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.

  • Lucky Guest

    Agreed — that’s why I was surprised when Zeller & Hassell were let go — didn’t understnad they love affiar over new SFs when everyone knew they needed another 5 — until this gaping need is addressed, am thinking there will be nights like last night than solid wins

  • Lucky Guest

    understand the love affair…where’s the edit feature?  :(

  • Anonymous

    We all know the issues.  What’s the best way to solve them if there even is a way to address it this year?

    I’ve never seen Duncan play that bad.  And there’s nothing that can be done about an on going medical condition that will have him not able to play even decent basketball in a season riddled with b2b’s and even b2b2b’s.

    It’s odd that I was thinking the same thing right at the moment Sean Elliott was mentioning it last night.  Scola was torching the Spurs in the post.  In a moment of switch…Leonard was fronting Scola and then pulled off.  Elliott made the comment of  I would let him defend Scola 1on1.  Not that Leonard is going to be THE answer to this team’s lack of front court ability.  But without a trade…does anyone see any other option?

    It was painful and I felt heart broken to watch Duncan struggle as he did.  I’d rather he retire now with the memories of a great career than see him embarrassed like that the rest of the season that is paved with b2b’s.

  • Anonymous

    Zeller and Hassell?  For that matter…why was Lawal waived?  He was providing the best post presence out of the three.  And Lawal had a history in college of providing solid defense.

    Ongoing head scratcher.

  • JustinFL

    Great article.  Pretty much spot on.  I have really enjoyed watching Tiago play so far this year.  He shut down the Scola machine last night.  Had a monster block, (so did Manu which was right after scoring a layup, unbelievable),  and his offense started looking a little better.  He needs to hold on to the ball better under the basket, he got stripped a few times, but I hope that is still part of his adjusting to the NBA.
      Kawhi did some good things.  I was really glad to see Cory come in instead of T.J. after we couldn’t get over the hump.  Anderson just seemed disinterested all night which really surprised me. This was a chance for him to earn some rotation minutes in the future and thought he got outplayed by Kawhi and Danny Green.
      No comment on RJ.  It does appear we have trouble creating offense without the Big 3, however that hopefully may change as the rest of the team adjusts to one another throughout the season. 
     I still think the focus this year should begin and end with defense.  If you’re not gonna hustle on D you shouldn’t get to play. 
      Taking this game for what it was.  A home opener for a HOF new coach.  Kevin really had his team prepared for us on both ends of the floor.  The whole team seemed to have a strong vibe together which was nice considering the whole CP3 debacle.  I just hate that it was against us.

  • Thomasholdren

    Rubbish…. Get off the Blair is not a good defender train… He played fine defense against Blake and Scola ate up Duncan. 

    Correct me if I am wrong, but the same site you state your references from statistically shows Blair the best (rating) on our team, as well as a higher defensive rating than Splitter…… 

    How does this play into “and, especially, DeJuan Blair are in the bottom half of the league in terms of defense”

    Terrible piece of misinformation. 

  • KG

    What is with these articles? All the doom and gloom should be boring by now. How many articles do you need to mention the decline of Duncan? Duncan is no longer a franchise player and hasn’t been one for a couple years. Stop treating him as such and show some respect to our new developing squad.

    Do we have a team that will win a championship? No. But we can go out there and compete every night and play some damn good basketball.

  • paul

    to me this game should put to rest any arguments that we don’t know how gary neal will fit in.  

  • JT

    Duncan looked horrible last night on both ends of the court, he got stripped, could not make a shot, got killed by scola. We need some serious shot blockers on this team. Splitter can’t shoot at all, is that all he’s got, that funny bunny tear drop (because it isn’t a hook). Yes he has played good defense at least.

  • Thomasholdren

    Yep. Scola is good. I wonder why Blair didnt defend Scola? 

  • Grrrr

    I’ll put like this.  Don’t bet the Spurs this year.  Yes, I mean literally, don’t put money down on Spurs to cover the spread. (Last year, I won 59% of bets on the Spurs) This season, even when they win they will not blow out any teams as the season wears. Seriously, wait till playoffs, then evaluate from there. 

  • Colin

    The “medical condition” you and others keep speaking of that Duncan supposedly has is that BBALL is a young man’s game.  This is nothing new.  His knee wear and tear only demonstrate that he hasn’t sat on his ass his whole life. 

