On Pessimistic Predictions, Patty Mills, Portly Frenchmen and the Passage of Time

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There is an old rule about writing on the Internet (well, as old as rules about writing on the Internet can be): Don’t apologize for not having written in a while. Just write.

Earlier today Bradley Doolittle published a piece on ESPN Insider predicting the record of every team in the Western Conference. Bradley predicted the Spurs would finish with either 50 or 51 wins (his prediction was 50.7 to be exact), 9.3 games worse than last season when adjusted for total number of games.

Bradley’s without a doubt a smart guy, and I think it’s not only fair but correct to argue that the Spurs will neither equal their adjusted win total for last season nor will they have the best record in the Western Conference for the third straight year in a row. The conference got better: the Lakers made the kind of blockbuster moves the Lakers make; the Thunder will ripen with age, as will the Timberwolves; the Nuggets look poised to couple a surprisingly formidable defense with their already potent offense.

The Spurs are going to lose some games they won last season. Their relative record will be worse. However, if I may be so bold, I’d like to argue that in and of themselves the Spurs will be slightly better than they were last year.

During this most recent Summer League, the play-by-play announcers (who specifically escapes my memory) had the pleasure of interviewing R.C. Buford one evening during a Spurs game. One of the announcers asked about Boris Diaw, whose heft and nationality (the Spurs seem hell-bent on signing as many Frenchmen as realistically possible) have made him a frequent topic of conversation when the future of the Spurs is the broader question at hand.

Buford noted that Diaw came in to a new and complex situation – what the Spurs did both offensively and defensively last season was rather ornate – and performed exceptionally well. He played so well that, by the time the Western Conference Finals rolled around, Gregg Popovich had moved Diaw into the starting lineup. There’s a rather lengthy article to be written about Popovich’s willingness to move Diaw into the starting lineup on such relatively short notice and his evolution as a coach, but we’ll save that for another day.

Buford was singing Diaw’s praises, specifically noting how pleased he and Popovich were with his defense (despite the fact that Boris is nailed to the floor), when he made a critical and ever so telling remark: Buford noted that Diaw was a smart enough player to come in and pick up the majority of the Spurs system almost instantaneously; how much better would he be after spending a full training camp with Popovich, Duncan and the rest of the team?

Buford was spot on in regards to Boris. The only criticism I would make is that his comment was too narrowly tailored. With a training camp under his belt, Diaw’s going to play at an even higher level than he did last season. However, he’s not the only player this will be true of: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw will all improve in some sense this season. On an individual level, Splitter and Danny Green will likely and Leonard will almost certainly continue to grow as players. On a systematic level, all five players will function better within both the defensive and offensive schemes, given the advantages provided by a full training camp and the ever-steady passage of capital-T Time.

Like many Spurs fans, I’m especially bullish on the potential contributions of Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills. If Kawhi’s Summer League performance is any indication (and, admittedly, Summer League performances are oftentimes an indication of nothing whatsoever), he will not only continue to blossom as a defender and be a reliable shooting threat from the corner, but as Time passes he’ll become an ever more dangerous threat to attack off the dribble and finish with imagination and skill near the rim.

The fact of the matter is, outside of Isaiah Thomas and arguably Klay Thompson, no rookie busted right through his ceiling without blinking in the manner Kawhi Leonard did. He’s going to continue to be a pleasure to watch this upcoming season, even if his empty expression doesn’t betray the slightest bit of pleasure on his part.

If you’re in mood for outward expressions of enthusiasm than Patty Mills is the player you should be focusing your attention on. Mills is going to be doing plenty of celebrating this season because I think Mills is going to be seeing his fair share of minutes. Barring the meteoric rise of Nando De Colo, which I consider rather unlikely, it won’t be long before Mills is unquestionably Tony Parker’s backup.

If and when Mills sees serious minutes with the second unit, anybody capable of vividly remember the last couple of seasons is going to immediately recognize why both George Hill and Gary Neal (both players whom I love) were incapable of playing backup point guard.

