What to expect from the Duncanless Spurs

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Scott Sereday, as usual, has done a terrific job of accounting for the statistical issues surrounding Tim Duncan’s injury. And there is also a good bit in his post about the value of role players vs. the value of home court advantage. Do read it.

My take on Duncan’s injury, providing it doesn’t extend beyond the start of the postseason, is that it’s not such a big deal. My biggest concern is Duncan’s condition, which could diminish over the next few weeks. Couple this with the expectation of more postseason minutes for Duncan, and he may spend the first round of the playoffs getting into game shape.

Otherwise, Duncan’s numbers are, more or less, replaceable. At this point in his career, Duncan’s system-smarts and floor leadership are his greatest contributions to the Spurs’ championship hopes. But, in the short term, the Spurs can deal without these attributes.

And they will.

Scott Sereday suspects Gregg Popovich will start Tiago Splitter in place of Duncan, and I agree with him. The Spurs’ postseason rotation will feature DeJuan Blair off the bench, and there is little reason to move away from that now. Besides, Splitter could use the burn.

If you had asked me about Tiago Splitter ten days ago, I would have told you he was of almost no value to the Spurs this season. Good player, yes. But he was a good player outside the Spurs’ playoff rotation.  Now, I’m not so sure.

In the previous two games—Duncan’s “Trop Vieux” DNP-CD and injury game—Splitter has played well. His Monday night double-double came against the Warriors, which is, as you know, a kind of omnipresent qualifier, but it was still an eye-opener. He’s shown flashes, but this was the first game since his arrival in San Antonio that his game was on full display.

Stand up. Take notice. The former Spanish League MVP is on parade.

But when you watch Splitter, notice how often the Spurs’ spacing goes to seed. And notice how quickly he loses his lungs. These are both byproducts of his lack of playing time this season. His activity and IQ are undeniable. Manifest, his toughness and ability to score off the PnR. But he’s still a puzzle piece without a home within the puzzle. Will Duncan’s injury provide Gregg Popovich an opportunity to snap Splitter into place?

If Splitter performs well over the next couple weeks, the Spurs suddenly have a different frontcourt rotation, or at least the possibility of a different rotation. This is a helpful development at this stage of the season. The Spurs could use Splitter’s length and defensive capabilities against the Lakers, should they meet in the WCF.

Beyond this, I’m especially interested if Steve Novak will continue to provide the Spurs with such a vital spark off the bench. (I know, I know. File that away with the other sentences I never thought I’d write.) Novak is a defensive liability, but he provides such dead-eye shooting on offense, he fits the Spurs like a glove.

Because of Duncan’s injury, the Spurs should run more small ball than usual and push the pace like they did over the first couple months of the season. Tim Duncan is the Spurs’ least effective transitional big—DeJuan Blair is mobile, Splitter runs hard, Bonner is one of the league’s best trailing fours. Duncan’s role in the Spurs’ transition game are perfectly placed outlet passes and trailing the play to reverse the ball in the event the break opportunity goes dry.

Steve Novak suits the Spurs’ small ball and pace-pushing interests.

It’s strange. Prior to the All-Star break neither Tiago Splitter nor Steve Novak stood a strong chance to help the Spurs in the postseason. And now, suddenly, they’re both in the important piece mix. Let’s see what shakes out.

Should we then worry that about losing homecourt advantage? In a word, no. The Spurs are too far ahead the other teams for that to keep anyone up at night. In fact, I think the Spurs will play .700 basketball without Duncan and, when he returns, coast through the first two rounds without so much as a hiccup. His injury is not such a big deal.

  • mybloodissilverandblack

    Was I alone when I reacted, “So what?” when our Timmy went down? Well, I wish him well, make no mistake about it. But the Spurs are so deep, they can still play well without TBF.

    So, whatever Tony did or took to heal really, really fast, I hope TD does it, or gets some of those, too.

  • Tim in Surrey

    Thanks, Tim, nice essay.

