So much has happened in Spurs-land, I feel like there's 50 different things to discuss. I'm gonna write forever and realize afterward I forgot like half of what I wanted to get to, but I'm gonna try to hit on as many things briefly as I can.
1. Tony Parker, 30, is still getting better.
How is this happening?
The wee rapping Frenchman, now at the age where many predicted a few years ago that he'd be washed up by, is defying every bit of anecdotal and conventional wisdom regarding a smallish player whose main asset is speed. I mean, look at his year-by-year PER: The bell curve is almost exactly what you'd predict, in that he peaked in the '08-09 season, when he was 26.
You can blame the next season on injuries, but he bounced back in '10-11 with a 20.44 PER season and you figured, "Yeah, that's about right, Parker is a borderline All-Star at 28, and he'll get steadily worse until he's done at 33."
Then the guy went out and, for lack of a better phrase, learned how to pass.
His assist rate per 40 minutes jumped from 8.1 to 9.6. His assist percentage made a similar leap from 26.8 percent to 28.4. Those are not insignificant bumps, people.
Parker's always been good at driving and kicking it out to the corners. He's always had that in his repertoire. But now he's developed all of Manu's pick-and-roll tricks (with a better handle to boot), the hook passes, the court vision to find the bigs, etc.
From a "pure point guard" standpoint the only thing that Parker can't do that a guy like Chris Paul can is accurately throw alley-oops, and fortunately for him, he's on a team where practically nobody is young enough (Tim, Manu, Jack), athletic enough (Neal, Bonner, Blair, DeColo) or coordinated enough (Green, Tiago, maybe Leonard?) for that to matter.
Then there's his scoring, which also, somehow, has reached new heights. Obviously Parker has lost a step, but not the two or three he was supposed to by now. He's made up for the diminished athleticism with increased smarts and -- this is what people miss -- increased strength. Watch him on drives to the rim, Parker just absorbs contact and still is able to finish, with people bouncing off of him similar to the ways they bounce off a Russell Westbrook or an Eric Bledsoe. Parker's ability to make lay-ups from all manner of angles and body contortions remains preternatural.
For me, Parker's ultimate statement was that game at Dallas on Jan. 25 when he got his eyelid cut early in the game from an Elton Brand hack. Parker, justifiably, was incredulous at the refs for the no-call, particularly in light of his off-season incident with the nightclub where he almost lost his career. When he returned to the game, he was pissed off and he sneered, glared and barked at the refs the rest of the night, refusing to let it go. He took out his fury on the Mavs and systematically destroyed them (again without Timmy or Manu) on the road, despite playing just 30 minutes. Don't let the 113-107 score fool you, Dallas made a superficial comeback at the end when it was already decided. The game was a rout. Parker, the supposedly soft Frenchman, singlehandedly ruined the Mavs.
Those are just my subjective observations though. Objectively, here's what we do know: Parker's leading the NBA in "drives" at 10.8 per game, more than Westbrook, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, anybody. His superlative combination of hesitation moves, feints, head-fakes, spins, crossovers, etc. lets him get to the rim time and again, and the Spurs score at a very healthy clip when he does.
Throw in Parker's .400 clip from deep (at a non-insignificant one attempt per game rate) and a career-best .824 percentage from the line (more on that later) and we're basically looking at a player without a weakness, at least offensively. Parker's work in fourth quarter/clutch situations has also been particularly impressive.
Parker's play has garnered him "third-best point guard" status among most of the pundits (Simmons, ridiculously, has him fourth), behind Paul and Westbrook, but honestly I think right now I'd put him at the very top, and this is coming from someone who probably had him sixth coming into the season, behind Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose and Deron Williams.
Paul is too gimpy and injury-prone for me and doesn't have Parker's scoring arsenal. When he goes to the paint he basically just looks to draw fouls more than anything else. Westbrook, meanwhile, is someone who's far too overrated in my opinion. He's shooting below 43%, connecting on barely a third of his three-balls despite chucking four of them a game, and averaging a whopping 3.5 turnovers per contest. He just has too many 5-of-17, 5 TO nights for me to give him an edge over Parker.