    If anyone is active long enough they will get osteoarthritis. 

  • ABA_Red/White/Blue

    NBA is a young man’s game, Timmy isn’t young anymore.  There will be games where the young Timmy shows through, but there will be more of last night.  The younger players will have their chances to show what they can do.  Spurs make playoffs (with only regular injuries), question remains does this core have one final push left?

  • Anonymous

    This is how they looked last season on back-to-backs too. I honestly wasn’t surprised. On a side note, what is it with teams shooting lights out on the Spurs???????? This is the same HOuston team that couldn’t buy a bucket against Orlando, KMart 1-10. Anyway, I expect them to be 3-1 after Saturday. Honestly, did you think they would open the season 3-1?

    The positive thing I saw was the the young guys’ game does indeed travel.

    I pretty much pencil in a possible loss when it is a back-to-back. God help them when they play the back-to-back-to-back.

  • Anonymous

    “Timmy isn’t young anymore.”

    I believe it’s worse than that.  This was only the first b2b of this season.  TD has been averaging only 26mpg so far.  His performance last night looked more like a player who’s been out of action for several years more so than just a decline in ability or stamina.  I think he’s worse off than what’s being reported, allowed to be known or hope to expect for the season.

  • JakeSpurs

    Can Kawhi Leonard not play the PF position!?!? He is only 6’7 but has arms the length of a 7 footer! His hands are also huge and good for cradling in rebounds. Offensively he has a lot to work on but defensively he has the potential to be 1st-team all NBA. 

  • DannyHolloway

    That’s where you’re wrong. Timmy has knee tendinosis. It isn’t just a matter of age or wear and tear: 

    Pop recently described Tim’s knee as basically being bone-on-bone because the micro-tissue is so torn up and basically gone. It is a medical condition. Not age. He was diagnosed in 2009 and it has gotten progressively worse. 
    Try reading a book.

  • Lvmainman

    Spurs should dump Danny Green and sign a 5th big man.

    The best available big man left seems to be Solomon Jones. Get a shot-blocking, alley-oop catching, can run-the-floor fast big man, please.

  • Bob

    I think Splitter’s got to start and maybe
    Kawhi if they want to develop championship level defense. In general
    you want to start your best defensive unit. You can always bring
    offense of the bench. The problem with starting offense first is if
    they don’t have it going the bench has a big hole it has to make up
    for. Splitter was a big part of stopping the bleeding defensively. If
    he had started they might have actually been able to play with the

  • Thomasholdren

    If you start your best defensive team you keep it the way it is. Statistics and eyeballs dont lie. 

  • Thaddeus Clark

    One thing to consider is that no one else in the Western Conference has 5 contributing Bigs either. 
    Memphis lost Arthur.
    LA lost Odum.
    Blazers no Oden.
    Clippers first big off the bench was Brian Skinner.
    Dallas has Brian Cardinal and Ian Mahimi after Haywood.
    Nuggets – Nene, Anderson, then who?
    OKC – Perkins, Collison, Ibaka, then ? 

    At least the bigs SAS currently has all provide at least one elite skill each and in some cases more.

  • Anonymous

    So is that different from Blair’s situation. Is it Blair’s lack of ligaments or tendons? If it’s tendons someone needs to track down the surgeon who did Blair’s.

  • Anonymous

    Splitter so far has kept Randolph, D. Jordan, and Scola in check and did not allow them to get off. That has to speak volumes. At this point the reality check has kicked in folks, Timmy is not the same ol Timmy anymore. He could be somewhat the Timmy of last season if he plays 2 games rests 1 throughout the season but I don’t know if that will happen but I can tell you making Blair the offensive focus on this team when Timmy is out and taking up 26 minutes or so is not going be the answer going forward. He scored but he got used every chance Scola went to him. Unlike Splitter who made Scola shoot from the outside taking long shots because he just couldn’t go through Splitter to get to the rim. Pop has got to come to grips and treat Timmy as a great player coming off the bench for Splitter on the third game or just rest him completely for that third game. Tiago needs 30 minutes of court time now. Blair should not be playing more minutes than Splitter. And if Blair is playing that good on the offensive side then let him play alongside Tiago if Pop doesn’t want to hurt his feelings again. You know what happened the last time he got his feelings hurt? “Elvis has left the building”.

