s not even close. I imagine we’ll have him on the floor quite a bit against Dirk if we face Dallas (unlikely) and he’ll probably be our top option against Pau Gasol and Zach Randolph as well.
Offensively I do wish he’d take more open shots, but it’s not like the offense is struggling to score with him in there, so I can’t complain too much. I just like that he’s shown already that he’s equally comfortable playing with the starters as he is with the reserves and that he’s been able to mesh with both Parker and Ginobili seamlessly.
Getting Jackson made us legit. Getting Diaw made us a contender. Putting Diaw in the starting lineup (and discarding Blair) made us the favorite.
Tim Duncan: A-
I hate to be cynical, but I can’t seriously be the only one that’s a wee bit suspicious about this, right?
Duncan, who just turned 36, who looked D-U-N DONE in last season’s series against Memphis, was far more spry and bouncy this season, playing with a compressed schedule in which he dragged his creaky body through 58 games in 120-ish days. Somehow, someway, he seemed to get sprier and bouncier as the months went on. He actually had more dunks this season (35) in 58 games than last year (32) in 76 games. He also was active enough to attempt 1.6 more FGA per game than last season and 0.9 more FTA per game, despite seeing a slight decline in his minutes. Offensively The Golden God was as efficient as he’s been in some time and his PER of 22.60 was good for 14th in the league. To give you an idea of how good that is, Andrew Bynum, who everyone went gaga for this season, checked in at 23.00. Again, Duncan is 36. When Duncan won the Spurs their first championship in 2000, Bynum was in seventh grade.
Or perhaps repeating fifth grade for the third time.
Where Duncan’s play sagged a bit was on defense. For the first two thirds of the year he was clearly pacing himself at that end. His blocked shots were at a career-low 1.5 per game (though he had a better rate per minute than he did in 2009-10), he didn’t challenge shooters on the pick-and-roll at all, and overall he allowed 100.3 points per 100 possessions, which was among the best rates on the team but still not all that great. I don’t really blame him though. For one thing he was handicapped by having to carry Blair for practically all of his minutes. For another, he played quite a bit with Kawhi Leonard, who’s pretty overrated defensively. The defensive “ace” he most often played with was Parker, and I don’t think I need to elaborate that point much longer.
Still, the larger point remains that so far Duncan has managed to defy Father Time, packing his shit into the third row like it was some soft layup thrown up by Chris Paul. If he was doing something fishy, would you want to know about it or would you rather look the other way? Me, I’m fine if he did. I rooted for Barry Bonds and didn’t lose a second’s sleep over it. Besides, Duncan missed out on the 2000 postseason at the height of his powers (his leaping ability was never the same after that injury), got screwed by the “0.4 game” in 2004, got screwed by the refs on a no-call on the last play of regulation in Game 7 against Dallas when Nowitzki blatantly shoved him with both hands on a would-be put back attempt of Ginobili’s lay-up attempt in 2006, and pretty much wasted the last four postseasons due to various injuries to Manu. The guy deserves a break.
Maybe Duncan just had some secret procedure done in Germany a la Kobe but was smart enough to not have it go public. Frankly, we’ll never know. What I do know is I’m pretty freaking excited by how Duncan has played this season and I’m not too freaked out by the possibility of him facing Utah, Memphis, the Lakers, Chicago, whoever. Now that Howard is out for the year with a back injury, you can make an argument that Duncan is the best all-around big man left in the playoffs. I’d certainly put his season up there with either Gasol brother, with Nowitzki, with Bynum, with any of them. He was quietly brilliant, as is his wont.
Two more months Tim. Just give us two more high quality months, and you can look like a poor man’s Paul Mokeski for the next two years for all I care.
Manu Ginobili: A-
Speaking of quiet brilliance, Manu Ginobili, just a shade under 35-years-old himself, remains a fucking wizard.
No one outside of Spurs fans knows it, and even 90% of them are unaware because the statistical sophistication of the typical Spurs fan doesn’t extend much beyond the “PPG” column on the box score, but Ginobili, like some stealthy ninja, turned in the finest offensive season of his career. Since he only played approximately 25% of the team’s available minutes, however, if you blinked, you missed it.
Generally speaking, 2004-05 is thought of as Manu’s finest playoffs and 2007-08 is thought of as his finest regular season. 2006-07 was probably his best all-around year. His PER that season? A career-high 24.18. Manu was 29 back then. Lots of guys hit their peak at 29. His PER this year, at 34? 24.18. Good for 7th in the NBA, if you’re asking. In other words, we have the check mark at shooting guard against every team but Miami.