Also, Westbrook has a scoring machine in Kevin Durant to take the pressure off of him. Defenses are constantly worried about KD. They focus their attention on stopping him at all times. At any time Westbrook can elect to simply dump the ball off to Durant 30 feet from the basket and trust him to get up a quality scoring chance in an Iso.
The Spurs, by contrast, hardly ever run 4-down for Timmy anymore and rely on Parker to create nearly every basket when he's on the court, even if it's of the "hockey assist" variety. He's the focus of opposing defensive game plans, not Duncan.
Throw in the fact that Parker routinely gets the better of both guys in head-to-head match-ups and how he's thoroughly dominated and helped the Spurs win all these games without Tim or Manu, and I don't know how anyone can not make the case for Parker being the best in the biz right now. It's like that Mavs game was a microcosm of his whole season: Parker is mad at the world for what nearly happened to his eye (even though it wasn't done to him on purpose) and he's taking it out on EVERYBODY. I'm not sure anybody in the league wants to win more than he does right now. It's been a pleasure to watch his development and I'm just enjoying the ride.
2. The odds are severely stacked against the Spurs to win the title, but there is a way.
There are about fifty things that have to happen in perfect harmony for the Spurs to win the 2013 championship. Here, in order, are the most relevant ones...
A. The top eight guys have to stay healthy throughout the playoff run.
B. Parker and Duncan have to play like top-10 players, Ginobili has to play like a top-20 player and Splitter and Leonard have to play like top-35 players, while Green and Diaw have to play close to their peaks as well.
C. No stupid trades (more on this later).
D. Homecourt advantage over Miami and Oklahoma City. Obviously I think this is more important than Pop does, and probably most of you, but I don't trust this group to must-win a road game in those cities. The home/road splits for the Thunder and Heat are ridiculous.
E. Fair officiating, particularly on the road against the glamour teams. I really don't feel like belaboring this point again.
F. LeBron taking it down a notch, because at his current level, nobody stands a chance. (In fact, the East is so horrid and watered-down right now, with Rose being out for the Bulls, who can even give the Heat a series? Maybe the Pacers take a game or two. Maybe the Knicks take a couple. The East has serious "fo-fo-fo" potential, even with Miami's crappy rebounding.)
G. No, really, the healthy thing is a big deal.
H. Westbrook has to play like an ass.
I. Duncan and Splitter have to continue hitting their freebies at their current clip (more on this later).
J. Pop can't jerk Splitter's minutes around this time.
K. The Thunder must miss the occasional 20-footer, just for kicks.
Simmons made the case recently that the Spurs are like his New England Patriots, great regular season teams and past champions who just can't take it up a notch in the playoffs because they're already playing their "A" game in the regular season when everyone else is at a "B" or "C" level most nights.
However, what Simbo misses is that most people still had faith in the Patriots at least advancing to the Super Bowl, if not winning it. They were 8-point favorites in the AFC Championship Game against Baltimore, and would've certainly been favorites in the Super Bowl had they made it that far.
A better comparison for the Spurs would be the Atlanta Falcons, if they somehow miraculously hold their No. 1 seed, in that they'd be the least-respected No. 1 seed in NBA history. Seriously would ANYONE pick them to beat OKC this postseason? Most pundits will probably pick them to get upset by the Clips or something in the second round, just to be hip.
Also, like the Falcons, nobody WANTS to see the Spurs in the Finals, which may or may not (I fear the former) count for something. The Spurs can finish the regular season 68-14 and I guarantee you that just about everybody at ESPN, now that John Hollinger doesn't work there, will pick OKC to make the Finals. That's just reality.
Again, the reasoning is that the Spurs are already at their peak in the regular season (absurd of course since they've played so many games without Tim, Manu, Leonard, etc.) while the Thunder (and/or Heat) can reach another level, particularly within a series of games where they can learn and adapt.
Eventually, the argument goes, the coaching won't matter, the role players will shrink under the spotlight and the superior talent will win out. Maybe it's true, even though I think luck (the aforementioned unconscious Thunder shooting percentage on their long twos) and dubious officiating had as much to do with the Spurs' demise as OKC's talent. There is a way the Spurs could counteract the talent advantage of the Thunder and Heat and it's by playing what I call Neo-Ball.
