Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Notebook: Bucks -Spurs, 12-30-08

So the Bucks have some crazy voodoo on San Antonio. They're now 12-10 against the Duncan-led Spurs. Why? Maybe Herb Kohl is sticking sharp little pins into a dolled fashioned after the likeness of Gregg Popovich, but I tend to agree with Frank Madden: it's a meaningless coincidence. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The story of this game is that the Spurs were demolished on the boards 29-43. As a team, they collected a mere 3 offensive rebounds. Slice it anyway you want to, but that's pathetic. The Spurs were lucky to scrap back into the game in the 4th quarter, but anyone who saw the game knows Milwaukee was their better for most the night.

For me, the game is helpful talking point for a more crucial topic: currently, this is a mediocre basketball team. Honestly, I don't think they are as good as their 20-11 record suggests. Of their 31 games, 5 victories are by 3 points or less, two of which were on final, have as much validity as a coin flip, shots. The Spurs have won a remarkable three games by way of double overtime. They've beat Dallas, Denver, Houston, Utah, and Phoenix, but those teams were at varying degrees of strength. They're yet to beat an elite team. Sorry Denver, Dallas, Houston, Utah, and Phoenix, but that ain't you.

Sometimes analysis isn't rocket science, and that's the case here. The Spurs have simply been inconsistent in basic areas of play. Regarding this game, Popovich said, “I’ll have to look at the film, but a lot of it was missed assignments; especially in the first half." This game is not terribly unique in that regard. Beyond rotations, the Spurs have not been a great rebounding team this season, as we wrote about earlier in the year. Last night was a fine example of this fact. But we can be a little more specific in our analysis, while still giving something of helicopter view.

Fab Oberto and Ian Mahinmi are injured, giving the Spurs a thin front court. And while someone like Oberto is not a monster on the boards, raw stats don't account for things like boxing out an opposing player or how his presence on the court allows others to space themselves around the hoop. Oberto, for all his lack of athleticism, is a gifted passer and the Spurs get higher percentage looks when he is in the game. If the league tracked hockey assists--the pass that led to the assist--Oberto would be a box score champ. Mahinmi is a wild card, but I don't think there is any question he would help. That's who's not playing.

Of the bigs who were on the court, Bonner and Tolliver are perimeter players. When one's job is to provide spacing with set shot 3s, it's hard to clean the glass. Kurt Thomas is a fine rebounder, but the Spurs have been utilizing his reliable pick and pop game. In other words, he often finds himself at 15 -17 ft, removed from the immediate vicinity of the basket. We're writing about Tim Duncan's role in all of this for an upcoming post, but suffice to say he is spending much more time away from the hoop this season. Offensively, Duncan's post play has been displaced by a heavy reliance on mid-range jumpers. His post game is as potent as ever--Popovich is simply preserving his body for the post season by limiting Duncan's low block brutalization. Time will tell if this is wise maneuver. In comparison to last season, his rebounding average is down from 11.3 to 10.2. This is really not a reflection of a drop in athleticism. He's just further from the hoop. Finally, after a torrid start, Matt Bonner is regressing toward the mean. Last night he had 2 boards in 18 minutes, a stat which speaks for itself.

Last night's game provided a window into other red flag story lines, but we'll have to save those for later posts. Gregg Popovich is fond of telling his team that each game is an opportunity to improve upon the last and that they play the season to be better by the end of the season. The Spurs, famously, peak after March. So it's no surprise that they're mired in the middle with plenty of room to improve at the end of December. Still, we'd like to see these kinks resolved sooner than later.

Update: John Hollinger's just posted analysis also suggests that the Spurs are mediocre. He paints a grim picture going forward--too grim, in fact, for me to support. Despite my concerns, I still give San Antonio even odds to win their division. Pop is a great coach, this is veteran squad known for peaking late, and most of their problems can be fixed. But, supposing Hollinger is correct, Spurs fans will be relieved to know the pick we gave to OKC for Kurt Thomas is lottery protected. Nevertheless, we're still a hellalotta paces removed from the "who are the best draft prospects?" cliff.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Spurs, the Farm Team, and the Fan

I want to take a few moments to attach a follow up comment to yesterday's TrueHoop, Malcolm Gladwell, and Malik Hairston post.

The Austin Toros are a good basketball team. This will sound controversial to some, but they have more talent on their roster than most, if not all, D1 programs. The Toros are not alone, if you look over the rosters of most NBDL teams, you'll find a who's who list of former high school and collegiate phenoms. The Spurs push the Toros further than this because of their insistence to play their end-of-the-bench NBA talent in Austin--i.e. Ian Mahinmi, Anthony Tolliver and Malik Hairston.

Last season, the Toros advanced to the NBDL Finals, but lost. This season they have a record of 10-3, with what many would consider the most talented roster in the league. As I've mentioned elsewhere, the Spurs impose themselves on the Toros in every way, including the shared expectation to win. Fans are always quick to highlight the more pious sounding aspects of Spurs culture, such as hard work, humility, and perseverance. Those are all present, thankfully, But a core tenant of Spurs culture, unspoken as it may be, is that the team will compete for championships. Winning is part of the dogma. The Toros, then, are not satisfied to be the lap dog of big brother Spur. They're drinking the Kool-Aid; they're the class of their league too.

The upshot of all this is that the fans really do have something good to cheer for in Austin. The games are worth watching, the team is a winner, and some of the players will stick with San Antonio for several seasons. In other words, investing oneself in, say, Malik Hairston may lead to bar stool conversation a half a decade from now when you proudly bore everyone with your memories of "when Malik sunk that shot against the Albuquerque Thunderbirds." "Even back then," you'll say, "I knew--really, really knew--that this kid had something." In business terms, the Spurs approach to their D-League affiliate puts the best possible product on the floor for their clients.

Dan Reed, NBDL president, is quick to note that putting a good product on the floor in Austin not only advances the Toros brand but it helps the Spurs as well. Writing about the 3rd team to own their affiliate, the Thunder, Reed makes a strong point that largely, if not completely, applies to the Spurs-Toros relationship:
In addition to all of the basketball-related benefits that all NBA teams love, I think what OKC sees that perhaps other NBA team owners have overlooked or undervalued is the business opportunity inherent to owning and operating your own team in the NBA D-League. Clay Bennett has gone on record in saying that he wants the OKC team to represent all of Oklahoma, not just Oklahoma City. And while his lease with the Ford Center doesn't allow him to play OKC games all over the state, by owning and operating the Tulsa 66ers he has the opportunity to extend the "OKC" brand and experience to the 2nd largest market in Oklahoma, which allows him to grow his fan base, provide a greater level of value to his marketing partners, and open up new revenue streams. He has good reason to believe in this, as the business of the NBA D-League is flourishing - our team valuations have quadrupled over the past two years, in part because of the 20% increase in attendance and the 40% increase in team sponsorship revenues we saw this past season.
The model the Spurs are inventing in Austin is rife with positive business-basketball symbiosis. Let me give one final example, and then I'll be done. Yesterday I noted this comment from
San Diego State legend Mohammed Abukar's career has taken a turn for the better, as he was unsigned until about 24 hours ago, when he was picked up by the Austin Toros of the D-League. Quietly, the San Antonio Spurs have managed to stash basically every one of their training camp signings on their D-League affiliate (which they own), as well as their former draft pick Marcus E. Williams. Owning your own affiliate seems to have some merit when the allocation players are handed out.
The Spurs spent a little extra cash in training camp this summer, bringing in a collection of fringe NBA players and overseas professionals. The result was a hotly contested camp. The Spurs have two incentives to move beyond the all too typical process of inviting a collection of practice bodies to training camp. First, their cap constraints place an onus on unearthing affordable, under the radar talent. But second, and perhaps more importantly, the camp allows them to scout for Austin-bound talent. In a related way, team scouts are now getting much more value from their day-to-day efforts. They are no longer simply scouting for the Spurs upcoming draft. The Toros, remember, have a roster that needs to be filled out as well. Dan Reed put it this way:
One NBA GM who owns an NBA D-League team (I'm protecting my source, so flip a coin), told me that one of his biggest surprises was the additional benefits that it provided from a scouting perspective. For one, neither the Spurs nor the Lakers have to ever send scouts to NBA D-League games - all the top prospects come to them for their home games! The Lakers and Spurs probably have the closest thing to "perfect information" on all of the players in the D-League, because the coaches of the D-Fenders and Toros - who are preparing game plans and breaking down matchups - are also their employees. Also, their college scouting efforts are improved, because now instead of scouting for one or two draft picks per year, they are scouting for up to 12 "roster slots" (2 for the NBA team, 10 for their NBA D-League team). You could see this in action to some extent with the Spurs last season, as they not only fielded an excellent team with the Toros this past season, but were very aggressive in utilizing the NBA D-League to find an additional swingman for the Spurs - calling up Keith Langford, Marcus Williams, and Jeremy Richardson before ultimately settling on DerMarr Johnson for their playoff run.
Taken altogether, the Spurs ownership of the Toros, and the care they provide for players like Malik Hairston, is to the benefit of their fan base. And in fact, the relationship between San Antonio and Austin is strong justification for the people of Austin to assemble and proudly support the Toros. They wouldn't be watching in vein, and they certainly wouldn't be cheering for crap. The Austin Toros are the San Antonio Spurs of the NBDL, and in more ways than we could number.