A couple years ago The Big Fundamental’s Wayne Vore, whom I consider a good friend despite the fact that he’s a surly bastard, said to me that a wholly underrated capability of point guards is being able to get the basketball over the half court line without turning it over under pressure. However much I may have wished both Hill and Neal were capable of such a seemingly simple accomplishment, they struggled mightily to do so at times.

With Patty Mills, this won’t be an issue. He’ll be the most confident ball handler we’ve had backing up Parker in a number of years. He’s the most dynamic scorer we’ve had backing up Parker in a number of years, which will both allow the second unit to more closely resemble the tactical decisions made by the first unit and take pressure off of Manu Ginobili. Even though they play different positions, Mills’ presence will ever so slightly make Ginobili’s regular season minutes fewer and less intense.

While we’re on the subject of minutes, it’s worth pointing something out. As you are well aware, minutes are one of the ways in which we human beings divide up capital-T Time. In reality Time, given its relationship to Space, is far less concrete than we believe or experience it to be. However, it is no less dictatorial. We cannot escape the confines of our own experience and, subsequently as I pointed out earlier, Time ever-steadily passes. In the instance of Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills, I believe the passage of time will lead to an improved level of play. Like nearly every other human being who has ever heard of Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, in their instance I don’t think Time is on the Spurs side.

However, at this point, predicting the decline of Manu and Tim strikes me as a fool’s game. Year after year they have defied the odds, and if they did so again this season who would honestly be surprised. Yes, if Ginobili and Duncan decline significantly Bradley Doolittle’s prediction could be far closer to the truth than I believe it to be. But I’m willing to wager that both Ginobili and Duncan hold serve for at least one more year, and the Spurs find themselves in possession of the third best record in the Western Conference when the season comes to a close.

  • Andres

    the question is: is the improvement of Splitter, Leonard, Mils and Green greater than the slowing down of Manu and Tim? I sure hope so. Maybe for the regular season yes, but come playoff time, a dominant player is really needed. I absolutely loved the Spurs offense last year, it was truly brilliant but, in the end, the best offense in basketball is having a great one on one player that requires a double team, and play off the defense having to scramble. the Spurs should be fun to watch again but the need more star power against LA, OKC or Miami

  • DorieStreet

    Question Two: If the Spurs are going to go at a title again in 2012-13 on a full roster getting on the floor and conrtibuting for a third season in a row—will the Coach carry that formula over to the postseason–not cutting down on the rotation, but allowing it to sink or swim (with adjustments to me made every series level) instead on allowing doubts and fears about certain players not being able to come through and get the team over the top?

  • ThatBigGuy

    There’s no way that Doolittle’s predictions make sense to me, barring injuries. I see OKC at ~60 wins, LAL at ~58, with the Spurs clipping the Clippers (see what I did there?) 55 wins to 54 wins. Then he goes and puts Dallas at 38 wins and missing the playoffs completely?

    I get that advanced stats are great for baseball, but you have to combine equal parts real world observation and innate hoop IQ when using stats in basketball. I don’t know why ESPN has to keep inundating us with sabermetrics that obviously don’t work for this sport. Hollinger’s self-admittedly lacking PER rankings are enough.

  • DorieStreet

    If the 5th and deservedly, last title, is achieved by the Spurs in the Duncan era, it will be Kawhi Leonard transending from a notable league all-rookie contributor/status to just about eclipsing 2 of the Core 3 (Tim and Manu) in about 70% of the games in the upcoming season—in other words, he will be a weekly topic with among all the basketball pundits discussing the significant elevation of his game that keeps the Spurs in the NBA hierarchty.
    I think– and am hoping — Kawhi can do it.

  • ThatBigGuy

    Don’t forget that Manu only played half of the regular season games last season (34 games). If Manu plays in 75% of the games this season (61 games), he’d be actually contributing to an extra 28 games. I’m no math whiz, but 90% of Manu for 80% more games is still a plus.

    Then these other factors just have to make up for Tim’s decline: Kawhi’s improvement, the Diaw/Blair switch, Mills running the back-up PG, and Splitter getting more minutes.

    All in all, that sounds like a decent net improvement. Will it beat OKC, LAL< or Miami? Probably not, but we're going to be very good, again.

