As we've known for some time now, DeJuan Blair's time in San Antonio has officially run its course, and multiple reports (as well as Blair's own twitter account) have indicated that he'll be signing with Dallas. Although it's not been made official yet, even if he's not a Maverick next year, he won't be a Spur. We'll get to the implications of that in a minute (SPOILER ALERT: Meh), but before all that we have to remember what's really important here:
Blair's NBA career has been nothing short of a medical miracle.
Here's a guy who entered the league with no ACLs in either knee, the result of surgeries he had as a teen where the doctors ran out of cadavers to scavenge juicy bits from, apparently. The anterior cruciate ligaments are ones which stabilize the knee when cutting or jumping, actions that are rather common and important for most humans, let alone basketball players (well, unless you're Matt Bonner). Despite his stellar two seasons with the Pitt Panthers, during which he finished tied-for-second with UNC's Tyler Hansborough for National Player of the Year honors behind winner Blake Griffin of Oklahoma, just about every team in the league was too scared off by Blair's medical reports to touch him in the draft.
Without a doubt, Blair's size had very little to do with him falling to the 37th pick. Sure, that factors into him not being say, a lottery pick maybe. But after the top 15 or so, any GM would gladly take an undersized power forward if he was positive that the guy had a motor and would be a solid rotation player for years to come. An eight-year career as a ninth man is a fine return on pick No. 24, for example. I strongly doubt anyone who saw Blair's film had any doubts of his ability to stick and produce in the league in terms of just talent and desire.
The fact of Blair's moving on had me in a nostalgic mood, so I went back into the archives to check my reaction at the time of him being drafted. Wow. If you're bored and have a couple of hours to kill, treat yourself to some vintage Stampler idiocy and read the things I wrote during June and July of 2009. At one point I called for Pop to be fired because he refused to play James Gist. But at least I turned out to be right about Richard Jefferson! I wrote a whole long post berating the citizenry of PtR for forgetting to note and celebrate Manu's birthday, a month before it was actually his birthday (since deleted, but the comments are still there). And of course, shamelessly, I totally rationalized and talked myself into the RJ trade by mid-July and predicted a Spurs championship.
Mostly though, I was ecstatic about getting Blair. I remember watching the draft, commenting in the thread and getting more and more excited as the picks scrolled down after number 15 or so. Heck, a lot of us were. Everybody wanted Blair. We thought he was a sure thing despite his size, despite his knee condition. We just wanted a guy we knew would play hard and give a damn. To us, it was crazy he fell so far in the draft, just absolute lunacy, nearly on the level of Manu or Tony, in retrospect. Well, it turned out that not just anyone can be a Parker or a Ginobili. Still, for pick No. 37, Blair was a pretty sweet Spur for four years in the big picture.
Did you know Blair had 14 and 11 in his first game as a rookie? In just 23 minutes, no less. He went on to have seven more double-doubles (and about 20 more games where he missed it by a couple boards or a couple points) during his first year, including a 28-21 against the Thunder and a 27-23 against the Mavs. "The Grizzly Blair" had some legit hops as a rookie. But we knew he would. He also shot a career-high 55.6 percent, which he hasn't come really close to replicating since. His first year's PER of 17.79 was also a career best.
We were already seeing signs of slippage in his second season, during which Blair noticeably put on some weight, lost some height on his leap and saw his shooting percentage fall to 50.1 percent. He averaged a career-high 7.0 rebounds per game and had 17 double-doubles, but didn't come close really to another 20-20 (his season-high was 15 boards against the Lakers on Dec. 28). More troubling, he didn't show any signs of improvement in any facet of his game except for free throw shooting. He had no jumper, no reliable post move, and worst of all his defensive awareness was still nil. The bloom was off the Malik Rose (ahem) and it was time to accept the reality that Blair was never going to turn into Charles Barkley 2.0. Halfway through the season we were openly calling for him to lose his starting spot to Antonio McDyess.
Same story in year three, where Blair started virtually the whole season yet the numbers showed that the Spurs were dramatically better, on both ends, with Tiago Splitter or Matt Bonner or Boris Diaw (just about anyone, really) than with Blair on the floor. Again, by the playoff run, we were calling for Diaw to start, and Blair transitioned from starting, to sitting the bench; completely out of the rotation. Predictably, he was hurt by this and he complained.
I don't blame him at all, even though I totally agreed with Pop's move. Any of us would've felt backstabbed in Blair's situation, demoted twice in two years in money time after the team won such a high percentage of its games with him starting. And, to play devil's advocate to Blair's argument, it's not like either year culminated in a title. (Nor did, 2013, actually).
By year four, the writing was on the wall. Blair's athleticism came and went, mostly the latter. For long stretches of the season, his knees seemed to be bothering him to the point where he could barely jump at all. He went months without a dunk and had to resort to his funky floater to score. His touch around the rim was gone and he was manic and antsy to put up shots as quick as possible before they could be blocked. He suffered career lows in nearly every statistical category, including games played, minutes, points-per-game, rebounds-per-game and had a huge drop-off in PER. His leaping returned, mysteriously, around April, but by then it was too late and he wasn't in Pop's postseason plans even though he showed a lot of professionalism and maturity by the end. Not to mention how much he'd slimmed down by that point.