At Center Court with Frank Madden

Over the past few days, I've been talking with friends about Mark Cuban's call to save the Titanic---eh, I mean your local dead tree edition's sports section. I could wax poetic about all the advantages talent-rich, dedicated blogs have over beat writers in terms of the quality of coverage (although, not in terms of their accessibility to the team; in short, I think this is a medium issue, and newspapers writers are severely handicapped because of the medium-imposed constraints of paper) or I could simply ask: If you lived in Milwaukee and were given a choice between Frank Madden's Brew Hoop or the Journal Sentinel, where would you go for Bucks coverage? Me too. I haven't pointed my browser directly toward the MJS for a couple years.

The Bucks travel into San Antonio tonight and Frank was kind enough to take time out of his holiday schedule to join us at Center Court.

: The Bucks always seem to play Popeye to the Spurs' Bluto. San Antonio has a losing record against Milwaukee during the Tim Duncan era. Why do you think the Bucks have fared so well against the Spurs?

FM: I don't think there's a good answer for it. The Bucks have had little continuity over the past decade and they've been bad for the majority of that period, so there's no obvious thing they've had going for them. A number of close games have gone the Bucks' way and earlier this year they caught the Spurs playing shorthanded, so luck is probably the biggest factor. One of the best games I've ever seen live was probably the Bucks' OT win over the Spurs in 05/06 when Bogut hit a game-winner at the buzzer.

TV: Sen. Kohl calls you into office and asks, "Frank, what's the most sensible thing to do with Michael Redd? Is he a better player than trade chip or trade chip than player?

FM: That's really the big question for the Bucks right now, because Redd's on court performance has bottomed out of late (18.5 ppg, .397 fg%)...and his contract made him a difficult guy to trade even when he was producing at a high level. The market will always be limited for a player with such a big cap number—including this season he's owed $51 million over three years—and this summer there didn't seem to be any team aside from Cleveland that was seriously interested. The Bucks reportedly turned down a deal for expiring contracts and draft picks, which in hindsight doesn't look so bad now. At this point I don't think John Hammond would hesitate to pull the trigger if he got a fair offer talent-wise, but a Cleveland-like salary dump doesn't get the Bucks under the cap next summer or in 2010 either.

The only possible explanation for Redd's decline is the high ankle sprain that kept him on the shelf for nearly a month early in the season, but that excuse only goes so far. He has appeared at times limited in his ability to slash and finish around the hoop, but he's struggling with wide open perimeter shots as well. To his credit, his defensive effort and passing have improved in recent weeks, but a guy like Redd doesn't earn his money that way—he needs to be scoring efficiently if he's going to be a star-caliber player. So far he's not. The Bucks would be foolish not to be shopping him, but they might not be able to get anything of use until his play picks up again. It all comes down to whether there's a team out there that can both stomach his salary and thinks he can get back to where he was a couple years ago.

TV: Why is Luke Ridnour starting in front of Ramon Sessions?

FM: Three weeks ago I would have said it was mainly a function of Scott Skiles' perpetual distrust of young players, but Ridnour has been playing better of late while Sessions has shown some of the inconsistency you'd expect out of a young player. Still, Skiles has spoken of liking Ridnour's game for years, so it's probably not surprising that he's stuck with him despite a mountain of statistical evidence arguing for Sessions to get his shot.

Like most Bucks fans I would like to see Sessions getting more consistent burn, but he still has lapses defensively and that's the one thing Skiles doesn't tolerate. Ridnour doesn't have Sessions' physical tools or craftiness in the lane, but he's been around the block and Skiles knows what he's going to get from him. Unfortunately, Ridnour has coninued to struggle from the perimeter (29.7% threes) this year, which should be one area where he has a distinct advantage over Sessions. Especially with Bogut getting doubled more often, the Bucks need their guards to make jump shots and space the floor, but only Lue (in limited minutes) has been a three-point threat among the PGs.

I have to think that Sessions' superior talent level means that he'll get his shot eventually, but Skiles doesn't seem to be in a hurry to put that sort of pressure on him. Perhaps not coincidentally, that will probably make him cheaper to re-sign next summer as well. Still, Charlie Bell's health and Tyronn Lue's possible departure via trade mean Sessions could be seeing more time soon even if Ridnour hangs on to the starting spot.
TV: Yes or no, is Charlie Villanueva a Buck come February?

FM: I would say no—though I felt the same way a year ago when Villanueva lost his starting job to Yi Jianlian, and we all know how that worked out. It's not that Villanueva hasn't been a key contributor this year. His scoring ability off the bench has been a big boost for a team that struggles to score, his rebounding has been well above average for a PF, and his defensive effort has been more consistent. Still, I just don't see the Bucks wanting to commit long-term dollars to him this summer when he enters restricted free agency. Charlie doesn't really fit the Scott Skiles archetype (tough, defensive, consistent) and his occasional offensive explosions have always obscured the fact that he's a streaky, low efficiency scorer.

For a proper game preview, stop by Brew Hoop.

Update: I thought it was common knowledge that the Spurs struggle against the Bucks, but apparently not. By my count, San Antonio is 10-11 against Milwaukee since Duncan was drafted. The two teams did not play one another during the strike season. The total games are at an odd number because they've only played once this season, a 78-82 Spurs loss.