It all makes sense when you think of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka as sentinels.
"What is Neo-Ball," you ask?
Simple. It's seeing the game slowed down to super slo-mo, as a team. It's cutting, screening, moving, passing as five individuals with one shared mind. It's knowing what the opponent will do before they do it and exploiting that with the perfect counter. It's about creating easy scoring chance after easy scoring chance, again and again and again, racking up the points (and the assists) in the process.
25 assists and 100 points? Nice. 30 assists and 110 points? Better. 35 assists and 120 points? Neo-Ball.
The only way we're gonna beat the Thunder and the Heat, especially if it's 5-on-8, is by having far superior ball movement and man movement, and even then, our guys are gonna have to knock down all of their open shots. If it sounds hard, it's because it will be hard, but the irony of Neo-Ball is that when you reach that state of nirvana as a team (and the Spurs tease us with it here and there), the game looks so, so easy. It's like the opponent isn't even there.
Can the Spurs hit their peak at just the right time, for four straight weeks, just when they need to most? I'm sure everything Pop is plotting is pointing to that objective.
3. No stupid trades please.
You heard the Al Jefferson rumors. Just appalling. A post-up guy who slows down the offense and is Carlos Boozer-level bad against the pick-and-roll (I'd like to thank Boozer and Nate Robinson for that win against Chicago, by the way. Awesome job, fellas.) in exchange for Tiago Splitter (who just happens to play the pick-and-roll better than any big-man in the league) and Cap'n Jack.
Lets start with Jackson for a second. I know he's been mostly awful this season, due in part to a broken finger that refuses to heal. He's fat. He's slow. To the naked eye he looks done, but his player-pairs and five-man unit numbers are all quite encouraging, so it's not like the Spurs are suffering with him on the floor.
Look, I completely understand (okay, that's a lie, I only kinda-sorta understand) the cap implications of Jackson's contract and why it'd make sense to deal him. But to me this is the Spurs' last legit shot at a title in the Duncan era (we said the same thing last year) so why not do whatever it takes to go for it?
Besides, I remember last year how Jackson almost singlehandedly changed the team's mentality. Maybe it was more getting rid of He Who Shall Not Be Named than adding Jackson specifically, but the whole attitude of the team changed overnight. Jackson gave them toughness, resolve, a junkyard dog mentality. He made them meaner, tougher.
More than anything, I want to keep Cap'n Jack around because I think he has serious Robert Horry potential for the playoffs, and yes, I mean that in more than just a clutch shot-making sense. I think Jackson can be the guy to rile up Westbrook into doing something stupid and getting off his game. Maybe he can give Durant enough of a hard foul to discourage him from barreling into the lane and settling for contested jumpers (as if that's any better of an alternative with him, but still).
I just think the Spurs are tougher physically and mentally with Jack around, and he's nice insurance to have in case Green spazzes out or Leonard picks up some cheap fouls. Plus, if we have to play small, he can be a backup power forward for us too. Anybody but Matt Bonner, for the love of The Flying Spaghetti Monster.
The other trade rumor involves Josh Smith, who is no doubt a good player but also one that takes a lot of inefficient un-Spurs-like shots, does a lot of stupid selfish crap and is reportedly a bad apple. Unlike Jackson, he has no history of good citizenship with the Spurs to counterbalance bad behavior elsewhere.
While Smith is enough of a talent that I would part with Jackson for him, I would not, in any shape or form, get rid of Tiago or Leonard.
For my money, Tiago has been the fourth-most valuable Spur this year, and you could even argue he's third, considering the number of games that Manu's missed. As I mentioned above I know his contract situation is tricky in that he's a free agent and some team (Portland?) will likely throw a lot of money at him this year. Though he's mentioned that he'd greatly prefer to stay with the Spurs, he's no dummy and he'll probably take the highest offer, especially if the Spurs' brass doesn't come close to matching.
