Friday, November 28, 2008

Match-Up of the Night: Familial Obligations vs. The Blog

Because of family related post-Thanksgiving obligations, I'm not going to have an opportunity to write a complete Match-Up of the Night post. But I still wanted to leave you with a couple of quick notes going into tonight's game.

-Darko Milicic did an excellent job guarding Tim Duncan when the Spurs played the Grizzlies on Monday night. He consistently held the positional advantage over Duncan, who responded by forcing shots that he didn't need to take. If Duncan can get going, this game will not be close. But if the Grizzlies somehow manage to derail Timmy for a second time, they will have a fighting chance at nabbing only their second road win of the season.

-Hill has been playing excellently recently. In his last 4 games he is averaging 20.5 points per game (the very simple math it took me to calculate that number is the most advanced metric you will ever see independently produced by yours truly). At a certain point teams are going to have to begin responding defensively, but I don't believe the Griz have enough tools to slow down Mr. Hill. Tomorrow night's game against the Rockets (whom he played excellently against in a narrow victory earlier this month) will be a more definitive testament to what Hill can do consistently.

-Udoka and Thomas both played very well on Wednesday. When they are playing well, this is a considerably more dangerous team. Tonight could be telling as to whether they have finally risen above their early season struggles or whether they merely got it together for a game against the easily derailed Bulls.

I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving. I spent mine perched above the 30 yard line of Darrel K. Royal Memorial Stadium cheering on the Longhorns as they took down rival Texas A&M in impressive fashion. Not a bad way to spend an evening if I do say so myself. And just so everyone knows, the final vestiges of Thanksgiving-related family stuff, dove-tailed by the always pleasant travel experiences that punctuate the holiday, may mean 48 Minutes of Hell is a bit neglected over the next 48 hours. If that happens, I'll do my best to take a look back at this weekend's games on Monday.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Loyalty and Low-Key

In grade school, I watched The Flintstones ad naseum. I liked the cartoon, but I was especially fascinated by Fred's feet. How could he get the car to go so fast without scuffing a toe? Didn't Wilma freak out when they rubbed feet in bed? Did he see a pedicurist? These are the hard questions of the pre-pubescent mind.

I haven't watched the Flintstones in 20 years or more, but I've wondered if the product placement gurus have bought the rights to Fred's feet? Has some poor hand been asked to sketch Birkenstocks into the frames? Wouldn't Betty Rubble set the neighborhood on fire in a pair of Jimmy Choos? There is money to be made, you see.

I don't begrudge advertisers. If the good people at Birkenstock bought up the rights to Fred Flintstone's feet I would congratulate them for their ingenuity. A pair of pleistocene peddles is a good a place as any to hawk fashionable footwear.

Still, there is a difference between advertising that is tastefully integrated and a gaudily ubiquitous spam-a-thon. A badly planned blind of billboards can clutter up an otherwise beautiful view; too much light on the street clouds the night sky. Everything in moderation. At a time when "keeping it real" has been co-opted by cliche, produced, packaged, and sold to the kids on the corner, I'm thankful to be a Spurs fan.

Let me come at this from a different angle.

I would never want to meet Michael Jordan. To shake his hand you need to insert a quarter at the wrist. Jordan, more than any other human being, represents the subjugation of person to product. His transformation from UNC baller to global icon put the world of basketball into a lock step in which it has cheerfully marched ever sense.

This is nowhere more obvious than LeBron James' self-described quest to become a global icon, or in the self-serving marketing circus he has foisted on the NBA. Could those Big Apple Nikes have been any less timely or tasteless? His public image and speech constitute an exceedingly banal and insincere form of sloganeering. Henry Abbott summed it up nicely:

The basic rule of PR in these situations is not to be fancy. You don't want to inspire reporters to dig deep into something where there are no real answers. You want to end the story, because the more of a media fire there is, the greater the chance that you could get burned. (Remember, this is the guy who shelved his convictions about genocide so as not to make a distraction for Team USA. He seems to have no such scruples with the Cavaliers.)

Even if you want to leave all your options open, all you have to say is that you love playing in Cleveland, you're from Ohio, and you'll worry about your next contract when this one is done.

That would be enough to get the amplifiers turned up. Teams would still clear cap space for you, just in case. But that's not enough for LeBron James. He's taking it to a whole different level. His amplifier goes to eleven.

These are the sort of distractions whose domination of the headlines make San Antonio "boring" by comparison. But ask any thinking Cavaliers fans if boring would not be a blessing right now. Could the answer be any more obvious?

The Spurs of course want wide profit margins. Their players are not above, nor should they be, accepting endorsement deals. Basketball is a business, marketing is money. The AT&T Center, despite its Green ambitions, will never double for Walden Woods.

This is another way of saying that in San Antonio people out rank product. Community counts, in the city and on the court. It's not lip service. Even the potentially distracting "tabloid marriage" of Tony Parker and Eva Longoria is a bore by celebrity couple standards.

For better or worse, Tim Duncan will never pimp a pair "Big Shoulders" when visiting Chicago, no matter how much he loves the Bears. Some say it's because no one would care if he did, and that's true. But Duncan and the Spurs set that course, not the make-more-money strategist. Were Duncan amenable, he could have been coached, primped and prodded toward greater celebrity. When one doesn't have image, it can be given to them. Duncan could have jumped through those hoops with the grace of a ballerina.

Mike Monroe recounts the contrast this way:
No fans around the NBA can relate to what Cavaliers fans are feeling these days quite like Spurs fans.

The trades the Knicks pulled off Friday have put them in the catbird seat for the summer of 2010, when LeBron James will be a free agent. They in position to have oodles of cash available to sign James, and possibly even another player from the talent-rich 2010 free-agent class that may include, besides James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and Dirk Nowitzki.

Cavs fans may wear the prints off their fingers wringing their hands between now and July 1, 2010.

Spurs fans, though, remember the summer of 2000, when Tim Duncan was a free agent. Then, the presumption was nearly as strong that Duncan would depart San Antonio as it seems to be now that James will bolt Ohio for the Big Apple.

It is instructive to recall that summer of South Texas angst:

•The Orlando Magic, jilted by Shaquille O'Neal in the free-agent summer of 1996, putting on a dog-and-pony show for the player most apt to be turned off by such things.

•The Spurs flying David Robinson back to San Antonio from Hawaii for a one-on-one with Duncan.

•The loyalty and low-key factors ultimately winning the day for San Antonio.
Apples to oranges, you might say. But is it really? Duncan, just like Lebron, is a sure bet to get a team to the Finals. Duncan, just like LeBron, is an All-Time Talent. The situations are remarkably similar. The difference, however, is that for Duncan character is a commodity and for James it's all about the commodification of character. If intangibles are talent, if character counts, if "keeping it real" is virtue, then Duncan has it on James in spades.

It's ironic that the Cleveland Cavaliers strive to be the Spurs-Midwest. From the moment Ferry was hired, he has set out to do things the San Antonio Way. In terms of total championships, LeBron James certainly offers Cleveland the chance to get there. But the decision that will determine the fate of the franchise for the next 12 years could not be playing out more differently.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Notebook: Spurs-Bulls, 11/26/08

The Spurs defeated the Bulls 98-88 at the AT&T Center this evening, extending their record to a respectable 8-6. I personally characterized the game as a match-up between Derrick Rose and George Hill. Rose better hope that the media does not view it similarly or else his stock will drop as the former IUPUI star outperformed the promising young Bull on both ends of the floor.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I only saw the second half of the game. According to Tim, the Spurs seemed intent on running the offense through Duncan in the first half, which worked to great effect as the Bulls were relatively defenseless against the future Hall-of-Famer. Supposedly Rose had a good first half, but he found himself unable to penetrate consistently during the second. He also played surprisingly few minutes in the second half, and was noticeably kept on the bench late in the game, even when the Bulls were able to close the lead to 8. As Rose has easily been the most aggressive late-game scorer on the Bulls, I took his lack of playing time near the end of the 4th as a sign of resignation on the part of Del Negro.