You want some more stats? Well too bad, because you’re getting them. Manu’s career-high shooting percentage in any season was ’04-05, when he was cramming down dunks on everyone. He shot .471 that year. This season he shot .526. That number would’ve been good for 12th in the league and tops among all shooting guards, had he enough attempts to qualify. For comparison’s sake, Michael Jordan, who won his last title with the Bulls during his age 34 year, shot .465. Kobe Bryant, who’s 33, shot .430.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Ginobili shot .616 from two this year. That’s the kind of percentage reserved for guys like Splitter and Brandon Wright, who shoot practically all their attempts from five feet and in. Also, Ginobili’s 3-point shooting percentage of .413 was also a career-high, while his free throw mark of .871 tied his best ever. His true shooting percentage of .668 was good for third in the league and .056 higher than his previous best mark of .612, which he set in 2007-08. His effective shooting percentage of .618 was only .078 better than his previous best of .540, also set in 2007-08.
So, how is this happening? My theory is that The Sickness, who’s never played with so much offensive talent around him, is being more discriminating with his shot attempts than ever before. When you only take 8.4 shots a game, you’re going to want to make every one of them count. These days pretty much every time Ginobili takes the floor, he does so with four other guys who can score. He’s free from having to force up anything, and consequently defenses can’t focus on Manu as much as they have in the past. Practically half of Ginobili’s field goal attempts come from three, and more than half of his twos are lay-ups. If he sees the lane, he takes it, but more often than not Gino is content to drive and kick.
Oh those kicks though. I wish had the skill to describe the sensation of watching Manu pull off a pass that only he can make. I seriously think if he grew up in the states he could’ve been a quarterback or a pitcher. He has an absolute cannon for an arm, and incredible touch too. I wonder if anyone ever gave him a baseball or a football, just to see what he could do with it. Speaking of football, I never tire of seeing him and Parker pull off that handoff play at midcourt, where they always catch unsuspecting youngins with their backs turned, as Parker zooms by for the easy layup off the Manu lob. But all those pick-and-rolls to Tiago, the bullet to Bonner against LA, those one-touch whip passes to Green and Leonard…
I’m gonna miss that guy.
Sure, Manu was kind of sort of terrible defensively this season – I’m telling myself he was saving his body – and I have all kinds of worries about whether he’ll be able to survive 30 minutes a night for two straight months of playoffs, but I don’t think it’s an accident that Manu led the NBA in points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (120.7) or that his win shares per 48 minutes of .257 would’ve been third in the league behind LeBron James and Chris Paul had he played enough minutes to qualify.
Every single second this guy gets to play is a treasure. Never forget that for a second, because, like Duncan, it’s not going to last much longer. The zig-zag drives, the Neo passes, all the voodoo that he do, it’s all gonna end before we know it. It was such a treat watching him this year – nothing gives me as much joy, to be honest – even as little as he did, and I didn’t take any of it for granted.
That being said… come on God… it’s been five years. An ankle, then the stress fracture, a broken nose, a broken arm, a broken hand already this year… can we please just have one postseason where Manu gets to play at 100%?
If we lose on our merits that’s one thing, but come on, just one playoffs where we get to go to war (excuse the analogy) with all of our troops. For lots of sports fans, they don’t watch the NBA until the playoffs, and usually deep into the playoffs at that. I want them to see what we see. I want everyone to see Manu one last time at his best. He deserves it. We deserve it. Guys like this don’t come along very often. Vamos Manu.
Daniel Green: B+
A popular narrative about the Spurs and one lazy writers who don’t watch them play very often make is that Kawhi Leonard is the evolutionary Bruce Bowen. They may have one or two things in common, but Leonard is so physically talented offensively and so green defensively that it’s hard to figure who should be more insulted by the comparison. Meanwhile, there’s another fellow on the Spurs roster who actually IS Bowen 2.0, only the media at large haven’t really realized it just yet.
It’s Danny Green, the most pleasant surprise on the 2011-12 Spurs, and quite possibly their secret MVP.