Monday, December 29, 2008

TrueHoop, Malcolm Gladwell, and Malik Hairston

Back on December 11, TrueHoop ran a bullet commenting on a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell. In response to the article, Henry Abbott wrote: professions like picking NFL quarterbacks or good teachers, it is nearly impossible to know who will succeed until you see them try. That means that the best way to find good ones, long term, is to try a lot of them and weed out the bad ones. I'm thinking the same line of thinking could be used in finding NBA players. If you tried it, you'd expand rosters with more inexpensive players. This could work in conjunction with the D-League, which could offer minutes to some of those players, especially the ones who weren't killing it in the NBA.
Abbott subsequently attached this addendum to the comment:
TrueHoop reader Brad e-mails: "Isn't what you recommend based on his [Gladwell's] findings exactly what the Spurs are doing? They bought a D-League team (Austin Toros, 90 minutes up I-35), and as 48 Minutes of Hell wonderfully explicate, the brilliant San Antonio management uses 10-day contracts like ongoing job interviews. They stash and/or farm young guys and bring them up every so often to see how they react. Even if they won't be playing this year, they're grooming them in the "Spurs Character" (not to mention Pop's basketball) system, so that next year, or the year after that, they will be more than ready -- and management will have seen who fits and who doesn't. Remarkable stuff, and this has been going on now for the last couple of years!"
TrueHoop reader Brad is a smart fella, and we thank him for drawing attention to our efforts to showcase the paradigm-shifting nature of the Spurs efforts in Austin. This is a Spurs blog, but we keep a close eye toward Austin, and precisely because we see the Toros as a fully-integrated part of the Spurs. The Toros, or at least their prominent players, are an extension of the San Antonio bench. Coach Quin Synder and his staff are an extension of Popovich. Dell Demps, who is with the Spurs front office, is the GM of the Toros. One is not fully covering the Spurs without paying attention to the Toros. Events in the the last week have provided a case study for the Spurs use of Austin as an "extended interview."

On December 15, the Spurs waived guard Blake Ahearn. Ahearn had been called up from the Dakota Wizards on November 16, just after the NBDL camps had started. In his month with the Spurs, he played in a couple parent club games before being assigned to Austin, where he played in another 6 contests before getting the axe. In other words, the Spurs signed Ahearn to audition him in Austin. I suspect the Spurs were sincere in their interest in Ahearn, but ultimately released him because they did not see him as a long term fit---maybe because of his questionable ability to defend at the NBA level.

Ahearn is not our case study, but I raise him as an introductory example to provide a segue. The Spurs dedicate their 14th and 15th roster spots to Austin and are bent on identifying players whom can eventually help the Spurs--rotation quality players, not suit-wearing end of the bench types. We're not going to discuss him in this post, but Anthony Tolliver is the Spurs current 14th man and has seen rotation minutes with the Spurs and a stint in Austin this season. This of course also says nothing of Ian Mahinmi, who is an important part of the conversation.

In this sense, the Spurs have basically eliminated their inactive list. They have an injured list and an active in Austin list. They don't let their prospects collect dust. This is true in the sense that they are always playing or practicing (Toros), but also in the sense that the Spurs are willing to burn through audition player after audition player until they find someone who is a legitimate stick. A few years down the line, we'll have a better sense of this. But perhaps in every 15 Austin interviewees, the Spurs will find one guy who lasts with the parent club. Or some such. You get the idea. Ahearn has been weeded out, Tolliver is in question, Mahinmi is in waiting (injury), and Hairston's got next.

It's curious to me that the Spurs are seeking to find in Austin what they've already found in Bruce Bowen, Ime Udoka and Roger Mason. That is, role players who have proved their worth by coming up through the minor league ranks. Players who find their way through a process of hard work and humility. In other words, whether or not a player will fit into "Spurs culture" is an important part of the equation. From what I can tell, the equations has three parts: is the player a cultural fit, does he fill an eventual need for the Spurs, and does he produce on the job, following Gladwell. Culture, need, performance. The Spurs want to surround their 3 stars with hard working role players who will run through a wall to help the team succeed.

Back to the point: our case study is Malik Hairston. As most Spurs fans know by now, Hairston was signed by the Spurs on the 22, just after winning NBDL Player of the Week honors. We've been watching Hairston carefully and were not surprised to learn of his new contract. We started painting his Spurs back story just after training camp, which you can read about here. On November 19 we wrote:
There is more hope for Malik Hairston, who will open his professional career as temporary property of the Austin Toros. He spent training camp with the Spurs and showed promise. Too bad for the Spurs, however, any team in the league will have opportunity to give Hairston a call up. This is likely. The people over at Draft Express put it this way:
Malik Hairston could very well be the first player called up by an NBA team, as soon as one injury or another happens and the need for a versatile swingman arises. He has an NBA body already to go along with nice physical tools, an advanced skill-set, and excellent intangibles to boot. It was surprising to say the least to see San Antonio decide to keep Desmon Farmer over him, but if Hairston can show improved ball-handling skills and the ability to defend both wing positions effectively, his stay in Austin should not be very long.
The Spurs will not have a first round pick in the 2009 draft. Their ability to fill gaps in the quickly eroding small forward wall will have to come through free agency, a trade, or the D-League. As we will see in a future post, this is not a simple task given the Spurs assets and cap situation. But for now, there is good reason to cheer for Hairston.
On December 13, we updated our readers on Hairston's progress:
Malik Hairston continues to intrigue. In this contest he was 8-11 from the field, ending the night with 25, 7, 7, 2, and 1. In college, Hairston displayed a decent three point stroke, improving each season and finishing at a respectable 43%. Since joining the NBDL, he is shooting 71%, but on only 8 attempts. In his final season at Oregon he attempted .34 three pointers per field goal attempt as compared to .10 as a Toro. Conversely, his free throw attempts have improved from .41 to .59 per FGA. In other words, Hairston is making a concerted effort to put the ball on the floor and get to the hoop. This is great considering his FT% is on a 10% rise (now at 83%). Quietly, Hairston has become a more efficient, better-rounded basketball player. During his preseason stint with the Spurs he looked unsure of himself on offense, but this is slowly changing. Development League, indeed.
In some sense, Hairston has been the Spurs 16th man since October. For those of us keeping score, he was drafted by San Antonio, summer leagued and camped with them, accepted allocation to the Toros, and now occupies a space on their official roster. Hairston has been with the Spurs since June, under the tutelage of their coaches and trainers, playing in their system the entire time. Of Hairston's signing, Gregg Popovich said, "Malik was doing well enough that I think other people were starting to get interested. We wanted to make sure we didn't lose him."

At the front of this post we quoted Henry Abbott imagining a situation wherein teams could see players succeed through trial and error, had the ability to weed through multiple applicants, and were able to expand their rosters and offer minutes to promising youngsters. I know what you're thinking: San Antonio Spurs, Austin Toros, Malik Hairston. And you're correct. That's exactly right.

There is no guarantee that Hairston will stick long term with the Spurs. If, for example, a trade brought back two for one, the Spurs might have to bite the bullet and free up roster space by waiving him. But with the ages and contract situations of Mike Finley, Ime Udoka and Bruce Bowen, one can see a number of scenarios wherein Hairston not only sticks, but significantly contributes to the future of the Spurs.

After signing his contract, by the way, Hairston spent a mere two days behind the Spurs bench before being re-assigned to the Toros. You can't become a better player in a suit. If Hairston lasts through the season, he has a solid chance of being in the Spurs rotation next season. Without slighting Ime Udoka, Hairston could probably approximate Udoka's current production, even now. By next season, he should be able to meet or exceed it. And, unlike a free agent signing, Hairston will be completely assimilated into Spurs culture and have a year in the system before being asked to do anything meaningful for San Antonio. It's a great model for development. Not only do the Spurs have the luxury of carefully identifying and nurturing those players who can succeed, Hairston is put in a position where success is a reasonable expectation.

We could say more, but that will have to suffice for now.

Update: It looks as if we're not the only ones who see a pattern emerging. Sham from, chimes in with this comment from a recent post:
San Diego State legend Mohammed Abukar's career has taken a turn for the better, as he was unsigned until about 24 hours ago, when he was picked up by the Austin Toros of the D-League. Quietly, the San Antonio Spurs have managed to stash basically every one of their training camp signings on their D-League affiliate (which they own), as well as their former draft pick Marcus E. Williams. Owning your own affiliate seems to have some merit when the allocation players are handed out.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Match-Up of the Night: Mayo vs. Ginobili

Although I would argue Derrick Rose is actually the most skilled member of this most recent rookie class, the most electrifying to watch is clearly O.J. Mayo. I never thought he was all that special of a prospect in college: Sure, he had all the athletic talent in the world but I never saw him translate that athleticism into the on-court theatrics we have seen so far this season. Without a doubt the most brilliant maneuver by the Memphis front office in recent history is the decision to trade Kevin love for Mayo (I saw Love on Tuesday when the Timberwolves lost to the Spurs in SA. Love, a future role player at best, possesses nowhere near the talent nor the intensity that Mayo has).