    One question: Why is everyone so surprised at Steve Novak’s performance? Just 2-3 years ago, he was one of the most feared shooters in the league for the Rockets and then the Clippers. But after everything fell to pieces in LA (when Baron Davis arrived and Elton Brand left, in other words), Novak became much less effective. But it wasn’t so much an injury problem or a change to his game. It was just the Clippers. Luckily he seems to have returned to form as the guy who was perhaps the league’s most effective long-range shooter in ’08 and ’09.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    Short memories, I guess. And he really is a weak defender. That’s why I thought he wouldn’t stick. But you’re right, he’s a phenomenal shooter.

  • Bob

    Why are people so surprised about Splitter? Manu has been saying all along he’s a good player and he just needs minutes. His ability to roll to the basket is good like Oberto. I saw alot of good things in the last game. He also seems to understand angles around the basket and has a nice touch. He had a couple of shots around the basket that seemed off but went in. His rebounding seems solid. He was rebounding in traffic and outside of his area.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Feed the “Brazilian” all night long and everything will fall into place around him. It’s only making the team better. When Blair and Duncan come back this will be even a slightly different version of our Spurs that no one in the playoffs would have time to adjust for them. And when they do it’ll be too late. Keep pounding the rock guys! GSG!

  • bobby finn

    a spurs injury typically ruins my day (really wanted to call in sick to work after TD went down) but im lookin forward to seeing how splitter and novak play the rest of the season. btw, good lord novak can shoot!

  • betsyduncan

    Tiago “Trial by Fire” Splitter: the heat is on.
    My fingers are crossed!
    And, yeah, Steve Novak has been quite a surprise. Maybe his effectiveness will push Matt to (finally) emerge from his shooting slump?
    Toes crossed!
    Go Spurs Go! Keep pushing!

  • DBAGuy

    I thought Blair was playing tonight. Is he definitely out?

  • Nick

    Is Pop going to pull a “These playoffs are not for X” with any players this season, like he did with George Hill?

    Mostly I’m asking about Gary Neal or Steve Novak. Personally, I think Pop was a bit humbled by his move to sit Hill during the playoff stretch and this year is much more confident in his bench (although called them out recently). I’d be interested to see what y’all think.

  • http://www.bpifanconnect.com Alix Babaie

    I am excited to see how the Spurs perfrom this evening against the rejuvenated Nuggets.

    Splitter needs to take this time to show that he belongs in the starting lineup instead of Dyess.

    Even if he does not, as long as he can perform steadily, he will be a key cog in the playoff wheel.

  • Josh

    The biggest problem for Splitter this year, aside from injuries and conditioning, was that he’s a terrible free throw shooter who defaults to drawing fouls on layups whenever he posts up. In the last two games, he’s shown a much wider variety of moves and is attacking the rim. Even though he’s still missing free throws, he now looks like much less of an offensive liability.

    As far as Duncan’s injury goes, the only thing that really frustrates me is that he probably won’t be playing on 4/1. Mainly because it’s the first NBA game I’ll be attending.

  • Cory Clay

    The only player that these playoffs are definitely not for are James Anderson. If they’re for Splinter or not I hope gets determined in the next 3 weeks.

    I think Neal is def going to play his normal minutes per game b/c Pop has already said he doesn’t consider him a rookie. He has said the same about Splitter which is what’s going to make this last month so interesting.

    As silly as it is to say this, our chances vs the Lakers could really hinge on if Splitter gains Pops trust.

    And if Novak keeps it up I could see Pop playing him some minutes based on match ups, I was going to say that Pop might just go with whoever was feeling it w/Novak vs Bonnet for those Stretch 4 minutes but I think Pop values Corp knowledge too much and I doubt Novak has that already.

    What does everyone else think.

  • Ted

    Splitter is absolutely great expecially on PNR.. This guy can rebound the ball as well as anybody in the league.. his problem is on his free throw percentage.. They will foul him alot but it lies on his ability to knock them down

  • BlaseE

    It’s worth noting Splitter and Nene should have a fair amount of experience with each other from the Brazil national team. It could help Splitter in his first start against a playoff team to go against a familiar face.