Green, by far the team’s best perimeter defender (especially in situations where he doesn’t have to chase people around screens, his lone weakness), allows 101.5 points per 100 possessions. He’s excellent in iso situations and post-ups; even though he’s not the stockiest guy, he’s good about holding his ground. Also, he’s sneaky good in transition too, as he’s gotten quite a few of those LeBronesque chase down blocks over the year.
Leonard, on the other hand, allows 104.7 points per 100 possessions. As starters they both play quite a bit with Duncan and Parker, so you figure out who’s better. Here’s a hint: Everyone but Gary Neal and Blair allows fewer points when paired up with Green than not. With Leonard, everyone besides Duncan, Blair and Stephen Jackson get worse. Basically, the starters have kind of figured out how to play with Leonard’s rookie limitations and the rest of the team hasn’t.
Offensively though is where the comparison to Bowen really kicks in, because Green, who like Bruce had a journeyman beginning to his career, is quietly… well I wouldn’t call him a liability on par with Bowen, but really not all that great.
Let’s start with the good stuff: He is money from the corner three, especially of late. He hit 43-of-93 from that range in the regular season, which is 46%. He wasn’t quite as proficient from the wings or the top (52-of-139, 42%) but still quite good. In April he was a ridiculous 37-of-66 (56%) from downtown. It’s a cliché to say if so-and-so does this the Spurs can’t lose, like if the big three all score at least 20 each or if Parker is making that 18-footer consistently or if Manu is in one piece, but I feel comfortable saying if Green shoots over 45% from three in the playoffs that the Spurs will win the whole thing.
Because here’s the thing… Green, who has a mediocre-to-poor dribble and a so-so vertical for a wing, is slowly morphing into Bowen before our very eyes. He shoots just about the same percentage from two as he does from three. He blows wide open lay-ups. He was a ghastly 12-of-41 from the paint on shots that weren’t right at the rim (if you’ve seen that floater of his you understand). He only converted 52% of his attempts at the cup. Even his mid-range J was only clicking at 40%. Also, and this is important: I don’t know if coaches are telling him to play a certain way or if his game is just evolving on its own, but as the year has gone on more and more of Green’s attempts have come from three. By April 4.1 of his 7.6 attempts were from deep.
I’m not really complaining about it. When a guy hits threes at a 43% rate it’s hard to be upset with him shooting nothing but threes, but unlike Bowen Green is quite a capable free throw shooter so it would be nice to see him take it to the basket more. The floaters and mid-range shots he can scrap. For one reason or another every guy on the team averages fewer points per 100 possessions playing with Green than when he’s on the bench. He doesn’t grind the offense to a halt exactly, but he’s not nearly the asset people assume he is.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Green. He was the catalyst for the single biggest win of the season, at Oklahoma City, where the Spurs played without Manu and Splitter the night after trading for Jackson and blew a 26 point lead. Green got red hot in the fourth quarter and simply would not let the team lose. But as hot as he is now, I remember how cold he was on that rodeo road trip and am fully aware he’s the streakiest shooter on the team, just as Bowen used to be.
Bowen was also the most durable Spur over the years, once playing in 500 straight games. Guess who was the only Spur to play all 66 this year? Yup.
Stephen Jackson: B
Can a ninth man save a season? We’re about to find out.
I don’t need to harp too long here on what a succubus Jefferson was. You all watched the games, you all saw it. The guy’s game slowly devolved to the point where the only thing he could do to contribute to wins was hit catch-and-shoot jumpers. He stopped driving to the basket, he stopped rebounding, his defense was passionless in the extreme, and he shrank from the moment against just about any half-decent team the Spurs played. With Jefferson the Spurs were never going to be a contender unless he was dropped from the rotation entirely. You just couldn’t trust him to bring the proper amount of energy or focus, even in a playoff game. He either didn’t care or cared so much that his brain got overwhelmed and he basically shut down. Either way, he was a liability out there and one that would drag the rest of the team down with him.
The miracle trade for Jackson would’ve been addition by subtraction even if he never played a minute, solely based on getting rid of Jefferson’s dark cloud. It seemed foolish to expect much in the way of an actual contribution from Jackson, 34, who looked ready for the glue factory last season and was horrendous for the Bucks early this year, before he and Scott Skiles mutually agreed to quit on each other.
At this stage there was only one coach and one team that could save Jackson’s career, and credit to him for realizing it. From his first game with the Spurs he immediately clicked with Tim, Tony and Manu like he’d never left and brought all the things to the table – defense, hustle, rebounding, passion, and most importantly a rough edge – that Jefferson lacked. So what if he doesn’t shoot it as good as RJ? This team has enough shooters. What they were lacking was in some orneriness, someone who’s not afraid to take it to the rim and get fouled or to body up on Dirk.
