2008 revisited, Lakers provided another Jacob Riis quote to live by

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AT&T CENTER–For the first time since Manu Ginobili injured his ankle in a second round series against the Hornets, just prior to the 2008 Western Conference Finals, the San Antonio Spurs are one of two viable Western Conference contenders to the Lakers throne.

Realistically, it might be the first shot the Spurs have against the Lakers since the Grizzlies’ horrendous Gasol for Gasol and spare change trade shifted the balance of power in the Western Conference.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, if the San Antonio Spurs buck all odds and manage to somehow win Tim Duncan a fifth NBA championship, could they actually have the Lakers acquisition of Pau Gasol to thank? Hard as it is to believe, looking through the Spurs 97-82 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, I’m reminded of yet another Jacob Riis quote:

“Some defeats are only installments to victory.”

For many, the Spurs  performance–holding the Lakers to 82 points on 35% shooting–was a throwback to lost championship form. But moving from the box score to the film, the game was something entirely different. And the blueprints for the victory might have been established years ago, in 2008, when the Spurs were defeated handily 4-1 in that Western Conference Finals series.

The Lakers fleecing Gasol from the Grizzlies removed the Spurs from atop the Western Conference hierarchy (as did injuries). But in doing so, it also sped up the Spurs transition into what it is today—a team on the verge of cheating death.

If not for the Gasol trade, the Spurs likely make the NBA Finals in 2008 with a starting lineup of Tony Parker, Michael Finley, Bruce Bowen, Tim Duncan, and Fabricio Oberto.

With a severely hobbled Manu Ginobili there was no chance the Spurs beat the Boston Celtics, but just the Finals appearance alone might have been enticing enough to keep the same core and method intact.

Instead, realizing the increasing gap between their team and the rising elite, Popovich and Buford set out on a plan to remake the Spurs.

Matt Bonner was inserted into the starting lineup temporarily and was made a permanent fixture in the rotation. Bowen, Oberto, and Thomas eventually gave way to Richard Jefferson, DeJuan Blair, and Tiago Splitter. Nowhere in the Spurs rotation does a player not have something to contribute offensively.

The result is an offensive juggernaut that has multiple points of attack and is able to sustain off performances from two of their big stars, or even terrible shooting nights.

The transition has not come overnight, even if our attention to it has. It has taken several years to get to this point, and it has not come without some bumps along the way. Winning a championship takes a perfect confluence of circumstances.

Had the Spurs waited a year too late to make this transformation perhaps the pieces are not in place until Ginobili and Duncan fade into irrelevance.

Matching the Lakers, Celtics, or Orlando Magic strength for strength is an excersize in futility. No matter how much the Spurs tried, there was never going to be a frontcourt partner for Duncan to keep up with those teams as he declined.

Barring a Gasol-like deal of their own, or a recreation of the events that led to Duncan’s arrival in the first place, the only way the San Antonio Spurs were going to win another title is the path they are going down now.

And if it pays off? They have a 2008 Gasol-induced lesson in humility and Jacob Riis, once again, to thank for showing them the way.

  • http://www.nbamatchup.com Chris in Phoenix

    I want to say that I envisioned it all along but I got to be honest. I was just hoping that Pop and R.C. were still making the right moves.

    Hopefully all this R.J. contract stuff, the wait for Splitter, and the re-signing of Parker and Manu will pay off this season with a Larry O’Brien!

  • SAinSLC

    Great write-up. Thanks as always for insightful and thought-provoking articles about our Spurs.

    I have read rumors that Camby might be available. Is that of interest, and is it feasible? I would think his rebounding and shot-blocking could really provide some interior help for the likes of Boston, Dallas, LA and Orlando. I also realize it might be too much to give up in rotation players to make it happen. Any thoughts from the authors or the readership?

