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.


darryl howerton said...

... and if you're a spurs fan, you're encouraged by the 11-4 record (.733) they have since parker & ginobili came back to the team and started playing regular minutes (30-plus), i think starting dec. 2 or so ... there's no doubt in my mind this spurs team is better than last year's, with hill, mason and bonner playing so well in their roles. and we'll see what ian mahinmi can do now that he's back.

Timothy Varner said...

On paper, I agree. But one of these things Pop has yet to figure out--I suspect he will before long--is how to get Ginobili, Hill, Parker and Mason to play well in the same game. Mason and Hill's efficiency is down since the return of Parker and Ginobili. Hill, Bonner, and Mason have all shown signs of regression from their early season play.

drgstarflash said...

I agree with the posts from earlier. There is not a whole lot the team can do when lineup changes have been crazy this year. Removing Bowen in the starting lineup and going more for offense is something Popovich has not done in over ten years. Incorporating Mason, Jr. and Hill (a rookie point guard), is also a new facet to Coach Pop's vision for this year. We have heard it for years that the Spurs are aging and Pop's the master at limiting minutes for his players. Last yearin the WCF's the Lakers were too young and other than Bynum, healthy. Manu and the other elder statesmen were winded. This year, with new blood, the Spurs are not rebuilding, but re-tooling. So if you want to call it mediocre, that's fine. We, here in SA, always hear the talk that the Spurs are not good enough. But in the last 10+ years, we have had four Championships. More than anyone else in that span. So if you are a regular basketball fan that pays attention to one game from a team and relies on stats for your support, watch the history of this team and then comment. Until then you are another fair-weather Spurs fan or critic of something you don't understand. Because if you go by wins and losses and pure stats, NO team in the NBA is an elite team!!!

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