Every championship team needs a guy who can get under the opponent’s skin, an Esa Tikkanen or Claude Lemieux-type in hockey. Those are the guys who usually step up the biggest in the playoffs because they’re so crazy that they don’t realize they’re supposed to feel pressure. The ’99 Spurs had Mario Elie and Jerome Kersey. In 2003 they had Jackson and a rookie Manu (who wasn’t a star yet). In 2005 and 2007 it was Bowen and Horry. We never really replaced those guys adequately, and it’s no coincidence we haven’t won a ring since (though Gino’s injuries have been a major reason too). Now, with Cap’n Jack back in the fold, we’ve got that edge back. I’m really hoping he rubs off and mentors Leonard, who’s got all the talent in the world but zero charisma. Maybe Jack can get Leonard to unleash his inner bulldog and convince the kid that not every mistake is the end of the world. We’ll see.
All I know is Jackson owned Dirk in 2007 and that no matter what role he’ll play in these playoffs, he won’t be afraid of the moment. This time of year confidence is as important as talent. The numbers haven’t been great for Jackson individually – he’s shooting barely over 40% as a Spur and barely over 30% from three – but he’s been one of our best defenders from the moment he got here and he’s a healthy +10.3 net per 100 possessions. Most importantly, we’re 22-3 since we’ve traded for him, and one of those was a game we the big three didn’t play at Utah.
To me Jackson’s biggest contribution came in a game in which he didn’t play; March 16, at Oklahoma City, the previously mentioned Danny Green game. Right away you could tell something was different about the Spurs after the trade. Even though they were on the road against the West’s best team, Jackson hadn’t arrived yet and they’d be without their South American contingent, there was a different vibe on the bench, a bubbly energy. Looking back, it’s no surprised they ambushed the Thunder, who threw everything they could at Tony Parker and still couldn’t slow down the Spurs offense (Blair was quite good in the first half that night).
The curse had been lifted and Stephen Jackson was coming home. I think that night they saw themselves as legit contenders and never looked back.
Kawhi Leonard: B-
Mea culpa, mea culpa, a thousand times, mea culpa.
I was wrong.
Leonard, my fellow Aztec, not only can play, but it’s quite possible that he can be a star in this league. I don’t know how it’s possible, for a guy who shot 45% from the field and 25% from three in college to shoot 49% in the pros and 37% from three, but obviously Chip Engalland deserves a ton of credit, as does Leonard for constantly improving his game. We have to remind ourselves that this is a 20-year-old kid who might’ve led the Aztecs to an elite eight or Final Four berth had he chosen to stay in school for his junior season. It’s not like he’s anywhere close to the player he’s going to become one day.
I knew he would rebound on both ends of the floor. I knew he would help us in the fast break. But I wasn’t expecting any kind of contribution from him in the half court offense, and neither was Pop. The area of his game where Leonard has most blown me away is his dribbling. I thought he’d be a complete disaster when he puts it on the floor, but he’s quite the opposite. Not only can he drive it to the cup in traffic, but he’s got a rapidly improving pull up jumper he can utilize from 12-15 feet. Once he develops some consistency in that jumper and learns to add a jab step, he could be the closest thing in the Western conference to a Carmelo Anthony, but with more defensive intensity and Tim Duncan’s penchant for avoiding attention.
Pop and R.C. Buford deserve a tremendous amount of credit. Even if you dismiss the picks of Ginobili and Parker as flukes, which I often do since the Spurs brass has admitted ad nauseam they had no idea in their wildest dreams that either would become the player they are, the Spurs have been able to draft plenty of decent-to-good players in the 20-to-40 range, guys like Beno Udrih, Ian Mahinmi, Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, George Hill and even Goran Dragic. They’re late first/early second-round picks are far less likely to be washouts like they often are for the rest of the league. So once Pop and R.C. finally got to pick up a guy drafted in the teens? It’s like cheating for them. Heaven forbid what they could do with a lottery pick.
Leonard definitely has the tools to be an 18-22 point-per-game scorer in this league, if that’s what he wants. He’ll probably average 7-9 rebounds too. Will he ever be the best player on a championship team? I highly doubt it, but I’d say the same thing about Melo too. You’d still need to surround him with one or two other studs (I doubt Splitter would qualify here, he’s already 27) and some quality role players.
