Recognizing fool’s gold, revisiting the trade deadline

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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.

  • Manuel

    my heart hurts

  • DorieStreet

    YAMS=====Young, Athletic, Multiple-Skills: From this night on, that should be the blueprint of the Spurs’ front office/coaching staff from this night forward. No more specialty/niche players aka one-trick ponies.

    And the practice of drafting european frontcourt players and not bringing them to America immediately to be on the roster–that should be scrapped NOW. What benefit/positive did the franchise get out of this practice–NONE.

  • NYC

    Dammit, Tim. Why’d you have to say it?

  • TD BestEVER

    I like the YAMS thing……. just let me add they are very hard to come by where we are drafting……..We REALLY just need to focus on the 1st 2………..Young/Athletic………….If we can get those…..we can always teach a skill…………..Hell even Tony Allen has learned to be an effective offensive player….. So just give me one skill……….Offense or defense………. with some athleticism………..And we should be able to make it work………But POP has to get over himself 1st…………….which is nearly impossible………….BONNER needs to go on a 2 year mission a church or something

  • Hassan

    Agree with YAMS.. but sometimes we have to stash players over seas…
    seee.. Manu & TP….

  • Junierizzle

    It still boggles my mind that they never found a serviceable big man to help out Duncan. They actually had NAZR Mohammed, currently with a team called OKC. Or a knock down shooter. Someone like a JR SMITH.
    I’ve always liked Bonner but he really let me down. He’ll only shoot if no one is near him. You need a shooter that only needs an inch to get a shot off.

  • kris

    hey i been a spurs fan for forever if pop doesnt see whats going on in the nba the owner of the team needs to see that the spurs are to little they dont play defense any more that let good free agents get away they could have had so many bigman by name like shaq and rasheed wallace i dont know wat there going to do now because duncan is playing like he needs to retire serious it was a time when no one on memphis could do anything ww

  • Shap

    the beginning of the end was the loss of Bruce Bowen. That, more than the age of Timmy or Manu, is what did us in.

  • Zakaria

    Smoke and Mirrors… San Antonio tricked everyone with a dazzling display of illusion. Unfortunately, as the title explains, they tricked themselves too.

    The playoffs truly do show a team’s colors. I think our guys plateaued during the Heat game. Other than that, I’m speechless. It really is a bitter time for Spurs fans, but one thing that can never be taken are our rings. Never forget!

  • rangerjohn

    i said the exact same thing back in january, february and i was all but dismissed on this site by people telling me “no our wing is fine, we need a big man not a wing defender.” and “this defense is all by design” in reference to RJ and the spurs lack of a shane battier type player, a guy who can score but is a better defender.

  • SA_Ray

    I think even the smoke and mirror Spurs of the regular season could/should have won this series. Some timely shooting by ANY of our role players could have swung this series in the Spurs favor. But out first 3 guys off the bench never really performed to expectations and unfortunately RJ met his expectations exact, nothing.
    And sadly we are locked into 2 of our most glaring weakness for another 2-3 years at this point, Bonner and RJ. And for those that want to quote the +/- stats for Bonner I will simply point out his goose egg performances for 3 straight playoff years. That experiment has failed to work in SA, time to move on.

    I think 5 years from now when I am looking back at the Tim Duncan era I will pinpoint that RJ trade as the undoing of Spurs basketball. But hindsight is 20/20.

  • Prid Vilassakdanond

    what sucks is that i could’ve read the same problems for the suns during their playoff runs…how i miss the clogs in the middle…

  • Daniel

    The RJ trade was a terrible idea. I was pissed the day it happened. Even though this season was a significant upgrade over last season’s train wreck, he was still below-average. That’s not what the Spurs want from a guy they’re paying $30M over the next three seasons. And there’s no way they didn’t know he wasn’t going to be much better than this when they signed the deal. As an alternative, they could have signed Matt Barnes AND Splitter under the MLE, saved $6M this season, and had room to add a full MLE player next offseason like JR Smith (who, despite his demeanor, would be an A+ basketball fit on this team).

    Right now, the best offseason option is probably to try and pry Casspi from Sacto, as he’s an above-average two-way player and a good perimeter shooter, Westphal won’t give him playing time, and he wants out. He’s only 22 and is 6’9″. James Anderson + 2011 #1 should probably do it.

  • http://www.nba.com/spurs/?tmd=1 TheRealDirtyP1

    If Bruce could still play, he would. Father Time wins every time, still undefeated.

  • Edward Rutkoski

    What I think this comes down to is when your team’s success is built on playing hard and bench depth, you are in trouble in Playoffs. In post season, EVERY team plays hard. And teams can play just 7 or 8 players, especially in first round. I actually could see Spurs winning 3 in a row. I have enjoyed this season immensely — Winning a championship is hard and rare. I just hate to see our “good” guys get embarrassed.

  • Doggydogworld

    JR Smith? You realize no one can take anything you say seriously after that one, don’t you?

