Regardless, I think it is a good exercise to go through the roster individually and analyze some strengths and weaknesses, and what the Spurs might do to assure a title shot.
The Big 3
Timmy's stats have significantly lowered with the conservative amount of minutes he is playing, but his game is still making those around him better. He truly has been a force on the defensive end, blocking shots and pounding the boards harder than I think I have seen him in a couple of years (also probably attributed to his limited use).
Though his offensive production has contracted, his high ball-IQ in the pick and roll game and passing ability have confounded defenses and built up the numbers and confidence of his teammates, like DeJuan Blaire. He still commands a ton of respect from defenses, and still has the ability to take over games when he is feeling it. Timmy hasn't been as accurate around the rim as in years past, but he is making up for it by grabbing offensive boards or drawing fouls. Consequently, he is also doing better at the foul-line than he has in four years.
|Wait, that's not Tim Duncan.|
People often like to think that the Spurs go as Manu does, and the numbers so far do not lie. Of the Spurs 10 losses this season, 7 of those came when Manu scored under 11 points. Conversely, the Spurs have proven almost unbeatable when he scores more than 20.
When Manu is clicking, he not only hits his own daggers and crazy lay-ups, but he is also dishing it out wide for some open 3 point looks. Unlike Tony Parker, Ginobili is such an asset because he really can thrive in almost any line-up that Pop throws out there. Be it an orchestrater of the pick-and-roll, or a sniper from the arc, Ginobili is the most fluid, and thus most important player on the team. He is not only the Spurs leading scorer, but has supplanted Duncan as the "go-to" guy for the final shot. Yes, Ginobili ocassionaly gets a little too flippant with the ball with inexplicable turnovers, but he wouldn't be the improviser and highlight maker he is without a little bit of that gun-slinging attitude.
Thankfully, he isn't flopping as much (which he had been decried for league wide), but he does rely on contact and expects whistles to bail him out on occasion. Keeping him healthy is a top priority, so I could see his minutes decrease as the playoff's approach and the Spurs close in on that number one seed; his reduced presence will probably yield more losses down the stretch, but Pop and the Spurs' staff are historically unconcerned with appearances in terms of the final tally of W's - especially if they have already cemented the top spot in the West.
|Cool off, you are doing a great job down there.|
It appears the Spurs have benefited from Tony's off-season turmoil. The "French Philanderer" has had to shift his priorities away from the Hollywood spotlight and back to working on his game, which has notably improved from his injury-laden 2009 campaign. His offensive numbers are virtually identical to Ginobili's - he sits at 975 to Manu's 1001 points scored this year (obviously Manu's efficiency has benefited from his 115 3-pointers made, to Tony's only 15 ). Simply, his scoring is essential (pun intended).
Parker's speed is back to form, and his finishing around the rim has been remarkable at times (his stop-and-pop floater is the best in the league). If Parker is penetrating consistently (pun intended?) then it's virtually over for the opposition. Teams that fair the best against Parker fair better against the Spurs; those ball clubs with highly athletic interior players (Portland, 76ers, New Orleans, Bulls) are best suited to removing the lanes from Parker and Ginobili. Thankfully, only New Orleans really threatens the Spurs come the playoffs.
In relation to Ginobili, Parker's only real knock on his game this season is that he isn't nearly as good of a defender (even backup George Hill has cemented playing time because he is so much better than Parker for on the ball defending). Parker also suffers from an inconsistent 3 point shot, so he is much more liable to become one-dimensional if teams can successfully cut off his driving lanes. If Parker's speed doesn't fail him this year, he'll be a tough cover for some of the older point guards out West.
Let's face facts, DeJuan Blair is being groomed to one day competely take over for Timmy D. I know it's hard to think about the post-Duncan era, but it is only a few years away (maybe closer if he wins one more title); Pop and Spurs management know this, so they have been slowly working in DeJuan Blair. Essentially, the production that Duncan use to have is now being split amongst himself and Blair, and it is impressive for a sophomore in the league to already be that dependable.
