Thanks, and here’s hoping

The San Antonio Spurs are 12-1 and atop the league standings. Over the past eight days, they’ve defeated the Thunder in OKC — on the second night of a back to back. They’ve beaten the Jazz in Utah — exacting a little revenge from last year’s regular-season sweep (4-0). They’ve managed to tame two Eastern conference beasts at the friendly confines of the AT&T Center (Chicago and Orlando). The league and its writers are beginning to take notice; no longer is a soft, favorable schedule providing the ammunition to dismiss.

There is so much for a Spurs fan to be thankful for this Thanksgiving holiday. Forget all that has become before, the championships and all the cherished Spurs’ memories, this year has exceeded all expectation through thirteen games: Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been hands-down the best backcourt in the NBA. Duncan, while taking a bit of a backseat, is healthy — still making his presence felt— and looking more than capable of being a dominant force when called upon. Richard Jefferson has found a way, his game, his confidence. Antonio McDyess looks to have found the fountain of youth (or some HGH — kidding). The Spurs have added three rookies to the roster in Splitter, Anderson and Neal, that have all exhibited the ability to be quality rotation players. Matt Bonner, well, the redhead can shoot it a bit — currently boasting a league-leading 3-point percentage (69.2%).

So pass the turkey, the pie and a nice cold beverage. Time to just kick back, relax and give thanks for all that is Spurs’ basketball and Tryptophan.

Or not.

Prior to every NBA season I ask myself what it will take for the Spurs to win a championship. I look to the prior year’s successes and failures. I look to the landscape of the league. I ask myself, “What’s different about this team?”, for better or worse.

Defense. It’s what it can all be boiled down to. There’s no question the Spurs have the talent to put enough points up on the board. It’d be easy to make an argument that this 2010-11 roster is as deep as it’s ever been, maybe deeper. The Spurs bowed out to the Suns last year scoring 100 points in three of four games, 96 points in the other (Game 3). This is not to say the offense was without flaw, simply that it was not the flaw. The San Antonio Spurs have always been about stops, execution. The Spurs simply couldn’t close the show; something made abundantly clear in last year’s ouster.

This new-look, faster-paced team is by all means a positive development. It’s clearly the best way to utilize the talent of Parker, Ginobili, Jefferson and the Spurs’ new-found youth. But this team is becoming dependent on the 3-point shooting of Matt Bonner and that… that is cause for concern.

The Spurs aren’t winning because of Matt Bonner, they’re winning with Matt Bonner. There is a very distinct difference, and it goes to the very heart of the matter: is Bonner a situational player, a fourth or fifth big man; or is Bonner seen as the same critical, prominent player Gregg Popovich has deemed him to be in recent years?

Let it not be mistaken, Matt Bonner has played as well as could be asked. He’s a quality, professional player. What he’s not is the answer to any realistic championship success in a prominent role. He’s a role-player – so long as he’s asked to play within his means, given the proper role and responsibilities, Bonner’s a real asset to the team. He’s been more than an asset as of late, though. He’s been unconscious. He’s been clutch, a real difference maker. He’s been depended upon.

And that’s where wheels start to wobble. A team with championship aspirations being dependent upon a role player, one in which happens to rely on a 3-point shot and the playmaking of others. It’s a notion that is just so inherently wrong that it’s irreconcilable: a team’s championship fate lies in the hands of Matt Bonner? I’ve got to believe Seth Myers and Amy Poehler could do something with that.

Suffice to say, a 12-1 record is nice and all – amazing, even – but this team’s still got plenty of questions to be answered. What is encouraging, however, is this team’s potential to come up with the answers. Should this team see the benefit of good health and rely upon the right pieces to make the key long-term defensive improvements, for say, April, May and June, the Larry O’Brien may very well be within reach –  both the growth and improvement from the Spurs’ non-newcomers and the additions of Splitter and Anderson give one hope. But it takes a team – a coach – to put the right pieces in place and in a position to take advantage of any good health they’re afforded or luck they’re fortunate enough to come across.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room, of course, is Tiago Splitter. The 25-year-old 6-11 Brazilian big man –  fluent in both Portuguese and the pick-and-roll –  has essentially racked up DNP-CDs in three of four games –  appearing for all of 10 seconds against the Magic. The most optimistic and hopeful of views would lead one to believe the Spurs are making Tiago “listen to his body,” something Popovich suggested after Splitter’s most recent setback (strained plantaris: right calf).

“He’s wondering if his body is falling apart,” Popovich said. “He’s a young guy, and he’s had a (strained) groin and a thigh and this (strained plantaris),” the coach explained.

Popovich may have been speaking to Splitter’s most recent injury and how they were going to approach the rehab for it. Maybe it’s as superficial as that and means nothing more. But I can’t help but read into it – the logic just doesn’t seem to add up otherwise. “We’re going to make him (Splitter) listen,”rings of Pop suggesting fatigue, wear-and-tear. And though the Spurs – per standard operating procedure – erred on the side of caution when it came to bringing Splitter back from his most recent injury, you’ve got to wonder if Popovich believed the extra downtime was enough for Splitter to recoup fully. Not just the injury, but fully. It’s the only way method exists in the madness; and Pop did suggest Splitter’s minutes will go up more and more as the year goes on.

The cynic looks to recent years and has a hard time believing Bonner won’t serve too prominent a role. Popovich and the Spurs have been skewing offensive ever since their 2008 Western Conference Finals loss to the Lakers – the Spurs had done everything they had wanted to do defensively in that series and yet still came up short. They simply couldn’t put the ball in the hole enough. Bowen would find himself getting phased out and the likes of Finley, Bonner and Mason became the answer to the Spurs’ offensive inadequacies.

Popovich essentially came to a crossroads. He seemingly believed his defense was no longer good enough to overcome their offensive output. He couldn’t replace Bowen or Thomas or Oberto with comparable defensive players that brought more firepower to the floor. And if you believe your team is no more capable than spinning the proverbial wheels – as far as championship aspiration – you’ve got to change course, find another way. The margin for error is small when you’re playing 4-on-5 at the offensive end of the floor – specialists are great so long as their specialty is the only thing missing.

There are plenty of questions to be asked and debates to be had over the coming days, weeks and months. Whether Blair should remain a starter, whether McDyess or Splitter should replace him, whether starting one player or another helps to keep others fresh… they all have their merit – the backup small forward is once again a question mark, even more so now with the uncertainty of James Anderson’s injury. But those questions and debates lack answers or any real merit if the coach isn’t working from the same premise. This Spurs team doesn’t lack of offensive firepower, they have the players.

Is that enough for Popovich to revert back to the days of 2008 and before?

Ponder that with your turkey – and a nice, cold beverage.

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