Mayo is also the key to any chance the Grizzlies have to win a game against the Spurs. San Antonio has had a tendency to play down to its competition. The Spurs' slow pace of play and Popovich's incessant roster tweaking oftentimes make it hard for the silver and black to put away teams they should be beating easily. From what I can tell, there is nothing Mayo thrives on more than late game drama. If the Spurs allow the Griz to stay within striking distance, young Mr. Mayo's hot hand may be able to deliver an upset.

Coming of the opposing bench is the wily Argentinean. Although my love for Manu knows no bounds, his return to the squad so far this season has been slightly underwhelming. Statistically, he is down in almost every category from last year: PPG, FT%, FG%, 3PT%. At first I thought some of these statistical slides (in particular PPG) were because Popovich has been giving Manu significantly less court time in the wake of his surgery (He is averaging 25.6 minutes per game compared to last season's 31).

But a look at Hollinger's PER reveals that Ginobili's efficiency is down significantly. Last season he logged an impressive 24.07 PER (second only to Kobe Bryant). This season his PER sits at 19.87. It is still the sixth best in the league for shooting guards, but hardly as gaudy an efficiency rating as he was able to attain last year.

Yes, Manu is not as explosive as he once was but that does not explain it all. During his entire tenure with the Spurs Manu has played with a reckless abandon that is absolutely infectious. This season I have only felt the effects of such glorious infections every so often. Against a team like Memphis is an excellent opportunity for the sickness to rediscover his deadly potency.

Joe Smith? Yes, please.

Earlier this week, I voted to pass on the prospect of Dikembe Mutombo joining the Spurs. Steve Bulpett has pushed that conversation forward by reporting the Celtics are no longer in the Mutombo sweeps. This is interesting on a few fronts.

First, Mutombo has recently said his return was imminent, narrowing his options to San Antonio and Boston. However, if Boston is no longer in the running, one might assume that Mutombo is a Spur-in-waiting. This might be true, but I suspect not. Why?

The Bulpett report also includes this tidbit:

Alonzo Mourning’s name is still being floated, but an even more intriguing property could be available soon. There is talk Oklahoma City may buy out Joe Smith’s contract, and that the club is at least serious about trading him.

The Celtics can’t and won’t discuss him publicly, but at a lanky 6-foot-10, Smith would seem to fit the club’s need.

Said one NBA scout, “Are you kidding me? Joe Smith would be perfect for the Celtics.”

If it's true that OKC is nearing a buy-out of Joe Smith, then San Antonio is in no rush to sign Dikembe Mutombe. Joe Smith would be perfect for the Celtics, I have no doubt. But he would also fit very nicely in San Antonio. 48MH has often noted that the Spurs lack a frontcourt player who can guard the likes of Dirk Nowitzki and David West. Smith may not be a prototype in this regard, but he's certainly a help. His ability to score in a high pick and roll setting, rebounding, and veteran know-how would seem an ideal compliment to the Spurs current cast of bigs.

One of my objections to signing Dikembe Mutombo is that his presence would impede the growth of Ian Mahinmi and hamper the Spurs efforts in Austin. The Spurs should be willing, however, to bite those bullets in exchange for a player who is a decade younger than Deke. Smith is still a productive player and would constitute a major upgrade. The loss of Anthony Tolliver, Malik Hairston, or, improbably, Jacque Vaughn is easy to accept in exchange for Joe Smith.

Unfortunately, Joe Smith might find the prospect of becoming a member of the league-leading Celtics more alluring than San Antonio. Whatever the case, it seems likely that if Bulpett's report is accurate, San Antonio and Boston will be among a short list of teams that make eyes with Smith. Let's hope he bats an eyelash, blushes, and blows a kiss back Alamo-way.

(HT: Jeff Clark of Celtics Blog)

At Center Court with Chip Crain

I secretly heart the Memphis Grizzlies. Guilty pleasure. Divided loyalties. Innocent crush on a cousin. Eh, bad example. You know what I mean. They're a solid young club that could become a force. Their great weakness is their owner, and that is often difficult to overcome. I hope he sells the team and it moves to Las Vegas or London. But, as usual, I digress. 3 Shades of Blue's Chip Crain has met us At Center Court to answer a few questions about his beloved Grizzlies.

TV: I think it's Jeff Van Gundy who is fond of saying that it isn't Kwame Brown's fault that he was drafted #1 when he should have been drafted #15. I feel the same way about Darko Milicic. He's had good performances against the Spurs this season. Generally speaking, he's an above-average post defender with some ability to score. His main problems seem to be mental. What do you make of his game? Is he a long term fit in Memphis?
CC: Before I answer that question I would like to say Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyous Kwanza, a general Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year to all of your readers. As a family man I love this time of the year and I truly hope everyone can share this time with their families and friends.

Darko is a potentially dynamic big man. His problem has always been that his head gets in the way of his game. He is a fantastic defensive times. He can times. He can do just about anything that a quality big man can do and he is only 23 years old and won't be 24 until June. It just seems like he should be much older because he was drafted into the NBA at 17. What people forget is Darko's really didn't play his first 3 years in the league and last season he played through a host of injuries that would have sidelined many a player. In many ways the rap on Darko is more an issue of maturity than talent.

Darko is Serbian and people here really don't appreciate what that means to him and what he has seen. Do a little research however and you will realize that Darko's past is filled with horrors we wouldn't want our children to hear about much less experience. Darko turned to basketball as an escape from a lot of things. When he came to the USA he had never started in Europe, was very raw and frankly crumbled under the pressure of Detroit fans. He was rejected in Orlando when he was a vital piece of the team and that hurt him as well. I think Darko reacted poorly to his benching earlier this season as well. However he has regained his starting spot and is a fixture in the Grizzlies lineup now. His performances have been improving as a reflection of that. Memphis has not been destroyed inside this season and a large reason for that has been Darko's play.

What is his future? I honestly don't know. His contract is up at the end of the 2010 season and whether or not the Grizzlies step up to pay him a lot of money is in doubt. Marc Gasol is just a few months older than Darko, Darrell Arthur is only 20 and has looked good at times this season. Hakim Warrick is a dynamic scorer and the Grizzlies still have three #1 picks in next two drafts. Will the cost-conscious Grizzlies want to pay Darko or not? Besides Darko has already commented that he would like to return to Europe in the future since he believes his offensive skills aren't being showcased properly in the NBA. If he continues to improve and outplay Gasol and Arthur then yes I believe the Grizzlies will pay him to stay. If not, then who knows?
TV: In my opinion, the Grizzlies need to find someone who can score 20 in the post and a new coach. Agree? Disagree? And if so, who and how, on both fronts?
CC: So you think the Grizzlies need someone who can score 20 points in the post? Can you tell me what team doesn't need someone like that? Of course the Grizzlies need a major force in the paint but there aren't a lot of those players lying around on people's benches with team's willing to trade them. You have to acquire those types of players in free agency or the draft. So far Memphis, despite having one of the worst records in the league the last 16 years, has never won the lottery. The trade of Pau Gasol was needed if the team wanted to rebuild with youth. Pau didn't want to be part of a rebuilding and his attitude has never been good as a leader. The Grizzlies would never be able to sign a big name free agent with Gasol making max money. He didn't have a leader's mentality and, frankly, his less than physical playing style was turning off Memphis fans.