  • RobertG

    @ Timothy Varner–Thanks for all your great posts. My question is, out of the big 3 of Duncan, Manu, and TP, would you say that Duncan is the best one for us to lose for a few weeks (at least in the regular season). I think I would be much more concerned about hanging onto the #1 seed if we lost Manu or TP for 2 weeks. Thoughts?

  • Colin

    I will shit my pants if/when I see Novak/Bonner/Blair on the court at the same time!

    I know Poppovich isn’t looking for that come playoffs, but while Duncan is out, it is feasible we could see those 3 on the court at the same time.

    …..could that be the worst defensive front-court combo in the league? Anyone?

  • http://www.justyler.blogspot.com JT in Austin

    I am less optimistic.

    TD is a player who has stats that cannot be recorded or studied by human effort.

    He’s like a gent you add to your favorite RPG team, and who does not do much, but just his presence makes your team better with the magics and the what-nots.

    We’ll be lucky to hit .500 over the next three weeks.

  • Este

    @Titletown99030507d

    “Feed the “Brazilian” all night long and everything will fall into place around him.”

    I’m assuming you’re not referring to Nene although I think that’s what we can expect tonight. Let’s hope our Brazilian is up to the task hey they already named a chain of restaurants after him.

  • Hobson13

    Excellent article. This very accurately describes my feelings about the situation. When I heard Duncan went down, I didn’t immediately panick. The Spurs probably have HCA (at least for the WC) wrapped up so as much as I hate to say it, we can afford to lose a few games (just not too many). This is Tiago’s big chance. I think he will step up and do well for us.

    Another angle to Duncan’s injury story that no one has mentioned is the team’s on court response. There’s no question that the Spurs seemed to play unfocused and a bit too lackadaisical for a number of games after the huge Miami win. Will this injury galvanize the team and possibly create an us-against-the-world mentality? Will our perimeter defense step up knowing that we don’t have our best rim defender? Will Hill, Bonner, and Neal play smarter and shoot better? Will Splitter play well and add yet another dimension to the Spurs front court? If we can answer YES to all these questions, Tim’s injury may have been the potion needed to turn this team into a playoff monster.

    Even if we drop a few games, this could really force the role players to step up their games and mold this team into a well-oiled machine by the start of the playoffs.

  • Titletown99030507d

    @Nick,

    Are you kidding me? Neal is going to play major minutes in the playoffs. And if doesn’t then Pop needs to make an appointment with the neurosurgeon. Of course he’ll get major minutes. This guy is not disappearing during the playoffs.

  • Titletown99030507d

    @Ted,

    “Splitter is absolutely great expecially on PNR.. This guy can rebound the ball as well as anybody in the league.. his problem is on his free throw percentage.. They will foul him alot but it lies on his ability to knock them down”

    Good let them foul him all night long if they want. Somebody will be sitting on the opposite side.

  • Titletown99030507d

    @Colin,

    “I will shit my pants if/when I see Novak/Bonner/Blair on the court at the same time!

    I know Poppovich isn’t looking for that come playoffs, but while Duncan is out, it is feasible we could see those 3 on the court at the same time.

    …..could that be the worst defensive front-court
    combo in the league? Anyone?”

    Yes, and you better have some depends on.

  • chromao

    The remaining schedule is no cakewalk for us (off the 12 remaining games, 11 are against playoff-bound teams). On the other hand, the Lakers’ schedule is much easier (in my opinion, only one tough game, @Portland). Therefore, I can actually see the Lakers going undefeated the rest of the way, or losing only one game at most (couldn’t find a better confidence booster that the 3OT victory against Phoenix). We must realy try to balance the need to (1) rest some guys (Ginobili, Parker), (2) give more playing time and rhythm to others (Splitter, Novak), and (3) *win some games* in order to secure HCA.

