Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Brand New Day

Dear Readers,

Today is an exciting day for several reasons. Aside from the transition of power which has captured not only the attention of the nation but also the world, there is a much smaller transition which has captured the attention of a small corner of the interwebs: 48 Minutes of Hell is moving to a new location. From this day forward we will no longer be operating at blogspot and will only be publishing material at 48minutesofhell.com.

The second and equally if not far more exciting development is that 48 Minutes of Hell is proud to announce that we are a member of a new network being launched by ESPN. Entitled the TrueHoop Network, it was pioneered by the minds of Henry Abbott and Kevin Arnovitz and will include several of the best NBA blogs available. Check them out.

In the meantime, set a bookmark to www.48minutesofhell.com.

-Graydon Gordian and Timothy Varner

Monday, January 19, 2009

MLK Day Musing on "Spurs Culture"

Back in November Gregg Popovich was busy inculcating roster newbies into Spurs culture. Roger Mason Jr. summed it up this way:

"Honestly, it's beyond expectations,'' Mason said. "The most impressive thing that I've seen Pop do is, before the election, he had us watch a video on the civil rights movement. For me, you know he has the X's and O's and that he's a great coach, but stuff like that, you don't see that.''

On Monday, with San Antonio off to an uncharacteristic 0-2 start, with back-to-back games against the Mavericks and Timberwolves looming, Popovich devoted about 45 minutes before practice -- on the eve of a historic presidential election -- to a topic that had nothing to do with his players' place and moment in time, and everything to do with it.

"It was Dr. King. It was a bunch of current events on the struggles that a lot of African-Americans went through in the civil rights movement,'' Mason said. "It completely threw me off. But when I went home and reflected on it, I was like, Man, he's a special guy.''

I'm a cynic on these days--holidays when earnest reflection is typically exceeded by token sentimentalism. I know these days are important. I'm happy we take time to mark our calendars with the most significant events of our history. But still, I'm a cynic. Hallmark Cards, the tiresome prattle of pundits, and the counterfeit care of the news anchor tear all strike a deeply disingenuous tone to me. I prefer gifts out of season to a carefully scheduled parade of gift-wrap. I'm a cynic, but I'm not completely callous. I can be touched. But the honest atheist who will not celebrate Christmas (as Christmas) earns more respect from me than the man who fakes his fa la la way through.

Whether a father realizes it or not, the sincerity of his actions creates a culture for his children to live within. If he is unnecessarily absent, the sincerity of his absence creates a culture of longing and loneliness in which the children grow. If he only pays lip service I Love Yous, children will acquaint themselves with a culture of shallow, feigned affection. This kind of thing is inescapable, and adapts to scale. It's true for parents. It's true for teachers. It's true for presidents. It's true for coaches.

"Spurs culture" is something of a nebulous expression. But whatever it is, it aims to be sincere, and it seeks sincerity from its contributors. Gregg Popovich was able to connect with Roger Mason through 45 minutes of sincere, unscripted reflection on the triumphs of the civil rights era. I'm convinced these sort of moments have played major contributing roles during the Spurs' decade of dominance. One can not quantify the power of a culturally defining moment, and, drastically scaling down in terms of significance, neither can one quantify the relationship between a certain type of culture and winning.

At Center Court with Brett Hainline

Brett Hainline is the man over at Queen City Hoops, the best place on the net for Bobcats analysis. In addition to keeping close tabs on the Cats, Brett also manages a kick ass stats page--it includes Spurs stats, o ye faithful. Clamor on over. Brett and I discuss Popovich, Brown, and some other stuff below.

TV: Your recent piece entitled Defending a Bobcats Defense was tremendous. The Bobcats are on the come up since the Richardson trade, and, based on your numbers, Diaw's defense is a contributing factor. I'm guessing Larry Brown (who I assume pushed for the trade) did not run your fancy pants numbers before saying, "yeah, get me Bell and Diaw." To what extent do you believe veteran coaches and GMs can intuit the sort of stuff your data shows?
BH: I think coaches and GMs see enough basketball to tell who forces their man into tough shots, who gambles too much on defense, and who does a good job defending the pick and roll. But coaches have put Kobe on the All-Defensive teams 8 times, despite his sometimes flagging interest at the end of the court (before the Royal Order of Kobe Supporters tear me a new one – Kobe is a very good defender…when he tries – is that good enough to be among the league’s best for 8 seasons?) and that tells me that they can also buy into the hype and might be making some of their decisions on reputation. They saw his greatness – and then stopped looking hard at him (and others – he is not the only one to make it on his name). Like my post showed – stats can be used to paint a very detailed picture of a player’s influence on a game, far beyond just how someone scored against him. I think there is a limit to how much a person could intuitively track all the varied fields that paint a more complete picture of a defender’s abilities.
TV: Half a season in, what's your take on Larry Brown as the Bobcats coach?
BH: With the Bobcats seemingly headed towards merely matching last season’s win total…I am actually generally very pleased. Larry Brown has the team playing actual basketball and their defense is world’s better than last season – they currently stand 12th in the league in defensive efficiency (and even better since the Diaw trade), after finishing last year at 21st. The Bobcats are actually approaching being good at something. The offense is still a work in progress, but after a lot of early season struggling with more plays and complexity than they were accustomed, the Cats are making offensive progress. Overall, I can not complain (except about playing Juwan Howard over Ryan Hollins and Alexis Ajinca--the Cats are very unlikely to make the playoffs so why not give the kids a chance?).
TV: For some reason, the Popovich-Brown friendship fascinates me. How would you compare the two coaches, in light of one another?
BH: Stylistically, they seem very similar – their teams play old-school basketball (well, sort-of, depending on the era, old school was actually pretty up-tempo, but the style they play seems old-school), with a focus on defense and a slow pace. But…Pop – 13 seasons, 1 team. Larry Brown – 29 years (including ABA), 10 teams. In real world terms, one is the monogamous, long-married husband, the other a confirmed bachelor, moving from passing fancy to passing fancy. Do they secretly envy each other? What do they have in common to form their friendship around? I can only assume that, just like in real life, the answer is probably basketball.
TV: Do you think the Cats are stuck with Adam Morrison?
BH: Like an unwanted leg. Except I kind of want Adam around, just in case he winds up proving everyone wrong. I’d hate to see him moved elsewhere only to become a solid contributor (anything more seems like ridiculous fantasy at this point). Aside from being used in a trade to make salaries match, I do not see the Bobcats being able to trade him. After a decent start to the season, he has struggled mightily and probably forced the Bobcats into holding onto him for next year (which they already picked up, for the low, low sum of only $5 million – yay! Sigh.).
Brett and I exchanged questions this time around, so visit Queen City Hoops for my answers to a set of Spurs questions. And his game previews are not too shabby, either.

The Trade Season Tilt-A-Whirl: Twirl No. 1

ESPN's Daily Dime has Spurs Nation talking about San Antonio's alleged interest in Nick Collison. Nick Collison? Really?

  • excellent rebound rate
  • good defender
  • high FG%
One member of a Spurs message board fired up The Trade Machine and discovered that a salary dump of Vaughn, Oberto, and Udoka for Collison satisfies the CBA. Even if the Spurs included a 2009 second round draft pick(s) into the equation, one wonders if Presti would give up Collison for so little talent in return? The big variable here is how much of Fabricio Oberto's 2009/10 contract is guaranteed. The usual sites disagree, but some indicate that next season's contract is only partially guaranteed. If that is the case, Presti could clear 18 million or more (depending on Oberto's contract) from his future cap--he would head into next summer with a payroll somewhere in the low to mid-30s.

Right now, it looks as if only Memphis is likely to be in the same cap space neighborhood as OKC. But how much money is Michael Heisley willing to spend in a bad economy? In other words, would Sam Presti want cash to spend in a buyer's market? And in a year when the competition for talent is scarce? More specifically, does Presti want to add a Carlos Boozer or David Lee--with money enough left for, say, Zaza Pachulia--to his core of Durant, Green and Westbrook? This might be the perfect storm of opportunity for the ambitious young GM. Turning Nick Collison into Carlos Boozer would be a neat party trick.