When I arrived at half the game was 45-45 and the early third quarter remained competitive. The Bulls were able to distance themselves, mostly because of some solid mid-range shooting on the part of Drew Gooden. Gooden, who was deployed as a center (this game featured quite a lot of "small ball"), did a solid job nailing the type of 10-15 foot jumpers he prefers to take. This is always a defensive weakness for the Spurs: Duncan, Oberto, and Thomas all struggle against forwards who are more comfortable floating away from the block, turning, and facing the basket. Eventually a combination of poor decision-making on Gooden's part and some solid traps by the Spurs slowed Gooden's momentum (Gooden would finish with 20 points and 12 rebounds).

Ben Gordon also had a strong shooting night, going 9-16 for 23 points. During the early third some hot shooting on his part accompanied Gooden's solid quarter but eventually the Spurs adjusted, doing an increasingly excellent job closing out on players perched along the perimeter. The Bulls outside shooting was maintaining them for a while and when it slowed down, the likelihood of them leaving San Antonio with a W decreased quickly.

The tide turned for good during a Manu Ginobili led run in the mid-to-late 3rd. The perennial paradox of Ginobili's game is the fact that a man could look so out of control and yet simultaneously act with such complete precision. I am thinking of two particular plays. In one instance he went baseline, barreling past a cabal of Bulls frontcourt defenders and laying in a beautiful right-handed reverse layup. But more noticeable than any basket he made was an absolutely inconceivable assist he completed. Ginobili drove left, and looked prepared to take a layup in traffic. Instead he wrapped his arm back, and in a motion similar to a jai-alia hurl, rocketed the ball through numerous outstretched arms, finding Ime Udoka in the corner. Udoka, who had his best offensive game of the season, nailed the 3-pointer. This was the second of back-to-back 3-pointers on the part of Udoka and from this moment on the Spurs would never again cede the momentum.

From that point on, the game became the George Hill show. The rookie, who saw 33 minutes of playing time, ended with 19 points and an impressive 11 rebounds. During the 4th he was able to penetrate the defense at will. His excursions into the paint ended with an easy layup at best and a trip to the line at worst. A particularly admirable play came when Hill missed a teardrop in the lane, but followed his shot to secure the easy tap-in. Although hammered into young players by youth league coaches across the country, few professional players actually show the dedication to follow their own shots. He was also a pest on defense, creating turnovers, filling passing lanes, and diving to the floor in order to secure loose balls.

Although he put up another impressive offensive night as well as a notable defensive showing, nothing is more encouraging than how well he cleaned the glass. Hill's 11 rebound night was no fluke. He has the vertical to compete with taller players, the sense of spacing to gain the positional advantage and the unyielding tenacity to crash the boards on both ends the entire time he's on the court. Between Hill and Ginobili (who is an excellent rebounder for his position), the Spurs may develop into one of the better rebounding backcourts in the league.

Although this may seem counter-intuitive, I am extremely encouraged by Roger Mason Jr.'s poor shooting night (2-12). The Spurs have been leaning heavily on their new swingman and many people, myself included, wondered whether the Spurs could put together a successful offensive outing if Mason's gaudy numbers began to slip. Well, consider this game proof that it is in fact possible.

Both Kurt Thomas and Ime Udoka, who have been under-performing since day one, had solid nights on both ends of the floor. They did an excellent job completing the proper defensive rotations and each rediscovered their respective shots (Udoka went 3-3; Thomas went 3-5). Obviously Hill and Ginobili's solid numbers caused our bench production to balloon, but even if you subtract their points, Udoka, Thomas, and Bonner did a solid job providing the Spurs a degree of offensive stability.

The Spurs will be back at the AT&T Center on Friday where they will take on the Memphis Grizzlies for the second time in 5 days. The Grizzlies are coming off a 17-point loss to the Jazz in Utah. If everything turns out as planned, your humble author will have the opportunity to attend his first Spurs game of the season. Happy Thanksgiving.

Match-up of the Night: Hill vs. Rose

I'm tempted to make George Hill half of the match-up of the night nearly every night and this evening I'm giving into temptation. No showdown so far this year has excited me more than George Hill's first opportunity to tango with Derrick Rose. This is not merely a chance to get a look at the much heralded number one pick but also for Hill to make a statement.

Rose has immediately lived up to the hype surrounding his selection by the Bulls. He confidently and quickly stepped into a leadership position, an absolute necessity for a Bulls team that had been struggling to regroup after an underwhelming season on the parts of Hinrich, Deng, and Gordon derailed a fair amount of optimism regarding the Second City's playoff chances. In the lead up to his professional debut, analysts argued over whether Rose was more of a pure passer or a potent scoring threat: Early season evidence suggests that he is a potentially franchise defining combination of both. Trust me, Spurs faithful. I live in Chicago and subsequently watch the kid often. He is the real deal.

Honestly, I am most impressed with his will to win. It's an intangible description that I'd prefer avoid if it weren't so glaringly obvious. When the rest of the team seems sluggish and disorganized, he is nailing mid-range jumpers, getting to the line, hustling on D, and pretty much doing whatever it takes to keep this team competitive.

And yet, according to one Mr. John Hollinger, Rose is not a considerably more efficient player than our own George Hill. Amongst rookies, Rose has the 4th highest PER with 18.33. Hill trails closely behind in 5th place with a PER of 17.95. Hollingerian metrics are not traditionally my go-to tool for defining a player's worth: I have always prefered to listen to what my eyes tell me.

And my eyes tell me George Hill is one of the most underrated rookies in the entire Association. If you read this blog often this is not surprising to hear me say. We have been one of the few voices singing Hill's praises. Originally I characterized him as merely an NBA-ready defender, but after several 20 point games in a row it is impossible to deny his offensive prowess.

And yet the combination of having been a relatively unknown player prior to the draft and being chosen by a franchise where team-oriented play will always mute media attention, Hill has not received the accolades of players like Rose, O.J. Mayo (11th best PER amongst rookies) and Michael Beasley (14th best PER amongst rookies).

Although traditionally attracted by gaudy numbers on the offensive end, I think the media will be more excited by a passionate and unyielding defensive performance on the part of Hill this evening. No one seems to care when Hill leads the team in scoring, but stop (or at least slow down) the meteoric Rose and I bet young Mr. Hill's name finds itself on the lips of a few more talking heads.

Already Nostalgic About Tiago Splitter

I have a friend who falls for every girl he meets. He can recount unrequited infatuation with the poetic eloquence of a tormented heart. I'm sure he lays awake at night thinking of the ones who got away, the ones who would love him if only they would know him. I feel for him, but I'm only so sympathetic. Aside from not having the girl, he's got it all together. Good looking, fabulously wealthy, well-traveled, and primed to settle into a nice little career in medicine. It's a mystery to me why women don't flock to him.

In my own way, I empathize. I've been dragging my heels to post this, mostly out of self-pity. Tau Ceramica beat DKV Joventut the other night. Tiago Splitter, who had been down with injury, "dominated" with 21 and 12.

So, it's like that.

Sigh.

To hell with smart surfaces.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mr. Horry Goes to Springfield: An Extended Conversation

Although never considered a superstar, Robert Horry was a key member of several elite NBA teams for over a decade. He won 7 NBA Championships during his 16 years in the league. Only 8 other players have won as many championships, all 8 of whom were on the 1960's Celtics. The importance of Horry's contributions to the Houston, LA and San Antonio dynasties of the past decade and a half is undeniable. His late-game heroics alone earn him a place in NBA mythology. But was it enough to earn him a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame? I brought together Kurt from Forum Blue and Gold and GrungeDave from The Dream Shake to discuss this very question.

Graydon: I feel like the prevailing wisdom on this issue is that Horry was a role player. A great role player. Maybe even the greatest role player of all time. But fundamentally a role player, and therefore he does not deserve a spot in Springfield. That is exactly why I am going to turn it over to GrungeDave, who does not share that opinion. So, why does Robert Horry deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame?

Dave: Robert Horry is a Hall of Famer. The purpose of the Basketball Hall of Fame is to recognize the elite. Be it an elite scorer, an elite defensive player, or an elite distributor of the ball to teammates. There are no specific rules or requirements for "who" is qualified for the Hall. The facts are undeniable that Robert Horry was an essential and necessary piece of seven different championship teams. Without Horry, it is quite likely that none of these teams would have emerged victorious in that particular year. Furthermore, these seven championships were acquired by three different organizations.

