Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE
Part 2 of a three-part series in which I take a look at the transformation of the Spurs into an elite offense, and why the re-emergence of the defense is a product years in the making.
If you haven't read Part 1 of this series it'd probably be beneficial to do so now ... you know, because of the whole continuity thing.
"They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself."
- Andy Warhol
Richard Jefferson was like the popular girl in high school for the Spurs.
Not any one in particular, just one of them. They were all hot, at least to some degree, and there were always several of them around at a time. Like an exclusive pool of "talent." You were just looking for some general quality in one of them you felt could better your lifestyle. But in order to appeal to them, or to make yourself eligible for their services, you had to make a few concessions. You'd buy a couple of things from Abercrombie and Fitch instead of the usual yard sale or thrift store to make yourself fit her criteria, naturally spending more money on personal modification.
So then, if you were lucky enough to have the proper assets to land such a lady, business was yours. Things looked sexier on the surface as a new couple when you got your girl hangin' out the passenger's side of your Jeep Cherokee, cruising along at a new pace in life.
But once the shininess wears off it's not all it was cracked up to be. You start making changes in your life so that she might better fit in with your style, or vice versa. Grey's Anatomy becomes a daily viewing appointment while "watching your sports games" becomes a much more infrequent activity. You work at it and you work at it, but sooner or later the high maintenance costs don't turn out to be worth the price of admission. After a while it just becomes uncomfortable, and you know it can't last if the ultimate goal is true happiness. So you convince your buddy and her that they'd be perfect for each other and send her on down the road for Stephen Jackson.
It might not have been a life-altering experience, but it would leave a blemish on your rarely tarnished image.
I remember where I was when that trade went down. I'd had finished school and was at home for the summer, and one day during lunch the breaking news came across my parents' living room flat-screen.
The Spurs were acquiring Richard Jefferson.
I went crazy. Pretty sure I jumped up and down with a sandwich in my hand three-ish times. I then immediately collected all my Mavs friends (I went to Texas Tech, so I had a lot of 'em) in one big iPhone group text and just yelled things at them.
"Big 4, b****es!"
"This is what the Spurs have been waiting for!"
"Nobody can match up now!"
RJ was going to shoot, jam, talk funny and name-tattoo his way into every Spurs fan's heart. But then he didn't, and the problem was the dollar amount next to his name.
Jefferson was actually pretty decent, all things considered. The Spurs' new small forward had one of the highest offensive ratings on the team -- higher than that of both Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, in fact. On top of that, his defensive efficiency rating was better than the team's average for the entire season.
But he was an odd fit. From his personality to his style of play, there was just something un-Spurs-like about Jefferson. As the season came to an abrupt end in Phoenix, RJ wasn't exactly earning the money that had been invested in him, and it had become quite the unpopular subject in San Antonio. But contract figures aside, Jefferson hadn't been the problem.
Side note: Commenter alamoaggie mentioned the failure to bring in Luis Scola as another major black mark against the front office. While we look back at Scola's career and wonder what it might have been like alongside the Big 3, the fact of the matter is he was too expensive for the team to bring over in the first place. That relationship became strained and a few other moves along the way made it even more difficult. In my mind, that's a bit different than taking on a max contract guy. But the Scola conversation isn't a typically joyful one around the Spurs organization, to be sure. There's some regret there, and if you haven't read the latest Woj column, you should. You'll see why. Still, good call on that one. Scola would've been wonderful in San Antonio.
Against the Suns, the Spurs' defense, or lack thereof, had been vividly exposed, and this was something new in the Gregg Popovich era. One thing was clear: Duncan needed help. But for a cash-strapped team in a league where big men drive pricing on the open market, acquiring that kind of talent would be difficult. With Antonio McDyess, Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair and (ahem) Theo Ratliff as Duncan's supplemental post players, some sort of player movement was necessary.
And it wasn't just the lack of post presence for San Antonio. Beyond Parker, Jefferson, a young George Hill and oft-injured Manu Ginobili stood an aged Michael Finley and a one-dimensional Roger Mason, Jr. Where Duncan had issues keeping up with the roll and pop man off of picks, the perimeter players weren't slowing the opposition in the slightest. Steve Nash and Goran Dragic could do whatever they wanted, and with Duncan and McDyess left on islands against one of the premier pick-and-roll bigs in the game in Amar'e Stoudemire, the Spurs had no chance.
By the end of the sweep, it looked like the end, altogether. But help was on the way.
The continuity of evolution
While many Spurs fans were screaming for an overhaul, for a drastic change that would put their team back in the league's elite and in contention for a fifth ring, the San Antonio front office kept their perpetually cool heads. Some minor pieces were gone -- Finley, Mason, Jr. -- and some new youth had entered the fold. The Spurs felt any significant roster adjustments over the course of an offseason would diminish their chances of capitalizing on the time Duncan had left in the league, and they would much rather maintain continuity than blow it all up, so to speak. They believed their Big 3 could still contend.
