San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks revisited: A blueprint in black and silver
The greatest seventh seed in NBA history? Not exactly a compliment in the eyes of Tim Duncan. Certainly the San Antonio Spurs are the first seventh seed to eliminate a second seed since the NBA Playoffs switched formats to a first round best-of-seven series. But Duncan and the rest of the world will have to be forgiven if the moment hardly seems historical, or surprising.
This season’s incarnation of the San Antonio Spurs garnered its fair share of doubts, and at times deservedly so, but no matter the seed they were labeled with, the Spurs advanced to the second round against the Phoenix Suns because their identity remains largely the same: the principles and system of head coach Gregg Popovich executed at the highest levels first and foremost by the trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
For all the talk generated about the Dallas Mavericks’ new identity, it was the San Antonio Spurs that reclaimed theirs. For all the words dedicated to the Mavericks’ superior depth–and the Spurs getting lost in the NBA’s arms race–it was Gregg Popovich’s players that were simply the more talented team.
Proliferation Pontificated: Duncan, Ginobili and Parker as the first “Superpower”
It has been two seasons since the San Antonio Spurs last won an NBA championship, not coincidentally, it also marked the last time Manu Ginobili and the Big Three were healthy. Since that time the NBA has seen a proliferation of arms and with all the big names that changed addresses, starting with Pau Gasol, it’s easy to forget that it was the rest of the NBA that was trying to catch up to the Spurs.
Dirk Nowitzki is a franchise player and was absolutely brilliant in this series. Unfortunately, and perhaps unfairly, he will receive his fair share of criticism for failing to advance despite being surrounded by what was perhaps his best supporting cast yet. But what is the Mavericks depth? Dirk Nowitzki is a franchise player but after him there is a precipitous drop in talent, which plateaus at a wealth of Â above average talent spread throughout the roster. And even a wealth of above average talent is merely above average talent.
Who are the Maverick’s best three players? Who flanks Dirk Nowitzki? Jason Kidd is a future Hall of Fame player. Despite remaining a nightly triple-double threat, in an odd contradiction with what triple-doubles represent, Kidd is currently a one-dimensional player: brilliant in the open court, merely adequate or average at everything else.
After that, do you go with Jason Terry or Caron Butler? Players who made great sixth men and peaked as borderline All-Star players? Each currently excel at hitting contested, difficult pull-up jumpers and on good nights even a little more. Nice pieces to be sure, and the following point is made not to belittle their accomplishments, but…
Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are out of their league. Parker has established himself as one of the top five point guards in the NBA and peaked recently as an All-NBA player. Even in a reduced role, returning from his diminished state, Parker has shown he can still be capable of All-Star quality play.
In terms of impact and importance, Manu Ginobili is every bit the equivalent of Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. Currently there are maybe three to five players who are elite closers in this league, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant being the obvious first two choices. But since March, it’s been hard to make a case for anyone over Manu Ginobili.
Schemes certainly play a role, but generally when a team has the best three players on the court it wins a seven game series. But if the Spurs are that talented, how do they consistently fly under the radar?
Gregg Popovich: Pounding the Rock and peaking at the right time
The San Antonio Spurs raising their game in the playoffs is a misnomer. The only magical switch at Gregg Popovich’s disposal is unleashing his final playoff rotation, removing all minute restraints and ensuring only his best players find time on the court.
Tim Duncan’s all-around brilliance is not necessarily heightened for the playoffs, it’s merely extended for longer minutes. Because Popovich, more than any other coach, caps the minutes of his best players, once the playoffs hit, there is no team that has a larger potential leap in performance than the Spurs.
Duncan and emerging star George Hill have seen the greatest increase in minutes, with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili holding serve. While the extra three to six additional minutes each player accumulates might not seem significant, it’s enough to keep the Spurs lesser players and harmful lineups off the court.
In comparison, the Dallas Mavericks play both Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd over 35 minutes a game in the regular season. So by the time the Playoffs come around, the Mavericks have not only already peaked long ago, but given Kidd’s age (and the lack of minutes for Rodrigue Beaubois) the extended regular season minutes may also mean diminishing returns.
To be fair, there are only three coaches in the NBA that enjoy enough job security to get away with something like that–Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan and Gregg Popovich. Faced with the slowest start of the Tim Duncan era, Popovich received his fair share of criticism across message boards. But he’d also be the first person to tell you, should he ever bother to even read such things, that he doesn’t care.
Everything done through the regular season is done in preparation for a championship run, record be damned. As nice as it would have been to give Ian Mahinmi and Malik Hairston more developmental minutes, it was far more important to get Antonio McDyess and Richard Jefferson acclimated with the system because neither of the younger players were going to help you win a championship this year.
Antonio McDyess and Jefferson, with McDyess in particular, were quietly huge in the Spurs victory–something that doesn’t happen if they are still thinking their way through the San Antonio Spurs schemes. And those 20 minutes games Keith Bogans and Roger Mason logged over Hairston? Bogans might not be Bruce Bowen, but those 20 minute outings were great preparation for the brief cameos he made in the series, offering slightly better defense than Hairston without the inexperienced mistakes.
If the regular season is Gregg Popovich’s laboratory, a place to experiment and tinker with all his options, the NBA playoffs are his science fair and the Larry O’Brien Trophy his Nobel Prize.
George Hill as Element X: The versatility and flexibility of the San Antonio Spurs
While it is true the Dallas Mavericks have a lot of depth, much of it is redundant. In Eric Dampier and Brendan Haywood, the Mavericks go from a defensive center whose offense the Spurs don’t really have to respect to….a defensive center whose offensive game they did not really respect. For the series Butler and Terry created a plethora of pull-up jump shots but did not always get to the rim, which is sort of Dirk Nowitzki’s gig. Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion? Keep them out of transition and off the three-point line and they were essentially useless on offense.
Meanwhile, George Hill is becoming the San Antonio Spurs swiss army knife. As a defensive player, Hill is Gregg Popovich’s utility player. On offense, his ability to knock down shots on the move or in the corner fits as an additional puzzle piece as opposed to offering more of the same.
Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess fill out the starting lineup as solid glue guys, and Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair offering vastly different skill sets of the bench.
But more than anything, it’s the diversity of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker together that delivered the death blow to the Mavericks. There is no one specific thing you can take away from any of the players, nor style you can force that will render each completely ineffective.
Even in the San Antonio Spurs Game 4 victory over the Mavericks, in which the big three had subpar games, it was the attention each drew that paved the way for George Hill to find his open three-pointers and their defense that made it possible.
The San Antonio Spurs concede that even the best defenses cannot take everything away, they simply limit options–often preferring to give up contested pull-up jump shots. In 2006, the overall Mavericks team might now have been as good overall, but it had multiple ways to attack: speed (Devin Harris), versatile scoring (Terry, Jerry Stackhouse), defense (Dampier, Diop), and, of course, Dirk Nowitzki.
Respect and retooling for the Dallas Mavericks
Despite the Spurs advantages and victory, there is a reason Gregg Popovich would prefer not to play this team again. Dirk Nowitzki is not merely a matchup problem for the San Antonio Spurs, he’s a nightmare for the entire NBA.
And while the sweet-shooting German could use more help–and thanks to some valuable non-gauranteed contracts and assets, it’s on its way–the surrounding Mavericks are good enough to keep the team in the game long enough for his greatness to win games. Which is how a team with their relatively disappointing point differential was able to obtain a second seed in the first place.
Given a summer to reflect and spend Mark Cuban’s money, the Dallas Mavericks playoffs might have ended, but the rivalry is far from over.