  • Anonymous

    Not if you got a good shooting PF going at Blair. And yes Scola abused Timmy and he got his way with Blair too. Splitter was the only one who could hold his position and defend him on the post making him change his game by dropping back for a long shot or passing off. Blair didn’t by any means make Scola change his game. The only reason he got that many points is because Timmy didn’t get them. In my opinion those are Timmy’s points with no post defense but then again Timmy didn’t have any post defense either. I saw the game too it’s very impressive for Blair to score that many points but we lost so what! He didn’t impress me in defending down low as opposed to Splitter. And on the offensive side those two need to learn how to play together and dominate the paint. Start using Splitter for what he’s really good at the pick and roll. Splitter gave him some easy ones why doesn’t he return the favor, maybe someone else down low can help him out with some points. He works that hard on defense why not reward the poor guy and get more use out of him. No way in any game should Blair get more minutes than Splitter. Why Pop keeps thinking Blair’s going to put on a cape and save the season is beyound understanding. Nice game but is he Winter shoes 2.0? I really don’t want to go a whole season to find out. Fix it know Pop.

  • Anonymous

    In rebuttal to your first paragraph: It’s true he isn’t what he was. 
    To your second paragraph: That’s true also but many think we will. 

    Point is why people keep saying it over and over is that hopefully you’ll tell Pop that.

  • Anonymous

    We could have used a lot of his three’s last night. Don’t you think?

  • Anonymous

    Because he can’t.

  • Anonymous

    Defense wins Championships. Splitter’s not going to score 30 points on a nightly basis. Is that what your expecting from him? He can sure lock down some C/PF’s though translating into fewer points in the paint. I’d rather have that than someone who can do a few layups and get used on post defense.
    When was the last time a hyper run and gun offense won a championship without defense. None. Don’t think there ever will be. Unless the opposing team is handicapped. I’ll leave the scoring to those that can shoot the 3, drive to the rim and score from the outside. Not 3 feet away.

  • Anonymous

    No, there’s no “improvement” in the front court rotation not named Tiago. Timmy’s done but not in a really bad way but just after 2 games. Bonner and Blair are still open season to the good Centers and Power Forwards on defending the post and getting rebounds. Now key word is “defending” girls and boys. Not scoring  a lot of meaningless lay ups. And again defense wins… well you’ve heard it before.

  • Anonymous

    The trainers and assistant coaches will be deputized for those games.

  • Bob

    Tim’s individual defense is really falling off but he’s still a great help defender. I think playing with Splitter will help him more. Splitter can take the tougher matchup on defense and let Tim just concentrate on help D and rebounding. All those points Blair is scoring could be Tim or Tiago’s points. Blair can still do his thing of the bench.

  • Anonymous

    Defense wins Championships. Start developing it now!

  • Anonymous

    Rings don’t lie.

  • Anonymous

    Your exactly right about that. That second unit with KL, JA, and Splitter tied the game at one point to at least give the starting unit a chance what they do best, but you know what happened when they came back in with Timmy and Blair. KL and JA need their time on the court and they will get it and people will see a potent scoring machine sooner than later. If only Splitter could start alongside a good PF (pick up -don’t know where or how) and let Timmy and Blair come off the bench that my friend is what I would like to see.

  • Anonymous

    I still think we have the worst front court rotation of all of those mentioned behind Dallas. Sadly enough Dirk also is showing signs of regression. He scores but he gets beat a lot now.

  • Anonymous

    You’re talking apples and oranges… The reason the Spurs need a 5th big so badly is because our current bigs are so flawed… none is as a complete a scorer as Aldridge, Griffin, Dirk, Odom, Pau, Z-Bo, Scola, or as good a two way player as Bynum, and what the Spurs specifically lack is a vertical athlete in the paint especially at the shot-blocking end of the court (like DeAndre Jordan). Some of those teams you mention may also find themselves regretting a lack of depth this season, but the Spurs don’t have guys like this to eat up big minutes while doing heavy lifting night in, night out.

