For the first time in a very long time, the San Antonio Spurs fell short of expectations. It wasn't just the fact that they fell far short of their goal of winning a championship, but it was how it happened -- a shocking four-game sweep to archival Phoenix, a team they used to dominate, in the second round of the playoffs. For a team that made some major moves and took on lots of salary to gear up for a deep playoff run, that's not good enough.
It certainly wasn't what they had in mind after a busy 2009 summer. Long known as a team that is careful with their chemistry and their finances, the Spurs made a big move in trading for Richard Jefferson. Jefferson, along with free-agent signee Antonio McDyess, caused the Spurs to exceed the luxury tax with their payroll, something they hadn't done even when they won titles. The Spurs felt such moves were necessary as a way to extend Tim Duncan's shelf life.
But for much of the year, the chemistry was a bit off. Jefferson in particular struggled mightily to fit into the Spurs' style of play, something that persisted all year. Youngsters DeJuan Blair and George Hill provided a spark, but also needed to be integrated into the "Spurs' Way." Injuries to Manu Ginobili early and Tony Parker late didn't help either, of course. Throw it all together, and coach Gregg Popovich had to do more mixing and matching than he's ever done before.
The Spurs recovered to finish 50-32 and knock off Dallas in the first round of the playoffs, but the series against Phoenix exposed all their limitations. The Suns ran wild on them, taking advantage of Duncan's lack of mobility with a steady diet of pick and rolls. It was jarring to see Duncan, long the league's preeminent defender, struggle so badly on defense, but Phoenix realized he wasn't nearly as mobile as he was five years ago and took advantage. San Antonio's supporting players couldn't pick up the slack, causing the sweep.
But if you think that series was the end of an era, you'd be mistaken. The Spurs simply reloaded this summer, adding Brazilian big man Tiago Splitter with an affordable contract. You may not have heard of Splitter, but he's one of Europe's top prospects. He should provide Duncan with his best complimentary big man since David Robinson retired in 2003.
SB Nation's Spurs blog Pounding the Rock believes the addition of Splitter solidifies the Spurs' outstanding interior core. Even without Splitter, the Spurs were among the best teams in the league at scoring and defending the paint. Now, with Splitter, a strength becomes a major strength.
Basically, what I'm saying is that despite appearances, the Spurs have one of the best front lines in the league, and should be able to at least hold their own against anyone up front. Don't worry about the big men, Spurs fans - they've got things under control. They own the rim.
Project Spurs believes Splitter is the kind of big man adept at doing everything the modern big man must do in this league.
With Splitter, the Spurs get a player who has mastered the pick-and-roll and doesn't mind doing the dirty work to let someone else score. His back to the basket game is improving by the year and he'll have Tim Duncan, one of the greatest players in the NBA, to mentor him. Splitter is also very active and aware while out on the court and while jump into passing lanes.
Splitter alone, though, won't catapult the Spurs to the top. To get there, the Spurs must improve two weaknesses: outside shooting and defense. Outside shooting was a major issue against the Suns in the playoffs. Jefferson and McDyess are both better mid-range shooters than three-point shooters, which is a problem in a Spurs system that values floor spacing more than most teams. Project Spurs believes the additions of first-round pick James Anderson and Summer League star Gary Neal will help fix that problem.
The 2010 playoffs were a clear sign that the Spurs needed some help beyond the arc, and they may have filled that void with the additions of James Anderson and Gary Neal. The Spurs struck gold once again by picking Anderson 20th in the 2010 NBA Draft. The former Big 12 Player of the Year and first team All-American was considered one of the best shooters in the draft and was highly ranked among shooting guards, but a hamstring injury he suffered scared several teams away from drafting him. While Anderson isn't yet in game shape, he's showed signs during preseason that he may be able to steal some minutes away at backup small forward and play better defense than expected.
That leaves defense, which seems like a strange issue for a Spurs team on the surface. It's not like the Spurs were bad defensively last year, but they weren't nearly as good as they were in years past. Part of that was Duncan's lack of mobility, which may not be fixable, but part of it was because they didn't emphasize defense like they did in the past. The rest of the roster will have to pick it up, as Pounding the Rock writes:
Tiago Splitter's skill in defending pick-and-rolls will be something to monitor as the season goes along, and equally important is George Hill's development defensively, especially since a lot of fans noted his difficulty in fighting through screens on and off the ball. The team is still looking for its next Bruce Bowen amidst question marks in the small forward depth chart behind RJ, who has his own share of doubters to prove wrong. Will Tim Duncan's strength-building offseason get him back to his old, defensive wizard self? I could go on and on, but without excellent defense as its usual calling card, the team will find it hard to contend for the title, much less secure home court advantage in the early rounds.
Those last two issues are fixable. One that might not be, though, is age. The Spurs have some promising young pieces, but the core of the team -- Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- is old. Parker and Ginobili were not healthy for much of last season, and while both look good now, the risk of injury is great. Despite all this analysis of their strengths and weaknesses, the Spurs' spot as title contenders rests on one fundamental question: can Duncan, Parker and Ginobili stay healthy? They showed their age last year, and Pounding the Rock believes this could be their final hurrah.
There's hardly going to be a more perfect time to finally go down our high horses and start pondering the post-Duncan era than this upcoming season. When Tony Parker says that this year is probably the "last chance" for this core to win a title, it's not that he's sending signals of abandoning ship for brighter lights -- it's just called being realistic. When Duncan comes to training camp for 2-3 years in a row "in the best shape of his life" or "slimmer, well-rested" and then labors heavily up and down the court in May as the Spurs' playoff hopes go down in flames, it's not because the other team got lucky or shot an aberration of a percentage from the field -- that's the sound of Father Time ringing the bell telling us that this great ride is nearing its end.
Call me crazy, but I think even that's a bit fatalistic. The Spurs have set themselves up well, with a good mix of youth and veterans, and I think they, not Oklahoma City, are the Lakers' biggest threat in the West. I have the Spurs down for a 54-28 record, as does Project Spurs (Pounding the Rock offers no prediction). When the dust is settled, don't be surprised if the old champs have one more run left in them.