Recognizing fool’s gold, revisiting the trade deadline
Perhaps the San Antonio Spurs fell prey to the worst deception of all — of tricking themselves.
From the beginning of the season forward, the Spurs’ roster deficiencies stood in plain view. The Spurs lack size and the Spurs lack an effective two-way wing player. I suspect the Grizzlies know this as well as anyone. Why else would they back themselves into the playoffs, practically throwing their final two games, for an opportunity to play the Spurs?
It’s obvious now, and has been for many months, that Richard Jefferson is not a good fit for the Spurs. This is not to say he can’t be effective. This is not to deny he doesn’t have his moments. But it’s 2 years on, and Richard Jefferson still gets lost on defense, typically turning in a passable, but never remarkable defensive performance. Offensively? What can you say about a player who just delivered an 0-4 for 0 points in 27 minutes? Clearly, it’s more a case of misses than hits for RJ.
Because of RJ’s struggles, and the lack of depth at his position, the Spurs too frequently find themselves in three-guard sets. Gary Neal contributed a fine line as a rookie, but it’s comically unfair to expect him to guard players such as Shane Battier and O.J. Mayo. Neal has heart, but he simply doesn’t have the size to guard real, true blue NBA wings.
Much like San Antonio’s suspect depth at wing, the Spurs have played small, offensively-oriented, defensively-deficient frontcourt players from the start. DeJuan Blair, for all his energy and hustle, is primarily a scorer and defensive liability. At the end of the day, he’s only 6’7”. Any skilled big man in basketball can get a shot off over Blair.
The story is the same with Matt Bonner. What Bonner does well, he does very well. His shooting, until recently, was a constant help to the team. But Matt Bonner is strictly an offensive consideration. He makes 3s and he creates space. What he doesn’t do very well is defend. He had moments in Game 3 of giving the Spurs all he had defensively, and the Grizzlies still attacked him in the post at every opportunity. If they’re not expected to defend, DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner are wonderful players. But when Popovich is forced to go with a frontcourt of Bonner and Blair, well, one learns to close his eyes.
Gregg Popovich never tires of his mantra that defense wins championships. The Spurs, he’ll tell you, value team defense above all else. This is why I think the Spurs duped themselves into playing another team’s game. When the trade deadline came and went, the Spurs stuck with what they had. Why tinker with a team that had charged out in front to the best record in basketball? The answer, in hindsight, is not hard to find. The Spurs “remade” themselves into a offensive team this season, and their rotation never got around to featuring the kind of defensive personnel Gregg Popovich needs for the Spurs to play championship basketball.
The Spurs fell in love with a roster long on offensive players; they remade themselves after the identity of another. The Spurs found themselves titillated by fool’s gold.
Perhaps they tried. The trade deadline may have come and gone with nothing for them. It’s not easy to make a trade. But through four games of the postseason, it appears the Spurs are a team fit for regular season success while lacking the proper personnel to seize the games that actually count. It’s a lesson to relearn. In the NBA, championship teams always build their rosters with the postseason in view.