Pounding the Rock, a strike for strike account of the San Antonio Spurs regular season
The NBA playoffs open up with the San Antonio Spurs in their lowest playoff seeding of the Tim Duncan Era. But to understand why the Spurs are not discouraged about opening on the road in Dallas, instead of the friendly confines of the AT&T Center, there must first be an understanding of their philosophy.
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and his team operate under a different philosophy than the rest of the world. Rather than living, dying or overreacting to every win or loss, the Spurs continue to chip away and build towards something.
“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
Earlier in the season, around the trade deadline, I made an argument for the San Antonio Spurs holding steady to their current roster–something that, for better or worse, happened minus a Theo Ratliff or Michael Finley. Then I ventured to say that the Spurs were still championship contenders, even if Tim Duncan and company were not following the usual script.
The point I would make in my argument for keeping the team intact would be that each season, just as each stone, is different. Just because the plaque states on the hundredth and first blow the stone split in two does not mean every stone will break in 101 blows. Some take longer, especially when working with unfamiliar tools. Follow the process, however, and the results end up satisfactory more often than not.
A tough first round match-up with the Dallas Mavericks makes it hard to vindicate those words just yet, but there is a lot to learn sifting through the 82 blows the San Antonio Spurs have struck so far–each one is relevant, connected to the ones that came before it, and will affect what lies ahead.
Strike no. 24: The Science Was Sound, Richard Jefferson was not
The biggest story of the offseason, Richard Jefferson struggled and, perhaps unfairly, caught the blame for the brunt of the Spurs disappointments in early February, prompting everyone to label the trade a bust,Â as written byTimothy Varner:
But as the Richard Jefferson trade has shown, basketball is not all science. It’s science, some stuff you can’t quantify and luck. And the Richard Jefferson trade has failed on the last two accounts. No sense in pretending the world is round, when we all know it’s flat. Or some such.
But was it fair to expect a player, groomed in the Princeton offense and comfortable as a first or second option, to step in a impact a team right away? Perhaps early expectations pushed aside common sense.
Strike no. 1: The Two Week Reload, Richard Jefferson, DeJuan Blair and Antonio McDyess
A personal note from Graydon Gordian back in September:
And yet as I watched Spurs, both old and new, smile and nod, I got excited. Not just excited. Ecstatic. The season is approaching. Do you realize that? The 2009-10 season. Richard Jefferson. DeJuan Blair. Manu Ginobili. Those are just a few of the guys who are gonna be dressed in silver and black with a ball in their hand, a hoop in either direction and glistening hardwood beneath their feet.
Graydon’s sentiments were mirrored by Spurs fans everywhere, and why not? Over the course of a few weeks the San Antonio Spurs traded for Richard Jefferson, drafted DeJuan Blair and signed Antonio McDyess.
But as Timothy’s piece from earlier alluded to, chemistry might look good on paper, but you cannot be 100 percent sure how variables will react together until it’s tested out in the lab.
Strike no. 53: Standing Still, Richard Jefferson Struggles
Does that mean I believe the San Antonio Spurs front office was short sighted in acquiring such a poor fit? Without any insight into the team’s line of thinking, what makes sense is that if the team was not going to move Jefferson around it could at least move the defense.
In last year’s playoff series against the Mavericks, Tony Parker was able to collapse their entire defense. Only, with the rest of the supporting cast being nothing but spot-up shooters, Dallas was able to sell out in chasing shooters off the three-point line without fear of anyone outside of Parker getting to the rim.
In theory, even in a pick and roll offense Jefferson should be able to exploit the scrambling defense created by Parker and Ginobili’s penetration. Rotating defenders create opportunistic driving lanes.
Not being a primary creator, Jefferson’s production is a great indicator of how well or poorly Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili are playing. So where did things initially go wrong?
Strike no. 9: The New Realities of Tony Parker
Tony Parker has plantar fasciitis.
There are worries about extending Ginobili, to be sure. If it was a matter of being out of rhythm or out of shape, those are things that one would expect to be remedied. But the craftiness, the instincts and skill set all seem to be in place. It’s an inability to get to the rim or finish—his FG% at the rim is 50 percent, down from 66 percent and 64 percent the last two seasons according to hoopdata.com—once there that would indicate a physical decline. While those gifts could return to a certain extent, his age and recent history make it hard to know what to expect from him.