  • CG

    In today’s Daily Dime: http://espn.go.com/nba/dailydime/_/page/dime-101229/daily-dime
    Hollinger mentions that Pau Gasol is a surefire Hall of Fame player along with Tim Duncan. Does any one agree that Pau Gasol is a definite HoF player? I am sure there have been plenty of quality big men that have averaged 20 and 10 that happened to win championships because they were traded to Kobe’s team for peanuts. I think he is a solid player, but mostly just a whiner who only became good because he plays on Kobe’s team.

  • Daniel T

    Camby’s contract is about equivalent to Manu’s. If you want to give up only one player to acquire him it would have to be either Manu, Tony or Tim. If you’re not willing to do that (I don’t think the Spurs would) then a 2-1 trade would require giving up Richard Jefferson along with either McDyess, Bonner or Tiago. If you hang onto RJ, you’d have to include all 3 of the others for a 3-1 trade. I don’t see any of this happening, so unless Portland buys out his contract and waives him, I don’t see any chance of Camby becoming a Spur.

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  • mybloodissilverandblack

    Uh, in 2008 Playoffs it was the Spurs that were defending the throne.

  • Jake

    Nice post. FYI–In the sentence, “The result is an offensive juggernaut that has multiple points of attack and is able to sustain off performances from two of their big stars, or even terrible shooting nights,” I think you wanted the word “endure”, not “sustain”. While I was very pleased with the win last night, I hope Ginobili and Duncan’s performances aren’t “sustained” into the next game…

    Jake

  • rj

    great article. one interesting aspect of these two teams i recognized is how l.a. is complied of all stars taking lesser roles via free agent aquisition, yet the spurs got it done last night through homegrown methods of patience and frugality. draft day gems and plucked overseas heroes complie a team with a steadfast, tested core. other teams that have such solid contributions in light of struggling stars would be seen as a fluke, yet this is a consistent element of the team. the beauty in having aging stars is the sacraficed egos and diminished ability that allow other players to thrive. this might be the most balanced spurs team we’ve ever seen.

  • lvmainman

    Interesting perspective, but I disagree with the conclusion. A beat down by the Celtics would have amplified and created what we see today, as well.

    #1) Parker and Ginobili needed to take the summer off from international ball

    They are fresher, healthier, and more focused on the postseason. The liklihood of blowing 20 pt leads in LA while arriving the day of the game, after a Game 7 are diminished.

    #2) Coach Pop needed to adjust to more pick and roll (due to Duncan decline come playoff time), international/european type and uptempo offense and learn to rely less on vets and trust that playing youth earlier would provide benefits later

    See Suns via Gentry playing 10 in regular season to dominate Spurs in playoffs, or see Blair in starting lineup today or 20/20 vs Mavs or Thunder, or Hill in playoffs 2 yrs ago thanks to Ginobili injury and Parker injury last yr.

    I, personally, hold Pop responsible for not adjusting sooner. I’ll still never know if Mahinmi can play, only because he never got playing time. I still can’t tell if Splitter is any good. They signed a Bruce Bowen clone in Bobby Jones but never let him play.

    #3) The drafting of George Hill, Dejuan Blair, and James Anderson, signing of free agent McDyess and Splitter would have happened regardless.

    The Spurs still would have had good players drafted be it Ibaka or Batum as was rumored. Blair @ # 37 with no 1st rd pick was a no brainer good gamble.

    #4) Bruce Bowen could easily fill the Ime Udoka role today, and Brent Barry could fit the Quinn role today, in my opinion.

    Rather simplistic factors in keeping with Spurs tradition. Adding decent vets to play a role with Big 3(McDyess/Jefferson/Neal vs. Horry/Finley/Barry). Allowing youth to blossom (Blair/Hill/Anderson/Splitter vs. Jaren “the Eliminator” Jackson/Stephen”I’ll make 3 4th qtr 3’s in a clinching NBA finals game as a 2nd yr player” Jackson/Speedy Claxton).

    Coaching to the players strengths ala Belicheck with 5 wide, short passing game with Brady/Welker/Branch sans Moss.

    I give kudos to Popovich for adapting but I have no idea what took him so long.