On the court Collison is an ideal fit for San Antonio, but is he worth jeopardizing their 2010 cap space? I'm not sure. Perhaps, there is a different way to ask the question. Are the Spurs playing for championships now or later? Collison is not a bit player. His presence would immediately shore up the frontline.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

It's the Personnel, Pop

Jeff McDonald has turned in a should-read article replete with quotes from Coach Popovich about the Spurs lackluster defense. This is typical Popovich banter, always pre-packaged and ready for arrival in mid-January. But somehow, this season, Pop's analysis strikes me as more than a motivational ploy.

We've recently written that the Spurs are not as good as their record. Popovich seems to agree: “The only thing that's saving us is that everybody else is beating everybody else up, so our record looks basically as good as anybody else's,” Popovich said. “It's fool's gold, as far as I'm concerned.”

According to McDonald, the first game stat Pop looks at is field goal percentage defense. Basketbawful wrote about this area of concern a couple weeks back, saying:
This kind of shocked me, but the Spurs are only 21st in the league in field goal percentage defense (45.7), which is barely better than the Heat (45.8) and Warriors (also 45.8). The fact that they're one of the best teams in PPG allowed but one of the worst teams in FGP allowed tells you pretty much all you need to know about the pace of their games.
It's hard to argue with the evidence, especially if you've watched any games of late. The 76ers might the toughest match up in the league for San Antonio. Their athletic 3s and 4s recently obliterated the Spurs defense, and notably Bruce Bowen. Young and Iguodala cruised to 27 and 21 points, respectively. Meanwhile, the laterally-challenged Bowen and Finley registered plus/minuses of -13 and -26. Philly scored at will.

The painful truth is that the Spurs have hard-to-overcome personnel issues--not insurmountable, but terribly problematic. The Spurs will struggle to defend athletic wings. Bowen's decline causes one to wonder how effectively the Spurs will successfully limit the offense of playoff go to scorers, such as Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. In their recent game against the Lakers, Pop only gave Bowen 6 minutes of playing time (although, truth be told, I suspect Bowen was given the short hook because of offensive, not defensive, limitations). As I noted after the game:
The Spurs played last night's game with basically one swing player: Michael Finley. Ime Udoka didn't make it off the bench and Bruce Bowen logged a mere 6 minutes. The Spurs used a trio of Hill, Mason, Ginobili at one point. In the '08 Western Conference Finals, Kobe Bryant averaged 29.2 points on 53% shooting. Nothing had changed last night. It looks as if Popovich has decided that Bowen can't slow Bryant, so he might as well put his team in a better position to trade baskets.
Coincidentally, might this offer a partial account for Pop's frequent forays into small ball?

When the Spurs play Kurt Thomas and Tim Duncan together, they have a front court whose foot speed is closer to slow and plodding than quick and nimble. This creates difficulties against 4s and 5s that can score by facing the basket and putting the ball on the floor. This is obviously qualified by the fact that Thomas and Duncan are on most short-lists of good defensive big men. It's no surprise then that they are an effective tandem against certain, if not most, line ups. This criticism is only relative to quick, athletic frontcourters. Thomas and Duncan can't stick with the long speedsters. Pop doesn't have a body on his bench to play alongside Duncan that is particularly suited to defend athletic, turn and face bigs. Austin Croshere is not the solution to this problem, no matter how much he potentially helps elsewhere.

Another issue along the frontline, one that certainly contributes to an opponent's field goal percentage, is the Spurs' lack of a second shot blocker. Kurt Thomas, again, is a good defender, but he's not exactly the Sultan of Swat. Duncan hasn't played alongside a great shot-altering center since David Robinson, with Rasho Nesterovic checking in as the closest qualifier. The Spurs defense, as most readers of this site know, attempts to force perimeter players baseline and funnel them into the clutches of its shot blockers. Although it's not an absolute necessity, the Spurs D is better outfitted with twin towers who can spike the set of opposing penetration.

This brings us back to McDonald's sobering piece:

“We suck on ‘D,'” Popovich said, with the “D” standing for defense.

That was the entire text of Popovich's State of the Team address, as succinct as it was devastating. All follow-up questions fishing for a silver lining were quickly rebuffed.

Do you mean all game long, or just in fourth quarters?

“No, pretty much throughout,” Popovich said. “Both individually and team-wise, we suck. We're pretty consistent that way.”

Surely there is a way to fix this problem, some sliver of hope on the horizon?

“I don't know if I have an answer to that,” Popovich said. “If I did, we wouldn't suck quite so bad.”

The Spurs can always seek to address their personnel issues through trades or free agent acquisitions, except that they are extremely short-handed on assets and teams are not looking to give away the sort of player(s) the Spurs need in return. Even if the Spurs were able to land a player who has the physical wherewithal to stand in the gap, there is no certainty he could learn the system quickly enough to boost the Spurs back into the realm of the elite. These defensive issues pose the most critical challenge to the 2008/9 championship run. Color me anxious.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Match-Up of the Night: The Curse of Graydon vs. Poor Scheduling

Although I have only lived in Chicago for a little over a year, I am almost legendary amongst Chicago sports fans. For you see I have attended 8 Chicago sporting events and never once has the home town team won. Cubs, Bears, Bulls, doesn't matter. If I am present they lose. For the most part this is frustrating because I like Chicago sports teams and wish them the best. But one day a year this is a sure fire way to ensure I fall asleep with a smile on my face: The day the Spurs come town.

Alas, I am not in Chicago. I am in Washington D.C. So I am not only missing the game (which is frustrating enough in its own right), but there is now the slightest chance we might lose when originally there was no shot whatsoever at a Bulls victory. Poor scheduling on my part (really, poor scheduling on whoever thought the inauguration should be in January. It's the east coast people. Can't we do this in May?).

Anyways, in their first meeting this season an under-staffed Spurs squad (Parker was still out) managed to top the Bulls 98-88. I characterized that contest as a chance to compare Hill and Rose and despite whatever media hype may surround the first round pick, Hill had the better game. But Rose has continued to improve over the season while Hill's momentum has slowed a bit. The Bulls are also coming off of a particularly impressive performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who I happen to believe are the best team in the NBA. The Spurs, on the other hand, let their post-Laker momentum slip a bit as they got thoroughly handled by a surging Sixers squad. The game starts at 8:30 Eastern/7:30 Central.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Match-Up of the Night: Consistent Perimeter Shooting vs. Hot Perimeter Shooting

I've never understood why the Spurs are labeled as a boring team. Ok, scratch that. I understand that people find our slow pace of play and defensive-minded style to be boring. But the spurs let it fly from the perimeter at an alarming rate and however worrying it may be from the perspective of offensive efficiency, I happen to find barrages of three pointers to be exciting. Which is why I am excited for this evening's contest with the 76ers.

Traditionally Philly doesn't take a lot of outside shots (for the majority of the season they have had the fewest 3-point attempts of any team). But under new coach Tony DiLeo the Sixers have started to heat up from from beyond the arc:
The Sixers are near the bottom of the NBA in 3-point shooting (32.2 percent), but they've connected on 34 of 70 attempts (48.6) during their [5 game] winning streak.
The Spurs, on the other hand, have lived and died by the long ball for a good season or two now. A look up and down the roster will reveal a whole bevy of players who love nothing more than making it rain from 24 feet away from the basket. But, unlike the Sixers, we do so at an impressively consistent rate. Bonner and Mason are amongst the top three in the league in 3-point percentage (1st and 3rd, respectively). And Ginobili, Bowen, Finley, and even Udoka can hit outside shots at a decent rate. Although the average fan may not think of Spurs-Sixers as an exciting match-up, there's a good reason to believe these two squads may provide us with a bit of fireworks this evening.

Every Team Needs Two Matt Bonners

The Spurs have signed Austin Croshere to a 10-Day contract. Since it's only a 10-Day at this point, I'll simply offer a brief, off the cuff assessment.

Just before learning of the signing, I posted about the Spurs fascination with small ball. I encourage you to read that post, and insert "Croshere" where necessary. Austin Croshere brings 3 point offense and spacing to the table, and could be helpful against the Lakers.

