I'm not a particularly intelligent person. My idea of "vacation," is going to Las Vegas, meaning that I'm the special kind of idiot whose idea of relaxation is to do something even more stressful -- gambling away hard-earned money -- than regular everyday work. I can report that against all odds that part of it didn't go too badly, in case you thought to worry for me. I'm still down for the trip, but that's just the food and gas. Strictly in gambling terms, I probably left up a buck or two, so bully for me.
That unnecessary lead-in was a long way of explaining that I haven't had the opportunity just yet to watch either of the Spurs past two games, save for the last third of the Knicks game. So take that for full disclosure before continuing.
Obviously, the big story for the Spurs right now is Tiago Splitter's shoulder sprain, which is expected to keep him out for three to five weeks. JRW has the facts here, if you haven't read them already.
How will the Spurs survive Splitter's injury?
Tiago Splitter will be out 3-5 weeks with a shoulder sprain. Can the Spurs find an answer to the problems his absence will create?
Fellow PtR columnist and all around terrific hominid J. Gomez broke down what the injury means for the Spurs and painted quite the gloomy picture, and rightly so. Splitter is probably the fifth most valuable Spur these days, and their most influential defender, and there is simply no way we can realistically expect the team to play anywhere near championship-level defense without him. (It's not like they were doing it with him of late, and that's even more worrisome.)
While I don't necessarily disagree with any of Gomez' points, I want to look at this injury as a bit of... well silver lining isn't the right term, but more of an opportunity for some positive things to happen for the Spurs in the long run, even though the likelihood is that they will suffer in the standings during Splitter's absence. Why am I doing it? To be a contrarian, mainly, but also because the boss told me if I don't write again soon he'll warn Manu never to talk to me next year when I move over.
So here are a few positives about the Splitter injury...
1) It will force Pop to play small more
Look, there's no point in debating Splitter's value and looking at the advanced metrics and weighing his strengths and weaknesses. We know how Pop is stubborn and he's not going to change. When it comes down to it, like it or not, Splitter is seventh (maybe eighth) on the totem pole for rotation guys against the elite, super-athletic teams. Once the Spurs play teams that like to go small -- Houston, Oklahoma City, the Warriors at times and of course, Miami -- Splitter won't be logging many minutes alongside Duncan. The Spurs will be playing small, with Kawhi Leonard at the four, or round, with Boris Diaw there. Either way, they won't be big.
Since we realize that inevitability going in, the team might as well use Splitter's injury to practice for the most important games and most critical situations they'll have in May and hopefully June. Let Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili log some minutes together. Let Marco Belinelli get some time filling in for each of those three guys. Hopefully Pop will use the games to give each of the four possible combinations of those three guys some run together to figure out which trios work better than others.
2) Playing small will probably get Green some more looks
Not having two bigs on the floor will mean the Spurs have an extra perimeter guy. That's one more potential three-point threat and driver to space the floor and stretch out opposing defenders. I don't think it was a coincidence that Green went off against the Warriors and Heat in the postseason last year. It's because the Spurs were playing small a bunch in those series.
3) Playing small will help Leonard get going
Again, I don't think it was a coincidence that Leonard was a monster against the Heat, when the Spurs played small for just about the whole series. Like it or not, playing as a stretch four suits Kawhi's strengths a lot more than being a natural three. He can be an athletic mismatch against opposing stretch fours and pump fake and drive past those guys, or just drive past them. Leonard's three-point shot has been a struggle all season, but now he'll have a reason to take fewer of them and the ones he does take should be wide, wide open.
4) Playing small should help Parker most of all
Last year, before spraining his ankle against Sacramento, Tony Parker was playing like an MVP candidate. Mostly, it was out of necessity, he was carrying the team on his back while Ginobili was nursing his hamstrings back to health, and Tim Duncan was missing time from that scary-looking knee injury. In 2013 though, Parker's play hasn't approached anywhere near his peak level, hurt in part by the struggles of those around him in the starting lineup but also some wonky finishing by Parker, a shaky jumper at times, and less-than-stellar free throw shooting too. Without Splitter, there should be more space on the floor for him to operate, get into the lane, and drive and kick, with another perimeter guy to look for. I'm expecting Parker's numbers to bump up quite a bit in Splitter's absence, if for no other reason because they'll have to. The Spurs will probably need to crack 108 points most games to have a chance to win.
5) A real audition for Ayres and Baynes
My guess is that initially Pop will pretend that everything is hunky dory and status quo, to show the team that he is not panicking (and thus, they shouldn't either) and simply elect to employ the "next man up" philosophy he's famous for. This means replacing Splitter with Jeff Ayres and/or Aron Baynes, and playing mostly big unless the opponent or the game situation dictates a tactical change.
While I don't believe that Ayres or Baynes are at all a part of Pop's rotation plans for the playoffs, barring a cameo here and there, Splitter getting dinged gives these guys a chance, however remote, of turning his head and raising his eyebrows by playing well enough over a decent stretch of games to really cement a rotation spot going forward.
Please understand that that isn't at all what I expect to happen. Either Ayres or Baynes would have to up their play significantly from what they've shown up to this point to change how Pop views them. The whole reason I wrote all this small-ball stuff for the above four positives about Splitter's injury is because I don't expect at all for either Ayres or Baynes to pass the audition here in this next month. I think the more they play, the more their warts will be exposed, the more opponents will take advantage of them with specific game plans and the more they'll turn out to be liabilities, to the point that it will force Pop to play small to pull out games.
It's up to Ayres and/or Baynes to prove me (and, slightly more importantly, Pop) wrong. I don't expect them to, but it's theoretically possible.
6) My gut feeling is that Splitter won't miss too many games anyway
I saw a few tweets Sunday morning that Pop was uncharacteristically "giddy" with reporters during his media session. Usually, he's even more of a sourpuss than usual when one of his guys is hurt, sticking to either short, monosyllabic answers, sarcastic put-downs followed by a "can you believe this guy," sneer, or just an intimidating glare meant to convey "Nobody ask me anything, or I'll sic the dogs on you."
My guess is that the real news on Splitter's shoulder was much better than expected and that he'll be back in two weeks, maybe three at the absolute most. Remember, this is a team that always fudges their injury timetables to ridiculous lengths. How many times have we heard them say Parker will miss three weeks or a month with an ankle sprain only for him to return after three or four games? Same with Duncan.
Splitter suffered the injury on Jan. 4. I'll be surprised if he misses the next game versus the Thunder on the 22nd.
The bottom line is that while this injury is unfortunate for Splitter and a setback for the team, it could've been much, much worse. So we really have no cause to bemoan our rotten luck. Chis Paul is going to be out just as long, if not longer, for the Clips and Russell Westbrook is supposedly out until the All-Star break. The Spurs still have no excuses to not challenge for the best record in the conference. There's still enough there, as long as a few guys raise their games. The Spurs have responded really well to injuries the past few years and I expect the same level of resolve now.