Know Your Enemy: The San Antonio Spurs

Darius Soriano —  October 13, 2008

This is the latest in a series at FB&G that will run through the start of the season, focusing on some of the top teams in the West and maybe a couple from the East.  In this installment we’ll touch on one of our biggest rivals over the past decade, the San Antonio Spurs.  (Cue the Deathstar music) ~Darius

Last Season Record:  56-26 (tied for 2nd best record in the conference with the Hornets, 3rd seed in the playoffs due to tiebreaker)

Last Playoffs:  Lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals in 5 games

Offensive Rating:  107.2 (15th in the NBA)

Defensive Rating:  101.8 (3rd in the NBA)

As Reed pointed out in his epic “Know Your Enemy”: The Phoenix Suns post, the San Antonio Spurs are our most traditional rival in the last decade.  They have the combination of Coach, GM, and players that have posed the biggest challenge to us since Phil Jackson first started (not) pacing (and really, just mostly sitting on) the sidelines and leading the Shaq/Kobe teams to post-season glory.  They are a model franchise in the NBA, with 4 Championship rings in the Popovich/Duncan Era and contiue to make trips deep into the playoffs every spring.  If there is one team (besides the Lakers) that will be remembered from the immediate post Jordan period of the NBA, it would be the San Antonio Spurs.

Last season was the typical effort from the Spurs.  They battled their way to over 50 wins for the ninth(!) consecutive season and advanced deep into the post-season.  And, just as in every other one of those stellar campaigns, it all started with Tim Duncan.  Duncan continues to be the catalyst for the Spurs, and even though some have argued that he’s lost a step, he’s still one of the elite players in this league, combining fundamental play with exceptional basketball IQ to do what is needed to help lead his team to victories.  His tremendous defensive instincts (both in one on one play and in the team structure) powered one of the NBA’s best defenses and helped smother opponents to the tune of 90.6 pts. allowed per game and also placed him on the All-Defensive (2nd) team, a feat he’s accomplished every season that he’s been a pro. 

But we all know that Duncan is not alone.  He’s flanked by two of the premier players at their respective positions in PG Tony Parker and SG Manu Ginobili.  Parker continues to grow as a player and his game is now considered the prototype for an NBA PG.  Lightning fast off the dribble and a one man fast break, Parker uses his speed and handle to blow by defenders, get in the lane, and finish amongst the trees.  He makes his living off the screen and roll with Duncan, where he’s gained enough confidence in his jumper to be a threat when defenders go under the screen, and can turn the corner like the roadrunner and dash into the lane, setting up himself for the easy two or dishing to a teammate when defenders try to chase him over the top.  He shot 49.5% on the season (his lowest in 2 seasons shooting 52% and 54.8% the previous two), which is amazing considering his size and the fact that he is not a natural jumpshooter (but, as I stated before is steady enough).  Teaming with Parker in the backcourt is Ginobili, one of the best wing players in the game today.  Manu is a fearless competitor with one of the most unique games in the league.  He brings the soccer pitch to the hardwood every night (both in how he changes direction and embellishes to earn the whistle) and shows a creativity that is a pleasure to watch every single night.  Just as dangerous off of the bounce as he is shooting the jumper, he uses his craftiness and shifty left hand to create angles that other players just don’t see and can finish with authority at the rim or with finesse around bigger defenders.  The guy has a complete game, and is one of my favorite guys in the league.

But as a team, last season would not be the Spurs’ year.  Coming into the season as the defending champs (which is already a strike against them, considering they’ve never repeated as champs in three previous tries), the Spurs had a tough hill to climb as injuries to key players and improvements from other teams made their quest to repeat an extremely difficult task.  In the playoffs they easily dispatched of the Phoenix Suns in the first round, but were then pushed to the limit by the upstart Hornets (where only experience and some Game 7 moxie helped them pull out the victory), and ultimately fell to our team in a series that many thought would go longer than the 5 games that it actually took.  And although the Spurs were clearly hampered by an obviously not 100% Ginobili in their loss to the Lakers, I think that they would have struggled to beat us even if Manu was healthy considering Kobe’s ability to score at will with his jumpshot and how the Spurs didn’t have the bench to play with our 2nd unit.  So, as in seasons past, the Spurs look to retool on the fly and compete in a tough divion, and an even tougher conference, hoping for another chance to win a title.

