Last night's loss shows that, although the Spurs may be back at full strength, problems still remain. Instead of taking a look at the specifics of last night's game (although those will be addressed), I wanted to take a look at the season so far as a whole, in order to get a better sense of where we've been and what we need to do in order to continue to improve.
At 9-8, the first quarter of the season has simultaneously been one of the worst in years and miraculously good. After beginning 1-4, we crawled back to a .500 record by November 17th and later, on November 24th, entered what one hopes will be a permanent place in the +.500 category (the surging Nuggets will try their best to send us right back to .500 on Thursday night).
Although one of the more reliable defensive teams in the league, the year began poorly on the defensive end of the ball. Some of our struggles were because of new pick-and-roll techniques being employed but a lot of it was just tenacity. We eventually re-adopted our old tactics as well as our old mentality and returned to form. That is not to say that our defense doesn't have holes, some of which were quite evident last night down the stretch.
The Spurs have always had trouble handling forwards and centers who are comfortable floating 10-15 feet away from the basket (or in the case of Rasheed Wallace, even further). Aside from Sheed, Dirk Nowitzki and Drew Gooden (who both prefer mid-range jumpers to back-to-the-basket post moves) made their presence felt in games against the Spurs. Versatile offensive post-players like these are a problem for a couple of reasons.
In some sense the difficulty merely relies in the type of frontcourt defenders we have: Oberto, Thomas, and Duncan just aren't that comfortable chasing their men out into mid-range territory (Bonner is more comfortable on this front). But the other, deeper problem is how we handle a penetrating backcourt. Our perimeter defenders allow men to go baseline rather than slice towards the middle of the paint. By doing so, you make a pull-up jumper more difficult and funnel them directly into the waiting arms of our shot blockers. Except, if the opposing team's bigs have floated towards the perimeter, our shot blockers are no longer there. This was the loophole that gave the Pistons success last night: Duncan lingered halfway between Sheed and the paint, giving Wallace catch-and-shoot opportunities or Iverson the ability to finish at the basket without Duncan's pesky arms in the way.
We also have problems on the offensive end of the ball, which should come as no surprise to any Spurs fan. First and foremost, the Spurs are far too reliant on the 3-ball. Yes, some nights we end up with an electrifying 119-94 win over the Jazz, but sometimes we end up going 6-24 and letting a close game with a perennial rival slip away in the fourth.
The problem with our proclivity towards taking the outside shot isn't merely a matter of sheer volume, but a matter of timing: the number of 3-pointers we are taking when down is oppositely indicative of how composed we are. When calm and focused, Ginobili and Parker (and now Hill) will slash with confidence, putting points on the board via layups or the free throw line. Duncan will take hook shots from the block, rather than from a couple of feet out of position. When unnerved or intimidated, we hope that some hot perimeter shooting lets us off the hook. In order to escape our reputation as a team prone to offensive droughts, we are going to need to rely less on our outside shooters.
The last issue I want to address is the rotation. Popovich has deployed 8 different starting rotations so far this season. Some of that volatility derives from our injury-related woes, some of it from inconsistent play, some of it from Popovich's experimental tendencies. The first cause has passed us by, the last will be with us forever. Inconsistent play, on the other hand, is solvable but will remain an issue unless Pop decides to settle on a reasonable rotation. After some discussions with Tim Varner on this very issue, I've settled on the idea that Roger Mason and Tony Parker should be our starting backcourt. Tim also believes, as do I, that Mason should be running the offense from a point-forward position while Parker plays off the ball.
If Parker isn't going to drive he either kicks it out to the wings or hands the ball off to someone else at the top of the arc (either Manu or Mason). By allowing Mason to bring the ball up we merely skip a step. I also believe that Manu and Hill should be coming in together off the bench. Manu is instant offensive aggression. Hill can be but has also betrayed an ability to be intimidated (he is still a rookie, after all). Under the on-court tutelage of Manu, I believe Hill could develop the same fearlessness Ginobili is known to play with. When I have something lucid to say about our frontcourt rotation, I'll get back to you.
On Thursday we travel to Denver to take on the Nuggets. Our last game against the Nuggets ended in a 91-81 loss that saw the Spurs shoot an abysmal 2-17 from beyond the arc. The only marquis team the Spurs have defeated this season is the Rockets (we also beat the Jazz, but without Boozer or Williams so that hardly counts). We have lost to Phoenix, Portland, Dallas, Denver, Houston, and Detroit. It would be really encouraging to record a win against a playoff caliber team.