Regular Season Western Conference Rank: 5
Before the start of the 2009 season, with the addition of Richard Jefferson, I no doubt saw the San Antonio Spurs as the biggest threat to the Lakers’ chances of repeating an NBA championship. They had seemingly restocked once again, to my dismay, by acquiring a potential 20 point scorer who brought an explosiveness and athleticism that had been absent from the Spurs for as long as I can remember. It always appeared as though when the Spurs were down in the dumps and on the decline, they would find another piece, pull out another great Duncan season, and win another NBA championship. Last season was supposed to continue their streak of NBA titles in nonconsecutive years – 2003, 2005, 2007, and now 2010.
But luckily for the Lakers and the rest of the league, the Spurs never found their groove and their new acquisition Jefferson never fully acclimated himself with the team; they instead seemed out of sync for the whole season. The Spurs were losing odd games to teams that they normally dismantle and they couldn’t take care of business on the road, where they were a mere 21-20. The mark of the Duncan Pop era had always been an ability to win the games they were supposed to, against weaker teams and on the road.
The Spurs were plagued with ineffectiveness from Jefferson, who couldn’t find a way to contribute from his role as a 4th option that only received a few opportunities a game, and mostly in spot-up situations. He was more accustomed to being the main focus offensively for his club and given the freedom to dominate the ball as a slasher or finisher, being fed passes from Jason Kidd. And with his lack of team success in previous years, he was also faced with the prospect of playing in meaningful games for the first time in a long while. His struggles were well documented and although the Spurs began the year as the hot pick to return to supremacy, they floundered.
Jefferson was supposed to be able to lighten the load on the team’s big 3 of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, all of whom had played heavy minutes for the past few years, deep into the Playoffs, and also in the summertime on their respective national teams. Instead, his inability to contribute like expected placed a heavier stress on those three, and they broke down somewhat.
Duncan’s minutes had to be strictly monitored and he was only given around 30 minutes a game, keeping him the healthiest out of the group. Ginobili played in 75 games but he was ineffective for the start of the season after coming off ankle injuries in previous years, and there were rumors that he was losing a step because of his style of aggressive play and age. He played well towards the end of the season and into the Playoffs, but his overall numbers declined. And Parker, although the youngest of the three, appeared in only 56 games a season ago as he was hampered by nagging injuries and was nowhere near as effective as he had been in recent championship runs – he lost 6 points on his scoring from just a season earlier.
Although Antonio McDyess played well as their center, appearing in nearly every game and providing rebounding, veteran leadership, and solid defense, the team lacked depth, which was obvious when injuries hit the team.
However, from the seeming wreckage, there were many bright spots. Firstly, the Spurs, for all their troubles, still finished 50-32, good for 7th place in the West and a spot in the Playoffs, where they beat the favored Mavericks in the first round. In spite of their inconsistencies during the season, they played well in the postseason and showed that they are at the very least still a team to be reckoned with.
Next, the team was able to find a diamond in the rough from the 2008 draft, George Hill. In his second season, he blossomed into a heady, trustworthy player with some needed athleticism and youth. He is an energetic, long player who is active on defense and displayed an impressive jumpshot, converting on nearly 40% of his three point attempts. He was able to cement his place in the rotation by earning trust from Popovich, not an easy task, and he has room to grow by improving his dribble drive and finishing. As he gets better and matures, and his teammates around him get older, he will have more chance to shine.
Next, the team boasted another diamond in the rough, from the 2009 draft – DeJuan Blair. Although with knee problems and size issues that scared away other teams, Blair was drafted by the Spurs (smartly) in the 2nd round. He was effective in college, dominating games with his rebounding and production, and although wasn’t prototypical in size or playing style, he nonetheless put up the numbers. I don’t know why teams would think that a player who was great in college wouldn’t be at least decent in the pros, but Blair lasted all the way till the 37th pick. During the year, he proved the Spurs right with his efficiency off the bench, and his effectiveness. He wasn’t all that big or athletic, but he always found ways to finish near the rim, make shots that he was supposed to, rebound in traffic, and generally do everything you’d like to see in a solid role player. He played beyond his years and didn’t turn the ball over much either.
And this season, with the addition of prized prospect Tiago Splitter from Brazil and a whole summer to better integrate Jefferson into their offense, the Spurs can take the step back into supremacy that they were meant to a year ago. Splitter is a young but experienced player that the team had drafted a few seasons earlier but stationed overseas to get experience and to improve himself so that he would be NBA ready when the time came for him to contribute immediately. From all the reports, he is a promising player who should add some depth and excitement to the club.
With their addition of Splitter, the improvement of Hill and Blair, the continued excellence of Duncan, and the bounceback years expected from Parker and Ginobili, combined with a weaker Western Conference, I see the Spurs as a 5th seed in the West this season. They should win around 52 games and claim a higher seed in the Playoffs than a year ago. They won’t be great in the regular season, because they will rest players and gear up for the postseason, but the true progress will be in the Playoffs, where they will beat a tough Rocket team in the first round. They can’t get past the Lakers in the semifinals, but you can guarantee that I don’t see that matchup as a gimme for the Lakers. The Spurs will take the Lakers to 6 games in the 2nd round before bowing out, but reestablish themselves as a premier team in the NBA. Never count out the Spurs until they prove to you that they’re over. They’re cockroaches, and they can thrive in spite of anything.