    I believe our only real threat to HCA is the Lakers. And one aspect this season that nobody is commenting is the ramifications of this season being Phil Jackson’s last. He has maintained a breakneck pace since the all-star break. He knows that: (1) no deal LA made this season made any difference whatsoever, (2) his bench is really thin, (3) he still can win *this year* basically playing his core players only (Bryant, Gasol, Fisher, Bynum, Odom, Artest) (4) he is not the one that will have to handle a bunch of weary players getting even longer in the tooth next season (5) The intimidator factor (the fame and importance of the Lakers to the league, Phil’s record winning game one of the series, playing at Staples Center, etc) will be as strong as ever this postseason. So PJ has really pushed hard to have as many series with home court advantage as possible, sometimes even disregarding the long term taxation on his players’ bodies (for instance using Briant’s willingness to play at all costs to his own advantage).

    Mark my words: with another coach next season, the Lakers will drop as much as Phoenix have dropped this season. However, having HCA against the Lakers is really , really important *this* postseason.

  • Titletown99030507d

    @Este,

    Why wouldn’t he be up to the task? He already has shown what he’s capable of even in the 5 minute, the 10 minute games that he’s played during his limited season. The Blair experiment is over. This is his moment to prove the “naysayers” who now are playing a different tune. People forget he played against crafty players in another pro league. He’s smart and has great BBIQ and he loves to get in to position to score the basket. It’s more evident now that he has the teams attention. This is what he has been waiting for. More minutes means better conditioning and better conditioning for him means better quality of play translating into major contribution. Don’t hold him back let him go. Now, I like Colin if Splitter plays 5 minutes during the playoffs then I will shit my pants!

  • Titletown99030507d

    @chromao,

    We have a way better bench than most of the NBA teams out there including the Lakers. I’m not worried about their HCA they barely put away the Suns man. Yeah they have been winning here and there but the wins lately have been coming difficult for them. If the only difference in seedings change are between SA and LA and they end first and us second but everyone stays the same, then I’ll be happy to let Memphis take them to 7 games and we could deal with NO. Dallas will have their hands full with Portland. And I don’t care who wins from OKC and Denver. OKC (with Perkins) will probably play LA and We’ll take care of Dallas here at home leading to the great showdown in LA where we’ll take them in 6. And that’s worst case scenario if we don’t get HCA. Relax its going to be fun watching good teams eliminate each other. At this point I’m not afraid of anybody in the west its the east that we’ll have a challenge that’s why its very importante that Splitter gets lots of play in time for the big show

  • Jared Joy

    This is unrelated to the post but I have to get this off my chest. I get tired of people always calling the Spurs boring. Growing up in Texas as a Cowboys fan and a teenager when they won thier super bowls in the nineties I have a unique perspective.
    Give me boring over firing Jimmy Johnson after two Super Bowl victories.
    Give me boring over Michael Irvin’s shennanigans.
    Give me boring over Erik Williams auto accident.
    Give me boring over Lebron James decision.
    Give me boring over locker room drama and trade demands.
    If a Superstar who never complains and does whatever his coach asks of him is boring I’ll take it.
    If boring is 14 seasons of 50plus wins, never missing the playoffs, only being knocked out of the first round twice and four championships, then I’ll gladly take boring!

  • ITGuy

    JH is back??

    Go Spurs Go!!

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  • manufan

    I was saying from the begining that Tiago needs playing time and some touches around the basket. He is totally oposite of Blair, who make his own luck. Tiago was the MVP of his league, guys, he knows basketball. Spanish league is not the NBA but is second best league in the world. He is not your typical rookie. Give him bunch of minutes to build up his confidence and provide him in-game conditioning, which you don’t get in practice. Anybody who has played basketball knows that lifting weights can’t get you in game-shape. I am big sceptic regarding Pop’s policy about rookies playing time and wheter they can help you or not. You see, SOME rookies are not rookies at all. Just ask Gary Neal.

