Last night, the story of the season
The Spurs are a curious team this year. Two impressive victories followed by last night’s embarrassing loss to Houston. After the game, Popovich admitted that he saw the loss “as a great opportunity to treat it like training camp…treat it like a practice.”
As a result, we were treated to very little Tim Duncan last night (15 minutes, didn’t play in the second half) and a lot more Cory Joseph than we might expect. The Spurs are three games deep, and we’re starting to get a sense of what kind of team they have.
What we learned last night is that their old legs look, well, old when playing a third game in four nights. No surprise.
Despite their embarrassing loss to Memphis in the 2011 playoffs, the Spurs are still the same team that won 61 games last season. They’ve lost Antonio McDyess, but, practically speaking, added Tiago Splitter, James Anderson, and Kawhi Leonard to their rotation.
People I trust—Henry Abbott, John Hollinger, and David Thorpe—are picking the Spurs to win the Southwest Division. I can see the arguments, and if I were asked, I might pick them too. They looked really strong during their initial two victories.
But, in my mind, the bullishness of these observers is tempered by what I see as the season’s most important storyline for the Spurs. Can San Antonio really make it through the season with a four man front court rotation of Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, and Matt Bonner?
The first part of that question is straightforward. With the rigors of the condensed schedule, I worry about Tim Duncan’s ability to solider through without sustaining an injury or simply burning out. Last night serves as a big red flag that, fancy socks or not, the condensed schedule will grind Duncan.
One of the best Spurs-related articles of last season was published by Zach Lowe just after Tim Duncan sprained his ankle. Everything he said then still applies today:
Duncan is the main (and possibly only) thing standing between the Spurs and defensive mediocrity. He is the team’s sole reliable rim protector, and the Spurs have quietly allowed a whopping six more points per 100 possessions with Duncan on the bench this season, according to Basketball Value. For the 28 minutes Duncan is on the floor every game, the Spurs defend only a smidgen worse than Boston and Chicago — and that difference vanishes once you factor in how much more potent Western Conference offenses are than their counterparts in the East. With Duncan on the bench, San Antonio defends like a league-average team.
David Thorpe is picking Tiago Splitter as one of this season’s breakout players. To his credit, Tiago Splitter is playing fantastic individual and team defense this season. But even with this pleasant development, the Spurs are still without McDyess and remain four big men deep.
On night’s when Tim Duncan doesn’t play, or in the event of an injury, even a modest injury, the Spurs could face a free fall in terms of their defensive play. Remember the games are pact tightly this season. Last season, a two week injury might have meant a tough stretch of, say, six games. This season that same stretch could have as many as eight or nine games.
But even if Duncan and Splitter remain healthy, the Spurs are always one substitution away from suspect interior defense. Matt Bonner and, especially, DeJuan Blair are in the bottom half of the league in terms of defense. Matt Bonner has grabbed only one rebound in more than sixty minutes of action this season. One rebound. That is not a typo.
But what other choice does this roster leave Popovich but to play Bonner and hope he boards?
So there is the issue of the Spurs’ seriously compromised lack of front court depth.
There is also the question of how well San Antonio’s four man big rotation fits together.
Blair and Bonner, despite their defensive shortcomings, are excellent offensive players. As Tim Duncan’s offense continues to decline, the Spurs will need the points Bonner and Blair provide—offensively, Blair is off to an excellent start this season. All to the good. But because of Splitter and Blair’s inability to shoot, the Spurs have spacing issues when one of Duncan or Bonner aren’t on the floor. That means a lot of lineups that feature Splitter or Duncan paired with either Bonner or Blair. And a fair number of lineups that feature Blair and Bonner together. Offensively, this will work fine. But defensively, it’s a problem.
This isn’t to say the Spurs won’t be fantastic this year. They have a strong team. But which Spurs team will we see more often? The team that beat the Clippers by 25 on Wednesday or the team that lost by 20 to Houston last night?
The answer to this, and really the Spurs’ entire season, depends on the answers to two questions. How will the Spurs, and especially Duncan, manage the rigors of this year’s schedule? And can the Spurs improve their terribly thin front court rotation? This second question is just another way of asking, “How will the Spurs provide Tim Duncan with help?”
There is a razor thin line that separates Wednesday’s impressive win from last night’s embarrassing loss. Over the course of the season, the Spurs could just as easily fall to either side of that line.