The Grizzlies did draft Kevin Love and a lot of people felt he would be perfect in Memphis but at this point can anyone seriously say they wouldn't want OJ Mayo more? And, in what seems like a first, Memphis has tons of cap space. Will Memphis be able to sign someone? I think so. Josh Smith signed with Memphis this past summer only to see his contract immediately matched by Atlanta. The idea that free agents won't come to Memphis is just wrong. There are some interesting big men who will be FA's this summer and I expect the Grizzlies will make plays for one of them if they don't strike gold in the lottery.

As for Coach Iavaroni the answer is more difficult. Marc was brought to Memphis to take over a slow and aging team and to make them into the Phoenix Suns' fast paced offense. Surprisingly with Damon Stoudamire, Mike Miller, Pau Gasol and Darko Milicic in the starting lineup that didn't work too well. There was not a lot of speed on the court to run with. Then the Grizzlies decided to remake the entire team and go young with rookies Mayo, Arthur and Gasol joining Conley (21), Lowry (22), Gay (23) and Milicic (23) as the core of the team, with only Hakim Warrick (26) as a player in his prime among the top 8 players on the team. This team is built to run much more effectively but now the owner wants to play defense like Detroit instead. What coach could look good with that much turmoil and change happening around him? Iavaroni is holding onto his job right now and my prognosis is he will last until the end of the season simply because of the economics of the situation in Memphis. However, I don't have a lot of faith that he will maintain the job next season. Not because he can't coach but simply because someone is going to have to take the fall for another lousy season here. A new coach, especially one with a reputation for excellence could promote ticket sales, which is needed. Keeping Iavaroni won't do that in my opinion. This is a business after all. The question will come down to how well the team is responding to him, how much would it cost to fire him vs how much would the team make by replacing him and whether the team is still committed to enacting their 3 year plan.
TV: Chris Wallace: following the Gasol trade he earned the reputation of being incompetent or, at best, a lap dog for Micheal Heisley? In hindsight, the Gasol trade doesn't look too bad and he landed Mayo. What do you make of him?
CC: Funny you should mention Chris Wallace next. I was about to talk about him in the Iavaroni question. People may have forgotten this or not realized it to begin with but Wallace was hired after Iavaroni. Marc wasn't his choice as coach so that could also have an effect on Iavaroni's job security because Wallace is on relatively solid footing right now. If Wallace is going to end up taking the fall for the poorly received Gasol trade then he is probably going to want to fall with his coach on the bench.

People may not always see what Chris is thinking when deals go down but he is also not reviled either. The Gasol trade is a prime example of that. Memphis gave up an near all-star level talent to one of the most loved or reviled teams in the NBA depending on how you feel about the Lakers. What did they get for him? Kwame Brown, some Spaniard and Javaris Crittenton. That's how the pessimists saw it. In reality Wallace created cap space, got the Spanish League MVP in 23 yr old big man Marc Gasol (yes, Pau's brother) and a potential swing guard. Unfortunately, Crittenton couldn't get PT behind O J Mayo, so Wallace salvaged his losses by trading him for a Washington draft pick that Memphis had previously owned--it was actually a very shrewd move. Basically the Grizzlies couldn't trade a #1 pick away to acquire a player for 6 more years since it was possible that they owed that pick to Washington. But now, after reclaiming the pick in the Crittenton trade, Memphis has the ability to utilize that pick as an asset. Wallace has made some really smart moves so far as GM that havn't yet translated into wins but should down the line.

Of course Wallace also traded away Memphis' 2 best players in Mike Miller and Pau Gasol and has little to show for it so far. The fact that Memphis won 23 games in back to back seasons with Miller and Gasol as their stars should tell people that they weren't that important. Still fans grow attached to players, especially Mike Miller who was hugely popular in Memphis, so there has been a hit on ticket sales from these moves. That damage is seeming to diminish, however, as the young and hungry Grizzlies start impressing people.

I feel that Wallace is a draft genius but only a so-so trader. Of course, I don't get involved with the conversations between Heisley and Wallace so I don't know exactly what the plan is. His trades have caused alarm, but I think Wallace sees where he wants the team to go and is willing to drag the fans behind him. Whether that turns out to be smart or not won't be known for several seasons. Right now most people are convinced the trades Wallace made were in the best interest of the franchise.
TV: Why hasn't Mike Conley worked out?
CC: Mike Conley is starting to develop, but he was a risky pick at #4. So far he has to be described as a disappointment. Still, he has enormous potential. He came out of college after his freshman season and very few point guards develop who come directly out of college or after only one season in college. It is just a position that requires more development than others. Conley's recent demotion shouldn't be viewed as a statement of dissatisfaction with his play however. Mike is just a better scorer than Lowry and not as good a defender. The starting unit needed more defense and the bench needed more offensive punch. In this way, a Lowry/Conley switch made sense. Moving Mike to the 2nd team enabled the team a more balanced attacked throughout the game. Conley is still on the court at the end of most games so I still feel the ability to be a top level PG is there. It is important to remember that pass-first PG's need shooters around them to excel. Right now Memphis doesn't have enough true scorers. Once the team gets more developed then his true value should be more apparent. Conley is much improved on his shooting from his rookie season. By making his outside shot consistently, he forces defenders to guard him on the perimeter, which in turn opens up the court so his quick feet can scamper into the paint. Before people asked, why doesn't he get into the lane more often, but now people see him doing this and wonder if he'll learn to kick the ball out once he gets there. Once that starts happening then the question will be can he defend top line PG's at his size. Conley still has more questions than answers, but he is showing signs of progression.

What people have to realize is that Conley just turned 21. He's younger than O J Mayo and Marc Gasol, who are rookies. As with Darko and Rudy, fans need to be patient with Conley to allow him to develop into the player he will become. Patience is hard on fans so it is understandable how they want to label a 21 yr old PG who has played fewer than 82 games in his NBA career as a bust but if they hang with him and allow him the time to develop they will probably be pleased with the result. So it isn't that Conley hasn't worked out. It is more that Conley hasn't worked out yet.
TV: Steve Francis?
CC: Steve Francis: now that is a tough one. Wallace basically decided a 2nd rd pick now is worth more than a 2nd rd pick 3 years from now. Francis might be a great motivator for both of the Grizzlies young PG's (Lowry is only 22, by the way). He has skills that both PG's could learn from. Maybe he can still play but personally I think Francis probably came with enough cash to buy him out of his contract and the deal was to acquire a 2009 2nd rd pick for a 2011 2nd rd pick. Francis was the motivation for Houston to do the deal. By shedding his contract Houston fell beneath the Luxury Tax threshold, which means the Rockets can sign Mutombo for their playoff run. If Memphis is significantly better in 3 years (and the draft this year is better than I believe it is) then this is a smart deal for the Grizzlies. In short, a 2nd rd pick this year fits into the 3 year plan. The 2011 pick didn't.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Composure is Coached

Reading through yesterday's post game quotes, two items caught my attention.

Amare Stoudemire said, “I think we played well enough to win. We played solid defensively, we rebounded the ball well, we played upside defense and did everything we could and had to, to win. Unfortunately, (Roger Mason) hit a three in the corner. It happens sometimes.” In a vacuum, this is correct. But the problem here is not a "sometimes" issue; this is an "all the time" issue. The game doesn't exist in a vacuum, and the Suns squandering opportunities to beat the Spurs is something of a running joke--the "that's what she said" of professional basketball. I'm obviously a Spurs guy, so I get a perverse joy from listening to the record skip. If I were a Phoenix fan, however, I'd be angry, but not at the Spurs. That's too easy. At some point, Phoenix fans just have to call their team out for not having the gall/guile/moxie/dial-a-cliche--balls?--to put the Spurs down. Let's move beyond the tired whiz-bang machinery of excuse-making. It's time. Bruce Bowen has left the building.