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  • SA_Ray

    Coast through the first 2 rounds? Man I wish I had your confidence in the team.
    I think the Spurs will struggle but ultimately beat their first two opponents in that playoffs. I have serious fears with any team that has a decent big rotation.

  • TD = Best EVER

    We should be fine w/o TD as long as we can still score the basketball…. Offense wins in the regular season and Defense in the playoffs. So if we can get Bonner/Hill back on the bandwagon and keep Novak/Neal/Splitter on board we will be fine…….

    As far as the Lakers bench. It is not thin AT ALL……. Have you seen their bench when fully healthy….. they have about 30 points per game from their bench and they are not a high paced team at all…..Odom/Barnes could be starters in the NBA and Brown/Blake are both capable backups……

    It seams that most people here as well as in the world in general put to big if an emphasis on scoring and what that brings. And seem totally confused about how defense and rebounding can change a game. If Ron Artest/Barners can keep a scorer like Manu in check the way they have the past 3 games this year then their offense becomes irrelevant.

  • junierizzle

    I think TIAGO will do just fine. The good thing he has going for him is that no one is expecting him to dominate. Whatever he does will help the team. He has pressure on him but not a ton.

    And yeah, it’s not surprising that NOVAK can shoot the lights out. Teams just didn’t give him playing time. I know his D is weak but he is making it up on the offensive end.

    Like TP said, they’ll be fine during the season without TD. THey need him in the playoffs. I think he’ll be back in time to play the remaining games so he can get his conditioning back.

  • Flavor

    @ TD = Best EVER

    True, but you also have to score more points than the other team in order to win…

  • http://bigal.com Alec

    I would be flabbergasted if the Spurs played .700 ball in Tim’s absence. The reality is that the Spurs have a difficult finishing schedule, with just 2 easy games (Sacramento and Utah) among their last 12. I was figuring a 6-6 record would be appropriate with Duncan, but without him, I would guess somewhere between 3-9 and 5-7. And that would place the Spurs squarely in the crosshairs of finishing behind the Lakers and the Bulls, who both have pretty easy schedules. Hopefully, the Spurs can go 3-3 over the next six games and avoid a 1-5, 2-4 or, gasp, 0-6 stretch. But I would be somewhat shocked, since the Spurs are a 5-point underdog tonight (equates to 33% chance of winning), and will also be underdogs in five of their next six games.

  • Robert G

    @ Tim Varner
    Out of the big 3, do you think the Spurs would rather see Timmy go down rather than TP or Manu? From the standpoint of finishing the regular season strong, I think we are more likely to succeed without Tim than without one of the other 2. Thoughts?

    Thanks for all of the great posts.

  • the old photog

    For whatever it’s worth, I’m not particularly worried about Tim’s conditioning. A lot of people are distraught to see him on crutches, but that is actually a good thing at this point (definitely better than having him flat on his back in traction!). The Spurs have first rate trainers and will give him workouts to keep him at as high a conditioning level as possible given the ankle limitations.

    I might note that I speak from some experience as I have to use crutches full-time for some lower body issues, but have developed above average upper body strength.

    The biggest problem for Tim will be regaining the rhythm and flow of the game, but even that won’t take him long.

  • Bill

    We have a tough few games coming… at DEN, at POR, at MEM, vs POR, v BOS in a row… with still at HOU, at ATL, at Lakers and at Suns. If either the Mavs or Lakers runs the table we could easily lose HC. This should be a very real concern.

    Sure hope Splitter is all that we hope he is…

    Bill

  • junierizzle

    SPURS have won 7 of last 8 without DUNCAN.

  • jwalt

    Disagree strongly with one point of the article. Timothy, who I usually agree with totally, suggests the Spurs will go with more small ball with Duncan injured. I think just the opposite, the only reason we could afford to go small ball was because of Duncan’s presence. Let’s put, as an example, Jefferson, Manu, Hill, and Parker on the floor at the same time. The Spurs simply do not have another big besides Duncan who can provide the needed help and inside presence for that lineup to work. No, two bigs will always be in now.