In short, Robert Horry is the greatest winner of the modern era. Yes, even moreso than Michael Jordan. Horry has more championship rings than anyone not affiliated with the Celtics (whose own championships are watered-down given the fact that it was an 8-team league that intentionally limited the impact of African-American players).

Every single year Robert Horry played, his team made it to the playoffs.
And they never got bounced in the first round. Ever.

What made Horry great is he did whatever it took to win. Everyone knows about his penchant for clutch shooting. What is often overlooked is his willingness to do all the little things. Everything from a hockey assist, to taking a charge, to closing the passing lanes, to the flawless post-entry pass. These are not things that show up in a box score anywhere other than in the "W" and "L" columns. These just happen to be the most important statistics of all. And Horry made sure his teams filled the "W" columns every May and June.

It is no accident that Horry played in more playoff games than anyone in history. It was not just about picking the right teams or being aligned with the best players. Hakeem was never a champion until he met Horry. Same for Shaquille and Kobe. Tim Duncan admittedly would have 2 less rings if Horry was not there to bail him out in '05 and '07.

If being the greatest winner of your sport in a particular era is not enough, the Hall of Fame has problems.

Kurt: What exactly is elite about Horry? He's a nice player, he made some key shots, but he got those seven rings because he was fortunate enough to play with four of the 50 best players of all time (Hakeem, Duncan, Shaq, Kobe). Thanks to those players carrying the heavy load, being the real stars that influenced games, Horry was in a position to flourish in a supporting role where he could impact the game in very specific ways. Horry can hit three pointers in the clutch, but that is only a handy skill if you happen to be paired with three of the all time great post men ever to lace them up drawing them inside.

Horry never averaged more than 12 points a game for a season, and for his career averaged 7. I love the guy. He will always be part of Laker lore. But this guy is not someone who made the major contributions to wins for 48 minutes every night, he was the guy who hit the three at the end. Very differnet things. Famous. A fan favorite. But not a guy for the Hall.

While Horry's contributions were great, they were great moreso because of their timeliness (clutch factor) rather than great because of their cumulative effect on the game (steady contributions that dictate the flow of a game). To me, great players (the type of players that do belong in the hall; the type of players whose steady contributions effect the tone and flow of every game they're involved in) allowed Horry to flourish in a role that highlighted his abilities and allowed him to thrive in a supporting role where he could impact the game in very specific ways and concentrate on doing the smaller things that do contribute to wins (just not with the same magnitude that the great players contribute to wins). Horry would not be the player he was if he did not play with 4 of the greatest 50 players to ever lace them up.

Dave: You see, this is precisely the reason why players like Stephon Marbury, Latrell Sprewell, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and countless others will never be winners...... too many people pay too much attention to whether a player can make a box score look pretty and help their fantasy teams win.

While Horry did whatever was necessary to win, today's players - and many of the fans who follow the NBA - really only care whether someone can average 20 points or record a double-double (the most overrated stat ever).

The moment someone tries to justify Horry's value by citing simple statistics is the moment I realize that everyone completely misses the point.

But if it's statistics you want...

# of rings these "top 50" players would have if Robert Horry decided to stop being a basketball player at Alabama and instead be a math major:

Hakeem Olajuwon (0)
Shaquille O'Neal (0) -- No way Shaq gets the 4th ring without the experience gained from the 1st 3.
Kobe Bryant (0)
Tim Duncan (2) -- though 1999 barely counts.

[Ed. Note: The 1999 Championship absolutely counts. But I'll save that argument for a later date.]

Again, without Horry's immense contributions, these guys now being compared to the greatest of the great -- Hakeem, Shaq and Kobe -- would be more often compared to Ewing, Elgin Hayes and McGrady -- very good individual players but without the rings. Thus, they would never be seen as the true elite.

If the Hall of Fame can make room for every marginal player on the 50s and 60s Celtics squads, certainly it can recognize Horry for his own unique brand of greatness.

Kurt: think it's just as foolish to say that rings make a player great. Mark Madsen has rings. Great players like Charles Barkley do not. So, Mark belongs in the Hall before Chuck? The Hall of Fame is for great players, the best players of their generation, but your argument turns logic on its head. The Shaq and Kobe Lakers, for example, would have won titles with or without Horry, but Horry would never have gotten near a title without being paired with truly great players. Horry never scored more than 10 points a game in the playoffs when he won those rings with the Lakers, the Lakers did not win because of him anymore than they won because of Isaiah Rider or Brian Shaw. Derek Fisher, Rick Fox and Horrace Grant did more to get those Lakers rings than Horry, but you and many others are blinded by a few good shots. That shot at the end of the game counted just as much as Fisher's shot in the second quarter, but because it was dramatic your remember Horry's. Drama alone is not enough to get you into the hall.

Look, I get that Horry made clutch shots, and he was a fan favorite, but he was probably never better than the fourth best player on any of his teams (and, by the way, you are right that there are too many 60s role playing Celtics in the Hall). Nobody in their right mind is arguing Marbury belongs in the Hall because he could fill up a stat sheet (well, maybe Marbury himself is, but that goes back to the right mind thing). But, you need to be able to propel your team, to be the leading force that helps them win titles to be in the Hall of fame in my mind. Horry made some key shots, but he was standing on the shoulders of the people who did the real work, who really led the team through the first 47 minutes of a playoff game.

Dave: Three follow-up points...

1. Would Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and/or Patrick Ewing trade careers with Robert Horry right now if given the chance? I say yes.

2. I think Horry is actually *under*rated as a clutch shot-maker. Why? I can name exactly ONE time that Horry had a chance to win/tie a game in the playoffs and actually missed. That would be Game 5 in 2003 against San Antonio. There is not a single other time that he missed. His success rate for clutch shots will never again be matched.

3. You cite Mark Madsen and others... even Isaiah Rider... but the greatness of Horry is that he was able to win multiple rings with three different teams. No one else in the history of the league has ever done that. Getting lucky once is one thing... getting lucky twice is another... but by the third time you have to start ruling out the luck factor.

okay, make that four follow-up points... before Horry arrived in Houston, Hakeem was considered a malcontent and a disappointment. Before Horry arrived in L.A., Shaq was only known for getting swept out of the playoffs each and every season. Meanwhile, Kobe was known primarily for his airball-fest in Utah. Funny how perceptions change when you get a ring.

Kurt: Wow, all this time I thought Phil Jackson and Rudy Tomjonovich coached those championship teams, but according to your argument just having Horry on the team is what caused Shaq to play well with Kobe, and it was Horry's presence that matured Hakeem, not time and a good coach. I think I'm going to have Horry walk in the room where scientists are working to cure cancer, his presence may be the difference.

But I think that point highlights the biggest problem with your argument — you seriously overvalue Horry's contributions to those being championship teams. Horry is a good ball handler and shooter on the perimeter, But he was picked up by GMs who put him on teams with three of the all-time great post men, putting him in position to make some key shots. But, if you put him on Jordan's Bulls or Magic's Lakers, teams with more of a perimeter focus where he doesn't get those open looks, he doesn't make those teams noticeably better. However, put Shaq or Kobe or Hakeem or Duncan on those teams and they do get better. Because those are Hall of Fame players, guys who will make any team better.

Horry's never been an all star. Never been on an all NBA or defensive team. Never won an award of any kind. What Horry had was a very memorable career, far more memorable than the other guys you bandied about. Our kids will watch replays of his shots. But that is not the metric that gets you into the Hall.

Let's talk about guys not in the Hall of Fame. It hurts me to prop up a Celtic, but Dennis Johnson went to 5 all star games, was the finals MVP, won 4 titles, was all NBA twice (first team once), and all defensive 10 times, was top 10 in the MVP voting twice, and he's not in the Hall. Spencer Haywood was a 5 time all star, ABA MVP, 4 time all NBA and 1 time all ABA, twice a top 10 MVP vote getter. You can go on and on with Artis Gilmore, Bernard King, Sidney Moncreif, etc., etc. Horry's simply never come close to these achievements.

