Last night, the story of the season

by

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.

  • MG20TD21

    You guys are all so negative. You’ve bummed me out. It’s been a pretty great run we’ve had and if it’s over then so be it. Can’t we just sit back and watch Timmy, Tony, and Manu fight for wins every game in what could be their last season together. The Spurs have an outside shot to contend if healthy and with some pretty special play from the youngs. The youngins are showing promise, Manu is still Manu, I’m not worried about TP, and the front office will shake out a big man if they can-Pop has addressed this. Stay positive, enjoy the season,

  • http://radsci.uthscsa.edu/index.php/User:Nima Nima K.

    I think youre right. We might be tanking: Play the reserves and new guys as much as possible, so that when summer does arrive our new acquisitions will have a ready team to play with. Not a bad idea if one  has already thrown in the towel!

  • http://radsci.uthscsa.edu/index.php/User:Nima Nima K.

    Shaq says The Spurs will make it to the 5th ring:

    http://projectspurs.com/2011-articles/december/video-shaq-stradamus-predicts-spurs-winning-2012-nba-title.html

    On a side note, Ricky Rubio has turned out to be quite the player. I’m impressed.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been one of the most positive Spur fans for decades.  Even in their years prior to Robinson and Duncan.  But there is a shroud of unexplainable events the past couple of years well pointed out by Lawnman6617 that doesn’t hold true to the once cunning operations of the Spurs front office.

    As I explained (and I know your comment wasn’t just addressed to me), I wouldn’t be at all upset if the Spurs were to be looking to get in the lottery sweepstakes for next year.

    But with all due respect…IF they are TRULY looking to make that one last push under the Duncan, Ginobili, Parker era….they have done (this year) one of the worst jobs in their astute exsistence as front office personnel in, not only getting a player personnel needed in the front court, but EVEN letting go at least one promising player that could have served as an extra body to help in, not only maintain Duncan for the season until playoffs, but possibly help the team win enough games this year for serious title contention.

    Duncan looked horrible in that b2b game.  And it didn’t look as if he were just tired.  He looked gone and out of place.  If that is the Duncan that is going to show up in all these b2b scenarios this year and the team has only Splitter, Blair and Bonner to man the post…what positive outlook would you say there is to be expected?

  • Anonymous

    Well they need to include him then don’t they? That’s how Blair gets most of his. Td that was one shot from short range for this season so far does not make him a sharp shooter.
    Points will come for Splitter if they just don’t ignore him when he’s wide open to the rim and instead continue to look for Blair. Doesn’t make sense. Besides the time Splitter spends on the court not only benefits the team defense but several other people not just himself on offense. Your statement about the diagramed play in the last thread is perfect example of what he causes indirectly on offense. Say what you want about the opponents defense in that diagram but you will see more of that this season good defense or bad defense. He has a knack for making things happen on offense for others including Blair. Like people say he’s Orberto but more athletic. I think he’s better. His shot is non existent from the outside because they don’t give him a chance to work on it game in and game out. At least he had the balls (no pun) to shoot it when he was wide open. Didn’t make it but I hope he keeps shooting it if he’s wide open. Blair has been given the opportunity to as such by working on it. And I suppose Pop trusts him enough to shoot at the rim from the outside. I don’t see why Splitter can’t be given the opportunity to do the same. It’s not like we’re going to put our championship hopes on the line for it. Because you even said we aren’t winning a Championship any time soon. So what’s the big deal. Blair’s a sharp shooter now and now Splitter has to make one to be classified as such. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Right? By the way your guy was not the only one that got a double double in the loosing cause. Wink Wink.

  • Anonymous

    Your high dude. He scores 20 points in a losing effort. So what? He needs to learn some defense in the paint not talking about rebounds (which are the result of someone getting a shot over Blair but just happen to be there for the miss) to go with those points. Scoring like he did but keeping his man from shooting over him and scoring, ie see Scola and everybody else.  Without Splitter this season doesn’t matter what Blair does. Accept it. 
    Playoffs will prove the pudding. It’s not about scoring easy wide open lay ups like Blair does but keeping your man from scoring in the paint. If you can’t keep the opponent from scoring his offense is a moot point and you will see it again just like last game. A loss.

    By the way did you mean better or worse than Splitter. Not sure where you got that term from. And no my butt is just fine. And the Blair witch project continues. Well maybe he’s better trade bait now. Don’t you think? Hope that didn’t chap you butt.

  • Anonymous

    Jumping on the bandwagon again. I bet you were one of those that swore by him last season until he got his ass in the dog house because he sucked in the playoffs. Wishy washy fan. That’s ok. Try watching the game better yet record it on your DVR so you can see it again and again then make a half decent assessment. READ these words Splitter made Scola change his game and did not allow him to score while he was guarding  him. He did his job. Unlike Timmy and Blair. To me that speaks volumes. I think you failed.

  • Anonymous

    Deceiving, Griffin sucks as a shooter. Scola is scorer/shooter. Griffin is dunker. Blair was lucky Griffin can’t shoot. Shot over him at ease but missed a lot. Next.

  • Anonymous

    Stop with the best record what the hell was all that offense good for when he got used in the playoffs. And we got bounced remember. Blair is Winter shoes 2.0.  Next.

  • Anonymous

    Your sane compare to those two thinking Blair is Superman now. He’s good trade bait.

  • Anonymous

    I’d rather win a Championship. So what your saying is play the regular season balls out with a hyper offense then adjust to defensive game for a Championship? That’s a bad recipe for success. I would rather control the game with defense in the post , from the perimeter then allow the offense to come along. You can’t lose if your controlling how many points your opponent scores.

  • Anonymous

    Fail, read my updated post above.

  • TD BestEVER

    Ya you can……. all those years we were suppose to go back to back titles and crazy things happened like scoring droughts and what not…….. We need Blair’s hustle points to take the load off……plus Splitter’s D isn’t as impressive as you and others try to make it out to be………He is a good Defender….not great….DJB is a GREAT REBOUNDER

  • TD BestEVER

    Typo above….I meant to say “better” and those points and rebounds have now come in 3 straight games…….. not just in losses……he is getting it done in Splitter is looking like 3.5 million that we could have spent on a TRUE Big…… he is still a project on offense and defense will never be that of a Tyson Chandler type…….

    That doesn’t mean that Blair is perfect….he is far from it…..but does give you more than Splitter canon a nightly basis……not just 8-6-2….And Splitter at this point has to score all his points by way off being set up…………….Blair can at least give you some on his own

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  • Thomasholdren

    Hilarious. Tiago cant walk and chew gum. FAIL…. The stats, or the eyeball dont back up anything you say. 

  • Thomasholdren

    1. Scola already beat the Spurs by the time Tiago was able to get on the floor
    2. Blair didnt defend Scola
    3. If  Tiago was good why cant he start in front of or have better stats than Blair?

  • Thomasholdren

    Blair didnt play GENIUS, McDyess did….. WOW 

  • paul

    there is no substitute for depth this year.  those three games in three nights are coming and every effective guy we got needs to work himself into the rotation during those periods of the schedule.  

  • paul

    there is no substitute for depth this year.  those three games in three nights are coming and every effective guy we got needs to work himself into the rotation during those periods of the schedule.  

  • Thomasholdren

    still dodging the record last year with Blair as a starter….. Wonder why…..