Sure, Manu and Jack are both free agents, so in theory the cap room will be there to match, but can Pop and R.C. Buford in good conscience give Splitter a contract that calls for eight figures a year? I'm guessing not.
Still, I don't care. They HAVE TO go for it all this year. Trading Splitter is tantamount to giving up their title hopes, and even if you get a guy like Josh Smith or Jefferson back, they won't make the team any better if you have to lose Tiago to get them. Remember, the guy is secretly a defensive stud, and even if he's soft going to the basket at times and not the world's greatest rebounder, his numbers, especially when paired with Duncan, are incredibly encouraging.
As for trading Leonard, I don't think I even have to explain the idiocy of that. Clearly the only people who bring him up are outsiders who don't regularly watch the Spurs. Pop would sooner trade Manu than Leonard, and I'm dead serious about that.
4. Why are the Spurs better?
A couple of little things that I can figure, which don't seem like much, but are adding up into wins.
First of all, I think starting Splitter has really helped, especially defensively, where Pop has stated ad nauseam the team has to improve if it's to compete for a title. Last season the Spurs starting unit (especially with DeJuan Blair in it) basically hoped to hold serve until the bench crew led by Ginobili and Splitter came in to run the opponent off the floor.
This season the five-man starting unit of Duncan-Splitter-Leonard-Green-Parker has decimated opposing teams, and that's important, considering that, as we learned painfully, benches don't matter all that much against squads that have aliens that don't ever get tired on them.
Splitter is only playing five more minutes per game more than last season, but he's playing many of those minutes with Duncan, which Pop plainly refused to do last season, to the team's detriment. Now, we know definitely that not only can these two fellows co-exist, but they can absolutely thrive beside one another.
Not to put too fine a point on it, because it's a limited stat, but Tiago's PER is 31st in the league. Serge Ibaka, OKC's third-best player, is 46th. Miami's got Chris Bosh at 20th, one slot behind Manu, but their fourth-best guy, Ray Allen, isn't in the top 100.
While I blame Pop for not playing Tiago more last year, I suppose I must give him credit for making Splitter tougher. He hasn't missed any games this season and that little episode in Chicago, where he hurt his ankle but came right back into the game, was telling. A couple years ago Splitter would've taken himself out of the game for that and taken a week off. Now he just grins and plays through the dings. Splitter's also been better at coming up with contested boards at both ends, even though his overall rebound rate has dipped (I attribute that to playing with Duncan).
Overall the Spurs are fourth in offensive efficiency, despite all the time Manu and Tim have missed, and third in defensive efficiency (OKC is seventh, Miami 11th). They get defensive boards better than any contender besides New York and again, that's with Duncan missing a bunch of games, so yeah, I'm pretty encouraged by the defense.
If they tighten up their playoff rotation to just nine guys, the only sub-par defender would be Gary Neal, and even he's not that all that bad if he's just guarding an opposing backup point for spot minutes.
The other main thing that has caught my eye is the free throw shooting, fourth in the league at the moment, at .792. Now freebies have long been anathema to the Spurs and there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that free throw shooting is one of the least-important stats on championship clubs (past Spurs teams and the Shaq Lakers/Heat are the two obvious examples), but still, all in all, they are, by definition, "free" points and I'd rather my team make 'em than miss 'em.
Splitter's struggles at the line were a big reason why Pop couldn't play him much against the Thunder, but this season he's shooting them at a healthy 75% clip. Duncan is at a career-best 82%, as is Parker. Green and Leonard both knock them down at a similar rate and Manu is Manu. Not only are these guys the best free throw shooters on the team, but they're also the ones who get to the line most often. When you have a team full of guys who are dependable at the stripe, it's just comforting, even if it's more psychological than tangible.
5. Looking at the schedules
Like I mentioned before, I think getting the number one overall seed is critical to the Spurs success. Maybe I'm just haunted by the ghost of the Thunder. I know they're not as good without James Harden. I mean how can they be? Maybe they'd be nearly unbeatable with him and there'd be no point in even playing this season. But they sure haven't looked very impressive without him of late, with a 7-5 record in their last 12 games, despite impeccable health and a meh schedule.