    (And, although it’s a small point the Mavs actually have 6 bigs not counting Marian. Brian Cardinal plays the role Bonner SHOULD in SA. Ian just had a breakout game (team high 19 points on 6 attempts), and they brought in Brandon Wright and Sean Williams, for insurance and with an eye on future upside. OKC uses a four man big man rotation consisting of the useful and underated Nazr and will find minutes in this crammed season for Cole Aldrich and maybe even the kid from Tulsa, which represent options the Spurs simply don’t have… OKC has this years eventual MVP though, and will find themselves in the WCF again this year, facing the /akers for the challenge of trying to upset the Heat in the Finals, as the Spurs find themselves long bored from fishing with Kenny Smith.)

  • Hobson13

    I hate reading too much into just 3 games, but as many have already stated, the Spurs are in SERIOUS trouble if this is what we can expect on the second night of b2b.  We have a season stuffed full of b2b and even some b2b2b.  This was only the first b2b of the entire season after almost 7 months off and Duncan (and the team) has this kind of game?!?  If this level of performance continues, then I would almost guarantee this is his last year.

    I know I’m getting ahead of myself, but if the Spurs seriously stumble out of the gate, I could see a very good argument for dismantling the team.  We’ll have huge cap space next year the the 2012 draft will be loaded with great front court players, the very positions that we desperately need to upgrade.   Too early to pull the plug now, but it’s embarrassing to play like this on only the first b2b of the entire season.

  • TD BestEVER

    Your are half right…….the entire quote is offense wins games and Defense wins championships…….. and that’s true in just about all team sports…….

  • TD BestEVER

    I know this chaps your butt to admit it but BLAIR IS BATTER THAN SPLITTER!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Or at least so far anyway.   Now if Splitter develops a post game(ANY POST GAME) or continues to blocks shots and steps up his rebounding than the argument will change………But as for now Blair is simply better…….He actually is working on his Offensive game and his rebounding is still BEASTLY…………

  • TD BestEVER

    Sorry Tiago’s isn’t that good to get 30 minutes…..He CAN NOT SCORE ON ANYBODY unless someone sets him up for an easy BUNNY Layup………Blair actually has a jumper now out to 10-12 ft.   That tells me he has been working on his game unlike Splitter who continues to contribute very little in the way of offense……….HIS D has been Rock solid and the blocks are a welcome sight……..but unless he starts rebounding like Blair, he needs to score better

  • Thomasholdren

    Fail. “The only reason he got so many points…” Then why didnt Splitter get them? That makes absolutely no sense. 

    Please give a fact to back up Splitter’s “impressive defense.” A blocked shot? Splitter did play DECENT, but there is no WAY that you can state that Splitter is a better defender. He is taller, but has slower hands, zero reaction/instincts, and he’s soft. 

    Again, the stats are above. Stop taking your infatuation and what-could-be’s and get blinded. 

    Our issue was playing Splitter BEHIND McDyess last year. 

  • Thomasholdren

    He couldnt defend Scola, but he could defend Griffin? That makes sense…. And neither could Tim 

  • Thomasholdren

    Weak post. We had an uptempo offense that lead our old team to the best record in the west. 

    Here is why your argument is worthless

    Splitter scores 3 and gives up 15

    Bliar scores 15 and gives up 20


  • Thomasholdren

    So what happened last year when Blair got big minutes = best record in west

    What happened against a good PF in Griffin…?

  • Anonymous

    If its any consolation to the loss to Houston…the Grizzlies who the Spurs beat by 25 beat the Rockets the Spurs loss to by 20. 

    Memphis 113 / Rockets 93

  • JustinFL

    I think you may see Kawhi start before the season is over.  Pop has to give him a chance to take the spot from RJ, and from what I’ve seen, Pop’s been subbing Kawhi in first and often for RJ.  Rj is pretty much gone after this year anyway, but I wish somehow he could find his niche for this team and they could keep him.  As an organization we can’t afford to sunk costs on the talent side and financial side  His contract isn’t that bad if he could just produce consistently.

