The San Antonio Spurs were not good enough last season. With Manu Ginobili injured, they were thoroughly outplayed by the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. Those of us watching that series were treated to fantastic play from stars Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, but disappointed to see such a lack of help coming from their teammates. When the series ended, the future looked rather bleak for the team that had just missed the second round for the first time since 2000. They didn’t have money to spend in the summer, beyond the exceptions you get when you’re over the cap. They didn’t have a first round draft pick. Of course, Manu’s return would help, but with veteran role players Kurt Thomas, Bruce Bowen, Ime Udoka, and Roger Mason Jr. getting a year older and likely less productive, it was difficult to picture the Spurs returning to the spot near the top of the rankings that they’ve occupied for the last decade. If they didn’t want to waste Duncan and Parker’s efforts once more, the Spurs’ management somehow needed to get an injection of talent.
Well, in late July, it’s fair to say that they’ve done exactly what they were supposed to do. The first splash was when General Manager R.C. Buford cleverly acquired small forward Richard Jefferson from the cash-strapped Milwaukee Bucks for the expiring contracts of Kurt Thomas, Bruce Bowen, and Fabricio Oberto. To trade some spare parts for a very talented wing player in his prime at the age of 29 is a shrewd, shrewd move from an organization that is known for its shrewd moves. RJ is an additional scoring threat for this team that needed a scoring punch, and he’s more than capable of hitting the corner three-pointer that we’re used to seeing from their wings. He’s a solid individual and team defender, too. The rave reviews given to Buford after consummation of this deal were well-deserved.
The Spurs were also able to address their frontline, which was suddenly quite bare after the RJ deal, by adding Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair to the roster. McDyess, signed at the mid-level exception, is essentially a better version of Kurt Thomas – he’ll play solid defense and hit baseline jumpers, opening up the lane for Tony Parker. With his skillset at 34 years of age, he should remain effective for the duration of his contract. I believe he is perfect for the system in San Antonio. Blair, who miraculously (or absurdly, depending on your perspective) fell all the way to the Spurs at #37 in the draft, is quite simply a beast of a rebounder. He fell because of injury concerns, not talent, and I predict that there will be plenty of teams regretting their decision to pass on him once the season is underway. He can contribute right away on the glass and at 20 years old he will only get better.
Getting to the point, the Spurs’ should have a top 9 that looks like this next year:
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, Roger Mason Jr., George Hill, DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner, and Michael Finley.
Not bad, I say. Now let’s look at the 9 players who stepped on the court for their season-ending loss to the Mavericks in the playoffs:
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Michael Finley, Matt Bonner, Kurt Thomas, Roger Mason Jr., George Hill, Bruce Bowen, and Ime Udoka.
That second group of players was well-coached and efficient. They moved the ball on offense and played solid defense. Two of them are stars who had great seasons. Problem is, that is not enough talent for an elite team – there were just too many average to below-average players eating up minutes and possessions last season. Next season, the Spurs will still have the system we’ve grown to love, with a very talented roster running it once again. Sure, questions remain about Jefferson adjusting to being a 4th option and playing off the ball more than he’s used to. Sure, the Spurs could probably use another shooter in the backcourt off the bench. Regardless, with the moves they’ve made this off-season, they have to be in the conversation if you’re talking about title contenders.