Where Leonard can make his mark, if he truly wants to be great, is by being a complete player on both ends. He’s got the athleticism, the arm length and those meat-hooks for hands. There’s no reason he can’t be a great defender. So far, he gets fooled quite a bit and his intensity comes and goes, which is natural for a kid playing on a team with so many great other players. If Leonard got drafted by the Bobcats, his numbers would look a lot more impressive (though his shooting percentage would be in the toilet). Right now the closest thing to a two-way star small forward, besides LeBron, is Luol Deng. That’s the guy Leonard should study in the offseason on defense. Offensively, I think his ceiling is higher.
One advantage Leonard will have that Anthony never did is that he’s gotten a chance to learn how to approach the game the right way from three veteran stars and he’ll get to experience a deep playoff run and see what that’s all about. These experiences will only help him. I thought the Spurs would be completely irrelevant once Duncan and Ginobili retired. Now, with Leonard, I’m not nearly as fatalistic.
Patrick Mills: B-
Quick, guess the Spurs fourth-leading scorer. We all figured it’d be Patty Mills before the season started, right?
Now it must be said that I’m not nearly as high on Mills as most of the PtR community is. I don’t look at him as a savior or even a rotation player, really. To me, he’s the “Break glass in case of emergency,” guy. Basically the 2012 version of Steve Kerr in 2003; somebody we can turn to if we’re down 12 points in the fourth quarter and have nothing to lose, a.k.a, the “Eh, what the fuck?” guy.
The problem with Mills is that if you can’t over expose him out there, or else the “Eh, what the fuck?” becomes “Dude, what the fuck?” really fast. I know he had 12 dimes in that glorified scrimmage against the Warriors the other night, but Mills reminds me of Manoli’s dad, the kind of unrepentant chucker who’d make Kobe blush. He certainly isn’t shy out there, that’s for sure.
I’ll give him credit for this much – He’s far more talented than I assumed. Not only is he lightning quick on the dribble, but he’s got all the shots, from pull up threes to floaters to acrobatic lay-ups. The dude can score.
Still, I favor Gary Neal as the backup point guard. He’s more used to playing with us, he has a better idea of the shots he should and shouldn’t be taking in the offense, and he’s far better working the pick-and-roll with Splitter. He’s also less turnover prone. Where Mills has the edge on Neal is speed, dribbling ability and defensive tenacity. If Neal’s defense in the postseason continues to be as horrid as it was during the regular season, then yes, I can definitely envision Pop giving Mills a shot at the backup job (or just benching both and letting Manu do it with Jackson, reducing the rotation to nine). All Mills can do is sit back, bide his time and wait for his opportunity. I hope he understand by now that it won’t be his scoring that will impress Pop but rather everything else. Is he guarding his man? Is he getting the team into its sets quickly? Is he creating good shots for himself and others?
We shall see. Most of Mills’ contributions have been in garbage time. How will he respond to the postseason?
Gary Neal: B-
That doesn’t sound like a description that would fit Neal, does it? By the very nature of his job, as a sparkplug off the bench, you’d think there would be wild swings in his play from game-to-game, week-to-week, month-to-month and even season-to-season.
You look at Neal’s numbers though, and he averaged 9.8 points per game last year and 9.9 this year. He shot exactly .419 from three both seasons. He averaged no less than 8.5 points and no more than 11.2 in any month. You can pencil in him for eight or nine FGA per game, with three or four of those coming from downtown, and about four makes. Just go ahead and put those numbers in your stat sheet right now to save time.
Some would look at Neal’s stats as a sign that this is who he is and he won’t improve anymore as a player. Me, I’m wholly impressed that his numbers didn’t go to hell in year two, when Pop changed his role dramatically from two guard to backup point for most of the season.
We all remember what happened to Roger Mason Jr. when Pop tried turning him into a point guard. He became a pile of quivering goo. Not only was his floor game terrible, not only was his defense a joke, but Mason all of a sudden couldn’t shoot it anymore. It’s like overnight he turned from an asset into one of the worst players in the league. Even after switching back to a shoot guard he never found his stroke again for the Spurs. He’s with the Wiz now, I think. He’s not worth me looking it up.
