Thursday, November 20, 2008

On the Wrong Side of the Rebound Ledger

The Spurs are going to struggle, and struggle mightily, to score points without Parker or Ginobili in the line up. One can only expect so much from the likes of Matt Bonner. So on nights like last night when they shoot 2-17 from deep, a loss is inevitable. But it's nothing to lose sleep over. Without Parker and Ginobili, the Spurs are hard-pressed to find 85 points from their guys. And even when they do, it's difficult to hold any NBA team to 84. Fortunately, this is a problem with a short future.

Some of the Spurs' trouble this season can not be blamed on injury, however. They began the season playing woefully inadequate defense, serving a short stint at the very bottom of Hollinger's defensive efficiency rankings. Much of this was on the players, but some of it was coaching. Johnny Ludden's recent column included this insightful snippet:
Over the summer, the staff had implemented a few wrinkles to the team’s system, which included varying how they defended the pick-and-roll.

"Creative, intelligent coaching moves," Popovich said with his trademark sarcasm, "that turned out to be dog doo-doo."

Over the past 6 games the Spurs are holding opponents to 83 points, going 4-2. This is a marked difference to the 105 per game they allowed over their 1-4 start. That's a huge swing, and all in the right direction.

The Spurs are still a defensive work in progress, but they're on the right track. Still, there is much work to be done.

Through 11 games, the Spurs are getting abused on the boards. They lost this battle to the Nuggets by a deficit of 4, a number on par with the season. This is a problem Pop must fix if the Spurs are to climb back into contention. The most worrisome aspect of this trend is the poor glass work of Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas. Both players have been dreadful thus far. In last night's game, for example, this terrible twosome accounted for 4 rebounds in 26 minutes. In other words, this might be personnel problem.

As I noted yesterday morning, the Spurs are showing signs of decay elsewhere, and with precious few trade assets. If they make a trade to address these struggles, they might be forced to decide between a stop-gap wing and a stop-gap big. Thankfully, the Spurs have some relief on deck.

Ian Mahinmi is currently serving time on a rehab stint (ankle sprain) with the Austin Toros, the Spurs D-League affiliate. Mahinmi will return to the Spurs in short order, and will likely join the rotation soon after arriving. In his time with the Toros last season, Mahinmi showed himself to be a capable low post player.

The Toros open their first 8 games at home. Mahinmi will play heavy minutes in those games to regain his timing and conditioning prior to returning to the Spurs bench. At least, that's the plan. The last game of the Toros opening stand in Austin is December 13. The next night, December 14, the Spurs host the Thunder, a game which is the first of 6 of 9 at home. It makes sense for the Spurs to give Mahinmi his call up at that point. Barring further injury, Mahinmi will spend the remainder of the season in the parent club's front court rotation.

It's hard to know what to expect from Mahinmi. If he were able to give the Spurs a few baskets and 4 or 5 rebounds in 20 minutes of play, they'd gladly take it. It's more than plausible to think that a combination of coaching, the slightly improved play of others, and the arrival of Mahinmi will get the Spurs back on the right side of the rebound ledger. Spurs fans are bullish on Mahinmi, and for good reason. Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if he averaged something like 6 and 6 during what amounts to his rookie season.

It's strange, but the coming arrivals of Parker, Ginobili and Mahinmi could amount to a perfect storm of answers to the Spurs current troubles.

Update: Mahinmi played his first competitive basketball in months last night. 9 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks in 21 minutes. What I like most about his stat line is that he only registered 2 fouls. He's been foul prone in the past, and I've feared that his injury-saddled lack of conditioning would cause him to reach rather than move his feet. Good start.

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