Croshere has a wealth of experience. He's played in a number of playoff games, including one trip to the NBA Finals. That counts for more than a consolation prize to me. Croshere is also better than Matt Bonner at putting the ball on the floor after a ball fake. That doesn't say much, I know. But it is something. I think the two bigs could play together for short stints, as odd as that would seem. Austin Croshere is better than Anthony Tolliver, so in that limited sense the Spurs have improved themselves.

The downside of this is that Spurs are now tapped-out in terms of roster space, with lingering needs for rebounding/interior defense and wing scoring. If Croshere works out, I have to imagine the Spurs plan to address at least one of those issues through a trade. It's also possible they buy out Jacque Vaughn to create a roster space, though doubtful.

We'll know more in 20 days (Croshere will likely receive two 10-Days from San Antonio before they make a decision on him). For now, it's a smart look and see 10 Day for a veteran who could, theoretically, fit the system at a thin position.

The Small Ball Spurs

Times have changed. If pressed, Tim Duncan will now admit to being the San Antonio Spurs starting center. Gregg Popovich's team is shape-shifting, with few observers taking notice. Tim Duncan as center is part of a broader, albeit subtle, change. The Spurs frequently moonlight as a small ball team.

Gregg Popovich has always been willing to mix in small ball line ups if the action on the floor called for it. But this season, his willingness to play small has morphed into a underlying commitment; small ball is part of a larger strategy, which I'll turn to in a moment.

The superficial evidence of the Spurs playing small is easy enough to spot. Michael Finley, who is really a shooting guard, plays small forward. When Ime Udoka plays, he's often used as a small ball 4. The Spurs most effective 5-man units this season are small ballish. Parker, Mason, Finley, Bonner, and Duncan are the most frequent combination, boasting a win% of 68.7. Hill, Mason, Finley, Bonner, and Duncan have a gaudy win% of 80. Both of these line ups feature 4 out and 1 in---in other words, 4 perimeter players and a big. The Spurs' trot out 4 guard floor combinations like Parker, Mason, Ginobili, Finley and Duncan most games for at least a short spurt. Michael Finley does not strike me as a small ball 4, but that hasn't stopped Pop.

Jeff McDonald recently reported these words in relation to the Warriors-Spurs early December contest:

Ninety minutes before his team ran headfirst into a silver and black buzz saw Saturday night, Golden State coach Don Nelson stood on the AT&T Court and accused his good friend and former assistant Gregg Popovich of thievery.

Nelson had just finished watching film of Popovich's Spurs team, running offensive schemes that looked more than vaguely familiar.

“A lot of it he stole from me,” Nelson said with a wink...

...Apprised of the Xs and Os robbery charges Nelson had levied against him pregame, Popovich pled no contest.

“I would imagine he's probably right,” Popovich said. “It's all either his play, or a variation.”

Using Nelson's own medicine against him, the Spurs (11-8) set a season scoring high for a regulation game, surpassed only by a 129-125 double-overtime victory at Minnesota.

Even when the Spurs play 4 out, 1 in with Duncan, there is no guarantee he'll function on the low block. As I wrote a couple weeks back, Tim Duncan is more of a jump shooter this season than ever before. The evidence is indisputable. The amount of time he spends stroking his mid-range game will decline some in the playoffs, where he's sure to spend lots of time on the low block. Nevertheless, Duncan is something of a face and shoot 5 this season.

The Spurs also seem committed to having at least two perimeter bigs on their roster. In past seasons, this meant Horry and Bonner. This year, for a time at least, it meant Bonner and Tolliver. Now rumors suggest that a player like Austin Croshere could be brought in to replace Anthony Tolliver. In other words, more shooting.

The other small ball indicator is the Spurs love affair with the 3 pointer. They rank 5th in 3 point attempts and they shoot the league's best percentage.

Some of this is circumstantial, but I'm convinced Popovich committed himself to more small ball over the offseason. If you recall, the Spurs drafted Hill, signed Mason, and flirted with free agents Jannero Pargo and Salim Stoudamire. 3 out of 4 of those players are 3 point aces, and they're all perimeter players.

Am I suggesting the Spurs are the new Golden State Warriors. Not at all. But it's obvious that one of Pop's strategies this season is to open up the offense and score a little more. As you might expect, team scoring and pace are slightly higher than last season. As mentioned above, the team brought in multiple scoring options for their bench. Put differently, Hill replaced Vaughn, Mason replaced Barry, Finley replaced Bowen, and Bonner replaced Oberto/Horry. In every case, the Spurs get more scoring.

The Spurs will always be a half-court team. When it matters the offense will run through Duncan. They play inside, out. All of that remains true. My point is simply to say that Popovich has committed to a distinct small ball wrinkle in this year's offense. And as Graydon lucidly described in yesterday's Notebook, there is a telos to all this. But what?

I'll call our readers back to a post I wrote earlier this season, The Rise of the Red Rocket. Quoting myself quoting Kurt from Forum Blue and Gold quoting Jones on the NBA (got that?):
The Kings are a bad match up for the Lakers because their centers play a perimeter game that draws Bynum and Gasol out to the three point line and opens up the lane for drives and causes the Lakers defense to break down leading to easy lay ups or open three pointers. Same thing happened against the Pacers and their perimeter oriented bigs and Detroit and Rasheed’s three point shooting from the center position. Teams with quick penetrating guards and perimeter oriented bigs will continue to be a problem for the Lakers as Farmar and Fisher will never be ball stopping guards, so if Bynum and/or Pau are out on the perimeter those guards are going to have a field day and just chop up the Lakers on defense. Against teams like the Pacers and Kings the Lakers are usually able to make up for this match up issue by outscoring them. But when the Lakers shots aren’t falling, you’re going to have issues like this.
And quoting myself, once again:
The Spurs are quick to respect all their opponents, but I suspect that their respect for the current Lakers squad runs a little higher. A great indicator of this respect might be found in the presence of not one but two perimeter centers on tap. It sounds pompous, but in San Antonio everything is geared toward May and June.
Why more small ball? Yes, I think it has everything to do with the Lakers. That, and Popovich is keeping a bower back until the games start to count. Right now, he's priming the engine of his 3 and 4 guards machine. The low post machine is resting in the garage.

Update: Minutes after posting this, the good bots at Google Alerts informed me that Austin Croshere has signed a 10 Day contract with San Antonio....

Thursday, January 15, 2009

At Center Court with Jordan Sams

Tonight's game against the 76ers scares me a little---the 76ers are one of the most athletic teams in the league, which, of course, gives the greyheaded Spurs fits. Nevertheless, I press on. Jordan Sams (JSams) of Liberty Ballers holds my hand through a few Philly questions.

: Andre Iguodala is a difficult cover. According to 82games, his adjusted plus/minus is one of the best in the league. Still I see him as a borderline All-Star talent. What are the most salient weaknesses of his game? What must he do to take it to the next level?

JS: His biggest weaknesses are his jumpshot, the inability to perform in the clutch and the desire to make SportsCenter's Top 10 every time he touches the ball. The jumpshot has been falling as of late, but it's still too inconsistent to be considered good, or even average. He always comes up lame in the clutch, whether it be a missed shot or a stupid turnover, but in my opinion that's not his fault, because he's not the player who should have the ball in clutch situations. That's the coaches fault. And the whole "Top 10" comment was because he often attempts spectacular passes, shots or dunks when a simple one would get the job done, and as you can imagine, I wouldn't be mentioning this if he didn't miss or turn it over every time he tries something spectacular.

To take it to the next level he needs to improve his jumpshot. That's the only true basketball skill he needs a lot of work on.

