No room for error


“We have less margin for error of any team in the league. Something like (the elbow injury) happens to Manu, we’re sunk. All our pieces have to play well, because we don’t have a margin for error.”

-San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, via the May 13 Express-News interview

In his sit down with the San Antonio Express-News‘ Jeff McDonald and Mike Monroe, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was very candid about this past regular season and what lies ahead for San Antonio after its disappointing end in the first round.

When is an excuse not an excuse? When it’s the reason. On several occasions Popovich lamented the timing of injuries to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili; convinced that if Ginobili were healthy the San Antonio Spurs would have been the team playing the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round.

The injury, however, is not an excuse Popovich is hiding behind, he’s worked around similar injuries before. It’s merely an observation of the reality these Spurs face. That reality is these Spurs are a good team, but have the smallest margin for error of any playoff team in the NBA.

Age, more than a flaw in design or character, does this. As do years of filling out an NBA roster with late first and second round steals, past their prime veterans, and bargain priced overseas free agents. To a man this Spurs roster is full of flawed basketball players. But this is nothing new; the Spurs have fielded rosters with these players for years.

The supporting cast is generally no better or worse than any the Spurs have put together in the past decade. It might even trend towards the better.

The difference is the Spurs margin for error once extended as far as the long arms of Tim Duncan, back when he had young legs to match that gigantic wingspan. Duncan, in Popovich’s system, erased every mistake.

Youth, and its boundless energy, provides the greatest margin for error in any endeavor. In basketball youth is generally accompanied by athleticism. Young legs and talent, to an extent, can make up for weak (or inexperienced) minds. A missed step here or there means little when gifted with enough length and recovering speed to atone for it.

The caveat is athleticism has to have enough skill to channel it properly, and such skilled athleticism does not come cheap enough to fall with the Spurs price or draft range.

So instead Popovich opted for execution and corporate knowledge. The truth of the season is the Spurs had no MVP candidate or superstar to carry their burdens. The real driving force behind their 61-win season was their execution.

The team can still defend, in stretches. All season long it scored in spades. But the Spurs ability to do either is now a testament to Popovich’s system as opposed to its players greatness. And the reason the NBA is a player’s league is it is impossible to rely on five players making the right step, or read, every offensive or defensive possession for 48 minutes.

The Spurs margin for error is currently Manu Ginobili, a brilliant scorer and playmaker who for most of the season made up for whatever defensive deficiencies by engineering a dominant Spurs offense. The team could only afford to make as many mistakes as he could make up for.

Unfortunately the time for if only they were healthy has long since passed. The Spurs need to either extend their margin of error feat that would require a major roster shakeup (unlikely) or huge leap internally from either Tiago Splitter or George Hill or duct tape the team together one more time and hope it holds long enough to get to the playoffs.

  • este

    “The supporting cast is generally no better or worse than any the Spurs
    have put together in the past decade. It might even trend towards the

    I would beg to differ. Give me Bowen, Horry, Finley and Oberto over Bonner, Jefferson,Blair and Splitter (at this point of his career).


  • Bob

    Even if the Spurs didn’t have a completely healthy Ginobili, the Grizzlies didn’t have a healthy Gay. It sounds like an excuse to me. In fact there were a quite a few games Spurs played against other teams without their best players. The reality of the Memphis series is the Grizzlies played like how they wanted to and the Spurs didn’t. It really was about strategy.

    The Spurs were never going to beat the Grizz at their game. The real advantage they had was on the inside with Gasol and Randolph. The Spurs had the better perimeter game. The Spurs should have played their most capable interior defenders (Duncan,Dice,Splitter) without helping and then they could have done better against the perimeter guys.

  • Bruno

    Memphis is better without Gay… Spurs isn’t better without Manu 

  • jechalker74

    I completely agree with Bruno…

    The Grizzlies without Rudy Gay are a different team to what they are with him.  If Gay plays in the series against the Spurs there is no way that Randolph and Gasol get the amount of looks and touches.

    Whether or not it is your advantage Lionel Hollins would not have gone to them because with Gay in the lineup they no longer become a back to the basket team, running plenty of half court sets.

    With Gay on the floor they tend to be more of a transition team and frankly that would have negated the Spurs lack of size. Not to mention that the faster fit what this team had been doing all year.

    As Jesse points out the Spurs have less margin for error than the Grizzlies do.  As a younger team the replace their star player with youth and athleticism.

