Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Manu Injury

For the final installment of our pre-season coverage, Timothy takes a look at the significance of Manu's injury, the quality of our bench, and the true nature of "youth vs. experience."

Most of the national press is picking the Spurs to finish in the middle of the playoff pack. You can't blame them. Manu Ginobili's ankle injury, their collective age, and at least 4 (Lakers, Jazz, Hornets, Rockets) legitimate contenders in the West render cocksure projections problematic. There are sober-minded reasons to prefer each of the aforementioned teams. And, yes, Blazers fans, we hear you. Duly noted.

In a conference this tight, middle of the pack is something of an accomplishment for most teams. Too bad for the Spurs, they are not most teams; they are the winningest franchise in sports over the last decade. Getting to the Western Conference Semifinals would be a major feat for, say, Tracy McGrady. But if Tim Duncan goes home after two rounds, members of the press corp take it as a signal to spit shine their shovels. The Lakers, Spurs and Celtics face near impossible expectations coming into the season. Anything less than a championship is underachievement for these three teams and will be described as failure or undeniable decline.

What are we to make of these oft-cited reasons of expected decline?

Before we evaluate these claims, it's important to issue a caveat. Had Manu Ginobili not been injured during the playoffs, the Spurs may well have advanced to the Finals. The Lakers, as we saw, were not invincible, despite their powerhouse line-up and star power. Would-of, could-of, should-of is not sound logic for projecting a season, but it's also not intelligent to say that a team which advanced to the conference finals in spite of a significant injury is in decline. As Mike D'Antoni recently remarked, it's laughable to call such accomplishments "downside."

The Ginobili Injury

Some pundits are trying to pass Manu Ginobili's injury off as a blessing in disguise. "He'll be rested and healthy," they say. This may be true in terms of the team's overall play, but I'm not convinced that his absence will affect the team record either way. Ginobili is due back sometime in December. On the 20th of December, the Spurs begin a six game stretch with 5 at homes. The smart money says Ginobili is re-inserted into the line up during this almost-all-at-home stretch. Ginobili is pushing to come back in November or early December, so this is a conservative guess.

Prior to December 20th the Spurs are slated to compete in 24 contests, 13 of which at the AT&T Center. Their road games include visits to Minnesota, Milwaukee, Sacramento, the Clippers, and Memphis. Over the first 24 games, they play 4 back to backs: Knicks (h)-Bucks (a); Kings (a)-Clippers (a); Grizzlies (h)-Rockets (a); and Dallas (a)-Atlanta (h). Back to backs are an Achilles heel for the Spurs, but that's not a terribly difficult series of tandems. I expect the Ginobili-less Spurs to fight to a 15-9 record (or better) in his absence. In other words, they will still be a position to win home court during at least some of the playoffs.

The Other Injuries

More crucial to the Spurs early season success is the play of their youngsters. Despite commentary to the contrary, the Spurs have plans to push something of a youth movement this season. Newcomer Roger Mason will get plenty of minutes, and he is only 28. Popovich had intended to play George Hill (22) and Ian Mahinmi (21) extensively this preseason, but injuries to each player have limited the coach's best laid plans. George Hill was able to play some, and played well. He'll soon be back from a thumb-sprain and should see 15 minutes a game as Parker's primary back up. What happens with Mahinmi is uncertain. Getting these guys acclimated to the system is high on Popovich's agenda. They may play poorly early on, but Pop will ride the learning curve until they've adjusted.

Last season, Popovich waited until after the rodeo road trip to set a rotation. In fact, he took 60 or more games to do so. He has this luxury because his core knows the system inside and out, and they know one another. Most coaches struggle to build team chemistry, but Pop treats it as an a priori assumption. Because of this he can and will limit the minutes of his veterans until late in the season. Folks who think the Ginobili injury means Pop will overplay Duncan and Parker early haven't been paying attention. Every season he coaches to a crescendo, and he manages minutes along the way so that his best players are healthy and rested come April. There is no reason to doubt him when he claims not to give a rip about home-court advantage.

Young as Dew or Old as Dirt?

Well, okay, They're old.

But the Spurs rotation this season will feature younger players. As Jeff McDonald recently quipped, their main problem may be inexperience. Brent Barry's minutes will be assumed by Ime Udoka, a 5 year age swing and defensive upgrade in the positive direction. Mike Finley's role will diminish as Roger Mason learns the system, an exchange of 7 years worth of youth and talent. George Hill is primed to inherit Jacque Vaughn's role, a staggering 11 year subtraction. Hill is already an NBA-ready defender, and should prove more of an offensive threat than Vaughn, a prediction which, to anyone who knows the NBA, should smack of understatement.

This is counter-balanced by the core being a year older. But the Spurs should be more concerned about guys not knowing the system than about finding the right retirement village. Their age, ironically, is concerning for its wont of experience, not youth. Gray hair alert doomsdayers are trying to convince themselves.

All this without knowing what role, if any, Ian Mahinmi and Anthony Tolliver will play.

The Other Gunslingers

The strength of the West is an inescapable problem for every team without the aide of a little luck. Comparing rosters man for man will not clue us into the fate of the Western conference. Someone of consequence will suffer an injury or some locker room will implode or some team will lose an inordinate number of close games despite strong play. This sort of stuff happens. How the Western conference shapes out will have more to do with these things than team rosters---with so many elite teams in contention the team or two that catches a break will be the team that advances. If you're David Stern these are the variables you love--and you especially love them if the lucky team is from Los Angeles. It's the NBA's turn to catch a ride on the parity wave. Spurs fans should be no less enthusiastic about this season than, say, Hornets or Jazz fans. NBA fans everywhere should rejoice.

Detractors, and the Big Picture

The Spurs season, then, does not hinge on Manu Ginobili's injury or their being too old. Both are marginal considerations, mere footnotes to the first third. The two biggest factors of concern to Spurs fans are whether or not the newcomers can be productive while learning the system and making eyes with Lady Luck.

If the Spurs win more than 50 games, it will be because some combination of George Hill, Roger Mason, Ime Udoka, Anthony Tolliver, Ian Mahinmi, Desmon Farmer and Kurt Thomas play especially well early in the season, and provide increased production over last year's mainstays Jacque Vaughn, Mike Finley and Brent Barry. In reality, the Spurs need two or three of these guys to come through with 15 minutes of solid play per game in order to win a championship. This is entirely plausible.

What those players lack, to use Popovich's expression, is "corporate knowledge." Individually they constitute offensive and defensive upgrades over last year's team. This team has a strong bench. Historically, however, the Spurs system is hard on first year players. Only Udoka and Thomas, and to a lesser degree Toros-groomed Mahinmi, have significant exposure to the system. If you're trying to sing along at home, this is the bouncing ball to follow.

This season, like every other season the last decade, will see the Spurs as a top 3 defensive unit. From a personnel standpoint, they've added offensive-minded free agents and rookies. Hill and Mason, for example, can score and allow Tony Parker to play off the ball, making him more of a threat in certain line ups. Even with the loss of Barry, the Spurs should improve their 3 point percentage and be among the league-leaders in 3 point attempts when adjusted for pace. In short, their offensive efficiency should move from the teens into the top 10.

Compared to last year's squad, this is a better team. Compared to the Western elite, they're one noteworthy member amongst a strong band of contenders.

Beyond this, the Spurs season depends on being dealt the right cards.

At any rate, it should be entertaining to watch.


Unknown said...

Timothy, nice work. I liked the analysis. It seemed well founded and on-point. Go Spurs Go!

Timothy Varner said...

Thanks for the comment, Justin. Good to be here.

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