This leads to the second quote. Speaking of a moment late in the game, Tim Duncan reports, "That was a specific line that he (Popovich) used, ‘it will probably come down to one play in this game’ and it did come down to that." If one wonders how the Spurs manage to devastate the Suns with such frequency, this is undoubtedly part of the equation. Pop coaches composure into his squad; he allows them to prepare for the big moment minutes before it arrives. Popovich may not be a Zen Master, but he is a masterclass coach. This is a classic example of that psychological aspect of elite coaching which separates the gold from the dross. Or, if you will, this is the thing that separates the Spurs from the Suns.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Notebook: Peace on Earth, good will toward men

Absolutely nothing in this world brings a broader smile to the face of your humble author than when the San Antonio Spurs defeat the Phoenix Suns. And rest assured, my smile stretches ear to ear because the Spurs toppled the Suns in Phoenix this very merry Christmas day. Although the Spurs took a very narrow lead during the 3rd, the Spurs trailed for the majority of the contest. But some lock-down defense by the silver and black, as well as some last second heroics by Roger Mason Jr. helped send the boys in black back to SA with a signature win over a hated rival.

In all honesty, the game started very poorly for the Spurs as well as myself. The Magic were decimating the Hornets (which is actually a good thing), and I chose to take a nap in preparation for the big game. I awoke when I my father frustratedly noted that "we're getting whooped." In a sleepy, irritated haze I glanced at the TV to discover a 0-11 score in favor of the Suns. A number of my ex-girlfriends can attest to the notion that I am a real SoB when woken from a nap; tack on the fact that the Spurs were getting thoroughly handled by Phoenix and I was in as 'bout a bad a mood as I had been in all year.

My first reaction was "Phoenix Stan must have tipped Porter off." Recently Tim and I took part in a podcast hosted by Phoenix Stan of the excellent blog Bright Side of the Sun. During it Stan asked me what it would take to beat the Spurs. I told him they should crowd the lane, prevent penetration and dare us to make our 3-pointers (which I referred to as our "guilty pleasure.") Well, the Suns heeded my advice and forced the Spurs to take (and miss) long jumper after long jumper.

On the opposite end of the floor the Suns came out efficient and aggressive. The titanic frontcourt of the Suns made their presence known as Shaq and Amare scored 14 of the Suns first 17 points. Deep in the second quarter the Spurs went on and 8-0 run, cutting the lead to 4. The Spurs would enter the locker room at half down by 6.

The game would remain close for the next 24 minutes. In the early minutes of the 3rd quarter Duncan played excellent defense on Shaq, giving the Spurs the necessary stops to tie the game at 52 (and even briefly take a 54-52 lead). The Suns would again open up an 8 point lead at the beginning of the 4th but the Spurs would close the gap with 5:48 to play and never again allow the game to get out of hand.

With 1 minute left Parker committed a technical foul, sending Nash to the line where he tied the game 88-88. After missed layups by Amare (which was defended beautifully by Duncan) and Parker (who was absolutely fouled but didn't receive the call), the Suns came out of a timeout and run a beautiful backdoor screen to Grant Hill, taking the lead 90-88 with 4 seconds to play.

On the play Grant Hill inbounded the ball to Amare and immediately cut baseline where an awaiting Nash picked Finley, giving Hill the easy layup. Parker was covering Nash but failed to make the appropriate switch as Hill slid past and laid in what many thought would be the game winner.

With 4 seconds to go Finley inbounded the ball to Parker (who was guarded by Hill). Parker drove left but was unable to drive past Hill. Luckily, Jason Richardson collapsed on to Parker, leaving Roger Mason wide open in the corner. Parker completed the pass and Mason nailed the 3-pointer as the buzzer went off.

Although Parker played well (27 points, 10-23 from the field), the game ball goes to Tim Duncan, whose offensive consistency kept us afloat in the second quarter and whose impeccable defense put us in a position to win. In the closing minutes of the game both Manu and Parker missed layups but the Suns were unable to capitalize on the opportunity because Duncan played tremendous defense against Amare, who the Suns were relying on to make clutch shots down the stretch. Duncan hauled in highly contested rebounds, produced turnovers, and denied open looks, all while having 5 fouls. He also had a moment, simple yet telling, in which he dove to the ground in order to secure a loose ball. It was a tenacity I haven't seen from the big guy in a while and it was reassuringly beautiful to behold.

Make no mistake, defense won this game. The Spurs shot only 41.8% from the field, typically a percentage not high enough to topple a potent offensive force like the Suns (although no longer as meteoric as the D'Antoni days, this team still knows how to score some points). Another key to victory was the turnover differential: While Phoenix coughed the ball up 14 times, we allowed only 6 turnovers all game. We shot worse and hauled in less rebounds, but by protecting the ball and being aggressive on defense we gave ourselves the opportunity to win.

Let's be frank: the Spurs didn't play a great game. They showed a lot of poise down the stretch but in the closing minutes both Parker and Ginobili failed to make layups after the defense came up with stop after stop. In some ways beating the Suns on merely an OK day leaves room to be optimistic, but this team still gives the Spurs match-up problems and will not soon forget what happened in Arizona today. But now is not a time to worry about the future. Today is a day to be merry. Happy Holidays, Spurs fans.

Merry Christmas

I had a rather lengthy post planned in which I was going to reflect upon the symbolism of the Suns-Spurs rivalry. Then I realized It's Christmas and nobody is going to be reading this so I'm going to save it for a day when there are actually people on the interwebs. [Insert obligatory "All I want for Christmas is a Spurs win" comment here]

At Center Court with Phoenix Stan

Peace on earth. Good will toward men.

Sort of.

Earlier this week, Phoenix Stan of Bright Side of the Sun interviewed Graydon and myself for a podcast that was surprisingly cordial. We even--gasp--enjoyed ourselves. Strange, that. Phoenix fans and Spurs fans playing nicely. The Christmas spirit has imposed its glad tidings and good cheer all over our rightly thorny dispositions. It'll pass. But for now Stan joins us for a a little yuletide tit for tat at Center Court.

TV: How does it feel to lose to the same team time and time again? Why do you hate us so much?
PS: Wow. Do you guys have some kind of insecurity issues that you need to be loved? What's up with that?

To answer you questions. a) It blows. b) See answer a.
TV: Last summer, I went through a blasphemous stretch wherein I wondered if the time had come for the Spurs to move Manu Ginobili. At the time, he was the second best shooting guard on the planet, but hobbled by injury and likely to decline in value from that point forward. It made me sick to even think about a Manu-less existence, but sometimes the hard thing is the right thing. For a week or two, it made sense but then it passed. Have you had one of those moment's regarding Steve Nash? What will be the tell-tale sign that Kerr ought to pull the plug? Missing the playoffs? Locker room disintegrates? Mired in the middle?
PS: Trade Nash? Blasphemy!

Ok, now back to reality. I have thought about trading Nash and there's been some mild discussion about it. You can't help but wonder if his value in a trade will decline rapidly after this year. If, come trade deadline time, the Suns were clearly out of it, you would hear more of that talk. But I don't see it happening. The Suns are right there in the mix and the locker room appears to be in perfect harmony now that Bell and Diaw are gone. This new version of the Suns is the best so far this year and rapidly improving. Watch out!

One does hear a lot more talk about moving Amare. There's a lot of people that think he's never going to be a guy you can build a franchise around despite all his talent and desire. So do you consider moving him? What do you get back? Al Jefferson? Kevin Durant? That's really the problem when you get past the frustration of "will he ever reach potential?" There's really no player that makes sense coming back. You aren't going to get Wade or LeBron for him. Or Kobe. Or KG. Or Timmy for that matter (not that we would want him!).