In the end, the Spurs front office looks to have played this perfectly. From the second they drafted Blair, it's like they had a premonition of exactly what he would be, the role he would serve, and how long he'd be effective as an NBA player, signing him right away to a four-year deal, something practically unheard of for a second-round pick (I don't think the CBA even allows it anymore). That Blair looks to have gotten himself a second contract, even for just one season at the league minimum, is something of a victory for him.
During the 11-12 season I was quite happy with how the Spurs used Blair, from beginning to end. I viewed him as basketball's version of a fifth-starter in baseball, an "innings eater," if you will. There's 96 big man minutes to fill in a regulation game and ideally you want to use Duncan as few of those minutes as possible so he'll have more left for the playoffs. Guys like Splitter and Bonner can only play so many as well, and back then the former was an injury prone dude still finding his way in the league and the latter was strictly a specialist with limitations. Having Blair around made a ton of sense, especially with all the back-to-backs and ridiculous back-to-back-to-backs in that compressed 66-game post-lockout schedule. Once Diaw came aboard and quickly assimilated to the system, it made perfect sense for Blair to draw the short straw in the rotation. Fifth starters don't pitch in the playoffs.
Last year though, even that role didn't make much sense for him once Splitter had shifted into the starting lineup alongside Duncan. Blair's energy would make it seem like he'd make sense as a reserve, but not so on the Spurs, where Duncan is the only guy he can really play with. There's just not enough size, defense or rebounding to pair him with Diaw or Bonner, and he can't really play with Splitter either since neither guy can shoot outside point blank range (Dwight Howard and Omer Asik may run into this problem soon). Kawhi Leonard's emergence also made it possible to play more smallball lineups, where Duncan or Splitter could function as the lone big without incident.
Some part of me will always miss Blair. I liked his fun-loving demeanor and his energy, I liked the weird ways he'd contort his body to get off shots and I liked his chemistry with Manu. I still think he's a guy you'd want to keep around, to sop up minutes against the Bobhornets, the Sixers, the Cubs, the Jaguars and of course, Wigan.
His teammates seemed to like him well enough, and as I mentioned above, he did seem to be maturing. At the same time, Aron Baynes makes him redundant, I don't trust his long-term health and Blair deserves to see what he can do with a different team, a different opportunity. I don't think he was ever going to get another shot with Pop.
In a way, it's fitting if Blair signs with Dallas, as he was always a bit too much of a maverick for Pop's liking. He wasn't a bad guy by any means, quite the contrary by all accounts. But there was just too much trash-talking, too many gestures, too many celebrations, heck too much smiling. Nothing out of the ordinary by modern standards, but not in keeping with the Spurs' culture by any means. Pop likes his young guys in the Leonard mold and they cut Danny Green twice for, in part, having too much swagger and attitude, before he beged for a third chance. I'm guessing the organization also wasn't thrilled with all the complaining about his role to the media and on Twitter. They like to keep all that stuff in-house. If you're gonna be a "personality" on the Spurs you had better be an indispensable player and Blair wasn't.
What I can't help but notice with both Blair and Gary Neal departing just days apart, is that there seems to be an emphatic theme developing on the Spurs roster along the lines of, "We will absolutely, positively, not put a guy on the floor if he can't play a lick of half-court defense." I think just about everyone now is at least average for his position, and in some cases well above average (except for rookie DeShaun Thomas, but he gets a pass for now as he's not on the roster). Even undersized Patty Mills at least tries hard and will pester and hound people for 94 feet. The bottom line is, no more pigeons in the half-court, no more guys that make you cover your eyes on that end of the floor, and probably, not coincidentally, so long to the two fellows who also took the most cringe-worthy shots.
Blair's replacement, Jeff Pendergraph, comes highly recommended by new assistant coach Jim Boylen, who was around Pendergraph with the Pacers. At 6'9, he'll probably be a defensive upgrade (how can he not be?) but I doubt he'll ever be the scorer Blair was through the majority of his Spurs career. We'll see, we'll see.
Unlike Neal, Blair's probably staying in-conference, on a division rival no less, so he'll have plenty of chances to show the Spurs they made a mistake in giving up on him. I can just picture him shoving Bonner and Splitter out of the way for like eight offensive rebounds. However, I can also picture Parker zooming by him for one layup, Ginobili faking him out of his jock for another and Duncan swatting a layup attempt all the way to half court to be picked up by a streaking Leonard. It should make for some fun games.
Good luck, DeJuan. Take it easy on us and take it easy on the burgers. Save your money and for the love of The Flying Spaghetti Monster stay out of the jewelry stores and the gentlemen's clubs. You're in the big city now, and everything gets expensive out there.
More from Pounding The Rock:
- Who's taking all of the Spurs' shots? Playoff edition
- The Top 10 Spurs Games of Last Season
- J.R. Wilco talks about Greg Oden, DeJuan Blair and Gary Neal on the Phil Nassens show
- Spurs Announce 2013-14 Preseason Schedule
- The End of the Gary Neal Era, Manu turns 36 and TrueHoop interviews a "Spurs Fan"