If he ever plays with someone like Kobe, LeBron or legitimate superstar, he can flourish as the second banana. Think a Scottie Pippen-type player if he ever reaches his full potential.
TV: How does the back half of the season set up for Philly? Can they make a push?
JS: Without even looking at the schedule, I will personally guarantee they make the playoffs in the East. They can be anywhere from the 4-8 seed, but they'll make the playoffs. I don't know what they'll do when they get there; we'll have to wait and see what they look like when Brand returns.
TV: Looking at your current roster, I don't see a top tier superstar. Do you think Brand will recover form and become that player? If not, Philly is in a difficult position of having ideal "B" and "C" players without a lead dog. Should they package some of their talent for that kind of player?
JS: No, I don't think Brand can be that player. I didn't see anything from him before he got hurt to lead me to believe he'd be a superstar for us. Given, he was playing under the horrible coaching of Maurice Cheeks, that might change when he returns, but I doubt it.

Thad's our best chance of having a superstar. He's going to take at least a couple years to develop though.

And no, they shouldn't trade any of their core players. They'll be a force if Brand returns and DiLeo is able to integrate him into the offense. The roster move they must make is to add shooters. Moving Green and/or Dalembert for shooters is the best case scenario.
TV: Related to the third question, as the trade deadline approaches, do you expect the 76ers to deal Andre Miller?
JS: I don't see it happening unless they're completely out of it in the east, which I don't see happening either. The question is will he be extended, or will they let him walk in the summer?
Check in at Liberty Ballers for a proper game preview. It seems like they are recovering well from the last 76ers-Spurs contest.

The Notebook: Breathing Easy

As a Spurs fan, it is somewhat heretical to act as if anything other than the postseason has any substantive value. The regular season exists so that the postseason may, and the postseason exists so that a champion may be crowned. Of all franchises, few are as unwaveringly teleological as San Antonio.

And then a game like last night’s contest against the Los Angeles Lakers comes along. In May the game will be a footnote, a 5 second slice on an introductory highlight reel. Jagged images of Kobe’s dagger and elephantiasis, quickly juxtaposed alongside Mason’s improbable three-point play and outstretched tongue. For the average NBA fan, the game will be remembered for its final 12 seconds if remembered at all. But that isn’t how I will remember it. I’m going to remember last night’s game as the culmination of a slow and steady cathartic process that began in the waning days of the 2007-08 postseason.

There was a point during last season’s playoff run that I grew tired. I felt stressed and angry. Here, on the pages of 48 Minutes of Hell, I repeatedly exploded about missed foul calls and media bias. It was only when the Spurs finally lost that I found myself able to breathe easy; able to sit back and just enjoy the game of basketball. Since the conclusion of the 2008 Western Conference Finals I have been searching for how to make that feeling permanent. I have been searching for temperance. I have been trying to grab hold of a fanhood that has no telos. For some this is not a difficult journey, but for a Spurs fan it is nothing less than a rejection of the principles upon which our belief system is founded.

My experience of last night’s game was the fruit of my labor. A sign that the regular season is just as powerful a vehicle of drama and joy as any postseason struggle. It is a rivalry game, maybe even the rivalry game, but at this point is any Lakers-Spurs match-up really about bragging rights?

I won’t remember this game because we defeated a hated rival. I won’t remember this game because in front of a skeptical nation we made a statement. I won’t remember this game because I, for the first time all season, believe a fifth ring is possible. I’ll remember this game because I learned to forget all that and just let the game speak.

In the closing moments of the 3rd quarter Trevor Ariza nailed a three-pointer in the corner, muting the air of control the Spurs had cast over the game. The ball was quickly inbounded to Manu Ginobili, who raced up the floor with 4.5 seconds left. Dodging in and out of purples bodies, his pinball momentum made the court seem as if it was on a slight incline. With the seconds ticking away ever more quickly, he dribbled behind his back and hoisted a 40 foot shot into the air. As the buzzer sounded sharply, the backboard glowed softly and the net nervously flexed as it welcomed an unexpected visitor, the crowd uproariously reclaimed the air of control.

In my head it was crystal clear. I didn’t even need to watch to know the outcome. I saw him receive the pass and crouch into the triple threat position. Mason played him just a tad far off, betraying a concern for the drive that, although not unfounded, would prove near fatal. The camera angle showed the back of his head but I imagined his eyes. When many people look into the eyes of Kobe they see hardened focus but I see something very different. Or at least I pretend I see something different. I pretend I see thousands of little equations scrolling by, an inescapable web of calculus.

And then there is that moment. That startlingly static moments where Kobe allows his competitors to see their fate. In some ways he comes off as hardened, “cold-blooded” if you will. But in some ways he is surprisingly open. He is so honest about his intentions. And then, with a disorienting combination of suddenness and inevitability, his knees erupt, his arms compress and extend, and you don’t need to look anymore because you know how this scene always ends.

His shot is so elegant. He is the essence of a pure shooter. His feet are square. His hands are high. His body and the floor form a perfect right angle. He can stop on a dime and still go straight up. And even when being fouled, which obviously limits his ability to maintain such idyllic physical composition, the mangled forms of his shot shine through. You see each little puzzle piece working tirelessly to make sure the shot remains on target. Some might call it “focus” but I think it comes from something slightly different. It radiates from his confidence. Not just confidence. Charisma. Roger Mason Jr.'s late game heroics are like an unexpected baptism. Without warning You are awash in freezing river water and when you open your eyes you have the creeping sensation that what didn’t used to be possible now is.

Typical Spurs-Lakers Stuff: Random Thoughts

It's always nice to wake up and read a Johnny Ludden Spurs column. Last night's Lakers-Spurs game was a classic, and the best NBA game this season. Graydon will be along later this afternoon with a proper Notebook, but for the time being he's on a jet plane heading east. In the meantime, I'm here to offer up a delectable assortment of game recap donuts and bagels. Let their sugary sweet bouquet waft through those little hairs in your nose, won't you?
  • It's doubtful he'd admit it, but judging by his body language, scorching first half, and buzzer beating 3rd quarter triple, I suspect Ginobili earmarked last night's game as the end of his rehab stint. Welcome back, Manu. We missed you.
  • Other than RMJ's go ahead shot in the 4th, the play of the game goes to Popovich. At about the 4:30 mark in the 4th, the Lakers cut the lead to 2. Pop called a timeout and drew up a play that gave Ginobili the ball on the inbound, two high screens, and a dribble drive down the left side of the lane. It resulted in an unconverted And-1. It was a simple play, but it allowed the Spurs to stem the tide of a Lakers run that threatened to up end the game. As usual, Popovich's in-game adjustments and work in the timeout were masterful.
  • The Spurs played last night's game with basically one swing player: Michael Finley. Ime Udoka didn't make it off the bench and Bruce Bowen logged a mere 6 minutes. The Spurs used a trio of Hill, Mason, Ginobili at one point. In the '08 Western Conference Finals, Kobe Bryant averaged 29.2 points on 53% shooting. Nothing had changed last night. It looks as if Popovich has decided that Bowen can't slow Bryant, so he might as well put his team in a better position to trade baskets. In my season preview, I noted that the Spurs needed another rotation big and a wing who could score. That remains the case. Great win, but their roster needs attention.
  • Mason has marbles too. After hitting a daggers three that would have been the game winning play, Bryant drew attention to the fact that he had elephantitic testes. Mason returned the favor, hitting his third game winning shot of the season. Swing low sweet chariot. Do you think Kobe felt emasculated?
  • The Lakers are an incredible 7-2 on the back half of back to backs this season. Last night's game was played with a depleted bench on the heels of a tough game in Houston. Splitting the Rockets-Spurs with a short bench is still impressive. Spurs fans should temper their morning after enthusiasm.
  • Of regular season contests, Popovich vs. Jackson now stands at 18-17, in favor of Pop. Phil Jackson is now 24-26 lifetime against the Spurs. How many teams does he have a losing record against? Two. The Spurs and Bobcats. Yet, he's 4 out of 5 in postseason series against San Antonio. Is there any doubt that these two coaches are in a class of their own? Rarely are games worth watching simply to observe the coaching. But in this case, I'd watch if these two were coaching little league teams against one another.
  • George Hill. He's good. But he's still a rookie with a sometimes sloppy handle. He had two way preventable turnovers last night that sullied what was an otherwise remarkable performance in his first "felt like the playoffs" game. If he plays as well in the postseason, the Spurs will roll right back into the Western Conference Finals.
  • Only 3 bigs? Pop gave Oberto a DNP-CD, limiting his rotation to Duncan, Bonner, and Thomas. My point here echoes the third bullet in this list: the Spurs roster needs tweaking. Ian Mahinmi's odd ankle injury and the waiving of Anthony Tolliver raise many more questions than answers for the Spurs frontline. Because of his relationship with Ginobili, I've always assumed that Oberto was quasi-untradable. I'm beginning to wonder. His contract is only partially guaranteed for next season, which might make him a prime trade and buy out candidate in a salary dump for another team. I'm a little stymied that the Spurs still haven't signed a D-League try out to replace Anthony Tolliver. There is a puzzle piece on the table that doesn't fit. In short, the Spurs frontcourt is not yet set. Update: Robert Horry was cheering for the Spurs last night with a view from R.C. Buford's press box. We're not reading too much into this, but it's on the radar. We're hoping it falls off the radar too.
  • This is the Spurs first victory of the season against an elite opponent. On the season, 7 victories are by 3 points or less, four of which were on final shots. The Spurs have won a remarkable three games by way of double overtime. I'm not sure if that's championship moxie or a sign of decline.
  • Playing the positive spin on the previous bullet, this team is all kinds of clutch. Just from a personnel standpoint, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Mason, and even Finely are good candidates for last second heroics. That has to be tough on opposing coaches.
  • The front office really did a fine job last offseason. This is the stuff of a future post, but the Hill selection and Mason Jr. are looking like smart plays. Kudos. Update: Marc Stein is all over this angle.
  • The final play: Ariza missed the shot. The traveling call controversy is straining at gnats. And to further extinguish the flames of that silly little fire, Duncan grabbed the board. Had Ariza made the shot and received a whistle for traveling, I'd give Lakers fans a greater hearing. Otherwise, let's not pretend it was something it's not.