  • Chris

    I GUARANTEE you Spurs FO looked for trade deadline deals. That they had the best record in the league probably made them a little more picky. Don’t doubt, though, they would have pulled the trigger if the right deal has presented itself.

  • xicano47

    You are spot on with one exception. The move to a more offensive minded team started last year, not this. All kinds of folks made that exact observation last year when our season ended early and Matty bombed as usual. For some reason, Pop seems to have gone against his better instincts and redesigned his team away from defense first. It’s hard to say it to Timmy, but … the wheels have come off old friend.

  • Ted

    I was completely nonplussed when the F.O. signed Steve Novak and Chris Quinn. Those two are jokes in the NBA among fans who’ve paid attention. Add those to players like Matt Bonner, who is a bit of a joke, definitely not a tough all-around player in the least, and Richard Jefferson, who is becoming a joke. We fans deserve a roster that shows us that the F.O. takes the Spurs seriously as a team.

    What basis did the F.O. have in signing any of these players other than the first two were cheap roster filler, and the latter two they thought might actually contribute something?

    I shall now recategorize. All four of those players are jokes. Bad ones. We fans don’t appreciate the humor, either.

  • Gebo

    For Manuel, Shap and Edward Rutowski You guys spoke my mind for me. I am proud of the Spurs and proud to be a fan. I have reached a point in my life where I can no longer root for rapists, wife beaters and drunk drivers. I wish that Tim and Bruce could have stayed forever young, but thats not the way the universe works. Better days are coming, and I hope that we”re all there to see them. That said, its not over. Take care.

  • Chris

    Only complaint I have about Bonner (whatever you say about him, he plays his btt off…) is how Pop tries to use him. Pop needs to recognize that Bonner IS NOT Robert Horry. Ever since Horry retired, Pop’s been trying to replace him, without success. Bonner does not have the defensive capabilities of Horry, nor the inate basketball savvy. We really, really miss Horry.

  • Rob

    Yeah. Gotta agree with every statement in this article. Sometimes when success has been a huge part of what you’ve done in the past (coaches/management)…it really is hard to second guess your decisions. Unfortunately I think management and staff have lost their edge in both acquiring the right players and successfully developing who they have into championship caliber players.

  • Rob

    Yeah. Gotta agree with every statement in this article. Sometimes when success has been a huge part of what you’ve done in the past (coaches/management)…it really is hard to second guess your decisions. Unfortunately I think management and staff have lost their edge in both acquiring the right players and successfully developing who they have into championship caliber players.

  • Rob

    Yeah. Gotta agree with every statement in this article. Sometimes when success has been a huge part of what you’ve done in the past (coaches/management)…it really is hard to second guess your decisions. Unfortunately I think management and staff have lost their edge in both acquiring the right players and successfully developing who they have into championship caliber players.

  • Bry

    The big question there would be: “Why doesn’t he start?” I mean, that’s often the key for two-way players, they start. And the one-dimensional players (Bonner, Blair) come off the bench.

  • Bry

    Of those four players, only Jefferson (who actually has a pretty solid career scoring) is paid highly. Novak and Quinn make nothing and Bonner makes three million. Only Jefferson gets starter money. And, unfortunately, he’s the best small forward on the team.

  • Bry

    Of those four players, only Jefferson (who actually has a pretty solid career scoring) is paid highly. Novak and Quinn make nothing and Bonner makes three million. Only Jefferson gets starter money. And, unfortunately, he’s the best small forward on the team.

  • Bry

    I think people are being ridiculously negative and running wild with 20-20 hindsight. Yes, their defense has faded, and yes, they rely on too many one-dimensional players, but none of that predicted going from 60-something wins to getting out-hustled and out-executed by the #8 seed. Their offense has abandoned them. Ginobili is not shooting well (maybe the elbow?), Parker is turning the ball over waaay too much, and Duncan is basically not shooting at all. The problem isn’t that the regular season showed all their weaknesses; the problem is that they’ve stopped doing well what they did really well during the season. Leading the league in 3-point percentage has turned into awful 3-point shooting. Not fouling has turned into lazy hack-fests and taking care of the ball is all but gone. I’m sick of hearing about Matt Bonner’s contract being a burden. He makes 3 million. Get over it. They gambled on Jefferson, and it’s failed. But, I don’t recall any of you (or the media) when the trade was announced yelling that Jefferson would bomb. Most people said it was a great move to fill the void that Bowen left. The Spurs are just unfortunately playing uncharacteristically awful right now, at the worst possible time. The sky isn’t falling and NONE of you predicted this incredibly poorly timed stretch of poor play. It’s time to look to next year. Splitter and Anderson are bigger parts of the rotation and Jefferson is on the trading block (his contract is not good, but also not untradeable).

