After the Dallas Mavericks easily dispatched the Manu-less Spurs in five games in the first round of last year’s playoffs, the general consensus from media and fans around the league was that the Spurs championship window with this current team was closing fast. Despite winning their division, the Spurs never looked like a dominant team and were constantly searching for an answer to nagging questions. Who was the third option when Ginobili was out? What kind of workload could Duncan carry at the end of the season? Who was their best center? Did they have a back up point guard?
It was obvious that the Spurs had to do something to open their championship window, and they did in a big way by acquiring Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, and Theo Ratliff. Despite this influx of talent, it’s fair to wonder how long the Spurs window will remain open.
I contend the aggressive moves the Spurs FO made during the offseason will allow the Spurs to remain legitimate title contenders for another two years. Even though they now have four players capable of scoring 20 points per game, the Spurs are not obviously built for long term. Their current design is to have a chance to win this year and next year. That’s it. After the 2010-2011 season, I imagine that the Spurs will try to take the team in a whole new direction.
For this year many of those nagging questions are answered.
The third option if Ginobili is injured, which I’m not foolish enough to believe won’t happen, is obviously Jefferson. While not the most efficient of scorers, he has improved his three point shooting steadily to 35.9% in 2007, 36.2% in 2008 and 39.7% in 2009. This fits well with the Spurs because he will have open looks from teams double teaming Duncan or collapsing on Tony Parker when he drives. On many teams Jefferson would always be the third option, but with the Spurs he will switch between third and fourth depending on the line up. Jefferson is also 29-years-old, meaning he should continue to contribute at a high level for the next two years.
Duncan’s ability to carry the team offensively towards the end of the season was a concern last year. His scoring decreased throughout the season to 16.5 ppg in March and 15.3 ppg in April, and he could not play at his usual level on a nightly basis. He still managed to record a PER of 27.3 in the playoffs, showing that he could still dominate in spurts. We won’t know the answer to this question until March or April, but the Spurs are taking precautions by limiting Duncan’s workouts over the summer to hopefully reduce the wear on his legs. The addition of McDyess, Blair and Ratliff should significantly help Duncan down low with scoring, rebounding and blocking, something the Spurs have missed the last year. At 33-years-old and with years of playoff battles on his legs, Duncan can no longer carry the team throughout an 82 game season and into the playoffs, but the Spurs no longer require that. If Duncan can provide 18 points, 10 boards and 2 blocks over the next two season, which is reasonable, the Spurs will still be championship contenders.
The Spurs had serious issues in the post last year. Matt Bonner started at center most of the season, which should tell you how bad it was. McDyess, even at 35-years-old, is the best center the Spurs have had since David Robinson. At least for this year he will be able to relieve much of the pressure from Duncan. He is an above average rebounder, defender and shooter. Then next year hopefully DeJuan Blair or Ian Mahinmi will be able to assist Duncan more. With McDyess, Blair and Duncan all under guaranteed contracts until 2011 and a team option for Mahinmi in 2011, the Spurs are more set at center and power forward than in recent years.
Finally, the issue of a back up point guard. It appears the back up position will be George Hill’s. The second year guard is still in the process of transitioning from shooting guard to point guard. At times last year he looked great, attacking the basket hard and showing his keen defensive abilities. At other times he looked like a rookie still learning the position. Questions still surround Hill. How will he handle the pick-and-roll, the most important play in the NBA, both offensively and defensively? Is he comfortable running the team? Has his finishing and mid-range jump shot improved? He was impressive during the 2009 Vegas Summer League and will have a chance to work with the starters with Parker not planning to start training camp. Behind Hill, however, is unknown. The Spurs might try to play small forward Marcus Williams at point guard. They also might play Roger Mason Jr. and Ginobili as back up point guards. The most important thing is that Pop shows confidene in Hill and lets him develop, which Pop seems to be doing. Hill could easily answer this question for the next two years.
The biggest quesion, however, and the one I have not asked and do not know how to fully answer is whether Ginobili will remain healthy. Even with the addition of Jefferson, the Spurs will need a relatively healthy Ginobili come playoff time. The Lakers are set to contend for the next couple of years and other teams like the Trailblazers and Cavs, if they keep LeBron, should contend in a couple years. A healthy, attacking Ginobili is a unique talent that gives the Spurs and edge against every team. He is 32-years-old now and dealt with numerous ankle injuries. Nobody knows how long his body will hold up.
Ultimately, the Spurs recent moves have kept their championship window open for another two years. By then Duncan will be 35, Ginobili 34, Jefferson 31 and Parker 29, and that’s if the Spurs resign Ginobili after his contract expires after this season. At that point it will be time to either completely reposition this team to focus on Parker or head in a new direction. Until then, the Spurs and Spurs fans should still be thinking championships.