Graydon: Alright gentleman, this has been excellent. I have seriously thought about this topic in the past but both of you brought up points I had never previously considered. In all honesty, I'm still on the fence. This is your last opportunity to make a closing statement: Any points you have yet to make? Any points made by the other guy you have yet to address? Any kind words about Horry?

Dave: In closing, while I do not deny that Dennis Johnson, Artis Gilmore, Bernard King, Sidney Moncreif and others were very good to great players... this is not about them. This is about Robert Horry. And 20 years from now.... 50 years from now..... and maybe even 100 years from now, people will still be referencing Horry's routine springtime heroics. How many modern day players will really be remembered with such reverence? In my eyes, that's what makes a Hall of Famer.

Kurt: In closing, I hate being the guy who comes off ripping Robert Horry, because I really liked him as a player, he hit big shots for my team, he provided a lot of memories. Horry was very good at the things he could do, and was an underrated defender. He was a fan favorite for a reason. But, he was a role player, he was the supporting cast, and even if he was good in that role, to me the Hall of Fame is for the game's true superstars, the guys who can take control of an entire game and will their team to wins. The elite. And as much as I loved Horry the player, he was not that guy and not a Hall of Famer to me.

Graydon: After all this, I still remain undecided. I'm unconvinced by Kurt's argument regarding Dennis Johnson et al., but only because I believe those guys deserve to be in the hall and their absence shouldn't discount Horry. That being said, I'm unconvinced that Horry was as critical to earning those championships as Dave makes him out to be. He was, on the other hand, much more than a clutch shooter. He was one of the more sophisticated post players of his era. Personally, I have never placed that much importance on whether someone actually made it into the hall. Whether or not Horry is one day institutionally recognized as an elite player, he will still be a favorite of mine.

The Notebook: Spurs-Grizzlies, 11/24/08

The Spurs traveled to Memphis yesterday evening and left with a 94-81 win over the Grizzlies. The game remained close during the first half, but some solid contributions on the part of early season heroes Roger Mason and George Hill allowed the Spurs to distance themselves in the third and cruise to a comfortable victory during the fourth. The game was notable both for the return of Manu Ginobili and because, for the first time this season, the Spurs can lay claim to a winning record.

Tim Duncan had an underwhelming game, an outcome driven by a combination of unnecessary aggressiveness and Darko Milicic's solid defense (yes , that Darko Milicic). Duncan attempted his patented bank shot frequently, but oftentimes found himself launching from too far towards the baseline or too deep into the paint where he was surrounded by swarming defenders. In some instances it looked as if Milicic had done a surprisingly solid job displacing Duncan on the block, but others it seemed as if he merely insisted that he find his rhythm when the shot was just not falling.

Manu Ginobili, although he played limited minutes, returned in striking fashion. He scored only 12 points but did so via a nostalgic array of jerky left-handed layups and limp-wristed outside shots. The most decisive offensive gesture by Ginobili was when he laid down a sharp dunk minutes after having entered the game. If anyone had any doubts about his ability to contribute from the get-go, they were immediately set aside.

George Hill continued to impress. He led the Spurs in scoring (20 points), many of which were earned on well executed drives to the basket which at the very least ended in a trip to the line. His contributions were most notable during the third quarter, when our offense came close to suffering one of its famed droughts. Rather than let the offense stagnate, he continually made his way to the rim, driving the Grizzlies further toward the bonus and ensuring that the lead never slipped.

Roger Mason continued to be a major contributor on both ends of the court. If the offense became bogged down, he took control of the point. If we needed a few points to spread the gap or protect a tenuous lead, he created an open look for himself and nailed the shot. He played with the combination of cool, confidence and mercilessness that has been indicative of this franchise for so many years.

Mason also did the best job limiting an unintimidated O.J. Mayo, who dropped 26 points in his first career match-up with the silver and black. In all honesty I think Mayo should be the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year. Yes, Derrick Rose is playing well and has assumed a leadership position few rookies are capable of, but Mayo is playing at an all-star caliber level. His game is both aggressive and efficient, and it is by his hand that an unsophisticated Memphis team is able to hang tough in the bruising Southwest Division.

The Spurs will face the Grizzlies again on Friday, a quick turnaround that I think favors Memphis. Yes, it is back in San Antonio, but in a lot of ways the Spurs have little to learn from this game. They were supposed to win. But a defensively disorganized and offensively inconsistent Grizzlies team can reflect on this game, adjust, and implement those adjustments soon enough that they may be genuinely effective. I think the Spurs will defeat the Grizzlies in San Antonio but if it were a closer game, I wouldn't be surprised. First, the Spurs must take on an equally disorganized Bulls team coming off an emotional road win at Utah.

That 4th Scorer

Manu Ginobili connected on his first post-injury shot attempt, a 3 point basket. We should have expected as much. The Spurs live on the arc. Prior to the season, I wrote:
From a personnel standpoint, they've [the Spurs] 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.
Coming into tonight's game, the Spurs were 7th in the league in unadjusted 3 point attempts, and added 24 to their number by the final buzzer. Most notably, Roger Mason was an unconscious 5-7, bringing his season 3 point percentage to 51%. I expect Mason's numbers to settle. He won't shoot 50% on the season. Having said that, I couldn't help but recall this story from Buck Harvey:
For example, a year ago, he would end every summer workout the same way. His trainer, Joe Connelly, would require Mason to make five consecutive 3-pointers.

This summer, Mason took it further. Connelly says Mason missed only two days; the day Mason signed his contract with the Spurs, he flew back to the Washington area and was in the gym that night.

“He's no longer just a spot-up shooter,” Connelly said Monday. “He's revolutionized his game, and here's my prediction. He will be a candidate for the league's most-improved player award.”

The Spurs aren't anticipating that. But they don't yet know what Connelly knows, and what happened the day before Mason left for San Antonio earlier this month.

Connelly didn't have Mason make five 3-pointers to end the workout. Mason instead shot 109.

And made 101.

In other words, there is reason to think that while Mason's percentage is certain to come down, his early shooting marks an improvement over the 40% he shot last campaign. One of the striking things about his 2008 3-ball is where it is connecting from. According to NBA.com's Hot Spots, in 2007 Mason made 44% of his straight-on 3s--this was his most accurate spot from behind the arc. This season Mason is shooting 41% from that spot, but, unlike last season, this is his least accurate spot from behind the arc. On the season, he's more accurate from the wings and corners. Joe Connelly deserves a raise.

Even though Mason will cool off, I don't expect this to dramatically drag down the team percentage. When Parker returns, his penetration will allow teammates to hover around the arc. More interestingly, Parker does not seem as shy about taking open 3s this season. Prior to his injury, Parker was 3-5 on long ball attempts. Not a big sample, but a curious one for a player who is notoriously bashful about such shots. But, having watched his 5 games this season, I can tell you they were not forced shots. Tony wanted to take them.

Then there is Manu Ginobili. As with Parker, Manu will force defenses to collapse. With the likes of Mason, Finley, and Hill stalking the stripe, he'll have plenty of efficient kick-out options. And as with Mason, there is strong support for supposing that Ginobili will shoot at or above 40% from deep. Manu Ginobili has improved his 3-point percentage in every season of his career, slowing charting up from 34 to 40%. His step back 3 has become something of a signature move.

No one thinks of the Spurs as 3-point chuckers. They're too far east of Oakland, I guess. But in this respect, they can stand in the center of the Nellie Ball ring and look respectable.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Parker to Return Friday?

Last week, Tony Parker told French radio station RMC that his ankle was recovering quickly and his return to the court could come as soon as this week. Today, we learn through RMC that he could return as early as Friday against Memphis.

If this is the case, the Spurs will be pretty close to full strength (although still without intriguing upstart Ian Mahinmi, who discouragingly layed an egg in Austin's last preseason game) in the coming weeks. I say close to full strength because Ginobili and Parker not only need to get their legs under them, but need to recover their lungs as well. This will take time.