    With Ginobili injurying his elbow that puts our best player who defines what we do this year as a fraction of his normal output (both tangibles and intangibles).  As a team the Spurs needed to rely more heavily on the ouside shooting and defense to win the series.  We don’t necessarily get younger and more athletic we try to change the way we do business.  Not a good choice when you’re in the playoffs. 

    We all know the result…


  • Andrew A. McNeill

    One thing to point out is that the Grizzlies probably don’t trade for Shane Battier if Rudy Gay doesn’t get injured. Who knows how Memphis would’ve been without Battier. Also, the Grizzlies were a whisker away from trading OJ Mayo to the Pacers at the deadline, but they didn’t make it. A lot of close calls for that turned out alright for the Grizz. 

  • DorieStreet

    Yes–and the Spurs did not make any calls–but why would they when in the first 50 games of the season the team only lost 8 times (5th greatest mark  at point in NBA history).
    Another thing to point out about the Grizzlies:  on November 1st the team was 2-1. They were never above .500 for the next 3 months (mostly 2-4 games below) until the last day of January when they went to 24-24. From that point on they finished the season at 22-12. On February 1st the Spurs were 40-8. They went on to finish the season 21-13. So the trade that didn’t to through combined with the trade that did (Battier) resulted in the Grizz playing as well as the Spurs record-wise, going into the playoffs.

  • Andrew A. McNeill

    I wasn’t referring to anything the Spurs did or didn’t do at the trade deadline, I was just pointing out that Memphis had some breaks go their way leading up to the playoffs. 

  • DorieStreet

    Paragraph 4 of Jesse Blanchard’s analysis is the key to why the Spurs are where they are today.
    The Spurs stuck with that formula too long, ignoring the inevitable: That Duncan was going to deteriorate significantly going forward from his 10th season on. And—the drafting of International big men who didn’t immediatley come over and play for the Spurs -Scola, Mahinmi, Splitter (and now Richards??) shaved the margin of error even more. 

  • Bob

    The Grizzlies struggled earlier on in the year before Gay got injured. However, Gay could have really helped them especially against OKC. They had to move OJ Mayo into their starting lineup because they weren’t getting enough from their perimeter. If Gay is healthy, Mayo remains a scoring option off the bench and Sam Young doesn’t play as much. OKC exposed their lack of perimeter play something the Spurs failed to do.

  • TD BestEVER

     I agree 100%…..We should have been able to play w/o Manu and still won this series……We lost this series because we lost our defense ability……And Gay being out does hurt Memphis a lot……..he could have and would have put up numbers similar to Manu’s and considering what we got out of our 3 spot, that would have been a HUGE advantage for them………..

    Those saying that they are better w/o Gay just don’t understand basketball……. they would have been more unstoppable with Gay……..he would have gave RJ fits and scored at will…….. As well as they would have had another go to option, someone who can create for himself and others……..

  • DorieStreet

    I was pointing out the situation each team was in at that point in the season (48 games), and what action took place because of it. It is a good comparison because (1) the struggling team (Memphis) started playing as well as the lead team (San Antonio) who began to stumble (injuries) in the last 34 games—-and then the squads met each other in the playoff’s first round. A tale of two cities, so to speak. 

  • Bob

     The perimeter defense has been bad all season. When they had to overhelp because of not playing single coverage on Gasol/Randolph they opened up the Grizzlies perimeter game. The Grizzlies perimeter offense without Gay wasn’t that good. Yet the Spurs left them open all series.

  • DorieStreet

    And it has been reported on ESPN the Grizz’s GM or Pres is not going to trade Gay.
    Despite Gay being out, the dustup between Allen & Mayo, the failed trade of OJ—the team started playing well-especially with the trade for Battier (Thabeet was ideal swap for MEM/HOU)
    the team galvanized and was ready to play against Spurs despite hugeplayoff experience discrepancy.
    The Hornets being in limbo with ownership issues, CP3 pending FA, and David West’s injury, might fall back–but if the Rockets get the right coach, they will continue to ascend.
    Mavs, Grizzlies, Rockets, Hornets–those are going to be 16 tough games for the Spurs to win during the next few seasons in the Southwest Division.

  • Junierizzle

     Excuse or not, I’ll gladly take a healthy Manu over a sprained elbow Manu any day of the week.

  • DorieStreet

    Correction==it was the Memphis Grizzlies’ owner, Michael Heisley, who stated inured forward Rudy Gay would not be on the trading block. 

