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|The Spurs will need several hands to pick up the missing production of the injured Manu Ginobili.|
Yet one also wonders if we've seen the first chinks in their mighty armor. For the first time in eons, San Antonio looked better at the start of the season than at the end, with the offense in particular going into a tailspin in the second half. And with multiple key role players getting well into their 30s, there's a question of how long they can keep playing at this level.
W-L: 56-26 (Pythagorean W-L: 57-25)
Offensive Efficiency: 104.7 (13th)
Defensive Efficiency: 99.5 (3rd)
Pace Factor: 90.8 (28th)
Highest PER: Tim Duncan (24.41)
For 2007-08, at least, other teams would have killed to have San Antonio's problems. There was no championship hangover for these guys -- they opened the year 17-3. But then they hit a serious midseason lull, winning just 11 of their next 24 games. As usual, their nine-game February "rodeo road trip" saved them. Though it came earlier than usual, San Antonio won six of the nine games on the trip and nine more in a row once it ended to boomerang back to the top of the West.
In past seasons, the Spurs have ridden that wave through March and into the postseason, but not this time. San Antonio finished the season 13-9 and several of the losses were ugly, including defeats by 21 to the Lakers, 17 to Phoenix, 26 to Utah, and 25 to New Orleans.
In particular, the offense ground to a halt. San Antonio ranked 26th in the NBA in second-half offensive efficiency, behind such luminaries as the Knicks, Nets and Wolves. Obviously, this was an unacceptable performance for a championship aspirant, and what made it particularly aggravating was a pronounced tendency for the offense to fall apart in the second half after a solid opening two quarters.
San Antonio showed the same tendencies in the postseason. It lost three times when leading at halftime against New Orleans and punted leads of 20 and 17 points to lose to the Lakers in the conference finals. For the postseason as a whole, the Spurs were only 12th out of 16 teams in offensive efficiency.
Relative to the league, the Spurs' second-half offensive decline was absolutely massive. While the league average offensive efficiency rose by five points after the break (this is fairly normal), San Antonio's fell by 3.5. If those numbers resonate, try this one on: San Antonio's second-half decline was larger than Miami's, even though the Heat traded Shaq, shut down Dwyane Wade and fielded a glorified CBA team for that stretch while the Spurs were gunning for a repeat championship.
|TEAM||1ST O EFF.||2ND O EFF.||RELATIVE TO AVG.|
Fortunately, their D bailed them out time and again. The Spurs have always been a dominant defensive team under Gregg Popovich, and after a slow start they were again last season. After the All-Star break, San Antonio ranked second in defensive efficiency, barely missing Boston for the top spot. Relative to the league, the Spurs were 7.18 points better after the break -- only Orlando improved more.
San Antonio's defensive strategy was predicated on taking away all the easy stuff -- for years it has been among the hardest teams to get a 3-pointer against, and had one of the league's lowest opponent assist rates. That trend held up again last season, when the Spurs were third in 3-point defense (34.2 percent) and were the third-hardest team to get a 3-point look against -- just 19.1 percent of opponent field-goal attempts were 3s. With Tim Duncan around, it wasn't easy to score inside the arc against them either -- San Antonio was fourth in 2-point defense and gave up a below-average number of free throws.
With two world-class defenders in Duncan and Bruce Bowen and a number of solid defenders around them, San Antonio rarely needed to double or overcommit from the help side; as a result, it tended to turn opponents into one-on-one jump shooters. San Antonio gave up assists on just 52.2 percent of opponent field goals; only Phoenix gave up fewer.
|TEAM||DEF. REB. RATE|
But perhaps the most important plank in the Spurs' defensive wall was the rebounding. With Duncan as the centerpiece, San Antonio rebounded 77.1 percent of opponent missed shots (see chart). That total led the league, and allowed the Spurs to limit their opponents' shot attempts despite rarely forcing turnovers.
Their D was still rolling in the postseason, where they ranked fourth in playoff defensive efficiency despite facing three of the league's top five offensive teams. The offense, however, couldn't overcome Ginobili's injury in the conference finals. He scored 7, 7, 9 and 10 points in the four San Antonio losses, and the Spurs averaged just 86.4 points in the five games against L.A.
|What roster moves did the Spurs make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider|
Popovich is one of the game's top teachers and motivators, and he has two outstanding individual defenders to base his system around in Bowen and Duncan. Bowen shuts down the opponents' top wing player with his quickness and savvy, while Duncan quietly dominates inside with his shot-blocking and rebounding.
Around them are other strong defenders. Ime Udoka is the heir apparent to Bowen as the wing specialist, Thomas is excellent at defending the post and helping teammates, and even scorers like Ginobili and Parker are solid defenders -- as are most of the secondary players. Even with the team getting up in years, it's hard to imagine San Antonio finishing outside the league's elite in defensive efficiency. Speaking of which
Taken individually, it doesn't seem so horrible that Ginobili and Udoka are 31, or that Mason is 29, for instance. It's when you start piling up the cumulative impact of all their ages that it really sinks in. Bowen is 37, Finley and Thomas are 35, Fabricio Oberto and Jacque Vaughn are 33 and Duncan is 32. Yeesh.
In particular, the age of the wing players has to be a concern. San Antonio's top four wing players are 31 and older, and while they've taken exceptional care of their bodies, history tells us that the only direction they can surprise us in is down.
Up front, they at least have size and smarts to fall back on, but the age of the top three is a worry too. Ian Mahinmi, a 2005 first-rounder, is the one flicker of youth in that group; he comes off a strong D-League season and will try to win a role as the fourth big man. Unfortunately, San Antonio's frontcourt succession plans got a little messed up when 2007 first-rounder Tiago Splitter decided to stay in Europe; he would have provided an inexpensive, quality young center, but couldn't take the pay cut dictated by the league's rookie salary scale.
The problem is that the Spurs don't have anyone else capable of stepping up into a primary scoring role when one of their stars go out -- they've entirely built the team with the idea that the other guys will be snipers who can play off their three ace scorers. Take Ginobili out of the equation and that begins to unravel; should Parker or Duncan turn an ankle in the fist half of the season, things could really get ugly.
San Antonio is trying to squeeze two more years out of this nucleus, but there's a possibility they won't make it that long -- in fact, the roster's advanced age leaves open the possibility of a sudden, unexpected collapse. I don't think it's likely, mind you, but that's the thing about sudden age-related collapses -- we never expect it. Just ask Miami.
More likely, All-Star-caliber play from Duncan and Parker and the usual suffocating defense keeps the Spurs afloat long enough for Ginobili to come back and get them into the playoffs. If they're healthy at that point, they'll be a very dangerous first-round opponent because of their three stars and history of late-season surges but they'll also be playing every round on the road.