A few weeks ago I wrote that
As an organization the Spurs, and Popovich in particular, typically err on the side of caution. Just earlier this month, George Hill set an additional two games after being cleared to play by doctors following a thumb injury. Pop likes to play it safe. He cautiously manages the minutes of his healthy players and drags his heals to appease the pleas of those returning from injury. Firmly entrenched in his coaching philosophy is the belief that in order to win a championship a team needs to peak during the playoffs and its players, especially its best players, need to be healthy when doing so. This is not rocket science. But it means that Popovich would rather have those two things and an 8 seed than only one of two and a 4 seed.
In addition to alerting the French press about his tentative return date, Parker also alerted them to the fact that he has had seven injuries to his left ankle, including the current one. He has now missed a stretch of games in consecutive seasons because of this ankle, and, I won't lie, it makes me nervous. Just as with Ginobili, I hope the Spurs continue to exhibit caution in their deliberations.

Thankfully for the Spurs they have Roger Mason and George Hill. Each of whom are playing well enough that Ginobili and Parker can ease into the rotation, or be pulled out of it, as circumstances demand. Neither player should have to play excessively heavy minutes until the playoffs. This of course provides the fringe benefit of the continued development of Mason and Hill. It's a win-win.

Now, if they could just grab a rebound...

At any rate, the Spurs are 6-6 with a bullet.

(HT: Kace from SpursTalk, who gives us yet another reason to love the French.)

Match-up of the Night: Gasol vs. Duncan

This was a difficult match-up to choose, as this Grizzlies team is packed with exciting, however undeveloped, players. With guys like Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo roaming the perimeter and slashing toward the hoop, it's going to be hard not to keep your eyes peeled on the free-wheeling Memphis backcourt. But if you want a solid barometer of Memphis' real potential this season, make sure you focus on how well Marc Gasol plays against Tim Duncan.

Gasol won't be alone. Darrel Arthur will often be found aiding the Spanish giant as he attempts to reign in the 2-time MVP. But Duncan is the most difficult post player the Griz's young frontcourt duo has had to face since they took on Yao Ming on opening day (Yao had 21 and 10 in a sloppy Rockets victory), so in some ways this is an unprecedented challenge for the bearded big man.

Honestly, there isn't much to note other than merely directing your attention towards these two. Gasol is a physical player, so I would say expect him to use that towards his advantage as he attempts to disrupt Duncan's seamless offensive style but other than that I don't have much to go on as far as predicting how Gasol will approach Tim. All I can say is (and this always applies but it seems especially so this evening) that the more people it takes to stop Tim, the worse for the Grizzlies. If guys are coming in off the wings because Duncan is scoring effortlessly, I would expect some combination of Hill, Finley, Mason and Ginobili to make Memphis pay on the perimeter. Although O.J. Mayo is becoming the leader of this young team, Gasol is the lynch pin tonight.

A Notable Mention goes to Hill vs. Mayo. George Hill probably isn't going to start and with the addition of Mike Conley and Javaris Crittenton, Hill may not share the court with Mayo too often. But if he finds himself matched up with the former USC star, I am intrigued to see the outcome. I have high hopes in regards to Hill's defensive abilities and having to cover a score-first combo guard like Mayo will be a challenge for the rookie. It also is a fascinating glimpse into the future of the two franchises. Neither of these rookies were halfhearted pick-ups: Both have been factored into the long term plans of their respective teams. When you watch Hill settle into the defensive crouch and man up on Mayo near the top of the arc, you are looking at the future of the Southwest Division.

The Return of Manu

According to Jeff McDonald at the San Antonio Express News, Manu will play tonight against the Grizzlies. Obviously his return spells an end to what has been a trying time for the silver and black but questions still remain.

As Tim noted a couple of weeks ago, rushing Manu back could lead to further problems in the long run. It is immensely more important Manu be at 100% in May than he be on the court at all in November. That being said, I don't believe we are rushing him back for two reasons.

First, Popovich is notoriously conservative about his management of player's health. If he thinks someone isn't ready to go, they aren't going and that's that. But more importantly, the situation in San Antonio isn't dire. In fact, many Spurs fans (myself included) are surprisingly optimistic. Once Tony joined Manu in street clothes many of us saw catastrophe on the horizon. I even had a couple of people suggest to me that we bench Duncan and make an unashamed run at the lottery.

Well, here we are, 12 games into the season and the Spurs have proven that with an extremely handicapped backcourt we are still a .500 team. Both George Hill and Roger Mason have surpassed expectations, Duncan has been unflappable (as if there was any doubt), and Michael Finley, who many had left for dead, has found a way to recapture that sweet stroke that brought him to San Antonio in the first place.

Add a hungry Manu Ginobili to the mix and I wouldn't expect this team to hover around 8th place much longer.

Still, don't expect an explosive performance from the Argentinean this evening. Sure, he'll get minutes, but even he himself admitted that he probably won't see as much court time as he would when fully healthy. Given some of the roster moves we've been making (recent starting backcourts have included almost any combination of Finley, Mason, Hill, and Bowen), I'll be intrigued to see if Manu remains in his mythic sixth man role (he most likely will).

No matter how many minutes he plays, no matter how many points he scores, all I have to say is: Manu, it's good to have you back.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Carlesimo's Termination: One Fan's Perspective

Sam Presti, Vice-President and General Manager of the Thunder, has fired head coach P.J. Carlesimo. In some ways, this is a sad story for Spurs fans. It comes across like a rift in the extended family, like listening to two uncles argue over Thanksgiving turkey.

The Thunder are trying to build an organization in the image of the Spurs---with owner Clay Bennet, GM Presti, and now former coach Carlesimo possessing strong ties to San Antonio. As a Spurs fan, I cheer for their transplants, whether in Cleveland, Oklahoma, Portland, Dallas, or, in a way, Phoenix. Although, it should be noted, Bennett's shoddy handling of the Sonics move is something of a "family embarrassment." Nevertheless, I want San Antonio branch-outs to succeed because it reflects well on the Spurs, it's good for their teams, and it's good for the league.

When Bennett first hired Presti there were rumors that the two disagreed about which coach to hire, with Bennett lobbying for P.J. Carlesimo. My heart went out to the coach who had done a good job coaching the Trailblazers from '94-'97 and who later spent 5 years as an adroit assistant under Gregg Popovich. He deserved another head coaching opportunity, but could never shake the shadow of having been assaulted by Latrell Sprewell. Weird, that.

Yet despite my desire to see Carlesimo land another head coaching gig, when rumors of Presti's lack of confidence surfaced, I had really hoped P.J. wouldn't take the Sonics job. I wanted something good for Carlesimo the way one empathizes with those who've been dealt a bad hand, but not because I had an unshakable trust in his coaching ability. Sam Presti, on the other hand, is something of a wonder-child. I've never held the slightest doubt that he would do anything less than kick ass and takes names as a GM. He's one of those guys who just gets it. If he thought Carlesimo was a bad fit, he probably was. From the moment Carlesimo was hired, there seemed only one sad, inevitable conclusion could follow.

Now that Carlesimo is gone, Presti will get to hire his man. The Thunder will improve. And P.J. Carlesimo will become a footnote to this discouraging period of Sonics/Thunder history. The Spurs fans shake their heads, wishing it could have ended better. The Thunder fans shake their heads, asking why it hadn't ended sooner. Everyone goes on their way.

P.J. Carlesimo is 59. I suspect this was his last head coaching job. He has a notoriously hot temperament and will, despite the years and jobs in between, continue to stand in the shadow of the Sprewell incident. Top-flight college programs are not going to call--the team he just left was largely college-aged, and he never connected with them. One can only hope he lands a job as an assistant.

That's my hope.

I have no way of knowing, but I would wager a large sum that one of the first to people to speak with Carlesimo following his termination was Popovich. That's what fathers do. They care for their own.

I recently read an article about Monty Williams, former Spurs player and assistant coach. Williams is several years removed from San Antonio, but the article revealed that he and Pop still talk, and frequently. In a similar manner, after being fired by Mark Cuban, Avery Johnson participated in an ESPN radio interview. He was asked if he had spoke with anyone after receiving his pink slip. His response, paraphrasing from memory, was "well, of course, Popovich." Carlesimo is closer to Pop than Kelvin Sampson, and even he was the recipient of San Antonio's patriarchal embrace after losing his job with Indiana.

