What was missing in 2010?

(Editor’s note: Project Spurs would like to welcome a new staff writer, Mr. Jason Rogers. Jason came from the Icemen Blog and will be bringing Spurs fans some great articles and views on the team. Project Spurs is pleased to have him on board. Please welcome Jason and enjoy his debut post.)

Finally, the NBA season has come to an end.

As we’ve all been watching the 2010 NBA Finals, hoping for the earth to open up under the Staples Center and swallow both the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics alive to prevent either one from winning another championship. Wait! Was that just me?

I’ve begun to look at the current state of the San Antonio Spurs and wonder what exactly the team needs to do to return to championship form as the NBA Draft and free-agency approaches.

Spurs fans have heard the usual banter when it comes to the team: “They are too old,” “(Tony) Parker, (Manu) Ginobili and (Tim) Duncan aren’t what they used to be,” “The ‘Big 3′ just can’t get it done anymore.” How accurate is this? If you could be in the Spurs draft-room, what areas of the team would you be most focused on?

To answer this, I took a look at how the Spurs’ 2007 championship season compared to their 2010 season statistically and I think I’ve got some answers.

First of all, I wanted to look at the contributions of the so-called “Big 3” of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. Looking at their contributions as a group, in 2010 they averaged 50.4 points, 16.3 rebounds, and 13.8 assists. Compare this to the 2007 championship season in which they totaled 55.1 points, 18.2 rebounds, and 12.4 assists. Clearly there is a measurable difference in points and rebounds to the negative. Where does this come from?

Ginobili averaged 16.5 points in 2010 which is exactly what he averaged in 2007 however both Duncan and Parker are lower by two points per-game. One basket. Two free throws. That’s it folks.

When it comes to rebounds, Duncan averaged a half of a rebound less in 2010 than in 2007. I’m less convinced that their age and contributions are what’s preventing San Antonio from another championship.

Let’s not forget Parker played 19 fewer games in 2010 due to injury as well. With Parker sitting out his regular summer basketball expedition to France, I don’t think it is out of the question to expect him to come back more refreshed and healthier than he has ever been. In a recent interview, he even said part of the reason he did not play for France this summer was simply he needed rest.

With Ginobili at the exact production levels he achieved in 2007, Parker averaging two points per game less when hampered by injury, and Duncan a single basket and half a rebound off his peak performance, I think we have fairly effectively debunked this myth.

That begs the question: what did the 2010 team lack that the 2007 team had?

In looking at the numbers I began by analyzing the static figures. For example the number of points per game. After thinking about it; however, it became clear that the actual number is less important than the Spurs’ league ranking in that category. If the Spurs scored 100 points per game in both 2007 and 2010, but the rest of the league scored 10 points more per game, the “100” point figure would not tell the whole story. Let’s begin by looking at the offense.

In 2007, the Spurs field goal percentage was ranked second in the NBA. By 2010, the team fell to sixth. The story from beyond the arc is similar, moving from third in 2007 to eleventh in 2010. Clearly this is significant. It would appear that the scoring deficiency is coming from the guard play, especially when you consider that the Spurs have improved from fourteenth to elevnth in points-in-the-paint from 2007 to 2010.

Offensively, it would appear from these numbers the Spurs should look for outside shooters, particularly guys that shoot well from three-point land. A team that shoots sixth best in the NBA should still be competing for a championship, especially when you consider that the team that won the Western Conference this year is eighteenth in this category. Perhaps the offense is a small part of the story.

What about defensively?

Rebounding, the Spurs have made a dramatic move from seventeenth in the NBA in 2007 to ninth in 2010. This, to me, is a hustle-stat and tells you more about the quality of the players and their level of effort, not necessarily their skill set. In 2007, the Spurs allowed their opponents to shoot an average of 44.3% from the field, an NBA rank of fourth. Here is where you can begin to panic.

In 2010, the Spurs fell to 45.2% and a rank of eleventh! In a league where games are decided by the slimmest of margins and mere tenths of a second, this is an alarming fall in a key statistical category. Surely, the fall is due to the play inside and an aging Duncan, right? In the words of Lee Corso – not so fast my friends.

In 2007, the Spurs were ranked thirteenth in defensive points in the paint (now you are impressed with the research, aren’t you?) whereas in 2010, they moved up to eleventh meaning they gave up fewer points in the paint last year than they did when they won an NBA Championship. The interior “D” is solid.

What about the perimeter defense you ask? The Spurs fell from second to sixth in that category.

What about transition defense? Ah, there’s the rub. In transition defense the Spurs fell from an impressive sixth in the NBA to twenty-second. That is from 10.8 fast-break-points per game to 14.7. That is a basketball game, folks. Here is the starkest difference in these two basketball teams. The Spurs’ perimeter defense and defensive backcourt has taken a fatal fall from grace in 2010.

What is to be derived from all of this information? Perhaps that the consensus thinking is wrong.

The “Big 3″ are clearly as good as ever. The NBA analysts seem to think the Spurs should be looking for a big-man, such as Tiago Splitter, to play beside Duncan. Maybe in the long run this is true, but if the Spurs want to compete immediately, as I think all Spurs fans do, the team needs to find quick outside guards and small-forwards that can defend the perimeter, defend in transition, and shoot threes. The team need more “Bruce Bowen” type players. Maybe now Spurs fans know why the team has been working out mostly guards in the days leading up to the 2010 NBA Draft.

This is what separates the Spurs’ most recent championship team from the team they currently have. The good news is, with the right personnel changes, the Spurs and their fans can to look forward to competing for an NBA Championship in 2011 and give Duncan the send off he deserves.

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