  • Vandals

    If that happens, I’m going to Vegas and placing a very large bet before the post season begins.

    Another note – When will Diaw get his first (of what I hope several) triple doubles? He came close on several occasions.

  • Francesco

    glad you’re talking about regular season seeds, that’s all that really matters in the end, no?

  • Francesco

    I agree. Last year we lost because Tim and Manu can’t play extensive minutes any longer, while Durant and Westbrook could go for 48 night in and nigth out.

  • Francesco

    mathematically correct, but it doesn’t appear Manu can withstand a full season without getting injured or burning himself out. I assume we all agree last year broken hand was a great blessing in disguise

  • Francesco

    LORBEK, I think not nearly enough has been written about him.
    When you look at his decision not to come over, it would seem his line of reasoning went like this: Duncan and Splitter are there, Diaw they will re-sign, my minutes would be Bonner’s but they opt no to part ways with him, plus the tendency is for small ball line-ups, so I won’t have minutes or exposure.
    Bonner is 32, Lorbek is 28… Bonner has proven time and again that he isn’t good enough for the playoffs… Why not take a small risk and see what the younger guy can provide?
    Bonner as a stretch-4 plays a role highly coveted around the league, wouldn’t have been difficoult to trade him for a future pick or whatever.

  • Francesco

    Don’t mean to monoplolize the blog here but you guys in the US are still asleep ;)
    If we can’t go athletically big, why not go small ball all the way? After all there’s only one title team, the Lakers, we could never match up with, but let’s say they get ousted again by OKC, then we find a Thunder squad which will rely even more heavily than last year on Durant at the 4 spot. Same goes for Miami with LBJ at the 4.
    Couldn’t we just play Jackson and Leonard at the 4 all along? We have six guys deserving of minutes for positions 1 and 2, and only three for positions 4 and 5.

  • Francesco

    Ok this will be the last one.
    It ‘s a fact Duncan and Manu can’t play 36 minutes at a high level for consecutive games, much less in the playoffs. This to me should be our only MAJOR concern. How can we get around this?
    Rewind back to game three against the Thunder: couldn’t we have sat Tim and Manu for the game? I’m not say we should have nor that I would have done it, but with the knowledge of our limitations we now posses… in the same situation could we not do it this year?
    You let them win a game they probably would anyway, but let them be doubtful they would have done it if; also give minutes and pressure-playoff experience to our bench guys, and finally have a more rested core ready for game four… After all we shouldn’t aim to destroy and sweep opponents, merely to win the series.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Andrew A. McNeill

    Spurs were 15/1 to win the title at the Monte Carlo sportsbook when I was in Vegas for the summer league. I’m not saying I put $20 down on them, but I’m not saying I didn’t either.

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  • GoSpursGo

    Difficult to predict the Spurs record next year, I thought they overachieved a bit this year.

    The notion of having Patty and Neal (and maybe Manu) in the second unit at the same time is compelling. All three of those guys can create off the dribble and are fearless taking any shot that comes their way. Toss Diaw and Leonard onto the floor with those three, you have a small ball unit that would be very difficult to guard, with every player able to create with the shot, pass, and dribble. Of course, that unit would also have trouble defending, but it would still be fun to watch.

  • TheRed&Black

    It’s easy to say that when looking back at it, yes. But there were relatively few who predicted that Green and even Kawhi would be as solid for us as they proved to be. A full year of a healthy Manu will always be a blessing. Especially since there is reason to believe we may never see that again. Here is to hoping his step back jump shot looks better this year with a full season, and he feels more comfortable with the young guns running with him.

  • DorieStreet

    Pacing Manu and Tim is a key, along with everyone else stepping up as you said.

  • STIJL

    This.

  • joe leandro

    Totally agree, a bunch of guys who can and should get better to offset any decline in the big 3. Main concern is keeping up the blistering 3 point shooting. Green, Kahwi, Diaw and Jackson all shot it uncharacteristically well.