So they went out and drafted James Anderson with the 20th overall pick in 2010 and found a way to sign 2007 first-round pick Tiago Splitter to a very reasonable three-year, $11-million contract using part of their mid-level exception. (Just for the sake of comparison, Darko Milicic signed a four-year, $20-million deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves the same summer, so that's fun.) Both players were expected to make contributions during their rookie seasons, but unplanned events acted as road blocks along the way.
Anderson, the Big 12 Player of the Year and All-American out of Oklahoma State, came with the reputation of a scorer and a shooter who could defend. But a stress fracture in his foot severely slowed his progress after a solid six-game stretch to start his career. He was never really the same.
Splitter came over billed as NBA-ready and one of the best big men in Europe, but he didn't even make it to the regular season before injuring his foot during training camp. With no familiarity with the team's system and an extended absence from the court, Tiago didn't see much court time during his rookie campaign.
But a journeyman rookie who lit the nets on fire during the NBA Summer League came out of nowhere to not only make a big impact in the backcourt, but this no-name found his way onto the NBA All-Rookie First Team. Gary Neal proved to be another piece that sent the Spurs' offense to even greater heights.
The pace picked up even more, and along with it the team's offensive rating blew up to nearly 110 points per 100 possessions. Three-pointers were flying from every vacancy along the perimeter and the Spurs were hanging huge numbers on unsuspecting opponents on their way to 61 wins and the first overall seed in the Western Conference. This wasn't the familiar brand of Spurs basketball that had become a well-known entity in the sport. The game was changing; the Spurs along with it. The newly painted landscape of the league necessitated the change in philosophy, and the skill and intellect of the Spurs' roster together with the genius of Gregg Popovich made the transition plausible.
San Antonio was rolling, its mortal flaws hidden by the luster of the never-ending ball movement and the long-range shooting barrage. But there was at least one team that had it sniffed out with the certainty of a drug dog at Austin City Limits Music Festival.
The freaking Memphis Grizzlies
In what was probably a first in the history of the NBA, the Memphis Grizzlies tanked late-season games so they could fall to the eighth seed to face the Spurs. But what seemed like the idea of a nut-job turned out to be a confidence in a belief that was quite real. Memphis saw a smaller, finesse-style team in San Antonio they felt could be pushed around and forced out of its gameplan come playoff time.
As if the Grizzlies weren't a difficult enough matchup for San Antonio, Ginobili went down with a significant elbow injury on the final night of the regular season. Even the bionic arm he wore during the first round couldn't turn him back into the old Manu, and the rest, as they say, was history. But despite that series being one in which the Grizzlies' interior presence would be too much, that wasn't necessarily the case. Yes, the Memphis frontcourt killed San Antonio's in terms of points scored, but the Spurs didn't necessarily depend on that for their offense in the first place. This had become a perimeter-oriented team. What they did ask of the interior was to rebound and play defense, and while San Antonio did just fine on the boards it was the bad defense that reared its ugly head once more.
If ever there was a team to combat an offensive perimeter attack, it was the Grizz. Tony Allen, Shane Battier, Sam Young, and the pesky Mike Conley and Greivis Vasquez formed a backcourt group capable of forcing tons of turnovers and disrupting the flow of an offense. Parker was basically dominated by Conley, and the Spurs' small backcourt lineups featuring Parker, Hill, Manu and Neal were decimated at the point of attack. The Memphis guards and small forwards ate San Antonio alive, and as Zach Randolph continued to pour in the points the Spurs could do nothing but flail.
The defense was dying, and it had become painfully obvious it had as much to do with the personnel as anything. After an early playoff beatdown at the hands of the bigger, younger, more physical Grizzlies, the Spurs had to go home and try to assess what went wrong.
By the numbers
It didn't take long to identify the problems. I doubt they hadn't already been aware of them, but you would clearly expect that a No. 1 seed would believe in its chances against an eighth seed, especially with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili competing against a franchise without a playoff series win in its history.
But the numbers didn't lie.
The Spurs ranked 14th in points allowed per game, 17th in opponents rebounds, 26th in forcing turnovers, and despite being fourth in opponent three-point attempts allowed, they were 22nd in terms of three-point field goal percentage against. Low percentages from deep had always been a staple of the once excellent San Antonio, Popovich defense.
The Spurs had to get bigger, and that would unfortunately come at the expense of a fan and coach favorite. But a new one would take his place, and he'd been right under their nose the whole time.
Part 3 coming soon at Pounding the Rock.