What Would Jacob Riis Do? Winning a Title

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The Spurs enter their annual rodeo road trip with a disappointing loss in what has been a frustratingly inconsistent season. While the Spurs have been okay, the moves made this summer were done with grander plans in mind than okay.

Today and tomorrow each writer here at 48MoH will play devil’s advocate for one of four positions regarding the Spurs and this trade season: making no move, a minor roster tweak, a huge trade or focusing on the future.


Crafting championships is a long process. Sometimes we, as observers, tend to lose sight of the work in anticipation of our expected results.

In such instances, someone much smarter than I once quoted someone he would say is much smarter than all of us. That quote famously hangs as the mantra he runs his organization by:

“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.”

Gregg Popovich uses Jacob Riis’ words as a metaphor for building slowly towards something. Given this quote and the Spurs’ results, we too often see them as a specific set of instructions, or a script to be followed to the last word.

A slow start, followed by the head coach’s annual “soft” rant, and then a chemistry building road trip on a way to a championship. Sound familiar? The script has been so consistent that writer’s have compared it to Groundhog Day, asFran Blinebury of NBA.com did in a recent article. But what happens when the actors deviate from the script a little?

Never mind that Punxsutawney Phil, that one-day-a-year-working groundhog with the great PR firm. In the NBA, you can usually tell February has arrived when the San Antonio Spurs poke their heads out of their burrow, appearing fit and ready to roll towards the playoffs.

But as Groundhog Day draws near this year, it’s the Spurs who need to be poked with a stick and roused from their hibernation. A season that began with great hope is becoming mired in a bog of empty promise.

This season the signs seem to finally point towards the Spurs demise. Difficulties beating winning teams, leaks in the defense. It’s certainly a change from past years. Or is it? For a bit of perspective you would do well to read Hollinger’s pre-Rodeo Road Trip piece from last season.

San Antonio is only 9–10 in its past 19 games, and only 2–6 on the road in that stretch — not a good omen for a team that will be living out of suitcases for much of the next month. And they haven’t beaten a team with a winning record since December 15.

For the moment, everyone presumes the Spurs are laying low before their annual blast through the latter part of the schedule, but, looking at their results of late, some doubt has to creep in. San Antonio is getting little from it’s role players, and the normally airtight Spur defense has sprung some rare leaks.

Then the Spurs rallied, tightening their defense and ultimately winning the Southwest Division before falling to the Mavericks in the first round, thanks to a set of injuries to Ginobili and Duncan.

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 hundred 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.

This does not mean that I believe the Spurs will come through simply because they are the Spurs. In even the best stone masons, tools become dull and muscles wane.

Based on their performance to date, if the Playoffs started today would the Spurs win? No. But that’s not the question my colleagues have posed. Are the Spurs, as presently constructed, capable of winning a title? I honestly believe so.

For all the complaints about Pop’s rotation tinkering or small ball lineups, what has to be remembered is none of these regular season games, individually, will win a title. There are probably a number of set combinations that would put the Spurs ahead of the curve now. But settling on those early eliminates the possibility of finding an even greater potential.

I do not presume to know more about basketball than Popovich or any of the Spurs staff, but I do have my own thoughts on how this roster can compete for an NBA title.

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.

I’m not a small-ball basher. It has its place. But the Spurs are a better team when the personnel allows them to serve small-ball up as a side dish, not the main course. At heart San Antonio is a defensive team. And there are two shot-bothering bigs at the heart of their defense.

And while those philosophies have lent themselves to a bend but don’t break Cover-2 system (to borrow from football), if the Spurs personnel continues to have trouble locking down maybe it’s time they start blitzing.

For years the Spurs system has been enhanced by Ginobili playing outside of it. In our most successful season he’s usually paired with a similarly inclined big that played with energy and controlled chaos (Rose, Robert Horry and Fabricio Oberto).

Blair might be too short to challenge many shots once inside, but he is agile enough, instinctual enough and has quick enough hands to help create turnovers when teamed with Ginobili and George Hill. While I’m not advocating totally abandoning our defensive principles, installing some of the traps and pressure defense Larry Brown has taken to the Bobcats might be useful.

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.

  • http://breathe.com Adam

    You might want to edit that little fill-in in the middle “the spurs haven’t beaten a team with a winning record since december 15″

    Considering we beat Atlanta and Memphis, both teams with winning records on back-to-back nights, this seems outdated.

  • Martin

    @Adam, he is quoting from a Hollinger’s piece from January 22, 2008.