Strike no. 37: The Roots of Defensive Decline
At the heart of the piece linked above is the debate on the merits of small ball, something that has slowly disappeared from Gregg Popovich’s lineups. In Varner’s piece, he uses quotes from George Karl to punctuate his point.
“Defensively, they are not a dominant defensive team as they once were. They used to be incredible around the basket. You now can score around the basket on them more than ever before. But they’re still solid. They’re still sound, conceptually. (Pop) has tricks, he can mess with you. But they were so good for so many years.
We chart our baskets within five feet of the basket every night. Halftime, I’d go in there against SA and we’d be 2-for-15. They just wouldn’t let you score around the basket. That’s different now.
They used to play two bigs. Now you can take Duncan away from the basket. You can take their bigs away and attack their smalls a little more. You take Duncan in the pick and roll, you’ve got Bonner, or McDyess or Blair covering the basket. That’s just not as good as it was when it was David Robinson, or Nesterovic or Mohammed or someone like that.”
While there is some truth to this, in years past the San Antonio Spurs have been able to retain their defensive identity even while going small. In 2003, David Robinson may have been the starter, but Malik Rose logged heavy minutes next to Tim Duncan.
Important as it is to have quality defenders, defense is a system, not a collection of athletes. The San Antonio Spurs supporting players were all new to Popovich’s defensive schemes, which areÂ perhaps the most complex in the NBA. The result–the new acquisitions at times looked inept.
Ultimately, it’s not really the rising age of their core which has contributed to the team’s decline. The core is still playing well enough to lead a better-fitted supporting cast to a title. But the current supporting cast does not share in the team’s previous defensive identity: they lack (or don’t play) the additional shot-blocking bigs of past lineups; Robert Horry’s offense was replaced, but not his defense; Bruce Bowen’s defense was invaluable, and better than imagined.
With hindsight as a weapon, I can now say that at the time the core was not playing up to their elite standards. And how can a new role player, brought in to fit around the trio of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, be expected to fulfill their roles when those three do not measure up to their lofty standards?
So what’s changed, and why do the Spurs feel better going intot the playoffs this year as a seven see than last year as a third seed against the same opponent?
Strikes no. 20, 57-71 and 74-77: Whether All-Star or Role Player, Ginobili Key to Spurs Success
Since February, Manu Ginobili hasn’t been chipping away at the rock so much as he’s alternated between taking a sledge hammer and wrecking ball to it.
As the San Antonio Spurs struggled through February, Ginobili was slowly finding his rhythm, getting to the rim even as he still struggled to find his shot. While that early production did not initially translate into wins, it was enough to hint at the things to come, as I wrote in a piece titled, “Ginobili!”:.
Ginobili healthy is the ultimate x-factor. As I’ve written before, he is the lone Spurs player to work outside its system. The artistry and impulsiveness makes the Spurs unpredictable and really holds everything else together.
Through that time, Ginobili turned the elite teams of the NBA into fodder for his personal highlight reel.
AT&T Center—For all of Manu Ginobili’s strengths, perhaps no attribute is more significant than his indelible sense of the moment and ability to take full control of it.
Strike no. 56: Pop to Manu re: Jefferson, “Can you fix him for me?”
And as insightful as those Ginobili numbers are, they barely tell the story. Manu Ginobili is making everyone better, most noticeably the previously pronounced dead on arrival Richard Jefferson. Jefferson is openly campaigning for heavy minutes alongside Manu Ginobili. It’s almost as if Gregg Popovich turned to Manu and said, “I can’t figure this guy out. Can you fix him for me?” And then Ginobili grabbed Jefferson by the hand, walked into a nearby phone booth, and emerged in Superman garb. Jefferson can be seen just behind Ginobili, with a fistful of cape.
With Ginobili back, for the first time all season the Spurs received All-NBA quality play from more than one of its big three, enabling the the Spurs role players to quietly fall into place.
Strike no. 55: Matt Bonner, Beyond the +/-
In Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, the Spurs have a trio of stars that excel at both scoring and generating shots for teammates. The flipside is, for all Duncan’s length, Ginobili’s craftiness or Parker’s speed, none are particularly explosive leapers, thus each requires sufficient space to work at peak levels (Ginobili less so).