  • MSteele_in_Éire

    Yea I agree with TD here. To clear something up earlier, Gasol wouldn’t have put up as many shots but having watched Memphis earlier in the year, he was always on of the instigators for their offense, the way Tim often does for us and Randolph would have got his shots.
    In essense Gay would have replaced Sam Young and that is a massive improvement. We played off Young quite a lot in the series to double down on Randolph and he always had an open shot (and I seriously mean always). Put Gay in the same offense and we can’t double off of him, he’s a much better shooter. He would have taken mins from Mayo and Young not from Allen or Battier (If he was there in a hypothetical non injured Gay world). A lot has been made about Gay not playing, and them being a better team because of it, but I watched him play in a lineup of Conley, Allen, Gay, Randolph & Gasol and they looked damn good. 
    Though I still believe if we have a healthy Manu, we win this series.

  • Bruno

    If Gay were health they wouldn’t get Batier.
    With Gay health Randolph/Gasol wouldn’t play so well, their defense would be worse, Gay usually play bad against us.Is just look their record, is better without Gay. 

    Is like Denver, they were better without Carmelo

  • MSteele_in_Éire

    Even still having read the rest of the interview, it appears to have been a really strange year for Pop. I’ve never heard him come out and single out players the way he did in that interview, he usually calls people out as a collective ‘we’ or else through some kind of message in the press.  I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, on the contrary I think it could work to our advantage. I hope the guys that were sub par take it to heart and try to improve their level of play next season.
    Moves I’d like to see us make:

    Josh Harrelson in the draft - Total lottery, can’t tell who they’ll pick, but I liked what I seen from this guy

    Bring over Richards – Unlikely, given what I’ve heard from the Spurs end – I’d just love to have him practicing with Tim, just picking up bits of knowledge, ways to play big in the NBA.. etc in case it’s Tims last year

    Bring in a Prince/Battier/Mbah Moute (Not sure if he’s even a free agent) type guy – I would rather we bring in a wing defender through free agency/trade & the big we need through the draft, rather than the other way round. 

    Maybe package Hill with Bonner or Neal with Bonner - I know how highly unlikely this is given the fact they are probably Pop’s favourite players but all are undersized at their position and at this minute they are all a liability on the defensive end. Hill is a really good offensive player but if he’s going to defer every time any of the big three are on the court then he is of no use to us. Hills defense has regressed from last year and to be honest, he was one of the biggest letdowns this year because I expected so much more from him given the way he played in that Dallas series.

  • David Prindle

     I wouldn’t say that the Griz would necessarily have been better or worse, but they would have been a different team. Rudy Gay is a player that is going to demand more offensive possessions, and give you a different defensive look. That doesn’t mean Lionel Hollins doesn’t look at Randolph and Gasol and think we’ve got an advantage there lets hit the Spurs inside. But its impossible to know what impact Gay would have had, just like its impossible to say that a healthy Ginobili suddenly makes the defense of Allen/Battier less effective than it was.

    But just like its stupid to say the Griz are better without Gay, its stupid to say that they are unstoppable with him.

  • Rob

    Depressing article.

    This is definitely opposite from the years I spent hoping and following the Spurs with faithful anxiety that someday they would win a championship.  And when that day arrived in 1999 through this year it was a euphoria of YES this team is the greatest and thank God I’m a fan.

    Now we’re being told we should not expect or have belief that the team will do anything to improve it’s chances of winning again except for the culmination of mediocre talent and withering greatness of the once was along with a statement that the team’s coaches will be content with mediocrity to the point they will live with what they have knowing it won’t be enough?

    Fandum sure has seemed to come full circle.  I feel like I’m too old to start again.  Long live the glory days of the near past as our expectations digress like the elderly in retirement homes clinging to once famous youth only to be told when to eat, what to think, and hope is only an illusion.

  • Colin Rigney

    “Give me Bowen, Horry, Finley and Oberto over Bonner, Jefferson,Blair and Splitter (at this point of his career).”

    Agreed.  However, I think Blanchard would probably agree with that as well.  I think the supporting cast this year is better than ’08, ’09, ’10 though.  

  • MSteele_in_Éire

        Tbh I see what he means, we’re stuck in an awful position – our core is on the decline (Tonys in his prime at the minute), our young pieces just don’t seem to have enough talent to be considered potential stars (I have hope for Anderson though) and we appeared to be locked contract wise, were the only moves we can make are small and meaningless or else swapping a bad contract for a bad contract (But you never know with the FO that we’ve got).
        Like everyone is saying the only way we can extend the window is if we can bring in a fourth star. We need an Iguodala, or a David West, or an Al Jefferson, or a Varejao (Not a ‘star’ but you see what I mean). We need a player who will give us that bit extra when we’re on the road and our main 3 guys have gone cold. A player, who can make plays that will swing the game in our favour cause at the minute when a big moment has come along Hill, Jefferson, Bonner… etc have shrunk. (Gotta give Neal props, he stepped up when it was on the line and thats why I like having him around despite his lack of defense). If we don’t make any moves then we’ll just have to sit by cheering, hoping that some our guys have found a pair over the summer.

