The offseason: challenges, money, and market
When the TrueHoop writers were asked to cast their votes for end-of-year awards I gave Excutive of the Year honors to R.C. Buford. If we re-did the voting tomorrow, I wouldn’t change a thing.
To my mind, the Spurs’ success this season was entirely to the credit of their front office and coaching staff. Towards the end of the season, I was asked by ESPN Chicago to debate whether Gregg Popovich or Tom Thibodeau deserved Coach of the Year. I made two arguments in favor of Popovich, one long, one short. The short one went like this:
The Spurs are on pace to win 67 games. Is anyone else on their roster deserving of an award of any sort? In the absence of other explanations for their historic stomp, it really ought to be obvious — score one for the coach.
The Spurs began to misfire shortly after the argument was published, but, in principle, one could say the same thing for Buford.
The other part of the argument goes like this: the Spurs were demolished by the Phoenix Suns in the 2010 playoffs. Everyone — fans, T.V. talking heads, and sportswriters — were unanimous in their assessment. The Spurs, they said, needed to blow it up. Pre-draft rumors began to swirl, and suddenly we were reading silly things, like the Spurs trading Tony Parker to the Pacers for a stale sandwich.
But R.C. Buford showed enough wisdom to stay the course. He didn’t do anything dramatic. He simply filled in the cracks with players like Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter. The Spurs, despite their disappointing finish, still greatly overachieved by winning 61 games. Vegas, you’ll remember, saw the Spurs at 40-something wins prior to the season. Through 82 games, San Antonio was the best team in the Western Conference. No one thought San Antonio would achieve as much as they did last season.
These next few months will likely feel like Deja Vu for Buford. A year later, the Spurs are faced with the same questions. How do the Spurs remain competitive now and in the future? That is, now while they still have Tim Duncan and, later, when they won’t. And even that challenge is tempered by a sober reality. Having Tim Duncan now is not the same as having Tim Duncan 3 years ago. In other words, San Antonio’s current core is not as good as their 2007 core.
It’s fairly easy to pinpoint the challenges before the Spurs:
- their best players are old
- they are, at best, a mediocre defensive team
- they lack size
Let’s consider each of these briefly.
The Spurs are Old
Tim Duncan is 35, and because of his postseason success, has played more games than most 35 year olds. If the Spurs expect to keep Tim Duncan healthy, how many minutes a game can he play next season? 26? Assume a dip in production and minutes from Duncan, and remember that Antonio McDyess is retiring. The Spurs will have plenty of frontcourt minutes available, and they’ll need good production from whomever supplies those minutes.
Manu Ginobili turns 34 in July. When was the last time he entered a postseason healthy?
Mediocre Defensive Team
Tim Duncan was San Antonio’s best defensive player this season. On his efforts alone, Duncan kept the Spurs from becoming a below average defensive team. George Hill had moments of defensive brilliance, but because of the Spurs’ lack of reliable small forwards, is too often expected to defend out of position. Tiago Splitter looks like a promising defensive player, and there is no reason to doubt the Spurs will improve by giving him consistent minutes.
Otherwise, the Spurs don’t have any player one would consider a defensive specialist. Moreover, Richard Jefferson is two-years into the Spurs’ system and still looks lost. Speaking plainly, Jefferson has been a bust on both sides of the ball. Jefferson turns 31 this summer. He is who he is as a basketball player. He won’t get any better.
The Jefferson problem is further exacerbated by the Spurs best offensive squads often featuring three-guard sets. Gary Neal is shooter and gives effort on defense, but he simply can’t be expected to guard players like Shane Battier.
The Spurs’ wing rotation is heavy on quality shooting guards and light on capable, defensive-minded small forwards. The Spurs have given themselves a punchers chance with James Anderson, Danny Green and Da’Sean Butler, but they may need to bring another body into camp to have a realistic chance of upgrading the position.
Finally, the Spurs’ efforts are greatly hindered by featuring two defensive liabilities in the interior, Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair. Again, both playersÂ should receive applause for their effort. But effort alone is not enough to make DeJuan Blair taller or transform Matt Bonner into a capable post defender.
That sounds harsh. I like both players. And, I think, Bonner gave a commendable effort against the Grizzlies — does anyone doubt that he played hard? But Bonner has already hit his ceiling. He’s as good as he’s ever going to be. The Spurs need to look at alternatives.
The Spurs’ best players are old, but the majority of their rotation is relatively young, especially considering the retirement of McDyess. Nevertheless, the Spurs do not have a single youngster who is on an All-Star trajectory. George Hill, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, James Anderson, and DeJuan Blair are candidates for career rotation players, but none of them will become All-Stars.
Current contenders go three and four All-Stars deep. The Spurs, rightly understood, go about 2.5 All-Stars deep. And, sadly, it’s debatable whether Tim Duncan will see another All-Star game.
I’m not suggesting the Spurs break up their core. But I amÂ suggesting the Spurs’ central talent base is less than that of their peers.
Payroll and Market
It’s difficult to project how well the Spurs have managed their salary cap without knowing the particulars of the next CBA. In general, the Spur have done well. Duncan’s massive contract expires next summer. Jefferson, Ginobili, and Parker have manageable contracts. The Spurs won’t be able to acquire a game-changer on the free agent market this summer, but they’re not 5 years away either.
But this is a moot point.
When was the last time the Spurs landed a huge free agent (excluding Jackie Butler)?
San Antonio built the foundation of their championship teams through the draft — David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. They’ve filled in the cracks through free agency.
This leads me to believe San Antonio’s most pressing challenge is not personnel or payroll, it’s their market. No one doubts the Spurs’ ability to find great role players, whether the next Bruce Bowen or Gary Neal.Â But canÂ they find another All-Star late in the draft?
The allure of playing in San Antonio has never been the city itself. Rather, it’s always been the opportunity to play with Tim Duncan. The Spurs can no longer play that card.
And that allure, it should be said, was most attractive to aging vets. Guys like Robert Horry who wanted a chance at a ring. But now that the Spurs’ core is older than the aging vets they used to attract, the Spurs need to flip the scriptâ€”San Antonio needs to attract free agents who are in their mid to late 20s, not their early to mid 30s.
In short, the Spurs’ front office needs to get lucky and creative between now and next postseason. I don’t think the front office has ever faced such a challenging offseason. San Antonio’s recovery strategy must change on a number of fundamental levels. The Spurs’ front office is, perhaps, the best in American sports. But it’s still a hard row to hoe.