Neal, who had even less point guard instincts than Mason when Pop handed him the reins, had the mental fortuity to stick with it and eventually figure out the job, little by little. Sure, the growing pains haven’t been pretty to watch and he still makes the bonehead play here and there, and there are times where he still looks for his own shot too much, but while Neal will never have the floor vision of Manu or Tony, he’s at least managed to figure out how to run a competent pick-and-roll with Splitter, which is really the only thing we need from the backup point. He increased his assists-per-40 minutes from 2.3 to 3.9 while managing to reduce his turnover rate from 9.2 percent to 8.7, even though he had the ball more (usage shot up from 18.7 to 20.1), so consequently his PER from rose 13.20 to 14.31. More importantly, Neal’s shooting remained intact.
In fact, what makes Neal so valuable is that, like an ace pitcher, he’s the slump buster. Believe it or not, but even the Spurs go through offensive lulls at times. Neal is excellent at getting a much-needed basket to halt a six or eight scoreless streak of possessions. He’s got an ever increasing number of shots in his bag, from floaters to pull up jumpers to banked-in leaners, and he’s absolutely fearless about getting off his quick-release three at any time or situation, which I love.
Neal’s shortcomings are on the other end, where he’s too short to handle twos and too slow to guard opposing points and limited not just physically but instinctively in his own end. He’s been the worst defender on the team (including Blair) all season long and if Pop ever benches him during the playoffs it will be for that reason. I just know I trust Neal more than I do Mills. He plays more within the system. Actually, I think the acquisition of Mills is the best thing that could’ve happened for Neal. Now he knows if he doesn’t put maximum effort into his defense he’s liable to get pulled, so there’s some motivation there.
Mr. Consistency has been consistently awful when the other guys have the ball, but I’m hopeful that will change.
Tony Parker: A
This is the Parker I’ve been begging and pleading for, for years.
People kept telling me that I was nuts, that I was biased, that I was a hater. Parker was perfectly fine they said. An All-Star. You’re just looking to pick nits in his game because you’re on Manu’s jock.
Au contraire mon frère.
I’ve long stated that I have nothing but admiration for the way Parker’s worked tirelessly on his game in the off-seasons, always bringing one or two new shots to his arsenal. It’s not like he’s always had that hesitation dribble drive, the up-and-under fake or that spin move, or such pristine touch on his teardrop, or even that sick Tim Hardaway-esque crossover. He didn’t arrive from France with this catalog of lay-ups with either hand and from seemingly every angle. And we all remember how wretched of a shooter he was as a young player. But Parker kept at it and kept at it, and now his mid-range jumper from 15-to-20 feet is fairly reliable. He’s made himself into a star scorer.
My argument, all along, was why can’t he work on his point guard skills in the off-season the way he works on his shooting? Honestly, I’d given up the ghost. I figured, by age 29, we’ve seen the best of Parker and that he was who he was. I’m so thankful to be wrong.
Parker’s always been able to execute two kinds of passes: The drive and kick to the corners and that Gretzky-like curl behind the goal, where he drops it off to the trailing big man. This season though Parker’s timing and execution in the pick-and-roll has never been better, his passing in transition – really his willingness to give it up in that situation at all – is much-improved, as is his vision to get it to Duncan on the high screen and to the wings on the elbows extended. The alley-oop lob is still mostly a disaster, but there’s always next year.
2012 also saw Parker give at least passable effort in his own end more often than not, which was a welcome improvement when he loafed on that end for much of the past three seasons. He’s now actually one of our most reliable defenders, and absolutely better than average in that regard when he puts his mind to it. With Ginobili back to form Parker is actually free to devote more of his energy to defense, knowing he doesn’t need to provide as much on offense.
The real reason I’m giving Parker an “A” though is that he carried the team for the first two-thirds of the year and the season would’ve looked much different if was even a fraction less brilliant than he was. The Spurs could’ve been a below .500 club without Ginobili and with Duncan struggling to find his legs, but Parker just wouldn’t let it happen. He scored when he had to score, looked to get the young guys involved whenever he could and was hell-bent on exploiting every mismatch. Fourth quarters have long been a weakness in Parker’s game, but this year he was at his best in the clutch and pulled out quite a few games with his shooting. Not only was Manu’s injury the best thing that could’ve happened to Ginobili, but it was the best thing for Parker as well. The Spurs became his team again for the first time since 2009. He couldn’t afford to float through a quarter or a half as he had in past seasons. That responsibility always brings out the best in Parker.