Still, I can't get past the thought of them getting every call, I mean EVERY call, at home. The memory of Westbrook slamming Leonard's head to the paint and not getting called for a foul lingers, as do the two offensive fouls they called on Manu in the fourth quarter. All the trips Durant got to the line for guys simply breathing on him. It makes me nauseous.
The schedule is on the Spurs side. Two games up on the loss column on OKC and Miami with just 28 to go, and only five back-to-backs for the Spurs left, with three of those being the easier home game/road game variety, rather than the more difficult road/road combo.
I'll be scouting the fellas in person at Sacramento (my first and probably last game @ Arco) and at Golden State next week. The Warriors game strikes me as a scheduled loss and I'm well aware that none of the big three might suit up for that one, but I'm hopeful the fellas get one of two at least in that @LAC @GS B2B and pull off a 7-2 rodeo road trip (I'd have been thrilled with 6-3 and full health for everyone going in but now I'm getting greedy).
March features a slew of match-ups against good teams, but also an almost exclusively home sked. Lets give them losses @Min, @Hou and one random home game. April is a lot trickier. I can see four losses, maybe even six if Pop decides to rest everyone in the final week. Lets say five to be safe. That gives them a final record of 61-21.
Do the Thunder and Heat both have eight losses left in them? Maybe for the Thunder, if they lose literally every tough road game they have left. Otherwise, they'll have to drop an unexpected home game here or there.
Miami is going to be even harder. They may never lose again the way LeBron is playing. They just DESTROYED the Thunder on the road. What we have going in our favor is they have a whopping 32 games left after the break, including nine back-to-backs and 17 road games, but almost all of them are against the pitiful Eastern conference. Maybe they'll give James some rest to get him ready for the playoffs? Here's hoping. Honestly, I can see Miami finishing like 57-25 and I can see them finishing 65-17. Hopefully they're peaking early and can't sustain their current level.
6. Manu is pissed
Have you seen this video? Tell me this isn't the most upset Manu has ever allowed himself to be publicly at Pop. He's barely controlling himself.
Pop mentioned that he had a plan for Ginobili to play only 10-12 minutes against the Cavs, but I'm not all that sure he or any of the other coaches actually bothered to inform Ginobili of it. If you watched the game, you saw some assistant (possibly the trainer?) whisper something in Manu's ear right before the start of the third quarter and then Ginobili walked over to the locker room for a few minutes and then came back to the bench, where Bonner asked him something.
My guess is Manu was told he won't be playing in the second half so he took off his jersey top (what do I need this for?) and put on some other shirt. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.
I'm not necessarily disagreeing with Pop's decision to baby him, per se. Hamstrings are very tricky, nagging things, and they take forever to heal properly. We already saw Ginobili have one setback with it. But at the same time, Pop's going to eventually have to ratchet up Ginobili's minutes in the regular season to the 28-32 minutes range, even if he decides to sit him in SEGABABAS. It's foolish to expect Manu to be able to play 30+ minutes in the playoffs if you don't build up his stamina to do that.
We all saw Ginobili tire noticeably in the fourth quarters of that Thunder series and I believe it was because he wasn't used to playing the minutes asked of him since he was being given a steady diet of >20 minute outings down the stretch. I'm quietly hoping against hope that Pop plays the hell out of him during the home games in March and that nothing goes wrong.
7. I hate Matt Bonner.
Okay, hate is too strong of a word, and of course I'll be pulling for the guy in the three-point contest, but holy hell is Bonner awful. There's no better illustration of just how useless and terrible he is as a player than that Chicago game, where we took all the stars away and just let him be one of five guys.
He couldn't do anything. Couldn't get a shot off. Couldn't grab a single rebound. Luol Deng was beating him to offensive rebounds off missed free throws. Bonner might be the single softest player in the league. Pop can't bury him enough on the bench in the playoffs for my liking. If I had my druthers Bonner would spend May and June in some dorky suit. Enough, I'm done with him. I give up. I'd rather have Baynes in the rotation, and that guy is an illegal screen waiting to happen.