Gagging the Tired Old Nag

Last night's Lakers game call featured a chart (with commentary) on the Spurs collective age. You know, the usual "window is closing because they're long in the tooth" shtick. There must be a broadcaster Stuff Mart where this sentiment is sold as the candy of choice in the check out lanes. In honor of the gazillioneth time someone has said this since October, I wanted to re-run this post from a couple weeks ago. The championship numbers have been adjusted slightly to reflect playoff rosters.

The average age of the last five NBA Champions is 28.9.

Boston: 28.7
Spurs: 30.3
Heat: 29.1
Spurs: 29
Pistons: 27.5

The average age of the Spurs current roster is 29.6.

Memo to the basketball world: find yourself a new bogeyman. You're getting old.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Reflections on a Rival: The Los Angeles Lakers

This is the first edition of a new feature here at 48 Minutes of Hell entitled "Reflections on a Rival." Some teams deserve more than a discussion of a single match-up. The Lakers are one of those teams.

During the last decade the San Antonio Spurs have been one of the most successful franchises in all of professional sports. 4 Championships. A playoff appearance every year since the 97-98 season. No first round exits during that stretch. It is a legacy of dominance that most fans dream of and few have the pleasure of experiencing. And yet these glorious years have not come without their fair share of pain. And more often than not, that pain has been caused by the boys in purple and gold.

In the 5 meetings between Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson in the post-season, Popovich has only managed to walk away with a single series victory. Although the Lakers have failed to finish the job as often as the Spurs (earning only 3 rings over the same decade long stretch despite 5 trips to the finals), they are the only franchise whose achievements even compare. They are without a doubt our arch-enemy.

In the regular season, our fortunes have been more evenly matched. During Popovich's and Jackson's joint tenures, SA and LA have evenly split the 34 regular season games they have played against one another. This is a pretty uncommon statistic for the Spurs: I can assure you no other franchise has a better postseason than regular season record against us.

There are any number of key match-ups this evening, so I'll go through them one-by-one:

Parker vs. Fisher

Derek Fisher is a good defender. Both physical and crafty, he can keep up with men several years younger than him (for instance, Fisher has drawn 32 offensive fouls this season, the most of any NBA player. He led the league last year with 55). The official scouting report on the Parker-Fisher match-up is that Fisher, at age 34, cannot keep up with Parker's quickness. But in all honesty, Fisher did a decent job combating the elusive frenchman during last season's playoff series.

The key difference in this game compared to the '08 Western Conference Finals will be Parker's improved jump shot. He is nailing his mid-range looks at a much higher rate than last season and that is making him considerably more difficult to defend. If Fisher can no longer play off him or confidently go under the pick to prevent the dribble-drive, I am not sure he will be able to prevent penetration as successfully (or even funnel Parker into the waiting arms of LA's shot blockers).

Lamar Odom vs. Ime Udoka

Udoka hasn't seen the minutes this year that he was getting at the end of last season and rightfully so: His play has fallen off a tad. But he may see a decent amount of time this evening as no Spur matches up as well against Lamar Odom as Udoka. He has the size to bang with Lamar on the block. He has the quickness to pursue him to the perimeter. No other Spur has the ability to handle both these assignments. I can't be positive this is the decision Popovich will make, but I strongly believe it is the right one.

Thomas/Bonner/Oberto vs. Bynum/Gasol

The frontcourt combination of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol is the full-throated manifestation of the Spurs' worst fears. Tim and I have talked extensively about our concerns regarding our frontcourt depth and the Lakers big men are exactly the reason why. In recent weeks we've increasingly noted the Spurs' struggles on the glass and there is no reason to expect that to improve in anyway this evening.

I would say "expect Thomas to see some solid minutes," but I'm not positive that will be Popovich's approach. Instead of going head-to-head with Bynum and Gasol, Pop may try to subvert their size by playing surprisingly small lineups and unashamedly gambling our chances at victory on the rate our 3-pointers are falling. In all honesty, I am not sure I have a better prescription. We have never faced the two of them together. During the recap I'll be sure to include extended thoughts on how we chose to approach this situation.

Kobe Bryant

When you figure out how to stop Kobe Bryant, you give me a call.

Closing Thoughts

Tonight is going to be a tough game. The Lakers are the only team in the Western Conference that is definitively better than the Spurs and they create match-up problems for us all over the floor. But despite that fact this remains a very winnable game. Relax and enjoy it. One day, many years from now, we will all look back and pine for the days when players like Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan roamed the courts of Los Angeles and San Antonio. Win or lose, these are two great teams and it has been a pleasure to watch them do battle all these years. The game starts at 9 Eastern/8 Central on ESPN.

At Center Court with Forum Blue and Gold

Kurt from Forum Blue and Gold is busy these days. His most recent obsession is the low top. He spends most of his free time worrying about its ability to protect the ankle from injury. He wants to know, what crazed lunatic suggested that Kobe Bryant wear a sneaker that will result in at least one hobbled-ankle, Willis Reed-like Kobe Bryant memory? Did his wife put him up to it? Is this some crazy Phil Jackson voodoo? Is this Phil Knight's mad scientist gone senile moment? We'll have to wait and see. We don't have to wait for Kurt, however. His answers to our questions are ready to roll.

TV: The Lakers are a cut above the rest of the Western Conference. Even with injuries, they appear to be on track for the Finals. Setting aside the obvious answer--an injury to one of their core players--what is the single biggest risk/circumstance that would prevent this from happening?
FBG: It's hard to leave out injuries for fans — how much better would the Spurs have been last playoffs with a healthy Manu?

But to be true to your question and think outside injuries, I still think there are some very good teams in the West besides the Lakers. I think that starts with the Spurs, you guys have added some youth and depth that was lacking last year (we Laker fans all thought Hill would fall deep into the second round and at our blog we talked a lot about getting him). I really think right now the Spurs are second best in the West, with New Orleans right there as well, and Denver certainly is a more mature team with Billups at the helm.