Where I was won over that this is a different Tony was that Thunder game in March. Parker had thoroughly embarrassed Russell Westbrook in their previous meeting and this time Westbrook and the Thunder were determined to throw the kitchen sink at Parker. They trapped him, doubled him, bumped him, aggressively fouled him. They just weren’t going to let Parker get in the lane. In past seasons Parker would’ve either tossed up some meek half-hearted jumpers or retreated into a shell. This time he used the Thunder’s over-aggressiveness against them and repeatedly found our big men on pick-and-rolls and got Blair a bunch of easy early looks. When the Thunder adjusted, he found his wings on the corner threes. The Thunder adjusted again, and this time the lane opened up and Parker was able to get some lay-ups. No matter what OKC did, he had an answer for it and the Spurs offense was indefensible.
If Parker can keep up this level of play, we’re gonna be pretty hard to beat. I have to say I’m pretty optimistic.
Tiago Splitter: A-
The best low post scorer on the Spurs isn’t Tim Duncan? Weird, but true.
Xenophobic ass-hats like Stephen A. Smith can dismiss him all they want, but Splitter is, without a doubt in my mind, the best backup center in the league and a guy who would start on quite a few teams. No one handles the business end of a pick-and-roll better. I’m not sure anyone has a better up-and-under move right now. Splitter has proven that when he gets the opportunity that he can score on virtually anyone and the only reason he’s not an automatic two points is that some refs don’t give him any respect.
Also, he throws up some weak ass shit up there at times. The aggressiveness comes and goes, and good luck figuring out why. Something about biorhythms, I suppose.
Defensively, Splitter is mostly an asset, but I think most Spurs fans get carried away. No, he is not as good of a defender as Duncan is, even at 36. Sure, he might be a little better out on the floor against a small (witness his work on Chris Paul earlier in the season), or against a big like Pau Gasol or Dirk in space, but he’s still not as sturdy down low as Timmy and he fouls – or gets called for fouls – too much. I also don’t think the difference defensively between him and Bonner is quite the Grand Canyon like chasm Spurs fans make it out to me. I like Splitter a lot, I consider him a key part of our team, but good heavens no, he’s not anywhere near the defender David Robinson playing with a bad back was in 2003, sorry.
I will say this much: I’ve come around on the whole “Pop’s a dope if he doesn’t start Splitter next to Duncan,” thing. It turns out that the future Hall-of-Fame coach with four rings (and counting?) may know more than a complete shithead like me. Looking back on it, I think mainly I was just disgusted with Blair and wanted him out of the rotation, regardless of who would replace him in the lineup. Even now, I think we’ll be successful with any combination of bigs as long as Blair isn’t one of them, but I will concede that for all their defensive brilliance – 68.25 points allowed per 100 possessions! – Tim and Tiago just don’t seem to work well together offensively. The offense is designed to have one big man in the pivot and one stretch four to space the floor. That pretty much means that Tim has to play with either Diaw or Bonner, and that Tiago has to play with either Diaw or Bonner (though Diaw and Bonner together has worked very well, in a small sample size).
Really, I think my frustration was borne out of the fact that it wasn’t that I wanted Splitter to play with Duncan as much as I just wanted him to play more period, which would’ve only been possible if he shared the floor some with Timmy, since it’s not like I want Duncan to be some 22 minute player. I still think the Splitter-Duncan tandem can work in certain situations, and not just against the Lakers, like if the Spurs have a slim lead down the stretch and they want to protect it Grizzlies team that has Randolph and Gasol on the floor, or against Utah’s three big lineup if they’re just tossing Bonner around like a rag doll. They’re both smart players so there’s no reason we can’t use the hi-lo offensive sets we used between 1999-2008 with Duncan and whoever. Just have to dust off that part of the playbook, that’s all. There’s a nagging fear in me that this team doesn’t have a Plan D on offense besides pick-and-rolls, the high screen and the four down with Tim. I’d love for us to have one more wrinkle, just in case the jumpers stop falling. The first loss to LA, and that second half at Boston are still weighing on my mind, and I’m already starting to sweat the match-up with Miami. I should probably get a life.
So where was I? Right, Splitter. Pretty good, occasionally soft, can’t shoot, injury prone, can lay absolute ruin to opposing teams for six minute stretches on certain nights, works well with Manu and Bonner, awful actor in commercials. I’m glad he’s a Spur.