But here's the thing: I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Pop and Presti have spoke too. It would be more surprising to learn that they had not spoke. So you see, Carlesimo's firing really does feel like a rift in the family, however necessary. It's a great taxonomic irony that San Antonio's coach is commonly referred to as Pop.

Many Spur fans are questioning whether or not Carlesimo will rejoin their bench. The truth is, I wouldn't be surprised. Of course they may not need another coach, but that is something to which they would not have given a moment's thought prior to extending an invitation.

The Notebook: Spurs-Jazz, 11/21/08

In our best collective offensive performance of the season the Spurs downed the Jazz 119-94 to return to .500 and hold on to the 8th spot in the Western Conference. The Spurs shot an impressive 51.9% from the field, but even more impressive was our collective 15-25 performance from beyond the 3-point line. Six Spurs, including Matt Bonner and Ime Udoka, scored in double digits.

Driven by Mehmet Okur's early hot hand, the Jazz seemed to harness the momentum for the majority of the first quarter. But the Spurs took the lead with 48 seconds left in the first and would never again cede control. For all intents and purposes the game was decided in the third quarter, during which Roger Mason scored 15 points, helping the Spurs' lead balloon from 7 at half to 24 headed into the fourth. He would finish the game with 29 points, having gone 10-17 from the field during his 30 minutes on the court. Although the idea has been floated before this moment, the official campaign begins now: Roger Mason Jr. should without a doubt receive this season's Most Improved Player award.

George Hill came off the bench, most likely in order to acclimate him to the rhythm of the game he will experience once Tony Parker returns. He used his 23 minutes to great effect, scoring 23 points, dishing out 3 assists and nabbing 3 steals. And like most every Spur who played well this evening, his solid numbers were produced quite efficiently (7-13 from the field). During the summer I often harped on the idea that the Spurs needed a third slasher to penetrate the defense when neither Manu nor Parker were on the court. I can say quite confidently that is what we have in Hill. Personnel decisions on the part of the Jazz made my preview largely irrelevant, but I did say quite clearly that I hoped Hill would be aggressive in his attempts to get to the basket. Well, the rookie took my advice to heart and made penetration his first priority.

Although Williams did not play, it is important to remember than once Parker returns, Hill will only be going up against premier point guards every so often. In general he will be going head to head with opposing team's second units, which is exactly who he faced this evening. And he responded by getting into the lane whenever he pleased. It is not uniquely impressive to roll over a Jazz team experiencing such severe injury problems, but just because Hill was productive against Ronnie Price and Brevin Knight, not Deron Williams, does not take away from his achievements this evening.

The fact of the matter is this team is a more effective offensive unit than I had ever imagined, and that is driven primarily by the inspired play of Roger Mason and George Hill. Mason has proven to be a fearless yet smart outside shooter while Hill has shown a combination of quickness, strength and inventiveness that make him not only a threat to get to the hoop but to finish with confidence once there. I spent much of the summer complaining about our shallow backcourt. But given how well we've responded since Parker's injury I am increasingly confident that this team will be a force to be reckoned with once Tony and Manu return. In other words, we are a .500 Western Conference team that is about to add two 20 point per game scorers over the next two weeks.

Tim Duncan scored 18 points while hauling in 7 boards over the course of 27 minutes. Although that is a solid contribution, Popovich made an excellent move limiting Duncan's minutes. With Carlos Boozer sidelined by an injury and the game well in hand halfway through the third, it was unnecessary to have Duncan drive himself the way we have asked him to game-in, game-out so far this season. When we have the opportunity to rest him, we must. He has played spectacularly so far, but as this team regains its confidence and returns to full strength it's important that we begin implementing our historical practice of limiting Duncan's regular season minutes.

Our upcoming schedule is reasonably manageable: At Memphis, Chicago, Memphis. Although not technically a statement game (beating a Boozer/Williams-less Jazz is nothing to write home about) I think this team feels confident going forward. It looks as if by the end of the week Manu Ginobili may be back on the floor. I don't want to count our chickens before they've hatched but the Spurs are in striking distance of surviving their most difficult regular season stretch in over a decade.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Match-up of the Night: Hill vs. Williams

UPDATE: Williams participated in practice on Thursday and I subsequently assumed he would be playing this evening. But because of an ankle injury Sloan chose to withhold him from the game. Which pretty much means you can ignore this entire preview.

Spurs-Jazz always offers some great match-ups out there on the floor. If Spurs fans are looking for the feel good showdown of the night, keep your eyes on Tim Duncan as he defends Carlos Boozer. Boozer is a talented player but in past years Duncan has owned him, plain and simple. On Wednesday Duncan had his worst game in a little while so part of me expects him to play with an edge this evening. But we've seen that match-up dozens of times. My eye is going to be on George Hill as he squares up with one of the most talented point guards in the league, Deron Williams.

Williams is not unlike Hill's most recent opponent, Chauncey Billups. Both are smart, physical field generals who, at least according to my impressions, make similar decisions about when to shoot the long ball and when to head for the paint. I'll be excited to see if Hill is able to make any substantive improvements on the defensive end after having covered Billups on Wednesday. No team is as committed to the pick-and-roll as the Jazz and as Tom Ziller noted during his NBA Top 50 rankings, off the pick-and-roll "a PG FGA is the safest outcome."
With no passes involved, the chance for a turnover is reduced. If a PG can get off a decent shot, he should take it (unless there's a more decent shot for a teammate). This is where Williams is so good: making the right decision here. It often ends up in the hands of Boozer, but Williams is strong and unafraid to go all the way in himself. He reads the defense. As a result, he makes good decisions and boosts his stellar shooting numbers.
Given how well Duncan covers Boozer (and the pick-and-roll in general), I expect to see a lot of shots out of Williams. This will be a chance for Hill to step up and show that he can go pound for pound with one of the best (and if Williams goes to the hole it literally will be pound for pound).

I'm also interested to see how well Hill can score against Williams. Hill had a big night against Billups and has the combination of power and quickness that can combat Williams' bruising style. The Jazz also have interior defensive issues, and if Hill (who is really the only slasher out on the floor) can get to the hoop, it will open guys up all over the court. But Williams, not having to worry about Parker or Manu, will stay home on Hill, while he typically has to worry about a second member of the backcourt (Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver cannot typically be counted on to stop Manu or Parker).

Previously Tim and I have discussed that if the choice is between Hill being too aggressive or being too safe, we would actually prefer him be the former. This is particularly true this evening. Yes, penetration disrupts any defense, but the Jazz are uniquely susceptible: If Hill gets into the paint, nobody will stay home and wide-open looks (as well as easy buckets for Duncan) will start appearing all over the place.

Make no mistake, this is a tall order for our roster's youngest member. He is going to have to stare down one of the best (some would say the best, although I wouldn't) point guards in the league. He is going to have to hustle on defense, as Williams is probably the most efficient scorer Hill has faced up to this point. And he is going to have to maintain his focus while getting mugged by a foul-happy Jazz squad. It's going to be a long night for the rookie but I think he's up to the task.

UPDATE:
As his and Duncan's matchup played a supporting role in this preview, I think it is important to note that Carlos Boozer will not be suiting up for the game this evening. Supposedly he strained his quadriceps muscle on Wednesday night when the Jazz played Milwaukee. According to the article linked above, Mehmet Okur will guard Duncan, although as Jerry Sloan notes Okur at best "tries to. We've never had anybody guard him. That's why we've lost a hundred games against them."

The Al Harrington Trade and San Antonio

The Spurs are currently tied with Golden State for the 8th best record in the West. But unlike Denver's trade for Billups, which appears to have greatly helped the Nuggets, I don't see this one affecting the standings. At least, it won't prevent the Spurs from making a move up. If Manu returns as early as next Monday, the Spurs will finish somewhere between 3 and 5, with little regard for Golden State.