I will add, the one team that scares me if they could ever get healthy and get their heads on right is Houston. On paper, that team could be dynamite, but the odds of them pulling it all together seem slim, don't they? One in 20, maybe? But still, if they do…

All that said, right now I think your basic premise is correct — all things being equal, I'm not sure there's a team in the West that can knock off the Lakers this year. But, things are never always equal.
TV: It seems to me that Kobe Bryant is phasing into his late MJ with the Bulls period. That is, he's gone from being unstoppably explosive to unstoppably calculated. You remember, I'm sure, that Jordan's post and fade game became signature and the highlight reel dunks began to diminish in the mid 90s. Do you agree that Kobe is heading in this direction, and, if so, what do see becoming the staple move of his arsenal?
FBG: That is a very insightful theory. And certainly, Kobe does not explode to the rim quite like he used to — that said he'll still exploit the mismatch and blow by people to the hole for dunks. But now you see a lot more jumpers, and he can hit those from anywhere on the floor. I think he has three fallback moves to create space. The first is the jab step, he loves to throw that and because you still have to respect his ability to drive that works well. The second is the way head fake, he throws that all the time and it's very effective. He also will draw the foul with the arm swing-through — he has the ball on one side of his body and shows it to the defender by swinging it in front of him and if you lean in he goes up and draws the contact. He gets to the line as well as ever.
TV: Who concerns you more, the Celtics or the Cavs?
FBG: The Cavs. First and foremost — have you seen LeBron lately. Not only is he MVP, he is looking like the best player since MJ. In a seven game series he could win at least two just because he goes off. Everyone talks about the Celtics defense, but the Cavs play pretty good defense, too. And they match up well with the Lakers. They have a good point guard, something we don't defend well. And they have bigs that can step away from the basket a little and hit a jumper, which messes with the defensive system the Lakers play.

Ask me again in April and I may feel different, but right now it's the Cavs that scare me as a Lakers fan. But the idea of marketing a Kobe/LeBron final must be David Stern's wet dream.
For more Spurs-Lakers love, check out Forum Blue and Gold's Game Preview and Chat. Graydon will be around later today with a longer reflection on the Spurs-Lakers rivalry. Check back for that. The game is on ESPN, tonight at 9.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

At Center Court with Ben Q. Rock

Ben Q. Rock, The first ever participant in our "At Center Court" series, returns today to answer a few more questions about a Magic team that has looked better and better as the season has progressed. Let's get down to business:

GG: Jameer Nelson is nasty. When did that happen? Is he an All-Star?
BQR: We got a glimpse of what Jameer could do in last year's playoffs, when he posted a true shooting percentage of 62.7 and an effective field goal percentage of 59.3. He more than held his own against the Raptors' fairly intimidating point guard duo of T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon, blowing by them on offense and sticking with them on defense. He also played very well in the second-round series against Detroit, but it was against Toronto that he made a bit of a name for himself.

Unfortunately, he got off to a rocky start this season, and some of us Magic fans wondered if the playoff performance was an aberration. Through the team's first 7 games, Jameer shot 39.1% from the field, 15.4% from three-point range, and averaged 10 points, 5.1 assists, and 2.6 turnovers per game. In the 25 games he's played since then--he missed 5 games due to injury--Jameer has shot 53.5% from the field, 50.5% from three-point range, and averaged 17.96 points, 5.1 assists, and 1.8 turnovers per game. He's back at the top of his game.

It looks like Jameer's slow start was incidental. His stellar play this season, and his coming-out party in the playoffs, has me convinced that this is the real Jameer.

Jameer isn't a more worthy All-Star candidate than Devin Harris, but I have a lot of trouble putting any other Eastern point guard ahead of him. Rajon Rondo's having a great year also, but his play has slipped lately. Ultimately, only two of those three players will make it, and I'm afraid Jameer will be the odd man out. Still, he's emerged as one of the game's best point guards, and nobody can take that away from him.
GG: I saw the Bulls get crushed by the Magic at the United Center last week and a funny thing happened. J.J. Redick actually played. I checked his stats and supposedly he averages 16.7 minutes a game this season. Is that true and if so, why?

BQR: Yes, it's true: J.J. Redick is actually playing this year. It's actually been pretty rocky for him, actually, but he's gained his footing in the last week or so. He won everyone over in training camp and Stan Van Gundy assured him the backup shooting-guard job, behind only free-agent signee Mickael Pietrus. He responded by missing all 8 of his shot attempts in the Magic's first 3 games, of which they only won one. With the Magic's defense struggling, Van Gundy turned to Keith Bogans. J.J.'s shooting woes continued, even in his diminished role, and he didn't make a field goal until the Magic's 11th game (his 7th), which was his first career start; with Pietrus hurt, Van Gundy opted to start Redick to keep Bogans' energy on the bench. Yup, that's J.J. Redick's career: keeping Keith Bogans fresh.

In all seriousness, though, J.J.'s really turned it around of late. With Pietrus out and Bogans limited due to injury, Redick has returned to the rotation, albeit behind rookie Courtney Lee. He's shooting the ball more confidently, and it's showing in the box score: in the last 5 games, J.J. has made 18 of his 31 field goals and 10 of his 18 three-point attempts for 49 points. And, although he'll never be mistaken for Raja Bell on defense, he's made great strides on that end of the floor thanks to an offseason spent in Duke University's training room.

If he can keep it up, there's a good chance J.J. will retain his spot in the rotation once Pietrus returns, almost certainly at Bogans' expense.
GG: Obviously Dwight Howard has always been an excellent basketball player but he seems to have crossed a threshold this season, particularly on the offensive end of the ball: Rather than merely unleashing an endless array of dunks he seems to have developed a rather sophisticated offensive arsenal. How, in your opinion, has Howard developed between this season and last?

BQR: I'm not sure if I'd use "sophisticated" to describe Dwight's offense just yet, but he has gotten better. He can finish with either hand around the basket, he has added a few more spin moves to his repertoire. For the most part, though, Dwight gets his points thanks to his wicked athleticism.

The biggest change in Dwight's game is his attitude. Yes, he's still a clown--witness his pre-game routine with the shoe mat at midcourt, his blowing on his hands after making clutch plays, his rubbing the ball affectionately during some dead-ball situations--but his overall approach to the game is more serious. He takes the game seriously and appears more focused. Coach Van Gundy has described that the change is even more pronounced in practice, which indicates that Dwight still takes a lot of pride in being a showman during games.

Let's be frank: he's not Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, or LeBron James. But when he wants to make a play--swoop in for a put-back dunk, set a bone-crushing screen, or swat a shot at the rim--he's going to do it. And he won't be sorry, either.
GG: In general, this team seems to have crossed a threshold. I would argue they are a legitimate title contender for the first time since the Shaq years. What, in your opinion, is different about this season's squad?

BQR: Another year of experience for Dwight and Jameer, plus the added athleticism on the wings (Pietrus and Lee finish the fast break better than any Orlando swingman since Tracy McGrady), makes a lot of difference. What's most encouraging, though, is the team's improved play at home. One year after they enjoyed more success on the road (27-14) than at home (25-16), the Magic have won 11 straight at Amway Arena and own the Eastern Conference's third-best home record, at 16-3. Last year was great, but I was a bit deluded when I thought to myself the Magic had a contending team. Now? There's not a single team in this league that I don't think the Magic could handle in a 7-game series. They wouldn't be favored to win all of them, but they wouldn't be counted out, either. That's huge.

Meanwhile, Dwight Howard and Courtney Lee are 23, Jameer Nelson is 26, while Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu are won't turn 30 until August and March, respectively. Lewis will be on the books for a while, and at a high price, but sweet-shooting tall guys who don't rely on their athleticism to score age fairly well, so there's not a lot to worry about there. Turk handles the ball a lot, and maybe that skill will diminish with age, but he's also not a guy who needs to be able to jump out of the gym in order to be productive. I like this team's chances over the next several seasons, especially with Stan Van Gundy--a criminally underrated coach in this league--at the helm.

Friday, January 9, 2009

George Hill's Aerial Acrobatics

Hill's athleticism is a breathe of fresh air. While many people accuse the Spurs of being boring (an accusation that I think is ridiculous), it is refreshing to have a guy out there who makes the poor rim quiver with fear whenever he takes it to the hole. When it comes to basketball, I'll always take execution over expression but every once and a while you need a player that makes you raise out of your seat just a tad.