  • Bruno

    Pop is one of the best coachs of history but he need give more minutes to Tiago play, Tiago will not show all your potential and talent playing 10 minutes for game!!!I think this team can get the title!!#gospursgo

  • Daniel T

    lvmainman:

    Quinn and Ime make a combined $1.5M. If the Spurs still had Bruce & Brent on the roster, it would cost them several million more than that. If they were still around, I don’t see that they could have signed McDyess and Splitter (not to mention being able to trade for RJ).

  • DorieStreet

    Too much revisionist history & an important ommittance of the move that eventually led to the circumstances of today. It occured weeks after the Spurs won their 4th title – the 3-team deal that landed KG & Ray Allen in Boston. That turned the league on its head. In between that & the “Memphis heist” later in the 2007-08 season (a move spurred no doubt by what the Celtics pulled off) was our non-signing of Luis Scola in October 2007. The Spurs’ reputation of finding gems overseas is overrated- since Tony & Manu arrived in 2001 & 2002, what other foreign player donned the Silver & Black and made notable contributions (Beno Udrih for 3 years?). Those middle decade years we went from acquiring NBA vets in their prime to those on a slide to league journeymen, all the while not doing enough homework to bring in draft picks that would make the squad (from 2004 until 2009–George Hill). The formula worked great- a game 7 WC semifinal loss from our ‘3peat’ (Spurs would have defeated the Heat in the finals)- but we stuck with it too long. Is it too late to get that 5th ring we should have already had? Maybe , maybe not- this 27-4 start looks promising. the remaining game this year and the 50 in 2011 will determine that.

  • Duff Beer

    very interesting but had we met the Celtics in 08, I still think Pop would have revamped some parts of the team.

  • rob

    I’m not so sure winning another championship would have kept the core belief the same.

    However, it definately is a thought to ponder in the what if category.

    Without direct proof to the contrary (or fictional) I think the Spurs would have been making subtle changes anyway.

    Would they have garnished since the Gasol trade who they have now? Who knows.

    To that end…perhaps some defeats are installments to victory in this case.

  • alamobro

    Nice piece of speculation, I dont think this sounds too far fetched.

  • lvmainman

    @ Daniel T,

    Barry never made more than $2 mil in the last 2 yrs as a Rocket. And I’m willing to wager the Spurs could’ve resigned Bowen at the same salary as Keith Bogans/Ime Udoka – NBA minimum salary – if they tried. So $3 mil vs. $1.5 mil.

  • miggy

    I still think we ran into the wrong team in the playoffs last year, Phoenix. I believe we beat L.A. last year in the conference finals if we had taken care of the Suns.

  • Junierizzle

    Nice article. i hope the basketball gods arw listening. Man. I recall that series. They blew a 20 pt lead in game 1. Youre right though Manu was hurt. They probably would have lossed anyway, even with that win. They went through two wars with the Suns and the Hornets. they went in limping into the Laker series.
    @CG Gasol was always good. He didnt become good once he joined the Lakers. Why do you think everyone was up in arms about the trade? Kobe didnt get back to the finals until Gasol came.

  • Junierizzle

    @miggy
    I agree. I think they could have beaten the Lakers if they got to them. Especially with the way Manu was playing the second half of th season. Remember how he carved them up that last game in Staples in the reg season? Wow.
    I really believe they could have beaten the Suns if Manu didnt break his nose. He was never the same. May god strike me down right now if Grant Hill actually “slowed” Manu down.

  • Easy B

    Re: beating lakers last year – not so sure. We weren’t a really cohesive unit, and it was exposed in the scoring droughts and inability to get stops against the suns. If you take this years lineup against last years suns it might be a polar opposite result.
    It looks like we are going to have a chance at home court if we can continue this stretch, which is encouraging seeing how close Boston came last year and yet lost.
    The big question that people don’t seem to be asking when speculating about the spurs chances this year is: Can they win 4 times against L.A, Boston, Miami, Dallas, Orlando, Oklahoma? I would hazzard to respond quickly yes with Orlando and Oklahoma right now based mostly on our veteran players and coaching getting us through. I still think its unclear regarding the other 4. We saw a strange game against LA, which was kind of like a playoff game 2 or 4 at home – the opposing team has made adjustments, and role players come to the fore to decide the momentum of the game (see Blair and Hill). It will be interesting to see if we can match the lakers when both teams are hitting shots and making big plays.