This upcoming season will be an interesting one for the Spurs.  Over the past few seasons, they watched their role players get old and have not been able to find young players capable of stepping in to replace the production that their steady veterans have provided.  But this year, they will not have a choice and will need some of their young players to make strong contributions.  Gone are Robert Horry and Brent Barry.  And while Michael Finley and Kurt Thomas return, they are now just spot players and should not be counted on for major contributions, even if they are feeling younger by practicing some new training techniques.  So the Spurs will be looking for solid minutes from younger players that are unproven in this league.  Guys like Ian Mahinmi, their 2005 first round pick out of France who’s shown very good improvement over the past year in the D-league and has flashed good athleticism that could help boost the Spurs frontcourt.  The Spurs understand that Mahinmi is still raw, but he’s got talent and they’ll be looking for his size, length, and the bounce in his step to add a dimension to their rotation.  They’ll also be looking to Salim Stoudamire, the former Hawk whose long distance jumper and ability to handle to ball (some) will hopefully replace some of what Brent Barry has provided recently.  Besides them, rookie guard George Hill from IUPUI will get some run and try to help bolster their PG rotation after they traded away Beno Udrih early last season (if Hill’s name sounds familiar, it should.  He’s the player that the Lakers brass was supposedly very high on in this past draft, hoping to snag him with our 2nd round pick, instead picking up Joe Crawford).  However the one young player that the Spurs were hoping they could rely on will not be available to them this next season.  Tiago Splitter is the Brazillian big man with first round talent whose rights are owned by San Antonio.  He’s played very well in Europe over the past two seasons and the Spurs were hoping to bring him over this next season to have him bolster  their F/C rotation.  Splitter’s bruising style on offense and defense combined with his hustle and energy would be valuable to any NBA team, but match what the Spurs need to help Duncan almost exactly.  But Splitter decided to stay in Europe instead and signed a contract to remain with Tau Ceramica of the Spanish League.  Splitter’s decision was doubly hurtful for the Spurs as many think it was their reliance on a future this upcoming season with Splitter that swayed them to trade Luis Scola to the Rockets before last season.

Can the Spurs make another run?  Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili remain.  And while Ginobili is still on the mend from surgery, the team (and even more importantly the head coach) has a positive perspective as he can now, finally, heal from the injuries that plauged him during the playoffs and the Olympics.  Injuries that sapped him of his trademark explosiveness and ability to play to his full ability.  And even though some of the Spurs players are getting older, they are still contributors and continue to fill roles that help win games.  Bruce Bowen, though not the all world defender he once was, is still a major irritant to wing scorers and can still hit that corner 3 pointer.  Jacque Vaughn is still a decent back up PG that has refined his mid range jumper and avoids mistakes.  Fabricio Oberto is still a quality big man that works well in tandem with Duncan, hustles on defense and the glass, and brings a craftyness and savvy that few big men operate with.  And Ime Udoka is becoming the new Bowen…making timely jumpers and providing perimeter defense, putting a strong body on the leagues top scorers and playing within the Spurs team defensive concepts.  There’s also new addition Roger Mason (from the Wizzards) who is another wing player that can hit the 3 pointer and play a good enough all around game to crack the rotation, helping to replace the departed Brent Barry and be a contingency for a declining Michael Finley. 

In the end, the Spurs are still a western power.  Especially when they have 3 all-star players and a head coach that I’d take over every other coach in the NBA not named Phil Jackson.  Can they combine new pieces with their veteran core to make another run?  I’m not sure (I wouldn’t bet against it, though).  But I do know that, when healthy, they’re as tough an out as any team in the league.  Ultimately, I see the Spurs competing hard for their division title with the Hornets and the improved Rockets and still in contention for a top 4 seed.  If they can survive the first part of the season when Ginobili is out and have Duncan and Parker stay healthy, they’ll be in the mix.  Their time is not over yet, and though there are other teams that are improved and will be strong as well, I see our longtime rival being right there this season…again.