    I am on board as far as Splitter’s talents are concerned. But I also think he basically is out of shape. He’s good for 5 or 6 minutes before he looks and plays like a fatigued athlete. As much as anything he needs to get himself into shape if he is going to try and fill Duncan’s huge void.

  • McShane

    The Spurs’ two most likely second-round opponents are the Thunder and the Nuggets (with the Mavs being the next closest). None of those teams will be easy – the Thunder got a lot bigger at the trade deadline, the Nuggets have been playing their best ball of the entire season (with a real chip on their shoulders), and the Mavs were the recipients of an early exit thanks to the Spurs last year (you know they’re fired up).

    Then comes LA or Dallas!

    Regardless, the playoffs will be really fun to watch this year (with the exception of the 1-8 matchup in the East).

  • jwalt

    junierizzle — very interesting stat (7 out of 8). Further proof of my belief that the most indispensable Spur is Manu. The year he missed the playoffs the Spurs were 34-12 with him, 23-20 without. (And I could have won a lot of money betting on Dallas in every playoff game that series. Vegas didn’t seem to think Manu’s absence should affect the line, I knew better).

  • fkj74

    Guys we can lose the number 1 seed. LA could run the table and our endinf sechedule is tough. Need Spliiter to play well. Go Spurs!

  • Titletown99030507d

    @junierizzle,

    “I think TIAGO will do just fine. The good thing he has going for him is that no one is expecting him to dominate. Whatever he does will help the team. He has pressure on him but not a ton.”

    Totally agree. At this point since he and the rest of the NBA knows it took so long to get on the court I really don’t think he has that much pressure on himself to be any kind of savior. And with the gradual improvements each time he plays, he building up precious confidence. It’s a win win for Tiago at this point. Add the fact that he’s calm and collective on the court helps. He’s been through this in his opinion in the other league. What pressure?

  • DorieStreet

    Everyone: look at tonight’s game with a clear, definitive eye (notice I did not say pessimistic)–
    the Nuggest are 28-7 at home this season- 1 loss in Nov; 2 each in Dec-Jan-Feb—4th best total –pct. & loss total in the ENTIRE league.
    No losses to sub-.500 teams. They are not among the elite because they are poor on the road–14-22.
    It will be a difficult task to beat them a 2ND TIME @ their place w/o our best post player.
    BUT– if the Spurs pull this off____that let’s me know the team, i.e. the reserves===know what’s at stake; know what they must do–now, and through the end of the season thru the playoffs.

    Spurs: best effort all the way-no matter who’s on the floor. GO SPURS GO!

  • Titletown99030507d

    Is there anyway we can get a game chat with this blog with these posters here. The game chat at Spurs Nation is so lame. There not as knowledgeable as these guys here.

  • Varner

    Ladies and gents,

    For those desiring a chat, Jesse, Andrew, Graydon and myself will all be working the Daily Dime Live chat at ESPN.com. You can find us there. It’s always a hoot. I’ll be starting around 10 est, but the chat is live now.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    Robert G,

    I don’t like any of those choices. But I’d guess their list is Parker, Duncan, Ginobili.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Two quarters gone by against the nuggets and I don’t understand why Tiago has been ignored on the offensive side. This could have slowed things down some instead their having a shoot out and Manu thinks he can carry the team by himself. Bad strategy. Everything Tiago has been doing in the last two games is non-existent in this game. And that Damn Bonner/Blair combo on defense just sucks. So what he got a monster dunk where’s his defense on Nene. Damn it Pop don’t go back to that run and gun shity style of play. Go for the easy points instead of watching some of your guys clank from the arc. Tiago and Dyess or Tiago and Blair should be your front court guys. And what about that crazy 3 point shooting machine in Novak? Where the hell is he? Put him in there instead of Bonner.

  • hassan

    wow… Denver is just shutting us down..
    Shoot the Fre…g ball Bonner.. It’s amazing how he disappears in Big games…just put Novak in the game at least he has balls….