But the fear in Phoenix is that after Nash and Shaq are gone then no matter what you do to build around Amare you will never have a championship team unless you get lucky in the draft and find a guard like Roy or Paul that can be the leader.

TV: What do you make of Shaq's resurgence and his demands for more touches? Shaq being Shaq or justified?

PS: Well, O'Neal is playing at an All-Star level and deserves more touches. I am NOT a Shaq fan and HATED the trade but there is no denying that Shaq is playing great this year. He should be getting touches but like everything its a balance. I choose not to interpret his most recent comments as a complaint but more of a statement of fact. He should get touches, especially early when he's freshest. Shaq can get opposing bigs into foul trouble and "soften" up the lane for J-Rich and Hill. Going to him early will keep Nash and Amare fresh and ready to close the game out.

When you think about it, the Suns offense is very deadly because we have the ability to score in any number of ways. I think the team chemistry issues and demanding the ball stuff will fade away as the group is successful together.
TV: The Suns are a better ball club with Jason Richardson. Shaq is playing his best basketball in years. In my estimation, Steve Kerr has done a good job in Phoenix from a trade value, cap-management standpoint. But it also seems like the players see him as Judas for attempting to turn the Suns into Spurs-lite. Is he destined to play the role of the hated "will never do right by us" executive for killing the glorious 7 Seconds or Less Suns?
PS: D'Antoni killed 7SOL last season even before the Shaq trade. He recognized that in order to win in the playoffs (beat the Spurs) the team needed to be able to score in the half court, get to the line, and keep Nash fresh. Then when he (Mikestache) pushed for the trade that sealed it.

As for Kerr, whether he's a Moron or Genius changes on a daily basis. That's why we created the Steve Kerr Moron Meter to track his accumulation of Genius and Moron Points.

The balance between when to run and when to slow it down has been a struggle and up until the J-Rich trade there was a schism in the locker room. Now--at least in the last 4 games--we are seeing the team come together. Against the Blazers, the Suns ran and shot in a throwback style but Shaq also pounded the ball on the low block, scoring 19. Same story in the Nuggets game: controlled chaos on the break, Shaq bullied to another 19.

If you look ahead at what this team can be when the defensive rotations improve (we did hold Denver scoreless for 3 minutes to close out the game) and the offense has more time together then there is every reason to think we can be good enough to get beat by the Lakers. It's been a rough road to this point, but standings-wise we are right there with everyone else.

So watch out Spurs fans. We are coming for you! Again! This time we mean it! Really!

Damn it, who am I kidding...

Well, okay, so we won't be meeting under the mistletoe anytime soon. But it was still fun.

Hey, Steve Nash, did you hear what Santa gift wrapped for Tony Parker this Christmas? That's right, your defense.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Notebook: Spurs-Timberwolves, 12/24/08

I had the pleasure of attending my second home game in a row, and just to make sure there was a bit of drama Pop chose to fiddle with the roster for 4 quarters instead of put away an underwhelming T-Wolves squad. But how is that different than any other night?

Tony Parker was the only Spur who really dazzled last night, scoring 36 points on 17 attempts. Aside from his nightly acrobatic show performed in the painted area, Parker was consistently draining his mid-range shot which, as we have noted several times, makes the little Frenchman very difficult to defend.

Tim Duncan played a decent game, scoring 19 points and hauling in 12 boards but he could have done a better job covering Al Jefferson, who walked away with 28 points. Many of Jefferson's points were scored on simple layups and post moves that Duncan did not make any especially aggressive attempt to stop. It's not so much that Duncan got beat as that he took the game lightly. For further evidence, note that he did not score at will whenever Kevin Love was guarding him.

Manu only saw 20 minutes of playing time, just enough to tweak his ankle late in the 4th quarter. He would return to the game with under two minutes left because Popovich refused to give the starting 5 the necessary minutes to put the Wolves away for good. It's unclear as to whether this incident was the inevitable aftermath of surgery (oftentimes the lingering scar tissue will cause brief but fleeting pain) or a sign that Manu has hurt himself further. Let's hope it's the former.

For the most part the team did not play spectacularly. Although we led by 16 at the beginning of the fourth, we within 4 with under 2 minutes to play. For the most part the didn't seem stale or winded because of the back-to-back. They just seemed uninterested in working hard against a team it was somewhat inevitable we were going to beat.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

'No' on Mutumbo

The next time Dikembe Mutombo engages in a basketball-related finger wag, I hope it's to say no to resuming his career by playing for the San Antonio Spurs. According to Mutombo, "I will be in Boston or San Antonio by the end of the year.'' Briefly then, I'd like to rehearse the reasons why it would be a mistake for the Spurs to sign my favorite Congolese-American big man.
  • 48 Minutes of Hell has noted in various places that the Spurs have two pressing personnel needs: a young, athletic 3 that can get to the hoop and a big who can come away from the basket to guard face up 4s and 5s. The Spurs simply don't have the bodies on roster to man-up the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, David West and Amare Stoudemire. This could remain an issue into the offseason, and maybe beyond. But it's a certainty that Deke is not the man to answer the call.
  • Ian Mahinmi is rehabbing two ankles, one of which he injured while rehabbing the other. It's a laughable affair, I know. Once healthy, however, it really is in the Spurs best interest to keep Mahinmi's development on the fast track. This will necessitate minutes with the parent club. Mahinmi might regain his lungs by spending a short stint splashing around in the Toros' kiddy pool, but little else. The Spurs need to know if he can swim, and, if so, to what depths. The 10 minutes per game Popovich would find for Mutombo are better spent on Ian Mahinmi. Hold these words for later razzing: Mahinmi's end of the year numbers for San Antonio will be more impressive than Mutumbo's Boston totals.
  • The Spurs roster stands at 15. If the Spurs were to sign Mutumbo, they'd do well to waive Jacque Vaughn and bring him back as a coach, perhaps to George Hill. But they won't and wouldn't. Instead, the Spurs would waive either Anthony Tolliver or Malik Hairston. To my mind, it's too important a priority for the Spurs to get younger, and to do so on the cheap, to jettison the potential of Hairston and Tolliver as future contributors to the Silver and Black. In general, I'm in favor of the Spurs maintaining a fluid 15th spot of Austin Toros/San Antonio Spurs assignees and try-outs. Frankly, I'd be more excited to hear the Spurs had waived Vaughn in favor of, say, Courtney Sims than Dikembe Mutombo. I'm crazy that way. And, yes, I realize that Hairston, Tolliver, and, staying with the hypothetical, Sims would play little to no role with the Spurs this season.
  • The Spurs frontcourt, despite not having a quick-footed big that can come away from the hoop, is starting to round into form. It's doubtful that Mutombo adds anything. Okay, so this is obvious, but he's 42.
  • The Spurs current roster is capable of beating any team in the Western Conference in a series, with the possible exception of the Lakers. The Lakers are not hurt by Dikembe Mutombo. As a 5th big, however, Anthony Tolliver could create difficulties for LA. As we discussed early this season, the Lakers are susceptible to teams who can draw Bynum or Gasol out to guard perimeter-oriented forwards and centers, which is precisely the role of Matt Bonner and Anthony Tolliver.
Having said all that, Deke is a remarkable man. On a biographical note, I was in East Africa in January of 2005. This is a region whose lack of necessary, and typically basic, goods and services is difficult to overstate or adequately articulate. Dikembo Mutombo built a hospital in The Democratic Republic of the Congo through fund raising efforts. Now, he's trying to raise 2 million so that that hospital can deal with the overwhelming problems of malaria and measles. From

His Atlanta-based charitable foundation has teamed up with Denver-based Mobile Accord, Inc. to create a system by which people can make a contribution of $5 by sending the text message CONGO to 90999. The mobile channel is supported by AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint/Nextel, T-Mobile and US Cellular. (Anyone wishing to donate more than $5 should dial 1-800-251-0942.)

