Friday, November 7, 2008

The Big Man Pipeline

In this morning's post, I mentioned the decline of Michael Finley and the onus its placed on the Spurs to identify another wing prospect. This is an issue worth watching. But it's not the only issue the Spurs front office must tackle in the coming months.

The Spurs are up against personnel problems on another front, as well. In short, they lack a big who is quick enough to come away from the basket and man-up on the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, David West and Amare Stoudemire. No one expects any one player to shut down these opponents, but it would be nice to have a body on the bench whose defensive game is a well-suited stopper.

Kurt Thomas nursed an injury during camp and is still reeling from the affects--his rotations are slow, his man defense poor. But even if healthy, he's not the man. Fabricio Oberto is serviceable, but not ideal. Matt Bonner plays hard, but lacks the necessary athleticism to hinder face up 4s. Anthony Tolliver is the question mark sucker in the Spurs candy bag. He strikes me as a player who is all shooting and effort, but without the needed defensive-prowess to answer the call. In terms of immediate help, the Spurs are limited.

But they are not completely without options.

According to reports, Antonio McDyess will be bought out by the Nuggets, and many have suggested the Spurs could make a run at the power forward. This is unlikely, however. Once McDyess is bought-out, it's likely that he'll pull a Brent Barry and return to the Pistons after sitting on his couch for 30 days. But setting that aside for a moment, and allowing myself to frolic in a field of fantasy, McDyess would represent a small coup for the Spurs. He's precisely the type of defender specified above, the type of defender the Spurs could use. Offensively, his pick and pop game would fit like a glove in San Antonio. The only problem is his age. I would not like the Spurs to sign Antonio McDyess for more than a season, and other teams will likely offer longer deals. Dice on a two year contract is not an awful deal, especially on LLE money, but the Spurs might have already payed that piper with Kurt Thomas. Age is an issue. The Spurs, as we will see, are best served to build roster flexibility into their big man rotation.

A more realistic, if uncertain, option is Ian Mahinmi. Mahinmi is on the shelf with a high ankle sprain, but should be available in mid-November. Given the Spurs porous interior defense, strong play from Ian Mahinmi is more of a need than a luxury. From what I've seen of him, he will score in the NBA. He's cat-quick with a handful of serviceable moves. 8 points per game in his first big-league season is not unthinkable. More crucial, however, is his ability to play team defense, rebound, and block shots without excessive fouling. The jury is still out in this regard and I'm playing the part of the anxious bench. Over the course of last season, his defensive game improved dramatically, but not enough to silence skeptics. We'll see.

The only other immediate help would come by way of a trade, but there are very few trade scenarios that pass the laugh test. And those that do would be costly in other ways. Sam Presti might be willing to part with Joe Smith but it's unlikely the Spurs have any players of interest to him. The rights to Viktor Sanikidze won't get it done. And even if they did have players to offer, trading for a player like Smith would cost the Spurs yet another first round pick (2011), which they should guard jealously. Best case scenario might be a player like Fransico Elson, who knows the system and would come at a modest price. Don't scoff, Elson would help right now.

I know, I know.

Shifting gears, the Spurs will have a couple of thought-provoking options this summer and there is reason for fans to take the optimistic view.

The first reason is James Gist, the former Maryland stand-out and 57th pick from last summer's draft. Gist was the Spurs best summer league player, and the Spurs, feeling he was a year away, arranged to send him to Italy, against the better wishes of the Spurs faithful. James Gist is currently playing for Angelico Biella of the Italian League.

When Gist was drafted, R.C. Buford described him as an energy 4 in the mold of Carl Landry. Freakishly athletic, Gist scores a lot by playing above the rim and running in transition. He certainly showed aspects of this during summer league, but that's not what was so impressive about his game. Gist surprised everyone by showing great range on his jump shot, knocking down several threes in Vegas. James Gist is currently playing 29 minutes a game in Italy, and his stats indicate that he is scoring on dunks and long range shots while imposing himself on defense. Hopefully, Gist will continue to develop and will be something of a revelation during next year's camp. The Spurs sent a trainer to Italy with him, and Gist expects to return to San Antonio after a short sojourn in Europe. I suspect that Gist will become another draft steal at 57.

A second option which seems likely is the long-awaited coming of Robertas Javtokas. Javtokas is something of a legend. The Spurs offered him a contract a few summers ago, but he declined. His Russian contract expires next summer and represents his last opportunity to play in the NBA during his prime. Javtokas could be a rotation player for the Spurs, although his minutes would not be excessive. Basically, he's a defensive player. But a good one who would fill a shot-blocking need in the middle. According to John Hollinger, his numbers translate to a competent back-up center. That sounds about right to me, as well.

Both Gist and Javtokas could defend face-up 4s and are more athletic than any big man, not named Mahinmi, the Spurs have had in several years.

The last big man in the Spurs pipeline is Tiago Splitter. Splitter would be the one-player cure all for many of the Spurs current interior ills. He's the best center in Europe but unlikely to play for San Antonio, at least not until after the next CBA is passed with a rule change that gets the Spurs out from under the onerous burden that is the rookie pay scale. If you don't know the back story on Splitter, here is the short version: He's a lottery talent that slid in the draft to the Spurs and then, unexpectedly, took a huge contract last summer that dwarfed anything the Spurs could offer. He has a buy out in 2010, but the Spurs can only offer rookie scale money. It's a raw deal.

Tiago Splitter is also the harbinger of the ugliest hook shot this side of Andris Biedrins. Check it out, in all its unsightly splendor.

I continue to believe that the Spurs championship window will extend through 2012. The Spurs core is in tact until then (assuming they extend Ginobili) and they have enough young players in the pipeline to add to their bench; The early returns are very good on George Mason Jr. and George Hill; The front office is wonderfully competent. Keep your chin up.

Most importantly, they have oodles of cap space in 2010. At a time when Tony Parker is 28 and in his prime, the Spurs should be able to add one quality free agent. Think Chris Bosh. Think Joe Johnson. This player and Parker would constitute their best on roster, with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili assuming the roles of third and forth scorer. The Spurs may not win another championship between now and 2012, but they could. Really, don't believe the hype. They'll be in the mix.

Worst case scenario is that the Spurs slide from the Patriot-level dominance to Braves-level excellence. 4 championships on, it's not such a bad proposition. Spurs fans need to resist the temptation of being the neighborhood's spoiled little rich kid and instead appreciate how good they have it.

(HT: Bruno from SpursTalk. Thanks for the Gist links.)


Unknown said...

a really solid, well written post. well done.
its amazing to see the amount of talent we have stashed away.

Timothy Varner said...

Well, aside from Splitter, it's mostly high end potential 7th, 8th, and 9th man talent. Splitter might not even be an NBA starter. But relative to the current roster, it's a fairly good crop of guys from which to pull.

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