  • Bry

    I think people are being ridiculously negative and running wild with 20-20 hindsight. Yes, their defense has faded, and yes, they rely on too many one-dimensional players, but none of that predicted going from 60-something wins to getting out-hustled and out-executed by the #8 seed. Their offense has abandoned them. Ginobili is not shooting well (maybe the elbow?), Parker is turning the ball over waaay too much, and Duncan is basically not shooting at all. The problem isn’t that the regular season showed all their weaknesses; the problem is that they’ve stopped doing well what they did really well during the season. Leading the league in 3-point percentage has turned into awful 3-point shooting. Not fouling has turned into lazy hack-fests and taking care of the ball is all but gone. I’m sick of hearing about Matt Bonner’s contract being a burden. He makes 3 million. Get over it. They gambled on Jefferson, and it’s failed. But, I don’t recall any of you (or the media) when the trade was announced yelling that Jefferson would bomb. Most people said it was a great move to fill the void that Bowen left. The Spurs are just unfortunately playing uncharacteristically awful right now, at the worst possible time. The sky isn’t falling and NONE of you predicted this incredibly poorly timed stretch of poor play. It’s time to look to next year. Splitter and Anderson are bigger parts of the rotation and Jefferson is on the trading block (his contract is not good, but also not untradeable).

  • NYC

    Dude, your comment is just plain ignorant. You talk as if it were completely up to the Spurs whether or not to sign Rasheed Wallace. We pursued ‘Sheed. He wasn’t interested.

    As for Shaq, you talk as if Shaq would come for free. Signing Shaq would have meant no money to sign Tiago Splitter. And what exactly has Shaq done for Boston all year other than sit out nursing his injuries? He has yet to play a single playoff game. He is older than Tim Duncan.

    If you think it’s time for Timmy to retire, what does that say about an older man who has sat out for more than half the season?

    I don’t even know what “it was a time when no one on memphis could do anything ww” means.

  • NYC

    Amen.

  • http://spursworld.wordpress.com Robby Lim

    Well written Tim, the Spurs took risk on Jefferson and are now paying for it. Game 4’s loss was really sad and painful to watch. Call me crazy, but until Memphis wins 4, I’m not giving up on the Spurs this season.

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  • td4life

    You are incorrect. I for one said on here last summer that the Spurs were not contenders all year long, dating back to the resigning of Bonner and Jefferson, and the preference for developing Blair over Splitter throughout the first 3/4s of the season (which was the lesser error of the three). This flame out was 100% predictable and was in fact widely predicted, far and wide, despite the good start that myself and others on this site called wholly misleading, along with preaching the utter irrelevancy of the blue ribbon regular season record.

    Yes, they gambled on RJ and it failed, but they didn’t have to renegotiate an extension (which surprised EVERYBODY nationwide) and could have made a subsequent gamble by trading his expiring contract along with other moves to address the long acknowledged shortcomings in the frontcourt, especially defensively. What they did instead is called “throwing bad money after good.” 20/20 hindsight? Nope.

  • Kory

    You know, what the Spurs really need right now are guys like…say Tiago Splitter and a good defensive wing that can shoot, someone like…James Anderson. Oh, wait. They DO have those guys. I think when people have said throughout the season that SA has been completely healthy, it just means the big three have been healthy. But we can’t forget that–at least in theory, what the Spurs need is actually sitting on the bench right now. Maybe Splitter should be getting more time, but I trust Pop there. In any case, Anderson and Splitter’s early injuries might possibly have caused the biggest hole on the Spur’s roster right now.

  • BALLHOG

    Spurs played hard! Big three played Hard!

    Pop got outcoached, again! Yet, never accepted any responsibility, as usual.

    He knew this team needed help in the front court since game 2. He also knew that Bonner is not a basketball player. He knew that Duncan is no longer a PF, and he knew that Blair was no Center. He also knew that Splitter would struggle at this level. He gave up on Anderson. Signed Quinn and Green instead of a couple of bigs, and even with the seaon on the line, Blair has a DNP, Neal is nowhere to be found in the strech run, and the most #&$&%^# of all, Bonner is in the game, in the 4th, and yes…..Trying to guard Zach Randolph. This coach is done. I knew it when he kept Duncan from guarding Randolph, (Which he should have done in the 4th quarter of every game).

    Now his hand is forced. He will have to bring in some grown men now. Real players, talent, athletiscism, and heart….Just the kind of player that he cannot coach. He can only coach easily controlled, easily manipulated personalities who bow down to him. Sad fir the Spurs and the fans.

    Now what? Should be an interesting off season…Cant wait to see what “The Coach and OL RC come up with next. My guess is that the Glass is Empty and the game has passed them by.

  • BALLHOG

    As for Rasheed, and any real player like him….Yes, the Spurs persued him, and others…However, for some strange reason, they all passed….none would come here and play for this man.

    Coincidence?

  • http://yangutu.com  Dating

    *We covered this some when we revisited his signing, but I really like that Steve Blake commits 100% to running the Lakers’ sets on both sides of the ball. Last night he scored 0 points when he missed his only FG ….. Yeah, Mitch by not doing anything before the trade deadline, did a lot for the team. He kept the two time NBA World Champion, Lakers team chemistry intact. Well, anyway, I just set-up my bracket and I am looking forward to some college ball.