The brim of the Spurs' roster--and Patty Mills' waistline--goes under close scrutiny as reports from the Silver vs. Black game emerge.
1. Corey Maggette vs. Sam Young
All the reports I've read suggest that Maggette vastly outperformed Young during the scrimmage, which A) isn't surprising at all and B) means absolutely nothing. The thing people need to realize is that of course Maggette is going to look like the superior offensive player. That's just consistent with who the two guys have been throughout their careers. My educated guess though is that offensive superiority isn't going to help him one iota in the competition versus Young and, if anything, will hurt him more than help him.
Gregg Popovich has already stated, on the record, that the whole reason both Young and Maggette were signed was because the team is looking for a stocky wing defender to back up Kawhi Leonard. Again, a defender, not a scorer. If they were looking for a guy who could score, DeShaun Thomas would still be around. The Spurs have enough scorers and shooters already. If all they were looking for from their bench unit was scoring, they'd simply play Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills together (and who knows--they just might).
No, the job will be won by the best defender, and on that account I'd have to think that Young has the edge. Also, and I don't think this point can be overstated, I think Young's attitude and mentality make him the likelier candidate than Maggette to be kept because he's the guy who's more resigned to his fate as an all-defense/no-offense reserve. Maggette, on the other hand, has always been a fairly ambitious fellow who thinks he's markedly better than he is and one who needs the ball in his hands to be at all useful. Yes, Maggette is excellent at drawing fouls and he gets to the line a lot. But to do that he needs the ball. Can you really see him having the ball a bunch with Ginobili and Belinelli as the two primary ball-handlers on the second unit and with pick-and-rolls to Tiago Splitter the preferred method of attack?
One of the tenets of Pop's philosophy is that players "have to get over themselves", meaning that they have to accept roles and understand their limitations. He's said that the team's roster has always been built around role players who aren't very good but have one or two particular skills (such as Matt Bonner's outside shooting) to complement the team's three high-usage stars. It's already going to be quite a dramatic leap of faith for Pop to extend that 'three stars' concept to four to include Leonard. It might not sound like much, but we're talking about shifting the paradigm of the offense for the first time in over a decade here. Running pick-and-rolls with Belinelli as opposed to Ginobili will also be an added wrinkle. The team is already making fairly significant (for them) tonal changes to their offense as it is, so to expect them to also carve out a chunk of post-ups or isolations for Maggette is just unrealistic. Young, by contrast, is fine if he never touches the ball, let alone without them actually running any plays for him.
If I were to bet, I'd still wager that neither makes the team when it's all said and done, because Diaw has slimmed down a bit and he can be the nominal backup three (or perhaps Jeff Ayres in a pinch). After "neither," I'd guess Young and then Maggette--not necessarily my choice, mind you-- but more a guess of how I think Pop's brain works, and they've always valued the flexibility of having an open roster spot.
2. Patty Mills' improved physique
While it's nice to see Mills' renewed commitment to being a professional basketball player, it's the kind of typical training camp story we hear about on every team in every sport: the "bubble guy coming into camp in the best shape of his life."
My question to Mills is simple: What took so long?
If you recall, Mills had a pretty strong late-season run after the Spurs signed him late in the 2011-12 campaign, culminating in a ridiculous 34 point-12 assist performance in the regular season finale at Golden State against an admittedly tanking Warriors team. (For proper context, DeJuan Blair scored 22 that night, James Anderson had 19 and somebody named Derrick Byars had eight points and eight boards.)
Still, Mills' efforts weren't enough to crack Pop's playoff rotation and in the off-season the team brought in Nando De Colo to compete with him for the backup job (with the camp hype heavily leaning toward the Frenchman) and later on, after De Colo faltered, Cory Joseph. I don't quite remember if Mills came into camp out of shape or if his physical fitness devolved as the year went along and his role was reduced, but as we've come to find with the Blair Era (and Beno Udrih as well) getting pudgy is no way to earn playing time under Pop.
Ironically, if you look at the raw numbers, Mills' shooting really didn't fall off much at all last season. He declined slightly, from hitting 48.9 percent of his shots to 46.5 percent and from 42.9 of his threes to an even 40 percent, but obviously the latter figures are still quite good.
The drop-off came in other areas, as Mills' assist rate plummeted from 25.9 percent to 14.9, his usage rate from 28.4 percent to 20.2 and his rebound rate from 6.2 percent to 4.4. Again, there are small-sample-size issues to deal with here as Mills' relatively awesome numbers from 11-12 are heavily weighted by the final two games of that season and the 76-plus minutes he played in them represented almost 30 percent of his season total.
Still, Mills' biggest problem, I suspect, was defense. Now defensive rating doesn't tell us the whole story--Blair had the second best rating on the Spurs, for example, while Tony Parker's was dead last--but he was still pretty close to the bottom, ahead of just Gary Neal and Parker (and thus below De Colo and Joseph).
What may be more telling is the opponent's eFG% (effective field goal percentage, which is what your shooting percentage really is when you factor in the added value of three-pointers made) was .504 in total and .029 percent higher with Mills on the floor than off, the worst on the team (Bonner was second-worst at .501 and .028 respectively).
Neither De Colo nor Joseph were dramatically better, but they were closer to average. With Pop making a pledge to emphasize defense last season (and ostensibly going forward) it's not hard to understand why the slight-of-build Mills, gut or no gut, was going to be left behind. He can get up on people in the full court, but once the opposing point guard initiates the half-court offense, Mills is basically a disaster defensively.
Is there any hope for him then?
Only in two ways, as I can fathom, and while the former is less likely, the latter is far less appealing for Spurs fans.
Mills could, theoretically, magically "figure out" how to play defense. Maybe, in his third year in the system he'll finally understand the team's defensive rotations, he won't lose his man on threes and he'll figure out how to play the pick-and-roll. If he can be at all a respectable defender, he could beat out a pair of guys in Joseph and De Colo, who are certainly no world-beaters, because he is the best offensive player of the bunch.
The more realistic scenario, unfortunately, has Mills relieving for an ailing Parker, on the shelf with a sprained this or broken that. While it doesn't make much sense for him to play as a reserve with his defensive limitations, the Spurs probably would need Mills' scoring if Parker were to go down.
3. I want to see Jeff Ayres puke on the court.
Nothing theoretical or analytical here--just a simple admission. I want Ayres to play so much for the Spurs during the preseason that it literally forces him to spill the contents of his stomach on the floor. I want him to be absolutely exhausted from all the playing time he gets, just so the coaching staff gets as much exposure to him as possible. I also want him to upchuck because, presumably, it'll mean he's actually playing all out.
I've already stated that there isn't a player on the roster I'm less interested in seeing during preseason than Bonner since we know exactly what we're going to get with him, but Diaw might be second on the list. Ayres is a fresh new lump of clay for us to mold and form into unrealistic expectations. In all likelihood he isn't going to be the least bit useful, but I'd at least like the chance to find out. Really, I'd be all for giving Ayres 15 minutes a night for the first 20, 30 regular season games, come hell or high water, just to see what he can do. What's the down side?
If we're going to err, let's err on the side of youth and potential. Say it with me everybody: let's err with Ayres!