(h/t Project Spurs)

Other People: X's and O's on Spurs Offense

The always helpful X's and O's of Basketball is running a nice break down of last night's contest against the Clippers. They write: "When you get to the level of the NBA, where everyone is talented, everyone is capable of making spectacular athletic plays. The cerebral becomes the intangible." Point your browser in their direction to read more about the "most generic" offense in the league.

The Notebook: Clippers-Spurs, 1-8-09

I watched much of last night's Clippers game in disbelief over Mike Dunleavy's defensive strategies. In the first half, Dunleavy doubled Duncan with a guard, allowing Roger Mason to set up unattended behind the 3 point line. The Clippers were fortunate not to get burned on those possessions--San Antonio is the best 3 point shooting team in the league at .406, and Mason is a big part of that. But Dunleavy went from questionable double-teams to outright absurdity in the 2nd half. Kevin Arnovitz writes:
Realizing the Clippers don’t have a lot to work with, I’m not sure that a zone is a viable defensive option against San Antonio. With all their firepower from beyond the arc, the Spurs can stretch a zone silly, which is exactly what they do to begin the second half down one to the Clippers[.]
Kevin goes on to detail the horror, but suffice to say that San Antonio's 1 point halftime deficit was converted into a 22 point victory by more than strong play from the team--they got a little help from the other bench. The Spurs finished the game at only 37.9% from the arc, but 4 of their 11 makes came at timely points in the 3rd quarter, and 3 of those were on wide open Mike Finley shots against the zone. But a more telling stat is that Duncan had 9 assists in 31 minutes. He simply picked apart the defensive sets thrown at him, or, should I say, laid at his feet.

In short, I wasn't too impressed with Dunleavy, but we'll give him a mulligan because his roster is completely riddled with injury. On a bright note, Al Thornton and Eric Gordon are dynamite young players.

From a Spurs perspective, I was pleased to see Pop rest the Big 3. Ginobili played a couple minutes to start the 4th quarter (unlike Parker and Duncan, he did not start the 2nd half), but the 3 stars were more or less done after the 3rd. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili finished with 31, 30, and 26 minutes respectively.

My appreciation for George Hill and Roger Mason Jr. continues to grow. Setting aside their numbers, I love that each player plays "within himself." Each player does this well, although "playing within themselves" looks worlds different depending on who you are watching.

Roger Mason is a wide-eyed gunner. If you give him a shaft of daylight, there is a strong chance he'll shoot the ball. But that's fine. He plays best when he's aggressive and looking for his shot, and he's a great shooter. The Spurs want him to score. Midway through the 4th quarter, Spurs fans were graced us with a classic Mace moment: Kurt Thomas provided a screen at 27 or 28 feet that Mason barely dribbled beyond before drilling a deep 3. Popovich would mangle every player on the team for taking that shot, with the exception of Mason and Ginobili.

George Hill, on the other hand, is nearly Mason's opposite. He plays "within himself" by not forcing the action. He's amazingly patient and composed for a rookie. He simply orchestrates the offense and waits for good shots to find him. When they do, he typically makes good on the opportunities. Last night he scored 6 points in 18 minutes, on 3-5 shooting. But he didn't play the game much differently than Monday night's showing in Miami, where he had 15 points in 17 minutes. Monday's game was more impressive, don't get me wrong, but in both cases he let the action come to him.

It isn't surprising, then, that Mason and Hill's greatest strengths are also their greatest weaknesses, and this is especially the case with Hill. Occasionally, Mason needs to restrain his lust to shoot by resetting the offense or feeding a teammate. Hill, on the other hand, needs to attack more often. On a team that is lousy at getting to the foul line, the Spurs would benefit from a little more selfishness from Hill. He's one of their best players at getting to the stripe.

I'm confident that, as the season progresses, each player will nuance their games in these ways. By resting his core, Popovich is carefully providing minutes for newcomers Mason and Hill, who look more comfortable by the minute. In the past, the Spurs have been known to disappear on offense, entering into half-quarter or quarter-long stretches of anemic production. This team is different. With Mason, Hill, and Finley the team now has viable 4th, 5th, and 6th scorers. They're not a juggernaut just yet, but they're picking up steam. The Spurs have won 15 of their last 18 heading into an extremely difficult stretch of games. In some ways, that much anticipated drive to five starts Sunday night against Orlando. The Spurs, says Jeff Saragin, are ranked 30th in terms of strength of schedule. That's about to change.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

At Center Court with Kevin Arnovitz

There may be no nobler fan in the whole Association than a Clippers fan. Many franchises struggle in games, are ignored by the media and just generally make it hard on their supporters, but the Clippers have the added disadvantage of playing in the shadow of the Los Angeles Lakers. And yet, with one of the NBA's marquee teams housed in the same building, the Clippers have managed to garner a loyal fan base.

One member of this base is Kevin Arnovitz, the author of the excellent ClipperBlog. Kevin was kind enough to answer a few questions for us so we here at 48 Minutes of Hell could gain a little insight into this embattled but nonetheless loved franchise.

GG: There seems to be a growing consensus that signing Baron Davis was a mistake. Do you agree and if so, why?

KA: That's a complex question because it's hard to evaluate the Davis acquisition independent of what transpired with Elton Brand. Had Brand re-signed, things appeared very promising. Once Brand bolted for Philadelphia, Davis seemed to fall into a spiral of self-pity. Since there's no statistical model in the world that supports Davis shooting in the low 30% range from the field, I think it's safe to assume that he's hurt, which puts a further asterisk next to the question. We still haven't seen how this team functions with a healthy Davis, a healthy Randolph, a healthy Kaman, and an increasingly confident Eric Gordon. If and when that happens, we'll be able to render judgment on Davis.
GG: The absence of Ricky Davis has given Eric Gordon an opportunity to see a lot of court time. In your opinion, how has Gordon played so far this season? Do you believe Gordon has the talent to be a centerpiece in a rebuilt Clippers squad?

KA: Yes. Gordon is the Clippers' best shooting guard since Ron Harper. He has a good handle, is decisive on the drive with a good hesitation move, and is incredibly strong -- all of which serve his dribble game well. His shooting stroke is gorgeous, and he has limitless range. Gordon defends both 1s and 2s extremely well, and has the strength to fight through screens. He's third in the league among starting shooting guards in true shooting percentage, behind only Ray Allen and Kevin Martin. Right now, his rebounding rate is a bit....Crawfordian...so that's an area where he can improve.
GG: During the 05-06 season, I thought the Clippers were well on their way to building a team that would be a perennial playoff presence. After an impressive postseason run that year, what went wrong? What moves (roster, coaching, front office) are necessary to get this team back on track?

KA: Elton got hurt; Cassell and Mobley got older; Kaman improved, but not enough. To get back to respectability, the Clippers need able bodies first and foremost. A healthy Baron Davis and an emerging Eric Gordon are nice anchors in the backcourt. With Randolph, Marcus Camby, and Kaman, they're more than spoken for on the block. What the Clippers need to get back to 45-50 wins is a 3 who can facilitate and pass. Thornton is a bit of a black hole. A 3 out of the Odom, Battier Turkoglu mold -- even a Luke Walton or Nicolas Batum -- would serve them well.
The Spurs and the Clippers tip-off this evening in San Antonio at 8:30 Eastern/7:30 Central.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Watching the Rotation: The Tolliver Bell Tolls

Some San Antonio fans are scratching their heads over the Anthony Tolliver pink slip, but not this one. This was an obvious move. Let me count the ways:
  1. Tolliver was 31 different flavors of hustle, and a nifty passer, but his role on the team was to create space for Tim Duncan with his shooting. Too bad for Tolliver that he was shooting .292 from the field and .220 from the arc. It's not a matter of why the Spurs waived Tolliver, it's a question of why they kept him so long?
  2. Anthony Tolliver's contract would have become guaranteed as of 6 pm Wednesday. This is common knowledge, so I won't say more than the cut saves the Spurs money.
  3. Tolliver is a would be--if he hit his shots--roster redundancy.
  4. The extra roster spot is helpful:
  • The Spurs can now accommodate a two for one trade, if such a scenario presents itself
  • The Spurs are able to "interview" D-League talent on 10-day contracts
  • The Spurs can now sign a player that is waived, whether a young player for the Toros or a trade deadline buy out (see: Cassell, Sam)
Beyond these things, it's safe to assume Malik Hairston has impressed the Spurs. Ian Mahinmi remains injured, so Tolliver could have served the roll of emergency big. Meanwhile, the Spurs wings are healthy, so keeping Hairston is an indicator that the team sees him as more than a passing interest. The good folks at Draft Express are in agreement with 48M0H that Hairston has a chance to crack San Antonio's 2009/10 rotation.

