Kawhi Leonard: a six foot seven inch feather in R.C. Buford's cap.
The Spurs' two-year plan is paying off
In the past I've been critical of PATFO, or at least as critical as you can be about a fantastic front office and coach. I've mentioned that they might be giving up too soon on young players, that luck played a larger part in building the dynasty than we like to acknowledge and I've had strong opinions regarding roster decisions going back to Luis Scola.
While I was nodding along to this fantastic post about the defining moments of the season I couldn't help but feel that the seeds that got us this incredible Spurs team were planted long before the Dallas game or anything that happened this season.
After being swept by the Suns in the conference semis two seasons ago, Pop "asked for a [bleeping] bench." He understood that Keith Bogans, Roger Mason and the corpses of Michael Finley and Theo Ratliff were not going to cut it anymore. The Spurs needed length at the wings and a reliable big to spell Tim Duncan while getting younger and more athletic at the same time.
Of course, every team needs athleticism, good wings and effective bigs; that's why those are so hard to find. Armed with nothing but MLE, R.C. Buford and the rest of the guys couldn't just go and buy their way into quality depth. Instead, they used their limited resources to get the best players they could find regardless of immediate need and got ready for when the opportunity to find the missing pieces presented itself.
The Spurs were still light on wings with size, especially considering Green and Anderson were fringe rotation players. Bonner and Blair split the minutes Dice wasn't getting and Tiago became, for all intents and purposes, the 5th big. So to recap, PATFO got another combo guard who could shoot the 3 in Gary Neal even though they already had George Hill. They got a potentially great, big in former draft pick Tiago Splitter but between health issues and his trouble adjusting, he wasn't a part of the rotation. But they weren't able to add a small forward. The Spurs clearly hadn't addressed all of their issues. They had gotten younger and more athletic in theory, but the rotation remained basically the same. They would still go on to finish with the best record in the West and the second best overall, riding Manu Ginobili and their offense. Then the Grizzlies happened.
We all watched that series. We know what went wrong. Manu was hurt. Tim was hurt. I truly believe a healthy Manu would have meant we beat the Grizzlies (anyone who says something like "Manu couldn't guard Zach Randolph" clearly doesn't understand the dynamics of a basketball game). That being said, other than health, the Spurs biggest issues were: poor wing play on both ends and the lack of a second interior scorer and defender.
Fast forward to this off-season, right before the draft and the lockout. The Spurs had a pretty similar team, minus Antonio McDyess, their only versatile big not named Tim Duncan. With McDyess retiring, most of us were clamoring for another center, a 7-footer that could back up Big Fun. Blair lacked polish, Bonner was -- well, he was Bonner -- and Splitter seemed completely raw; a far cry from that dominant player so many crowed about while he dominated in Europe. The Spurs biggest strength, and the one area where tinkering didn't seem necessary, was their backcourt rotation of Manu, Parker, Hill and Neal.
As it usually happens after a big playoff disappointment, rumors about the Spurs being ready to blow it up started to surface. "If you take Jefferson, the Spurs will give you Parker for a lottery pick", the reports read. But the Spurs being the Spurs, they managed to get their guy and keep their star point guard, by sending fan favorite George Hill to the Pacers for Kawhi Leonard. Having a second SF was nice, but now there was no back up PG.
After the lockout, there were reports that claimed that the Spurs were going to use the amnesty clause to rid themselves of Richard Jefferson's albatross of a contract. It made little sense for an older team that relies on flawless execution to hand over starting duties to a new guy or a rookie but the media claimed it was a done deal. Again the reports were wrong; CIA Pop and whatnot. A San Antonio team that had struggled with height on the post and length on the wing was going into the season with one less rotation big than the previous year and a rookie as their biggest reinforcement. Could you really blame the mainstream media for claiming they were done?
This is when the whole thing starts to click and you could see the thinking behind the Spurs' moves. The whole stockpiling guards thing? That was to create enough depth that dealing their most promising young player wouldn't hurt them. The Spurs got that second 6-7 wing without missing a beat because Gary Neal, Danny Green and to a lesser extent, T.J. Ford were there to fill in for Georgie. No one predicted Green's ascendance, but either he or Anderson were bound to give the team something that would help replace Hill's production. Neal doesn't look like a point guard but he's effective on offense and his shooting gives the Spurs a new dimension. Guards are easier to find than quality small forwards with size so the Spurs focused on finding the former in order to get the latter.
Going into the season with only four bigs was risky but it forced Pop to play the guys through mistakes and develop the type of "corporate knowledge" he was looking for. Tiago Splitter was finally healthy and with a year of NBA ball under his belt, the drop off when Duncan went to rest was not as noticeable as it was in the past. The guards learned how to find him and he became the ultimate P&R weapon, with efficiency numbers that place him 3rd in the league in points per possession as a roll man. Would that have happened if the Spurs signed a minute-eating center? Maybe, but the killer Bonner-Splitter pairing might not have. With only four bigs on the roster, no nominal back-up PG and an overall fantastic team, the Spurs were bound to get interest from waived veterans. With all the patience in the world, they focused on Boris Diaw, who had ties with Tony Parker and spent the past summer running sets straight out of the Spurs' playbook as Parker put the French national team through their paces. And don't forget Patty Mills, a young, speedy PG back from China, whose time on the Australian National team, had given him his own brush with Spurs terminology.
Again, I'm the first to say that we often overrate PATFO. They are not Bobby Fischer and the NBA is not a chess match. Luck plays a huge part and it did here. Just consider Leonard's continually improving jump-shot that's responsible for his surprising accuracy from deep, or the way that the team reacted to Manu' absence. Danny Green's emergence. You simply can't plan for that. You can get the best pieces you're able to find, but then you have to hold your breath, or cross your fingers, or ... do whatever it is that general managers do when the time for making acquisitions for the current season is over.
All that said, we have to admire their patience and commitment to improving even if it takes time and the results take a little time to be apparent. At any point in the last two years the front office could have made a hasty, crowd-pleasing, short-term move that would have actually hurt the team in the long run. Sign a back up center and Splitter might not have gotten the chance to prove his worth. Keep Hill, and either Neal or Green wouldn't have gotten minutes and Kawhi Leonard would be a Pacer. Amnesty RJ and don't get Stephen Jackson.
But they didn't make any of those mistakes. While Otis Smith, John Hammond and Geoff Petrie were aimlessly shuffling pieces, trying to get immediate results, R.C. stayed the course and played the long game. That might not be as flashy as a huge free agent coup like the one Pat Riley (2010 winner) pulled off, but when you think about it, it's every bit as impressive, if not more so because it takes place over a longer period of time and requires even more patience to accomplish.
Let's hope the voters are not shortsighted and give the man his due.