It seems counterintuitive to say, but a no-ACL Blair has some surprising agility and finesse around the rim. Most kids would quit if they already had two ACL-removing surgeries in HS, so it really speaks to the kind of player Blair is for persevereing and getting better at his craft despite his perceived limitations. He has has changed my preconceptions on the necessity of knee ligaments, and I am now convinced they are vestigial. If anyone needs some, contact me - I think we can work out a fair price.
|Wait, he doens't have those things?|
The biggest problem to DeJuan's game is staying in it; he has wracked up fouls faster than Richard Jefferson, and it's mostly off ticky-tack reach in's. Look for him to get better, and play a bigger role in the playoffs.
|If only there was a cross through that real basketball...|
With the emergence of Gary Neal, George Hill has become less of a factor on the offensive side of the ball; yet, his value has been immeasurable when Pop uses him as the sub who facilitates the transition to the more defensive minded, three point chunking second unit. I was starting to think that they were trying to turn him into the next Tony Parker, but his game more resembles Rajon Rondo's; Hill is just more ball-movement and defensive minded. He doesn't look for his shot first, but he has the potential to get hot from behind the arc and really give the second unit a boost.
What Hill really needs to improve on is calling his own plays once and awhile. He can be a bit too selfless, and he really needs to assert himself more in the offense when the rest of the second unit isn't clicking; the Spurs second unit has been known to stagnate and give teams a sliver of hope.
Also, George Hill might be part Alien.
Gary Neal sort of reminds me of the old "Ninja," Sean Elliot, in that he is a total assassin from the three point line. How many times this season has he brought the ball up the court and, on a dime, laser a 3-pointer home. Neal has a more automatic and faster looking shot than Ray Allen at times.
He is one of those "old" rookies that have spent their time honing their craft overseas for 3 or 4 years. (Stefon voice) It's not like that kind of thing when really old people start taking college classes and ask an obnoxious amount of questions because they are terrified by their ability to learn new things.
The best part about his game is that it's completely unexpected from a rookie. Do you think that at the start of the year, Spurs management though that Gary Neal would be averaging 10.6 points in 21 minutes? His presence alone has vaulted S.A. to being a 100+ point, league-leading offense.
Like DeJuan Blair, Gary Neal has a tendency to foul himself out of playing time; he has a ways to go as a man-to-man defender, but if he stays on the floor he can really be dangerous. His best lineup appears to be any where Manu Ginobili is drawing defenders and creating.
Ridin' the Pine
|Yep, looks like a penis.|
Only to be called the "Red Rocket."
I am appreciative that the Spurs acquired the 3 point percentage leading in the league. Now, I can giggle to myself whenever I am driving home from work at night and listening to a game on the radio, only to hear "Splash-down for the Red Rocket" every time he nails a three. Poor boner.
He was much hyped when word came of his signing last summer. The giant kid with a Rocky bad-guy name (and voice) and big time Europe experience was coming to the Spurs - another drafting coupe.
Tiago, in his rookie year, is much like Gary Neal in age and experience. Unlike Neal, however, the transition hasn't been as fluid. A language barrier might be a problem (it took Pop a whole year of racial slurs in French to break Parker), but they still aren't comfortable running sets with him. Do not get me wrong, Splitter has an upside similar and maybe greater to Pau Gasol's, but it's going to take time.
Right now, he looks a little caught up in the moment and almost like he is so excited to be out there he doesn't know what to do with the ball.
Exhibit A - welcome to the danger zone:
Grade (based on video): B-
I really don't know what it is about "R.J" but I just can't stand him. He fails at dunking at least 20 times a year, and then has the audacity to exclaim "aiiiiyand one" in a high-pitched squeal every time that he goes to the rim.
I still might be bitter about last year. Then again, he did opt-out of his contract and took less money to become the good "Bruce Bowen" clone they wanted him to be. It took a lot of beating a square peg into a round hole, but Jefferson finally fits "comfortably" in the system.
But dammit, that tattoo is attrocious:
At this point in the season, what we can take away from the Spurs is that they are a deep and capable mixture of established and seasoned veterans, and confident young-guns. If they can stay healthy and secure the home court advantage, it'll be smooth sailing until meeting Dallas in the conference finals.