  • Titletown99030507d

    We will get bounce again if we make it to the WCF regardless how much more improved some of these players are the way this team’s roster stands. In this thread what has been mentioned primarily is offensively speaking. Sorry but Diaw taking over Blair’s spot still isn’t going to solve this team’s defensive problems in the front court. He will play a butt load during the regular season and when we get to that same point again you will see the waste of time that would have been. He’s not going to cut it underneath the rim when we meet up with the big boys again. Durant is long and he’s not even in the front court. Diaw is not a shot blocking presence in the paint. If we are not taking care of business on the defensive end in that respect then we better be built like the starting unit of the Heat or Thunder offensively or else its another year closer to ending Timmy’s dream of a fifth. Facts are facts can’t deny it.

  • Graham

    Well, with what we have now we got quite a bit more than a puncher’s chance. I am fine going towar with what we got now. We currently have the best team we can put together without sacrificing any of our big 3s precious remaining time trying to integrate new and unproven pieces. Lord knows we’ve coaxed Tiago along for quite a while now and he’s not the Tyson Chandler like presence out there you somehow think is avaliable somewhere. We lost the WCF on a fairly flukey strak of superb play from OKC (if those finals were any indication). I’m quite content to see a rematch with the current squad and have faith they can win.

  • Titletown99030507d

    You make it sound like Tiago has played 3 full healthy years. On the contrary he’s only played one real season and limited at that because of the wine drinker. Yeah he’s not T Chandler in that respect but his FG% isn’t that far from his either. I’ve lobbied for Tiago to get a hell of a lot more playing time since he got here. You saw what he could do when Timmy sat entire games and he was allowed to play real minutes. My comment wasn’t directed to Tiago it was directed to the fact the wine drinker hasn’t gotten someone in the front court to help out Timmy and Tiago. Diaw doesn’t do crap for me IMO. So as the roster stands in regards to the front court not naming Timmy or Tiago we aren’t winning the WFC.

  • Titletown99030507d

    They will be overachievers if they get 50 games. That will good for them that way none expects a title and maybe they can surprise everyone.

  • Graham

    And my comment isn’t directed at Tiago, who I think is quite solid as Tim’s replacement, but the lack of anyone even on Splitter’s level to ‘upgrade’ the 4 spot. At least Diaw is perfect for our new offense and is passable on D (way better than Bonner). I am simply saying that looking at our options we don’t have an improvement over the Duncan-Diaw, Splitter-Bonner pairing, short of dropping Kawhi down to play some 4 in stints. The current team’s earned a shot to try again at the WCF. Any realistic changes at this point merely decrease our chances of winning the WCF.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=173600134 Ryan McShane

    You never combine anything other numbers when doing stats. His prediction was purely statistical. It was to give “us an idea how teams have moved up and down the NBA ladder since the Heat wrapped up the championship a couple of months ago.” It’s hardly meant to be an actual prediction. Whenever these guys predict a season, they rarely predict a 60-win team, yet we seem to have them every year. That’s because expected wins are distributed normally (except they’re discrete) meaning the wins tend towards the center. It’s not even a distribution of wins, it’s a distribution of AVERAGE wins. That means he’s going to under-predict the top teams and over-predict the bottom teams. As he basically said, his prediction will give us an idea as to what order the teams will be in. The #5 Spurs are .4 wins behind #3 Denver… All this speaks to the coaching and team building of the Spurs. They took an underperforming player from the worst team in the league and turned him into a valuable starter. If you were to base your analysis on Boris Diaw’s production in Charlotte, you would never have expected to see the numbers he put up in San Antonio last season, or still expect Boris Diaw to underperform next year. After some quick googling, I discovered that NBAPET essentially measures a player’s offensive production (the ball doesn’t necessarily need to touch his hands to have a positive impact). Without a doubt, Boris Diaw’s numbers from Charlotte figure to be there. Kawhi Leonard’s first two months of bad shooting figure to be there. And yes, Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili’s decline figures in there as well. 51 wins is not an unreasonable prediction when you consider they won more games than expected (by point differential).

    As Spurs fans, though, we hope that this prediction is wrong. We think Boris Diaw and Kawhi Leonard are going to continue with their uptick. We think Pop will manage the big 3′s minutes well – so much that the effects of their age is mitigated. We expect everyone else to play as well or better. I feel the same way. Don’t shun something because you don’t understand it.