As reported, the Warriors will get back Jamal Crawford in the deal, allowing their small ball freak show to, paraphrasing Bethlehem Shoals, get even more psychedelic. Some nights the Warriors are fun to watch, and on others they're like a bad acid trip flash back. Once healthy, I expect a line up of Ellis, Morrow, Crawford, Capt. Jack and Biedrins for longer stretches than anyone thinks possible.

In head to head match ups, this won't matter. The Spurs get back on defense and can play small. They'll still pound the Warriors, taunting the Mavericks all the while. And I suspect it means even less in the conference race, unless the Warriors replace Ellis with Crawford, trading Monta for someone valuable. If that happens, we'll reevaluate the situation.

The bigger story here is that NY continues to decrease payroll. Donnie Walsh is doing well. As I wrote earlier today, the Spurs are 2010 hopefuls. While no one thinks their small market status will appeal to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, they are a legit contenders for nearly everyone else available that summer. My concern is that James or Wade will spurn the Knicks and set off a chain reaction that places San Antonio in a position of weakness. In other words, what happens if Walsh has cash to spend on the same players Pop and Buford are hoping to land?

As a small market team, the Spurs are already at a disadvantage. What they have over most of the league, and should still have in 2010, is a claim to true contention and a championship cast. If pedigree is currency, then they're rich. But such pedigree can get lost in the bright lights of Broadway.

Speaking of those Broadway lights, I'd be surprised if David Lee lasts in NY. Despite the opinion of others, he's not a 7 seconds or less guy. Even more crucially, the money he'll demand in free agency isn't conducive to Walsh's pursuit of LeBron. If Darko Milicic is the human victory cigar, then Lee, at least for part of this season, is the cherry atop the Eddy Curry sundae.

Blogger MVP and ROY Rankings: Round 1

48 Minutes of Hell is taking part in a blogger MVP and ROY ranking series collectively hosted by the voting blogs. Hoops Addict had the honor of hosting the first round. I had some sizeable disagreements with the rest of the group: I had Tim Duncan listed at 2, far ahead of the groups collective ranking of ten. I also had Mario Chalmers and George Hill at the 4 and 5 for my ROY rankings. Here are the reasons I gave:
4. Mario Chalmers: Honestly, lot's of guys are putting up better numbers and will be more crucial to their team in the long run. But Chalmers is playing with grit and guts the way few rookies do.

5. George Hill: This is not me being a shameless homer. Hill had nowhere near the pre-season hype to end up on any ESPN list. But anyone who has watched him play can see that he is already an excellent defender, a responsible distributor and a surprisingly potent threat around the rim. Also, he has shown a lot of poise given how much pressure Parker's absence has put on him.
To his credit, the always insightful Ryan McNeill was the only other blogger who felt Chalmers deserved a spot on the list. If you guys don't read McNeill and the rest of the Hoops Addict gang, you really should. They do an excellent job. Although, I did take down McNeill by a whopping 7-2 last week in the Upside and Motor Fantasy Basketball Classic, so I don't know whether you can really trust his opinion.

Rumor Filter

The Spurs will march into the summer of 2010 with Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, George Hill and Ian Mahinmi under contract. Those four will command a meager 35 million in total salaries. And get this, as many as an astonishing nine Spurs will drop off the books at the conclusion of the 09/10 campaign. Nine players. Think about that. 60% of the roster.

R.C. Buford has been carefully orchestrating the Spurs salary cap for several seasons. He and Pop convinced Tim Duncan to take a pay cut starting in the 2010/11 season based on the movements of their conductor's stick. It should be obvious, the front office has a plan.

The Spurs are not dumb. Tim Duncan is the reason they've won four championships. Elite teams require elite players. And as the readers of this blog probably know, the summer of 2010 is stuffed full of elite players.

A combination of Parker, Duncan, Mahinmi, Hill, and, perhaps, Ginobili with free agent cash to spend should be an attractive proposition for any available free agent talent. One assumes Duncan will have lost something by that point--although his current numbers are the same as ever--and will be relegated to third wheel status alongside the Spur-to-be and Tony Parker, both of whom should be in their prime. That's fine. So far as third options go, Tim Duncan is a pretty good one.

The Spurs will also have an improbable but nevertheless available option on Tiago Splitter that summer. If he were to come to the NBA, forsaking certain riches in Europe, it would be on a rookie contract. Ironically, Tim Duncan's decline, which should promise a bigger place in the rotation for Splitter, along with a headline free agent signing, might create an attractive situation for the Brazilian.

This of course is complicated by the 2010 free agent status of Manu Ginobili and, to a lesser degree, Roger Mason Jr. Their market value and clout within the organization will factor heavily into the Spurs thinking, but it's impossible to know what that will be two years out. But know this: the Spurs front office adopted a plan for 2010 several seasons ago and it will take something of major significance for them to alter it now. They're on a deliberate course, carefully considered and charted-through. No one in San Antonio is eager to hit the panic button.

So when you read about rumors of the Spurs making a play for, say, Al Harrington, Eddy Curry, Chris Kaman, or Gerald Wallace, ask yourself how would such a deal affect the 2010 cap?

I'm here to help.

Assuming Harrington picks up his player option after this season, his contract still expires in 2010. For this reason alone he makes the most sense of all the names sauntered about. If Eddy Curry exercised his early termination option, he could be a free agent in 2010. He'd also be several million poorer for doing so. It's more likely they'll he lay claim to contracted money, clogging the books of the poor suckers that have to pay him. Gerald Wallace is scheduled to make almost 30 million between 2010 and 2013, so he's not a great fit. Chris Kaman is not as expensive, but he still leaves you on the hook for 23 million through 2012. In short, most trade rumors are laughable.

It's fashionable to suggest that the struggling Spurs are the floundering fish that will bite the trade hook. But it's just not likely. If the Spurs make a trade this season, it will be for a player whose contract expires prior to 2010 or whose contract is small enough that it will not self-destruct their free agent ambitions. The only exception to this rule will come if a GM is willing to give up Pau Gasol-level talent for Laker returns.

But that brings us to this: “No one wants their guys." That is, the Spurs have precious little to offer, not even a 2009 first round pick. There are very few circumstances that would cause a GM to send out inexpensive talent for Jacque Vaughn quality kick back. The Spurs don't have the assets to make a big splash trade. It's a tough market on Matt Bonner.

If the Spurs are able to execute their long-term reload strategy, they should be competitive through 2012, at least. Four more years of championship aspirations is a lot to look forward to. I wonder what Vegas would consider the better bet to happen first: the Spurs not qualifying for the playoffs or David Stern's retirement?

Update: Al Harrington is likely off the table.

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.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Keyser Soze Lives, Sort Of

In a recent post, I discussed the Spurs big man pipeline. As readers saw, the Spurs front court has a competitive future---they have enough irons in the fire that something is going to come out hot.

Elsewhere I've written that once they're healthy the Spurs will have an elite back court. I stand by that claim. Parker-Hill, Mason-Ginobili is a good core for the next few years, at least. No worries there. But I know that all things are not budding and green in the shire. In this post I will take the same tact, but will focus on the small forward position.

Ime Udoka is not playing well this season. Truth be told, despite lofty expectations and a good series against the Hornets in last year's playoffs, Udoka has been mediocre since he arrived. Those of us who had hopes that Udoka was Bowen's heir apparent remain underwhelmed. There is still a lot of season left for him to turn the ship, but one must wonder if Udoka should not be consigned to the good player/bad fit category. His contract expires after the season, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Spurs let him walk if he wants more than a couple million. They really can't afford to pay more, especially for another player north of 30 with uneven production. The notion of Udoka as Bowen's successor is not so thrilling a thought; Udoka as a low-cost, spot defender makes sense.

Udoka's poor play has been softened by the stellar play of Finley, but not many of us (and by 'us' I mean you, me and everyone we know) think this is a good bet to last. Finley worked hard this off season, but he's old. Gravity always wins. A productive Fin in March, April and June would be huge as the Spurs make a push to 5. But it hardly needs to be said that Finley does not represent the future in San Antonio.