-Darius

Darius Soriano

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15 responses to Know Your Enemy: The San Antonio Spurs

  1. Darius,

    Well crafted, nice links, and really solid information. Now go figure me some Wall Street.

    Well Done!

  2. Allan – Brazil October 13, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    I’m really glad that Splitter is not going to be a Spur any time soon.
    Being a Brazilian I follow his game closer than most of you in USA and I can tell you that this is a tremendous loss for San Antonio. Thiago would really flourish in the NBA.
    Also, as a side effect, they lost Scola too, who I also followed close since Argentina is our biggest rival (not so much of a rivalry lately).

    It would be better if Scola stayed overseas as well or at least went to East Coast. But hey, we can’t have everything and there’s always T-Mac/Yao injuries to rely on.

  3. It’s tough to count out the Spurs. But they really needed to make a significant move in the offseason and they failed to do that.

    Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker will do their thing. But their bench is weak.

    San Antonio drafted Parker late in the first round and Ginobili was actually a second round pick. That’s great. But how many Parker and Ginobili’s are there? Not too many.

    They’re going to have spend money on free agents.

    I think San Antonio is going to have to bite the bullet and venture into luxury tax territory if they want to remain competitive in the coming years.

  4. I hate the Spurs, but I’ll give credit where credit is due. They are a model franchise, for the NBA as well as any other pro sport.

    If you look at the consistent mix that’s underlined the team’s success, it’s had ownership that largely stays out of the way, a stable front office and a stable coaching staff and system. There are great players, too, but players come and go.

    If you have the right type of organization, you can reload, a la the Lakers as they moved from the Magic/Kareem/Worthy era to the Lake Show, then Shaq/Kobe and now today’s Kobe-led Western Conference Champions. Same formula. Same results: Ws and rings.

    (An NFL-themed aside: I compare the Spurs’ Silver & Black model to that of the Oakland Raiders, who do everything in an opposite manner: crazy owner, puppet front office and a revolving door of coaches. It doesn’t matter how many good players they have, they’ll never win until they fix the issues at the top. But I digress….)

    That said, I don’t see San Antonio as strong enough to come out of the West this season. The team needed to reload and didn’t put much into improving the roster.

    Yeah, Parker and Duncan are great, but I just don’t see enough depth there to hold off the Lakers, Hornets or Jazz over the long-haul, let alone a playoff series. Houston could overtake the Spurs too, perhaps even Portland if their young guys come together quickly like we saw in New Orleans a year ago.

    The Spurs, Suns and Mavs are non-factors at this point. They’ll rebuild because good teams always do. But it won’t be this season.

    My two cents, anyway…

  5. When we say the San Antonio bench is weak we make the same mistake that others made about the Laker bench at the start of last year. If their young guys develop they are going to be really tough. While that is clearly a good sized IF, we had the same issue a year ago and look what happened.

  6. 5 – I get what you’re saying to an extent, but I just don’t see that comparison when looking at the Spurs’ current roster.

    Maybe there’s a diamond in the rough there, but heading into last season I think there was clear evidence that Bynum and Farmar were going to make a solid leap forward, and Vujacic had shown signs of real talent as well.

    I was firmly opposed to dealing Bynum over the 2007 off-season because I firmly believed he would be an All-Star withing two to three seasons, once he’d grown up and matured a bit. Farmar also showed signs of being a very good NBA 1 guard the prior year. Bottom line, there was a lot of upside with those young guys.

    I just don’t see anyone on the Spurs roster now who’s shown the early signs of future greatness on the horizon. But as I’m fond of saying, it’s only October and time will tell all come June.

  7. #5 and #6.

    I think that the Spurs are looking for their own Bynum, Farmar, and Sasha. They found those guys with Manu and Parker, but have not found any since them. Oberto was a good grab, and I think Scola would have been that type of player for them and that Splitter would definitely provide that influx of youthful talent that the Spurs need. But they’re still missing those 2-3 young players (like Stuckey, Maxiell and Amir Johnson from the Pistons, for example) that are the bridge between their core, veteran players of today and the contending team of the future. Their bench of mostly veterans will still produce, but can they make the key run when all the starters are out, they way that our bench can?…that remains to be seen.