    He is pointing out that last year, the spurs were in the same situation and yet won the SouthWest

  • AP

    Who cares if we were in the same place last year? Last year sucked. We got killed in the playoffs by our rival, and even had there not been injuries, we wouldn’t have been good enough to compete for a title, which is our only goal.
    Saying that we were in the same place last year gives me absolutely no confidence in our team.

  • ribanez

    A few thoughts: The loss to the Nuggets albeit a painful loss had some encouraging aspects. Jefferson played well offensively and defensively. Ginobli’s shots were not falling and one wonders whether he will ever get back to the scorer he once was. His outside shots hit the front of the rim more often than not. This suggests his legs are not back, even though half of the season has been played, therefore Manu can not, and may not ever, return to his pre-injury premier scorer status. His inability to consistently hit the outside shot will make teams back off and play him for the drive thereby reducing his effectiveness as a scorer. Manu remains ,however, a wonderful fighter. I thought defensively he played extremely well ! Billups schooled Hill which is not surprising. Roger Mason’s outside shot has disappeared. Conversely, Kenyon Martin shot the rock like never before! Bottom line the Nuggets, despite not having Carmelo, won and made the plays.

    Last item, I believe Mahinmi can be, at the very least, as effective as an aging Kevin Willis
    if allowed to play. Can someone explain why he is not playing ?

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  • ruth bader ginobili

    Agreed–perimeter play needs to be better to win a title.

    I think the bigs are about as good as the frontcourt from the ’07 championship team (Horry, Oberto, Elson).

    To me, the main differences from that team is the absence of 40 mins of Bowen defense on the wings, and a small drop-off in offense from Tony and Manu. Maybe we could use some Brent Berry shooting and passing too?

  • junierizzle

    I think the reason that TP and Manu’s numbers are down is because the role players are stinking up the joint.
    TP and MANU love going to the rim. BUt if the role players aren’t going to make the D pay with outside shooting then its easy to collapse on TP and MANU. Anyones numbers would go down if you try and drive in it in with 3 people hacking at your arms.
    I fear teams know this. That is why the SPurs get so many wide open 3s. Teams don’t even bother covering Bonner. BOnner and RMJ need to start making the other teams pay for leaving them open. IF they start shooting better then Defenses can’t just leave them open.
    ANd suddenly TP and MANU will get to the cup easier.
    Just look at the CAVS.
    THey get as many wide open looks as the SPurs do.The only difference is they hit those shots consistently. ANd last time I checked they didn’t have as much talent as the SPURS. The pretty much just have LEBRON and a bunch of role players, I will give props to MO williams though.
    THe point is they hit wide open shots and the Spurs don’t. Last time I checked, the Cavs had the best record in the league.

  • BlaseE

    Sorry this is off-topic….

    Devil’s advocate: “One who argues against something for the sake of argument, for example, to provoke discussion and subject a plan to thorough examination.

    Etymology
    From Latin advocatus diaboli (devil’s advocate). The Roman Catholic Church used to have a person appointed as a devil’s advocate to argue against elevating someone to sainthood. The person arguing for the proposition was known as God’s advocate (Latin advocatus dei)” From answers.com

    I think you are taking turns at taking the positive positions unless you meant each person would be the devil’s advocate in that you are against the other three.

  • jan

    we need to trade bonner.
    and if there 3pts shots are not
    going . go to the basket and
    score. basic basket.
    jan

  • Rye

    Ginobili’s days as a “devastating scorer” are done. He’ll show the occasional flash or have the odd game, but he can no longer be relied on to carry the offense for long stretches.

    Parker, on the other hand, I contribute his decline this season 100% to the lack of rest he got in the summer and the subsequent plantar fasciitis he’s dealing with. When he’s physically right, which he should be next season, he’s amongst the best scorers in the league.

    You’re right, though. For all the hand wringing about the mediocre defense and the new players struggling to fit in, if the Spurs were getting the ’08 Ginobili or the ’09 Parker out of either currently, then this team probably has about five more wins right now. As witnessed by the Lakers, having a devastating scorer who can carry a team down the stretch covers up a lot of warts and can inflate a teams record.

  • G-Man

    Here is my belief:

    I tend to agree that our bigs are good enough if given the chance to play. Pop might be reserving Theo for the playoffs, which is fine, but i hope Theo and ian play more down the stretch to get acquainted w/ the team. If they are not working, then a trade for Haywood should be our option.

    I think Tony needs to rest and more than a few weeks. A month off might do the trick, plus this gives George Hill more confidence that he belongs out there. A healthy. 100% TP is the only way we have a chance. Manu is at best, now is a fine backup PG with moments of “Ginoboli!” in him.