  • td4life

    @Easy B

    We still really have no idea how we match up against the lakers… all we learned is that our depth is probably more focused and energetic than their depth. The main reason they weren’t more competitive was their coaching… it’s a guess whether phil was just experimenting with the results of a certain style of play, or establishing a case for Kobe to understand that they are only winners when it’s all about their inside game… Gasol and Bynum were underutilized, and that’s a fact… and guess who started and shot 75% in last night’s win for them? Bynum, with Lamar an ace off the bench. That’s their championship formula.

    So we can’t say how we match up against them. If Dirk and KG are out we may be able to get a quite a bit of a lead in the standings, if we stay healthym and get home court. But beyond that, our record won’t mean much… there are 53 games to go, that’s a ton of bb, not to mention the 16 wins needed after that.

    I prefer the highs of these wins to losses, but we certainly have to keep improving game to game like spurs’ culture dictates… and hopefully the defense will continue to come along… Aside from that, I’m looking forward to Anderson getting back, and getting a little more rest for Manu.

  • td4life

    51 games

  • http://brandonjermaine.com BrandonJermaine

    “Coaching to the players strengths ala Belicheck with 5 wide, short passing game with Brady/Welker/Branch sans Moss.”

    Can’t say enough about lvmainman’s comment.
    That summed up the Spurs last decade better than any analyst I’ve read. And I have said for years Brady is to Duncan as Belicheck is to Pop. Small markets (cap-wise) and only a few stars who are humble yet successful.

  • A-Train

    Great article. Thought had crossed my mind as well – nice write up!

  • irongiantkc

    “The transition has not come overnight, even if our attention to it has.”

    Guilty as charged. Living in KC, it has been difficult to watch Scola and Turkoglu do so well and to wonder what the Spurs were doing. On ESPN, there is so little Spurs coverage. It has been so cool to discover 48 MOH and learn so much from the writers and other commenters about what is really going on with the Spurs.

    Just a little info on where I am re. Pop, Duncan, and the FO: I grew up in SA watching Gervin and suffering through the miserable ’80s (my Dad once laughed at me for thinking we had a chance against the Showtime Lakers in a 1st round playoff game). I watched David Robinson and Sean Elliott drag 10 other corpses behind them for about 10 years. I loved Avery Johnosn, but the man could not shoot. I used to watch Elliott and asst coach Pop do these goofy VCR (yes, VCR. I’m THAT old)movie reviews on channel 5. The one I remember best is Firebirds, a helicopter movie with Nic Cage. Elliott kept referring to it as Fireturds. He was not a fan. He was right. It was horrible.

    So, it’s true. I’m very grateful to Pop and RC and TD for transforming this franchise. 4 Championships in 12 years! So many brilliant playoff series, even the ones we didn’t win (Damn you, Derek Fisher!) That’s why it’s going to take years for me to even second guess Pop in any of the moves he makes. (OK, I still think he should have given Scola more of a chance, but don’t tell anybody.) btw, this year, perhaps more than any other, makes me think Pop might be a pretty bright guy. Maybem the press will give him more due after he’s won a fifth. I wonder if Phil Jackson will ever be willing to take back his statement about the Spurs deserving an asterisk after their first Championship?

  • ruth bader ginobili

    “exersize.” Nicely done.

    I too think that this piece are underrates some of those old teams, specifically the part that some of those players had nothing to contribute offensively. Bowen was a career 39% 3-point shooter, and we all know that Oberto helped more than the stats show.

    Do agree that this team has more guys that can create their shot though.

    Also, just discovered Bruce Bowen’s basketball-reference.com page has a picture of him in a Heat uniform. That ain’t right.