And not all spacing is equal. It is important to consider what part of the defense is stretched thin and what section of the floor the three-point shooting is coming from. Pulling a big man out of the lane is much more valuable than keeping wings and guards at home. It changes the dynamics of defensive sets and rotations.
Strikes no. 45 and 82: DeJuan Blair as Oberto
In this morning’s Express-News, Jeff McDonald and Manu Ginobili pick up the same conversation.
“I played with Fabricio for over 10 years,” said Ginobili, who first met Oberto when they were teenagers in Argentina. “He knew exactly how I wanted the screens. He had a passion for setting screens like I’ve never seen.”
Blair and Ginobili are only in the courtship phase of their relationship, but they pick and roll like an old married couple. With Ginobili supplying the trick-shot passes, and Blair producing the kind of slick catches and nimble finishes that belie his 6-foot-7, 270-pound frame, the Spurs’ second unit often has become must-see theater.
Where Oberto was a Hall of Fame pick-setter, Blair has proven himself adept at the other half of the equation.
“He’s a really good roller,” Ginobili said. “I know he’s going to be attacking the rim. That’s something you can count on, even when you don’t see him.”
Strikes no. 3, 17, 72, 73 and 78-80: George Hill is the NBA’s Most Improved Player
When San Antonio Spurs point guard George Hill (an Indiana native) returns to the American Airlines Center for the first round of the NBA Playoffs, the court and its dimensions will remain as they were in last year’s playoffs. It will be George Hill who has changed.
“Oh, what wonders one summer with Chip Engelland can do. It may be a small sample size, but judging by the blistering shooting percentages, George Hill can shoot. From deep. Especially from the corner. Now, a lot of attention will be paid to his development as a point guard, and rightfully so. Hill finally looks comfortable there. But the most important development for him, so far as his future with the Spurs is concerned, is his jump shot.
You see, if Hill is to carve out more than cameo appearances in meaningful games it will have to be as more than a backup point guard because there’s no way you’re limiting Tony Parker’s minutes come Spring and Summer. So if Hill is going to be an impact as a Spurs player he needs to be able to play beside Parker rather than replacing him. For years the only prerequisite for that, at least offensively, is the corner three.”
Strike no. 41: What Would Jacob Riis Do? Winning a Title
Back in February I believed this group of San Antonio Spurs were capable of competing for an NBA championship. After the gauntlet they ran through in March, there has been very little to change my opinion.
In that piece, I wrote a few things that had to happen should the Spurs decide to stay the course.
The first step, I believe, was the reintroduction of Antonio McDyess into the starting lineup. Without Bruce Bowen in the lineup it has become increasingly difficult for the Spurs to contain penetration (whether it be Hill or Parker defending). As such, having another presence capable of altering shots is imperative and a step towards returning to our previous defensive philosophies.
“Antonio’s defensive rebounding has really picked up. He’s always been able to shoot an open jump shot so that’s not a surprise. But his rebounding and defense have been excellent,” San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s really been doing a lot of that grunt work on the boards. So he’s been doing real good for us.”
The rest of the San Antonio Spurs have since bought into Gregg Popovich’s defensive schemes, and it shows.
“(The defensive improvement) is just the persistence of Pop sticking with what we do and it’s finally started to click for everybody,” Tim Duncan said. “It took a month or two longer than we thought it would, but it’s headed in the right direction.”
The final piece, I believe, will be the return to prominence of either Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker as devastating scorers. Last playoffs the Spurs were exposed when none of the role players were able to do anything once Parker or Duncan broke down the defense.
This season the Spurs have a myriad of players capable of taking advantage of a broken defense. The only problem is that Ginobili and Parker have been ordinary enough as scorers that defenses have been more apt to stay at home.
Whether through rest or just continued rehabilitation, one of the two will break through eventually and take the games of our role players (Richard Jefferson, McDyess, Hill and Blair) to new levels.
How do I know this? Because if both fail, there isn’t a trade the Spurs could pull off that would provide a big enough hammer to break this stone.
Strikes No. 83-101
Begin Sunday in Dallas.