  8. On a completely unrelated note, here’s more reason to hate the Celtics:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oCuPF6OiZA

    Punk. Who does Bill Walker think he is? I wish Artest would have given it to him right there.

  9. i think the bench doesnt need to be supremely talented, just experienced. Its up to the coaches to utilize the players just like how Popovich have been doing with the spurs and recently, what phil has been able to do.

  10. a bit off topic, but all the development on our roster and plans for ariza, sasha and probably powell to get extended mintues will complete the “bench mob”. add to that Kobe sliding to the 3 spot. What happens now to Luke and Mihm? projecting the rotations and minutes for each position, I see:

    * Pau and Bynum sharing the C with the 3rd center getting 5-8 inconsistent minutes
    * Pau, Odom, Powell and some radman sharing the PF duties
    * in no particular order: Ariza, Radman, Kobe at SF
    * Kobe, Sasha (odom? ariza?) at the SG spot
    * Fish and Farmar playing PG

    Thats a 10-man rotation and I seriously think Phil would rotate minutes only among those players. If the starters plus odom will get 30+mins, this is how things would be and Mihm and Luke would most likely be riding the bench or getting only spot, inconsistent playing time. I think the lakers should get “cheaper” players who will be the 11th and 12th guy. a 12-13yr vet big, or a developing player who will only need spot minutes. I think Sun Yue, Dj Mbenga, heath, karl, and giles are good candidates for that spot. i dont want to see a healthy luke and mihm ride the bench all season. I think pairing them up in exchange for a vet/draft picks or trade exceptions would help the lakers, mihm and luke and the team they will go to. what are your thoughts?

  11. k_swagger8,
    “…Sun Yue, Dj Mbenga, heath, karl, and giles are good candidates for that spot.” None of these guys should see the floor, other than garbage time…even with injuries. That is the key word and the reason Walton and Mihm are on the roster at this time. Both can play 15-20 minutes if they have to because of injuries.

    Of the others you mentioned, I see only Sun Yue and Karl making the club, with Giles having an outside chance at the 15th player if Mitch feels any deal he makes will be 2 for 1.

  12. I do not know why people are so low on the Spurs? They have not been active in the summer, and they are traditionally boring. But Spurs have always been that way.

    I think we are too hyped up with what is going on in the media. NO, UTA, HOU and even the Lakers would gladly give up one rotation player (Green/Harpring/Brooks/Walton) to have the experience, mental toughness, team spirit, longevity and coninuity that Spurs have

    Remember that basketball is a mental sport, where a lot of social factors (teamwork, positive chemistry, good relationship, trust) can be more imoprtant than talents of some players.

    My ranking of Western Conference Power this year would be:

    1. Lakers
    2. San Antonio
    3.Utah
    4.Houston
    5. Phoenix
    6.New Orleans
    7.Dallas
    8. Denver/Portland

  13. LakerFan,

    If that ranking is for the probability of coming out of the West, then I agree. But I do not think that Regular season would produce such a list.

    Spurs will most probably stay in the region of 6-8 seeds, considering the injuries and the fact that TD, Manu, Bowen and some elder citizens will need more rest during the regular season.

    But overall, SA has the experience, guns and brains to do a lot of damage in the playoffs. It will largely depend on the opponent pairing, but SA has as good a chance to make it to the NBA finals if they do not meet with the Lakers (most uncomfortbale opponent for them due to LA’s multi-rich team)

  14. Baring a mid-season transformation, New Orleans would KILL the Spurs in the Playoffs. There’s not even a question. NO has only gotten better and “more experienced,” while the Spurs have only lost talent and aged further.

    The same applies for Houston and Utah. I will be very surprised if the Spurs make it to the Western Conference Finals.

  15. Underestimate the San Antonio Spurs at your own risk. The media has e been saying since 2004, that they “older”, “over the hill” and here they still are in the Western Finals last year. They’ll be right someday but as long as Tim Duncan Pop and RC Buford are there, they’ll always be contending. To assume otherwise is hubris.