The Twin Towers, one of the best big man combos of all time. Then after that, good defensive center after good defensive center stood next to Timmy on the starting lineup until, all of a sudden, the Spurs were starting the defensively-challenged Matt Bonner. After that, the Spurs tried Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair. Then last season, Boris Diaw usurped the starting spot. What links those guys of varying offensive and defensive proficiency? They are all power forwards. Why the change? Because the Greatest Power Forward of all Time is now a center.
Whenever a Spurs fan talks about what the team needs, "defensive big man" always tops that list, or at least it has for the past few years. With the tradition of great big men and defensive excellence, it's easy to figure out why that's the case. The team has been winning with offense, but there are no rings to show for all that high-octane scoring efficiency. The boring, old Spurs would shut you down and score just enough to get the win.
In today's NBA that's not enough. The Celtics and the Sixers, the two clear-cut "defense, first, second and third" teams this past season (which happened to do some of their best defensive work with small lineups, by the way) did well in the off-season, but they caught a lot of breaks that allowed them to advance. It's impossible to ignore that injuries to opponent's key guys paved their way; otherwise, they might have been 1st round outs. You need defense to win, that's obvious, but you also need to be able to put the ball in the hoop.
Fortunately, the Spurs can really put the ball in the hoop, so focusing on defense is actually the way to go. As long as the defenders brought in are not completely inept in the offensive side, defensive upgrades in every position could help the Spurs. I've written in the past that going back to orthodoxy and, with it, specialists that can't do multiple things would kill the Spurs. That's true only if they rely on them to be big time contributors; having a couple of defense-first guys on the bench to adjust to match-ups is not a bad idea. Bring in some defensive-minded guys and the Spurs could be even more versatile; change strategies trying to recapture the old defensive glory, and the Spurs have no shot at a title.
Which leads me to our ongoing obsession with the defensive big man. When I hear names like Camby or any other defensive-minded center pop up, I think of a 10-15 minutes a game specialist to spare Tim against certain match-ups, not a starter or a big time contributor. The reason why is because the Spurs have a defensive-minded center in the starting lineup already and his name is Tim Duncan. Going twin towers (I'm not capitalizing it when it doesn't involve D-Rob) with two slow-footed bigs would be a death sentence against pick and roll-heavy teams (which is most of the league now) and ineffective against stretch 4s (which most teams have on their rosters).
The weirdest part about this type of thinking (or is it nostalgia?) is that it became more pervasive after the Spurs lost against the Thunder in a series in which having another defensive-minded center would have been completely useless. The Thunder would have done what they did: switch Durant to power forward and make one of our centers guard him on the perimeter. How would a Tim-Camby combo (and I'm only using Camby because his name has come up repeatedly) fared against such lineup?
The fact is the league has changed. Every team now goes small when given the chance and every team exploits slow coverage in the pick and roll. Stretch 4s, once a rarity, are now common in most teams. The only way to exploit that is by having two great all around bigs that can hurt teams just as badly on offense as those tactics hurt them on defense. That's why no one wants to face the Grizzlies or the Lakers: at their best, those teams throw a wrench on a big part of the other team's offensive schemes by limiting the personnel they can get away with putting on the floor.
Tim has also changed. Once an agile defender who could guard power forwards as well as centers and defend the pick and roll expertly, he is now a full-time center who would be rendered ineffective chasing guys on the perimeter. He's still a fantastic defender, don't get me wrong, but he's just not versatile enough to be switched to the type of fast, perimeter-oriented player that most teams can put at PF.
I get the urge for change after disappointing losses, but the Spurs actually have big men other than Duncan that contribute on both ends of the floor to varying degrees, including a traditional center. Change for the sake of change is not the way to go, especially for a team that was a couple games away from getting to the finals.
Tiago Splitter is only going to get better defensively as he adjusts to what he can and can't get away in the much less physical NBA, and he's a beast finishing on the P&R already. Diaw was a solid defender in his short stint with the club and more familiarity with the system and his teammates plus better conditioning would do wonders for him if he returns. Bonner will continue to be Bonner and Blair only has marginal potential for improvement (at least in the short term) because of his physical tools, but both can sop up minutes and contribute on offense.
What none of those guys can do, however, is effectively guard a combo forward or punish the other team on the other end of the floor if they go small. Those are the needs of the Spurs right now, not a plodding center who blocks shots and can guard the post.
Good, athletic forwards are as tough to find as centers, but that's what the Spurs should be looking for. We've discussed this before, but there are names out there that could help the Spurs cover that weakness. Anthony Randolph, Earl Clark, Al-Farouq Aminu, Donte Greene, Jan Vesely or, if we are dreaming big, Josh Smith or Derrick Williams are much better fits for this team that any traditional center would be. If the youth and lack of production from the guys in that list scares some of you away, players like Al Harrington and Luc Mbah-a-Moute have made a living as versatile combo forwards for good teams. And that's just a list I came up with in 5 minutes. The point is, there are options out there.
I agree that the Spurs should be looking to upgrade their defense and like I said, bringing in Camby or any other defensive center might not be a bad idea, provided they are treated as alternatives to throw out depending on match-ups and don't signal an attempt to return to an approach that has been rendered archaic by the evolution of forwards in the league. But if what we are going after is defensive excellence, center is not the position to look for it in this instance. An athletic forward that can slide up or down a position when needed is very possibly the only way the Spurs can become defensively-imposing again.