Bowen has played well this season, but he now walks the line between ageless wonder and aging blunder. This is not a knock against him. He does more with less than any player in the league. But one can only be so effective in slowing time, and Bowen's resistance to age has been remarkable. Still, he's beginning to loose his lateral quickness. Once that goes he must forfeit his roster spot to retirement. I'm hoping Bowen makes it through this season. If he comes into 2009 camp as the most reliable 3 on roster, the Spurs faithful will have to break out the candles and prayer beads.

The Spurs have two wing players in the pipeline: Viktor Sanikidze and Malik Hairston. Amongst Spur fans, Sanikidze is the Keyser Soze of international draft and stash players. One often hears rumors of the 6'8'' small forward being a terror on the court, but it's hard to track down any evidence of this in time and space. At 22, there is still hope. He played decently for the Georgian National Team this summer, but is currently taking the quiet approach while playing for Estonia's very own Tarta Rock. At this point, Sanikidze is a summer league hopeful. Chances of his ever contributing to the Spurs in a meaningful way are gravely remote.

There is more hope for Malik Hairston, who will open is professional career as temporary property of the Austin Toros. He spent training camp with the Spurs and showed promise. Too bad for the Spurs, however, any team in the league will have opportunity to give Hairston a call up. This is likely. The people over at Draft Express put it this way:
Malik Hairston could very well be the first player called up by an NBA team, as soon as one injury or another happens and the need for a versatile swingman arises. He has an NBA body already to go along with nice physical tools, an advanced skill-set, and excellent intangibles to boot. It was surprising to say the least to see San Antonio decide to keep Desmon Farmer over him, but if Hairston can show improved ball-handling skills and the ability to defend both wing positions effectively, his stay in Austin should not be very long.
The Spurs will not have a first round pick in the 2009 draft. Their ability to fill gaps in the quickly eroding small forward wall will have to come through free agency, a trade, or the D-League. As we will see in a future post, this is not a simple task given the Spurs assets and cap situation. But for now, there is good reason to cheer for Hairston.

Watching the Rotation: The Bonner-Tolliver Redundancy

Many Spurs fans scratched their heads this summer when the Spurs extended a contract offer to Anthony Tolliver. Tolliver had played well for the summer league squad, showing expert three point range, albeit for the first time in his life. Those of us who spend too much time thinking about these things reasoned that the contract (200,000 guaranteed) was a rich expenditure to get a second look during training camp. But once training camp started, it became apparent that Tolliver was already in the Spurs plans, and that he was something more than a practice body.

So what? Why all the head scratching?

Tolliver's function as a 6'8'' power forward is to spread the court for Duncan with his shooting. This is all fine and good, except that his ability to shoot has a short history and, we feared, his summer league output might constitute a faulty sample. More to the point, the Spurs already had a one-dimensional court stretching 4 on the roster. Wasn't it a waste to duplicate Bonner's role when they would benefit from, say, another shot blocker? Or, did this simply signal the end of Bonner's tenure with the Spurs?

So far, Matt Bonner (PER: 13.13) and Anthony Tolliver (PER: 13.56) are playing well this season, at least relative to expectations and their role as 5th bigs. In the case of Bonner, his production is more or less the same as it's always been, but timely. That is, his field goals have hit at the right moments, affecting the momentum of games. Matt Bonner is on a tear--I know, can one really use those words together?--that represent his best basketball as a Spur. His three point shooting and passable defense have greatly aided the Spurs last two victories.

Tolliver, as stated above, was billed as a 4 who could "really shoot." But he hasn't shown it. He throws up an inexplicable number of green-lit bricks and rim-rattling clangers. He is only connecting on .393 from the field and a sad .211 from beyond the arc. What he does do, however, is play with energy, sturdy D, and excellent court awareness. He's a gifted passer, both from the high post and the interior. Nevertheless, as L.J. Ellis recently remarked, "If he can hit his three-pointers, he has a career in this league. If he can’t, he won’t be able to survive."

In essence, I'm treating this as a position battle. My preference is for Tolliver--if he can find his shot, he can do more on the court than Bonner. Moreover, he's far less expensive. The best case scenario would be for Bonner to continue to play well and in so doing increase his meager trade value. He is a reliable three point shooter and could fill a niche as someone else's 5th big.

In the meantime, I'll have to amuse myself by hoping that Pop trots them out together for an extended stretch in some game. His postgame phone call to Larry Brown would go something like this, "Yeah, I played a line up of JV, Ime, Bruce, Tolly and and Bonny to close the 3rd. We didn't score for 3 minutes. It was hysterical. The two big oafs standing on the perimeter as Jacque tried to break the defense down...priceless. Bud kept giving me that stare. You should have seen it........no, no, we won.....right, I just put Timmy back in. Anyway, how are the kids, LB?"

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

HustleJunkie: A Tribute to Fire Joe Morgan

After an extended hiatus, my HustleJunkie column is back over at Hardwood Paroxysm. This week I pay tribute to Fire Joe Morgan, which recently announced it will no longer be operational. I loved Fire Joe Morgan. I try to maintain a rather congenial voice here at 48 Minutes of Hell but somewhere inside me lurks the same disdain for mediocre sportswriting that drove Ken Tremendous, dak, Junior, Matthey Murbles, and Coach to such heights of hilarity for all those years. So I threw aside any semblance of gentlemanly demeanor I typically uphold and went after one of my least favorites sports columnists: Bill Plaschke.

To Plaschke's credit, he is nowhere near as noxious as, say, Jay Mariotti or Peter Vecsey. But for the most part Bill's columns slide back and forth between varying degrees of obvious and incomprehensible. He also uses single sentence paragraphs so often it's as if he were seeking vengeance on good writing. If you have a chance, swing by HP and give it a read.

The Notebook: Spurs-Clippers, 11/17/08

Yesterday I noted how, of the 9 games we had played, 7 had been decided by 5 points or less. Well, you can officially make that 8 of 10 as the Spurs held off a late rally by the Clippers last night to win 86-83 in LA. The Spurs now head home with a .500 record where they await a Nuggets team that has been rejuvenated by the arrival of Chauncey Billups.

Both Kurt Thomas and Ime Udoka returned to the floor after receiving DNP-CDs two days ago in Sacramento. I still am not completely positive as to why each saw zero minutes on Sunday. My only explanation is that Popovich was saving them for the second leg of the back-to-back as we traditionally struggle in such games. But neither proved to be very productive, each going 1-3 from the field.

Tim Duncan scored 20 points and hauled in 15 rebounds in another well-crafted performance, but the real hero of this game was Roger Mason. leading the team with 21 points on 9-16 shooting, Mason showed some bravado by taking a pull up jumper from beyond the arc with 8 seconds left instead of hitting Duncan who was rolling to the hoop after having just set a pick. Mason nailed the shot, giving the Spurs a 3-point lead and moments later the win. He has done an excellent job filling the offensive gap during Parker and Ginobili's absence and I am increasingly confident that he is the reliable fourth option this team has been in need of.

Jacques Vaughn played poorly, succumbing to aggressive traps by either turning the ball over or mismanaging the offensive set. For further evidence note that when Vaughn entered the game for Hill with 4:05 left in the fourth, we were up 83-76. We would not score again until there was 8 seconds left.

I wanted to note that we played excellent perimeter defense during the Clippers final shot attempt. Popovich put in our "smartest" rotation: Vaughn, Bowen, Finley, Mason, and Duncan. And eventually the veteran unit forced Baron Davis into taking a difficult, low-percentage shot.

For further thoughts on the Clippers I'll turn to Kevin Arnovitz of ClipperBlog:

The Clippers play a fairly crisp game tonight. They work themselves some nice looks against a smart defensive team. Their coverages seem as tight as they’ve been in a while — even with the problems on the perimeter. The Clippers destroy the Spurs on the boards [47-36, including 14-5 on the offensive glass]. The 13 turnovers are manageable [a couple of them are offensive fouls]. Chris Kaman is able to find himself space to shoot his face-up 15-footer. He turns the ball over only once. Cuttino Mobley runs off 11 consecutive point at the start of the second half to keep the Clippers in the game. But Baron is awful.
As I mentioned earlier, the Spurs will be back in San Antonio on Wednesday where they will face the 6-4 Nuggets. The game begins at 8:30 Eastern/7:30 Central.