  • Bob

    I agree about Hill. The Spurs wouldn’t have won the series against the Mavs without him. His offense and defense in that series were excellent. If he can regain that he’s worth hanging on. At some point I am thinking coaching has to be considered. When guys are regressing or not playing to their potential or playing with confidence you need a coach who can inspire them to play better. It seems like that Pop doesn’t even bother anymore. He’s expecting the players to inspire themselves.

  • jechalker74

    Fair point Bob…

    But in the Spurs/Grizzlies series there are two areas that seriously impacted the outcome of the series.  They are:

    1. The Grizzlies post presence
    2. The Grizzlies perimeter defense

    The Spurs capitalized in the regular season on teams not playing effective perimeter which allowed the Spurs to utilize Pop’s ‘good for great’ offensive mentality.

    I think Andrew hit the nail on the head with his point.  With Gay in the line-up the Grizzlies are a far weaker defensive team and they would not have pursued Battier.  If I could have a do over I would have preferred to see Gay not get injured.  Then again if that was the case we could of had a opening series against the Rockets (and Battier). 

    I do not think that the Grizzlies had made up for the offense lost by Gay.  But they had made some improvements on the defensive end.  As a Spurs fan what would you prefer in the playoffs?  Improved offense or improved defense… it’s a no brainer. 

  • Colin Rigney

    Whatever man.  

  • DorieStreet

    I guess watching the Mavs’ effort this season can give the fans hope  the Spurs can extend the window by adding a fourth “star”, in addition Splitter, Anderson and Neal improving their second year, plus Green and Butler having an impact in their first full season.
    Let’s hope the Spurs can avoid a slip like Phoenix- going from western conference finalist to a 40-42 record and out of the playoffs in one season, or worse, follow Detroit-going from eastern conference finalist in 2008 to 3 straight losing seasons (the last 2 with more than 50 losses).

  • Rob

     I understand my response to some might have seemed “negative” or despondent.  And in a way it is.  But it was more of a tongue and cheek response to the article itself more so than a revelation of how I feel about this team.

    I don’t think the staff will sit around and do nothing over the summer.  They will try with the limited resources they have to accomplish something major.  This staff is good at finding talent.  They’ve been successful when Timmy was in his prime luring quality role players on the team.  But other than acquiring Jefferson (who I thought at the time was a brilliant move to replacing Bowen only for a player of RJ’s pedigree to not be a good fit in this system), the Spurs have not been very adept at getting the right players via trade.  Which at this point is their best way to get such a player and would have to part with one of it’s core 3 to do so.

    I didn’t read in the interview Pop saying he isn’t opposed to doing such a thing…he just said there are some untouchables on this team while also admitting they would need to get better talent to help if any of the big three (namely Duncan and Manu) should be injured or limited in their ability due to injury.

    There’s not many options this team has to successfully do what Pop seems to think needs to be done.  Hence the quandary this team hasn’t had to overcome since the days before David Robinson.

    Depressing. (if only at this point and time) 

  • Kevin

    Don ‘t forget Hill!

  • manufan

    Only guy that is killing us right now is RJ and his contract. We should try to shop him first and go from there. That deal might need some “sweetener” like Hill or Blair or Anderson and maybe some picks.
    It would be great if somebody wants to take Bonner also.

  • Len

     Look I’ve gotta vent since I’m reading this quote from Pop about how the Spurs don’t go anywhere in the playoffs without a healthy Manu.  Well Pop,  WHY THE FOOK DID YOU PLAY HIM  IN THE REGULAR SEASON FINALE THEN?  It’s a convenient excuse after the fact but how’s about being proactive? 

    Ok, vent over.

  • Len

    If I’m a coach and I have definite knowledge that my team simply does not win in the playoffs without a certain player, I sit his @ss the final few games.  It’s tough with rest vs rust but Pop was out in left field half of last season.  

  • Rnlmaningding

    Duct taping the team together one more time will not be reliable for another title.The truth speaks for itself,when you have two guards like TP,Hill and Manu they can’t play alongside coz of their size and lack of defense on the wing..another thing Spurs really need an all star in frontcourt coz Timmy is aging and only good for a year.I hope   he only sign for 1 year contract.