Who could the Spurs bring in to replace Tolliver? Toro forward/centers Andre Brown and Charles Gaines are possibilities. Personally, I'd like to see the Spurs spend 10-day money on NBDL standout Courtney Sims. But they're pretty good at what they do, so I'm content to wait and see.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Manu's Block on D-Wade

This is a spectacular play on the part of Ginobili. Aside from being extremely clutch (the Spurs were up by 3 points with around a minute and a half left when the block occurred), one of the more difficult feats in the Association may be blocking D-Wade without committing a foul. Few players draw contact as well as Wade. It also demonstrates Manu's underrated leaping ability (best exemplified by the high number of rebounds he pulls down for a SG).

Tim Duncan's New Habits

I recently noted that the Spurs inconsistent board work is an issue this season. In this post, I want to look at another half-curious/half-disturbing trend: the frequency at which Tim Duncan gets to the foul line, which I suspect is related to his rebound totals. He's rebounding roughly one less shot per game this season, down to 10.3 per contest. How do these numbers relate?

As a team, the Spurs do not have an overwhelming interior presence---odd to say, I know, with Tim Duncan and all. If you've watched any recent telecast, you've heard Sean Elliott say that his former team is at the bottom of the league in free throw attempts per game. As I write, they are ranked last in free throw attempts per game. At the same time, they are ranked 26th in team rebounding, with a differential of -0.7.

In general, Tim Duncan doth protest too much. But he and Tony Parker are not getting any star treatment. Setting aside my homer hat, Tony Parker is fouled nearly every time he's in the open court. Yet, there have been numerous times this season when refs simply didn't blow their whistle. So in one sense the Spurs are not getting calls. But this is a marginal and, admittedly, a controverted issue. This is not the peg upon which to hang your hat. The bigger issue is that the Spurs don't give the refs much opportunity to blow their whistles. Let me explain.

The Team

The Spurs are only fouled on 9% of their possessions, which, as I said, is last in the league. This is an internal problem. When you squeeze this particular lemon, you can make some pretty tart lemonade. The Spurs are last in the league in dunks, which is somewhat misleading because Parker and Duncan finish many shots with layups or flip ins. Nevertheless, the statisticians tell us they've only thrown down 27 dunks this season. The next closest team, Indiana, has dunked the ball 61 times. Following right on the heels of this, the Spurs are second to last on And-1s. You may think this is meaningless, but Boston, LA, Cleveland, and Orlando--the league's elite--are all clustered in the top third of these categories. The Spurs score a meager 25.2 points on inside shots, which is, again, last in the league.

The Spurs are settling for too many jumpers, or, as is more likely the case, are going to too many screen and roll sets that result in a mid-range jumper. They score 31.7 ppg from mid-range. They're the leagues 4th most efficient team in this regard, shooting .421 on their 2 pt jump shots. If you watch the games, you know this means Parker's 19 foot jumper at the wing (whenever his defender goes underneath the screen), Finley going left for a curl and catch off stagger screens, and Duncan knocking down a combination of high post pick and pops and innumerable impossibly-angled bank shots. The Spurs have tremendous mid-range personnel.

Their anemic interior scoring numbers are bolstered by a love affair with the three point stripe. The Spurs are near the top of the league from deep, scoring 25.2 per game. Only the Knicks and Magic are decidedly better in this respect. Led by the hot handed Matt Bonner, Roger Mason Jr. and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs are the most accurate 3 point shooting team in the league, connecting on .406 of their attempts. Over 25% of their shots come on 3 pt attempts, a percentage that groups them together with another 15 or so teams, including Cleveland, Portland, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Phoenix and Denver. This may come as a surprise to some, but these numbers are the mark of a good team.

Tim Duncan

Last season, 60% of Tim Duncan's field goal attempts came at the hoop. In the 34 games of his current campaign, Duncan's inside shot attempts are down 8%. During the 07/8 regular season, 15% (177/1178) of Tim Duncan's shots came from the area on the left wing where he shoots his bank shot or from the left elbow extended, his favorite pick and pop zone. This season he's shooting 3% more from these areas, with percentages in the 50s, sharp improvements from last season. In addition to this, he's on pace to exceed his 07/8 shot attempts from the left and right baseline and corner (mid-range, of course), and to do so prior to the All-Star break. He's already exceeded his shot totals from the right elbow extended--his totals for last season were from 78 games, he's only played 34 this season. In terms of total shot attempts from that area of the court, he's on pace to bury last season's numbers. In short, Tim Duncan is shooting much more often, and more effectively, from mid-range this season. Why does this matter to this discussion? These are not shot attempts that will win many foul calls or afford Duncan great position to corral rebounds.

During his Spurs game calls, Sean Elliott has mentioned this as a deliberate strategy of Gregg Popovich. Before the season began, it was decided that the coaching staff would do more to preserve Duncan's body for the postseason, more than the careful management of his minutes as in the past. Duncan was asked to pitch a tent at his favorite mid-range spots, and he's so far he's obliged, even with injuries to the frontline. We know that Bonner, Tolliver, Thomas, and, to a lesser extent, Oberto are all bigs who score on set shots away from the hoop. If one adds Tim Duncan into that class--it bears repeating, he's still on the block for over 50% of his shot attempts, so this is loose inclusion--the Spurs are bereft of an interior scoring from their bigs. There is no doubt that this translates into a lack of foul calls, dunks and And-1s.

Joey Crawford

There is, however, a curious footnote to all this. L.J. Ellis has suggested that Tim Duncan's free throw attempts have been in decline since the Joey Crawford incident. Duncan's free throw attempts per game dropped from 7.1 to 5.9 between 06/7 and 07/8. 15% is a sharp reduction in free throw attempts, especially considering that Duncan attempted more shots per game in '07 (15.1 vs. 14.1) with roughly the same amount of attempts coming from around the hoop (711 vs. 752). At first glance, those are troubling number. Ellis, however, is quick to note that this probably coincidental, and I tend to agree.

These numbers could suggest bitterness among the zebra sect. But there is evidence in the referees favor. In terms of FTAs, Duncan's numbers are up 5% percent from last season. He's averaging 6.5 free throws per contest, despite the fact that he shooting much more often from mid-range. The distrust of Spurs fans for Joey Crawford was forever cemented after the Derek Fischer no-call foul on Brent Barry as time expired in Game 4 of last season's WCF. It's likely an odd arrangement of the moon and stars--a statistical outlier. Nevertheless, San Antonio has its own class of truthers who are certain to provide David Stern with the transparency he so loves.

Popovich Only Coaches for the Postseason

Duncan is shooting more from mid-range, Bowen's minutes are down, the Spurs are providing rookies with valuable minutes, etc... I expect that next season Popovich will keep himself fresh by letting Mike Budenholzer coach the first 40 games. I jest, but these trends point to the fact that not only do the Spurs peak late, they won't even play certain cards until March. Popovich is disciplined that way. Between now and March, his team will get by. (They do have the best record in the league since December 4th, and, honestly, they're not playing terrific basketball right now. Really, you can check if you'd like.) These are the sort of things that make John Hollinger's little machine steam. Nevertheless, this fan worries. Adding another rebounder wouldn't hurt and getting more fanfare from the referees would be an added bonus. In fact, I worry that unless they correct these problems they'll finish second to the Lakers yet again this season. I'm not sure what numbers he's staring at, but Pop seems to agree. Last night he said, "We're just not in the same league with the Lakers right now."