    And Dallas is a shell of its former self – even a shell of the team from last year, the team that barely made the playoffs. There were several teams that were nipping at their heals last season. This season, some will be better (Minnesota, Utah, Denver, maybe even Golden State) and some will be worse (Portland, Phoenix,
    Houston). This is hardly Dallas’ year.

  • GoSpursGo

    There weren’t a ton of premier defenders out there, but I wouldn’t have minded them taking a flier on Diop, Thabeet, or Milocic. All of them have length and can block shots. They also were all relatively cheap, as they sucked.

  • Two Saints

    Well… With all due respect, you’re essentially defending a BAD statistical analysis by arguing that it’s a statistical analysis. It’s entirely possible for statisticians to adjust for the tendency of a model to skew to the middle. So I don’t think the criticism is simply based on a misunderstanding of statistics. In other words, don’t presume that we don’t understand something just because we shun it.

    Here’s the bottom line, though: This model predicts the Spurs to decline by 11 wins based on last year’s winning percentage (in a season which clearly disadvantaged older teams because of the compressed schedule) and by 10 wins based on the previous year’s total. This is despite the fact that the Spurs have enough young and improving players to offset an expected decline from their older stars (or at least two of them). Sorry but that’s a pretty drastic decline to predict for a team that hasn’t made any changes of significance since last year. Common sense alone suggests that there’s something wrong with the statistical analysis if it yields that sort of a result for no particular reason.

  • Two Saints

    Yes but… those guys really did suck. The Spurs historically have preferred non-sucking players. I know that’s a big disappointment to all the Anthony Randolph and Lou Amundssen fans here, too, but I’m afraid that’s just the way they are.

  • Tim in Surrey

    @GoSpursGo – Difficult to predict the Spurs record next year, I thought they overachieved a bit this year.

    How so? They won at a 62-win rate, if you project their winning pct. over an 82-game season. The year before, they won 61 games. Certainly they were pretty healthy–which is perhaps a little unexpected for a team so reliant on older players. But still… considering the additions of Kawhi Leonard, Steven Jackson, and Boris Diaw and the subtraction of Richard Jefferson, how is that overachieving?

  • ThatBigGuy

    I understand that statistics have some sort of place in basketball, albeit a much smaller place than in baseball. I’m not trying to discredit smarter men than I, just merely voicing an opinion that such narrow scoped information continues to be marched out there like it’s the Gospel.

    I’m not arguing against his computations, because it took me 3 tries to pass Elementary Statistics in college. I’m lamenting the fact that such narrow scoped ideas have such large megaphones in relation to their actual application to the game.

    I enjoy Hollinger most of the time because he actually watches the game and tries his best to at least splash his stats with some observations.

  • Tyler

    Totally disagree. We lost because none of our role players stepped up.

    That and the Thunder are pretty good.

  • Graham

    ^ A good example of prevalent thought it seems

    It’s a good thing this is happening. While I disagree that it’s overachieving for the spurs to win 50, and think the number will be in the 56 to 58 ballpark, the fact that a sliver of the national media are even remembering the spurs exist, let alone are a serious contender still, will be great for the younger guys as all the pressure falls off.

  • Titletown99030507d

    That’s my point passable isn’t enough.

  • Titletown99030507d

    And look what happened in the OKC series. Did they shoot blistering % at the arc? If your not doing that they better have someone blocking shots under the rim.

  • Titletown99030507d

    They’re playing 82 games this coming season not the short season again. Timmy is older again and they will sit him more games this season. You can not compare last season to this season. You can’t expect to win more games because there’s more games doesn’t work that way.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Small ball never wins unless you are the Heat. And we are not the Heat.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Leave it to the wino he’ll again change it up for the playoffs. That pisses me off.

  • Titletown99030507d

    I agree. Yes Kawhi will have to turn into George Gervin and play some hell bent defense.

  • Titletown99030507d

    When he stops acting like a point guard.