  • Anonymous

    I hope he doesn’t mind me posting this but it signifies the truth of the matter.

    spursfanbayarea quotes

    “With this schedule, duncan will need to sit out at least 10 games in my
    opinion. He can not play 3 games in 4 nights anymore. His legs were
    shot. His shots were all blocked. Father time is as they say undefeated.
    The key is to get duncan to the playoffs healthy where the schedule is
    not as brutal and there are no back to backs. We need to get another big
    body for those third games. Literally any big body will do.”
    Read more:


    Not unless the Spurs will be trying to play the lottery next year by
    losing enough games to be in the run for a bevy of talented bigs in next
    years draft does it make since in them not getting any help in the post
    for this year.

    Would the unthinkable of “tanking” games, this,  Duncan’s last year
    under contract, be the goal of the Spurs in this lockout shortened, 66
    game crammed, b2b, b2b2b schedule, that does not benefit the Spurs at
    all due to the age of it’s players and lack of enough talented post
    presence in order to land say…Drummond or Sulinger?

    In all reality…the Spurs probably won’t be able to land a premier big
    via free agency since most seem to prefer to want to play for some big
    market east or west coast team.

    Play competitively enough to appear to be trying to make one last run
    during Duncan’s last year of contract only to have Duncan go on I.R. for
    the last half of the season.

    That would be fine with me if that be the goal.  Otherwise…if they
    truly are serious about trying to win it all just one more time…they
    had better get some front court help NOW.

  • spursfanbayarea

    Thank you for giving me credit on my post. No problem with being quoted.

  • Lawman6617

    During the recent loss to the Houston Rockets, I found myself thinking of what could have been for Spur Nation.

    Our coach and front office continue to make bizarre basketball decisions in reference personnel and it has gradually reduced our roster to a level of barely being competitive in the league.

    Thinking back,

    Releasing Scola was the Brain Fart of the decade. Then there was Mahinmi and Pops Mensa Bonsu (serviceable, teachable, athletic, young, and excellent upside at bargain prices).  Duncan would have more help than he needs right now.. 

    Besides, Splitter brings nothing more than Mahinmi.  He actually brings less.  This team coveted and courted Splitter as if he was a stud player from the beginning.  I even had high expectations.  Then he finally shows up in silver and black, but unfortunately barely has D Leauge game.  Still barely has D Leauge game today.  That funky hook shot of his stops the circulation in my chin each time he throws that garbage at the rim.

    Then there was the 6’6 Garrett Temple.  Decent defender, good size and athleticism, and showed promise in being Parker’s assistant floor general.  Nah, we take TJ Ford. Still scratching head.

    As of late, there was Hassell and Lawal.  No superatars, but serviceable bigs….at a time when our front court is basically non existent…Sent packing as well.  Head now bleeding from excessive scratching.

    Complaint?  Not actually.  Just too much headscratching of late.  Even most of the posters of the 48 would admit that the moves made by this FO over the years have been difficult to grasp by even the casual fan.

    However, Maybe all of the fans and arm chair coaches including myself are wrong.  Maybe this FO and Coach are the wisest of the wise.  Maybe they can see things and make decisions that normal fans and onlookers just wouldnt have the basketball intelligence to understand.

    Nevertheless, most of us understand what failure looks like whether we are an NBA coach or a landscaper..  This FO has failed consistently in providing a supporting cast for our 3 basketball gladiators (Tim, Manu, Tony)

    I know,,,,, None of this is shocking news to any of us.

    Yet, even to this day, no media scrutiny.  Not even from the most outspoken of analysts, ex players, or Hall of Famers.

    There is a strange odor to it all. 

  • spursfanbayarea

     Scola was not released. His rights were traded along with jackie butler for a Vassilis Spanoulis and a 2009 second-round pick. It was a salary dump which all spurs fans regret to this day and may never forget. I agree with you the releasing of temple and lawal are still head scratching. Also no resigning mahimini for 1 million after years of playing in our d league system another head scratcher. But I do disagree with “This FO has failed consistently in providing a supporting cast for our 3 basketball gladiators (Tim, Manu, Tony)”. They did surround them with the players in the past to get 3 championships with that core. But I think a more accurate statement would be that the spurs have not given the big three a proper supporting cast since 2007 after our last title. I understand where you notice a lack of media scrutiny for the lack of moves. I think this stems from the fact that the spurs have won 4 titles in the last 12 years and that buys you some goodwill. Also we have been stripped of a lot of our great front office personnel that is currently running other teams like presti, demps.