''If we can get 400,000 people to send a text, we can raise the money,'' Mutombo said in a telephone interview the other day. ''We'll know in three months what we have done. It is to save the lives of children in Congo. So many of them have malaria. A child dies every 35 seconds of malaria or measles. I know I am not the solution, I am just a piece of the puzzle.''

The hospital Mutombo has built is the first modern medical facility there in 40 years.

Match-Up of the Night: Duncan vs. Jefferson

In his first two games against the Spurs this season Al Jefferson played impressively, scoring 29.5 points and hauling in 13.5 rebounds per contest. Although the Wolves dropped their most recent game (in fact, they are on a 12 game losing streak), Jefferson put up some gaudy numbers against the Rockets (34 points, 13 boards, 4 assists, 2 steals). If Duncan, who saw plenty of rest last night as we cruised to victory over the Kings, can slow down Jefferson this Wolves team will have a difficult time staying competitive.

Even if Jefferson has a good game, Minnesota will have a difficult time toppling the Spurs on their home floor. Although on the second end of a back-to-back, Most of the Spurs' core producers saw plenty of rest last night and will most likely have enough wind in their sails to maintain control for a full 48 minutes.

I'm in Texas pretty infrequently nowadays, so I'm again cutting this evening's "Match-Up" short because I'm headed back to SA for the second night in a row. Enjoy the game.

At Center Court with Nate from Canis Hoopus

Canis Hoopus is a clever name for a T-Wolves blog, if for no other reason than it lends itself easily to puns. So, for example, if the Wolves one day regain elite status in the West, the Canis Hoopus crew can celebrate each win of a streak with a post entitled Can-O-Whoop Ass. Or, under current circumstances, they have the option to exclusively refer to Kevin McHale as Super Doofus. You see it's easy. If only Minnesota had drafted---you guessed it---Kosta Koufos.

Am I always so cheesy? My sense of humor runs the gamut between smug intellectual esoterica to embarrassingly base juvenilia. But that's beside the point. We're here to talk T-Wolves with Nate.

Tim: As someone who follows the T-Wolves, I imagine this season has been a mixed bag of reactions regarding the rookie campaigns of Kevin Love and OJ Mayo. Tom Ziller wrote a fascinating article wherein he favorably compared Mayo's rookie campaign with 2003 draft class studs Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. What are your thoughts?
Nate: I'd encourage NBA fans to view the Mayo trade less in terms of Love v. Mayo and more in terms of Foye v. Mayo. Prior to the selection of Love, the Wolves spent their past 3 draft picks on perimeter tweeners: a 6'8" 185 pound wingman (Brewer), a 6 nothing 6th man/combo (Foye), and a 6'4" wanna-be superstar with top tier talent and an end-of-the-bench mentality (McCants). Last season the Wolves played Ryan Gomes at the 4 and they were obliterated. It's one thing to simply say that they needed to add a center; it's quite another to spring for Brook Lopez with the 3rd pick while doing nothing to move Antoine Walker, Marko Jaric, and Greg Buckner. This team was ridiculously lean in the front court (at one point they were looking at a Toine, Jefferson, Madsen frontcourt rotation) and they landed the best big available in a trade that also brought them a serviceable pro (Mike Miller) and cap relief. They made the trade because they were operating under the assumption that Foye and McCants would be serviceable pros. Unfortunately, they were wrong and fans are now looking at one of the worst backcourts in recent NBA history. Had the Wolves not selected Foye, Mayo's selection would have been a no-brainer from the get-go and we would not be comparing apples to oranges with Love and Mayo.

Love is going to be a solid pro. He has shown signs of being an elite rebounder while going through a coaching change, fluctuating minutes, and a change of culture (winning to losing) in his 1st professional season out of college. The ultimate test of the Love/Mayo trade will be how the Wolves utilize the upcoming draft (4 possible 1st rounders), Mike Miller's deal, and whether or not they will clean house in the front office. If they walk away from the draft with a starting point (Jennings, Holiday, Rubio) or a nice off-guard (Harden), all may be forgiven, especially if they can sign a nice free agent or make a decent sign-and-trade.
Tim: Whenever there is a big front office shake up, my mind races to the possibility of a Spurs executive being poached by the opposition. I've accepted that Dennis Lindsey and Dell Demps will eventually grab another franchise's reigns. How would something along those lines suit you? Is Minnesota an ideal candidate to become San Antonio of the cold north?
Nate: Dennis Lindsey is one of the GMs that we have on the radar at Hoopus. My colleague Wyn is currently working on a profile post and he is definitely right up there with guys like the Pacers' David Morway and the Rockets' Daryl Morey. That being said, nobody is sure what will happen with the team's front office at the end of the year. By moving McHale to the end of the bench, Wolves owner Glen Taylor may have removed him from the front office, but it remains to be seen what he will do with the remaining FO employees: Jim Stack, Rob Babcock, and Fred Hoiberg. Many Wolves fans have a bad feeling that not much will change in the front office and we'll be stuck with the same-old-same-old.
Tim: Prior to the Garnett and Allen trades, Boston and Chicago had shared in a model for failure. That is, the failed model of saddling a roster with a talented but inexperienced hodgepodge of youth. Boston broke free from the cycle, but Chicago is still mired in it. With Love and Jefferson on board, multiple first round picks in the 2009 draft, and lottery potential for the foreseeable future, do you worry that the lack of skilled veterans will ruin the Timberwolves?
Nate: I worry that the culture of losing will turn guys like Jefferson, Foye, Brewer, and Love into damaged goods. Rashad McCants has all the talent in the world. He's a 6'4" guard with excellent reach and strength, a beautiful outside shooting stroke, solid handle, the ability to finish with both hands, and so on and so forth. He's also a head case whose mind appears to have left his body this season as the result of one too many run ins with management. Granted, some of this is probably his own makeup but the type of losing atmosphere the Wolves have in spades can't be good for the basketball soul. Supposedly, the front office has some sort of "blueprint" that involves free agents and draft picks. I think this is a bunch of made-up nonsense but I wouldn't be surprised to see the Wolves take a run at a 2nd tier 2010 free agent (say, Caron Butler) with a sign-and-trade involving, perhaps, Mike Miller, Brian Cardinal's expiring contract, and a 1st round pick. They need a 1 and a 3 and if they could address one in the draft and the other in free agency, they're not as far away from winning as the 4 wins would suggest.
Tim: Related to question 3, what type of veteran players would allow Al Jefferson to take the cliched next step?
Nate: I'm not sure veteran players are what Big Al needs. He needs a proficient point guard and a starting-level wing player. Period. The Wolves are completely, 100%, totally devoid of a guard who can break down an opposing defense. They don't have a single starting-level guard who can run an effective pick and roll. They don't have an above-average guard who can push the pace and quickly get the ball into a halfcourt set. They don't have a SF who can break down defenders or draw away double teams from the post. They don't have a 3 who can provide some defensive flexibility at the 2/3. If Al is going to take the next step, he'll first need to start playing a little defense. He'll also need a real 1 and 3. One of the biggest misconceptions associated with the Wolves is that they need to surround the poor-defending Jefferson with a shot-blocking defensive center like Sam Dalembert or (perhaps) Hasheem Thabeet. If you take a look at 82Games' positional stats, you'll see that the Wolves are getting obliterated at the 1 and 3. You'll also notice that the team's best guard is currently Kevin Ollie. If this team can land a guy like Jennings, Holiday, or Rubio in the draft, and if they can land a guy like Butler, Tayshaun Prince, Trevor Ariza, or Josh Childress at the 3, Al will hopefully be able to take the next step.