  • Titletown99030507d

    More notably Danny Green. That’s what slowed this scoring machine in the playoffs. I hope he’s not Bonner 2.0

  • Graham

    and my point is passable’s the best we’re going to find, so go with the guy who brings the most to the table of all the passable defenders out there

  • Graham

    Trying to reinvent this team again as a pound it down low isn’t going to happen at this stage of TD and Manu’s career. We don’t have the assets that can pry a Roy Hibbert or a Tyson Chandler, let alone a Dwight Howard free to be that guy for us. The next Dikembe Mutombo is not going to magically appear on the horizon anytime soon.

    I’m arguing about this from the wrong angle though. Who out there do you want guarding the paint for us right now? And what would you use to get him?

  • Graham

    I’m basing that number on the fact that our new offensive weapons have a full offseason to integrate into the team. Having Patty Mills be a reliable backup PG alone is going to do wonders for the 2nd unit (and ease Manu’s burden). Kawhi with a full training camp to work with the team is going to do wonderful things, plus Diaw and Jax and all the other assorted pieces we grabbed will improve more than decline. I’m basing that number as more status quo with the production from Manu and Timmy ticking down a bit, but the supporting contribution ticking up more.

  • Graham

    Give him the benefit of the doubt. It was the first time he’d EVER been in the situation. Hopefully he uses it as motivation this year.

  • Graham

    Weren’t you also calling out the role players for not stepping up? We rode the 10 deep rotation into the playoffs until the back end proved ineffective against the Thunder. Are you saying we should have left the rotation in place? Something tells me at that point you’d be calling for Pop’s head for not making any adjustments. The Thunder played an incredible stretch of basketball, and the Spurs’ bench by and large wilted. Let’s see how those guys respond this year.

  • Graham

    Agreed, we need a legitimate 4 to play the bulk of the minutes. Smallball is gimmicky and situational.

  • STIJL

    That will certainly be the “hope” fielding this season’s team. But other team’s (LA, Miami, even Boston) have upgraded their already good team from last season for next season. And I will contend the Spurs still have a puncher’s chance to going to the finals with the team currently constructed. Solid point earlier in that even though there might be a slight decline in Duncan’s and Ginobili’s abilities due to age, there decline should not be as drastic as the hopeful improvement amongst the younger talent in Green and Leonard. My personal opinion is that Kawhi will vastly improve from last season. He had shown too much promise and his “mistakes” last season were purely of the mental type rookies are known to make. He’ll be integrated from the start and have a full pre-season. That alone will help him in what his role will be next season.

    But I will also contend that the position of PF, as it is currently constructed and implemented, is a dramatic weakness for this team. Small ball is a gimmick that you can’t play all the time. Team’s with athletic length (OKC, Chi, and now LA and Bos.) will dominate such a line up thrown at them. Maybe not during the regular season so much, but in a 7 games series when teams have time to plan, it would be difficult for the Spurs to field a team that could win that series no matter how well the new players perform. OKC wasn’t a fluke last season in playing the Spurs. They out gamed the Spurs 4 games in a row with athletic length and great coaching. OKC filled the driving and passing lanes with long arms, spry legs, and excellent floor spacing to prevent the Spurs drive and kick offense from being able to perform at it’s best. OKC had difficulty with Miami because Miami is a much more athletic team and Miami getting superb three point shooting. Granted Spurs have 3 point shooters as well. But they don’t have the athletic length and ability to drive the lanes as Miami has. So OKC could cheat off the perimeter players of the Spurs with better results than OKC could against Miami.

    However, you are correct. Where and who do the Spurs give up to get that athletic 3/4 type of player? Hard to say. But in the end…the Spurs should hope they can find such a player because the weakness is glaring in that aspect of the Spurs. And the results are in from last season as OKC demonstrated. Limit the drive and kick with athletic length and you can both reduce their effectiveness on offense while also exploiting their weakness on defense.

  • cdresearch

    When he was really needed, Jax did against OKC.

  • cdresearch

    I’m not worried about Green. I’m worried about Bonner remaining as our 4th big.

  • Graham

    I’m not exactly thrilled about it either but he’s fine in a regular season capacity, and trimming him out of the playoff rotation’s certainly doable, going with short stints of smallball 4 as needed. Not ideal but unless we get that elusive athletic AND skillful big we are missing I will settle.