    We also need a defensive wing badly to backup RJ. That is and should be our trade focus, to get a Bruce Bowen type player into the fold quickly. Trading Bonner and Mason might do the trick, but I don’t see any big trades this season. Can we get Raja bell? I don’t know, but he fits in what this team needs. Look how the Cavs got Moon, nice p/ by our baby brothers!

    I hope this rodeo trip helps turn things around. I will try to be patient and hope that 101 hit to this stone(more like a boulder) breaks soon.

  • Rey

    Although I must admit I’ve already started fantasizing about a possible big-time trade involving (most likely – but I hope to god it would never happen) Manu and another Spur for, say Camby or Stoudemire, there’s this little nagging optimistic voice inside me that’s telling me that maybe Pops is just too lazy and uninterested in coaching in the All-Star games, so he’s really not that worried about the Spurs performing rather subpar than, say Dallas. I’m thinking that maybe after the Rodeo Road Trip and the All-Star Weekend, we’ll be seeing the Spurs unleashed.

    Of course, I could be wrong, but right now it’s so difficult to see how things are going to happen.

    For me, while I’ll keep in mind the trade probabilities and the options open, I think I’ll start worrying about it when the Spurs go 0-3 in the Rodeo Road trip and they don’t shape up the week after the All-Star Weekend.

  • grego

    No realistic trade will get it done. Spurs are stuck with no big expiring contracts to trade. A trade now, unless they get a Gasol like player will not have the immediate impact. If they trade now, they are try now, but ultimately thinking next season.

    In the end, it’s not over until the post season. Spurs do need to get a guy like a Thabo Sefolosha. You might never get a Bowen like player, but at least need to stock up on a few guys who can play those key positions to give you chances.

    It’s never too late to turn it around (until you lose in the post season).

  • johnson ac

    i say the spurs should try and get shane battier…. and marcin gortat….. i would trade jefferson and some pieces for battier. and some bigs and draft picks for gortat.

  • johnson ac

    get shane battier and marcin gortat

  • not as good as I once was

    I don’t know if Manu is done being the man. But I know you can’t throw your body around the way he has and expect to have a very long career. The very thing that makes us love him, is the same thing that could end his career. I for one will miss his style when he finally is gone. I’m still not totally convinced he is done, or maybe thats just wishful thinking.

  • ChillFAN

    The main problem continues to be Manu is a shadow of his former self. It doesn’t help that Pop seems bound and determined to depend heavily on Mason and Bonner, when those two have been out since last year’s regular season. The current defense will not be able to stop the better West playoff teams, much less the Lakers.

    I think AP summed it up best above. If the Spurs are in a familiar place, it only continues the downward spiral.

    In the 2008 season, the Spurs faced the Lakers in the WCFs, but they really could not have competed with LA or Boston because they never showed much offensive consistency in the regular season.

    Face it. Last year, the Spurs were not playoff relevant, and worse, got eliminated by a team that was not playoff relevant. Please hold the injury excuses; the SPuRS do not expect to go into the playoffs 100% healthy–that’s precisely why they added the new guys.

    Who is Ian Mahinmi? Is that the guy we’ve been waiting 10 years for? Lets just wait one more year, I guess.

    The SPuRS need to start playing as “if the playoffs started today,” or they will find themselves just throwing in the towel come playoff time.

  • johng

    1st of all the article from John Hollinger was writen in Jan. 22, 2008. For anyone who can count, that was 2 seasons ago.
    The spurs were 29-16 in week 14 of the 07-08 season and made it to the WCF.
    Last year (08-09 season) they were 32-14 in week 14 and were elimainated in the first round of the playoffs, while Parker put the team on his shoulders and willed the team into the playoffs.
    This season the Spurs are 27-19 in week 14, and I don’t know if this famous rodeo road trip is going to help this team get on the right track. Something big is going to have to shake up this team, and it has to happen soon. Manu said it himself on his website, it not issue of chemistry, if not chemistry then what is it.
    This is by far the worst record in the duncan-era, with a team that is allegedly suppose to be one of the most talented. This team has had enough time to gel, and needs to start playing as if there jobs are on the line, because in actuality there jobs are on the line. This is by far one of the most active trade rumor season that the Spurs have ever had to endure.
    They need to quit worrying about being traded or not being resigned, and start playing basketball the way at the team is suppose to play together.
    This road trip is a long one, and they will have plenty of time to rest. They need to win at least 75% of the game on this road trip, while dominating Portland, both LA teams and Denver. I just don’t see that happening. Does anyone disagree with me.

  • bk

    You guys should seriously just not pay attention to the spurs for about a month or two. The regular season means absolutely nothing. Look at the Cavs from last year. They went 66-16 and lost to the magic. Whats the point of winning all those games?

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