Every basketball writer should be exhilarated about this Spurs' summer – they finally changed up their game plan going into next season!
No longer is it the tried-and-true story about how the Spurs are always a force to be reckoned with regardless of age or injury (or that they Spurs are washed up because the are too old and injured). Instead, the usually frugal San Antonio club wanted to make another bid for West Coast relevance, and they did so in a big way, seeing an unexpected opportunity to extend their window in a competitive Conference.
In '07-'08 the Western Conference looked positively loaded. Eight teams won fifty or more games that year, and a 48-win Golden State team was left out of the Playoff picture. Last season was supposed to be even more competitive with up-and-coming teams like the Clippers and Thunder making a name for themselves. However, what actually happened was that the bulk of the strongest teams (San Antonio included) floundered below expectations and the Conference as a whole took a step backward.
Injuries and inconsistencies plagued New Orleans, Utah, Dallas, Houston, Golden State, Phoenix and the Spurs and the West had only one real threat to the mighty Lakers in Denver. The weakened West inspired San Antonio to go all-in this summer, committing to a $10-million luxury tax bill, all in the name of trying for at least one more title before Tim Duncan hangs 'em up.
Despite all the bugaboo, though, the Spurs only grabbed three meaningful new pieces for their new season, and one of them (Antonio McDyess) is even older than Duncan is. However, in typical Spurs fashion, it isn't about the numbers or names that they brought in so much as the positions on the team that they filled.
Richard Jefferson, acquired from the Bucks on the eve of the Draft, gives the team a much-needed scorer and creator on the wing that will play in the starting lineup. With Manu Ginobili needing his minutes so heavily monitored to avoid injury, especially during the regular season, a player like Jefferson became a necessity to lessen the scoring burden on Duncan and Tony Parker. There were stretches last season when Ginobili was out that it was laughably easy to stop the Spurs from scoring, with the club averaging .457 shooting on the year – the first time in the Tim Duncan era that teams actually shot better against the Spurs (.463) than the Spurs shot themselves.
As nicely as Roger Mason and Michael Finley can play at times, this club needed an impact scorer in the worst way and they got one in Jefferson, who was a 20ppg scorer last season.
Once that spot was taken care of, the Spurs focused their attention on their frontcourt. The team had traded away centre Fabricio Oberto as part of the Jefferson package, leaving just Duncan and Matt Bonner to man the middle for the club. To fortify the position, the Spurs got a steal in the second round of the draft in rebounding machine DuJuan Blair and went on to sign McDyess later in the summer. This combination of players not only allows the Spurs to return Bonner to the bench after starting 67 games for them last year, but it gives the team an option to rest Duncan more after he burnt himself out in the first half of the season trying to keep his team competitive through injuries. With McDyess likely starting alongside Duncan and Blair and Bonner logging quality minutes in their stead the Spurs have a reasonable frontcourt rotation that should allow them to stay competitive without overusing Duncan in the process. They may not be the Lakers or the Celtics up front, but no team gets more from their assets than the Spurs do.
While one has to see how a guy like Jefferson responds to being put into such a disciplined club like the Spurs, and how much McDyess has left in the tank, the Spurs are a clearly improved team this season after tying for second in wins in the West last season (54 with Denver and Portland). Perhaps though the personnel has changed a bit, the same old chorus does still apply: the Spurs are always a force to be reckoned with regardless of age or injury and a newly beefed roster should only help with their consistent competitiveness.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG – TONY PARKER
Parker had a career-year last season, going for over 20ppg for the first time as an NBAer while also getting his assists up to 6.9 per game – remarkable on a team where the offense tends to come from the system rather than one playmaker. He is still about as efficient at scoring from the guard position as anyone in the league at over 50% and his role on the Spurs becomes more important every year as Duncan and Ginobili go deeper into their 30's. Parker, though, will probably see his scoring dip a bit in the regular season in order to accommodate getting Jefferson enough looks in the offense, but come the Playoffs expect no one to supplant Parker as the driving force behind this team.
SG – ROGER MASON JR.
He was just another in a long list of under-the-radar moves by the Spurs that pay huge dividends on the court. A reliable outside shooter in Washington, Mason became an integral cog for the Spurs last year, nailing multiple game-winning shots and playing better-than-expected defense on several of the league's premier two-guards. Unfortunately for Mason and the Spurs, his production fell-off in the post-season and got fewer and fewer minutes as their lone series against Dallas wore on. As nice a piece as he was, his play did not prevent the club from realizing how badly they needed an upgrade on the wing, but that could count as a positive if Jefferson can be the shot in the arm that the Spurs needed to return to glory.
SF – RICHARD JEFFERSON
After being a mainstay in New Jersey for most of his career, Jefferson is now playing for his third team in as many years and is once again in a situation wholly different than the one he left. He'll need to be a quick study, though, because they Spurs anticipate his arrival thrusting them back to the upper-reaches of the Conference both in record and in status. He'll need to maintain an efficient scoring clip playing off of a Hall-of-Fame big man for the first time in his career while also offering Spurs-caliber defense at the other end to try and mitigate the loss of Bruce Bowen and his protégé Ime Udoka this summer. A Parker-Ginobili-Jefferson-McDyess-Duncan lineup to finish games looks imposing on paper, but that's two large pieces to squeeze into a very tightly-knit threesome and their running the risk of having too many pieces to account for with such a configuration.
PF – TIM DUNCAN
Sure, he's really more of a centre, but he bristles at the notion and it really doesn't matter how he's listed – he's Tim Duncan, he's the greatest power forward of all time, who cares if his game resembles a center? He, like Robinson before him, has transitioned himself to a secondary role on this club with such ease and grace it's amazing to look back and see that it's happened. While he is still a dominating force in the paint, the hand-checking rules in the league, along with Duncan's age, have thrust Tony Parker to the forefront of this team. Parker scores more, with higher efficiency, and the ball is always in his hands in crunch time. Duncan, though, is the figurative anchor of this team and his willingness to step aside for Parker amply demonstrates why that is.
C – ANTONIO MCDYESS
When McDyess first signed with the Pistons in 2004 his ambition was clear; hook his trailer up to the truck that just one the NBA Championship in an attempt to get a ring for himself. Five years of disappointment, though, and he's moved his quest west to the next best thing to the Lakers. He brings such consistency and intelligence to the game that it's amazing that he never found himself here before. He'll fit perfectly into what the Spurs like to do, especially with his ability to play the pick-and-pop with Parker by hitting a mid-range jumper, and his defense at 35-years-old is still nothing to laugh at. However, unless this club has some heretofore unseen means for unseating the Lakers next spring, McDyess's quest for a trophy may go unfulfilled for another year.