In a season where a team carries the best record in basketball for much of the year then finishes up having the number one seed in its conference, then loses to the eighth seed for one of the only few times in NBA history, it’s safe to say it was a failed season for the San Antonio Spurs.
There’s much to point to in terms of dramatic developments both positive and negative. The Spurs changing their style of play to a guard-dominated perimeter team resulted in the Spurs leading the NBA in threepoint percentage and lots of wins. That was arguably a overdue positive development for which Spurs fan’s will remember most about this season besides the disappointing playoff exit.
That early playoff exit can be pinned on two factors that are outside of having obvious roster deficiencies: injuries and the complete unraveling of Richard Jefferson.
Neither of those things are what you want staring you in the face when you are playing a young hungry team that tanked the last few games of the season to put themselves in a position to draw you in the playoffs because they knew they could beat you.
When the Spurs handed the keys to the offense to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobilli, the team took off like a rocket. The Spurs started off the season on a historically great pace. At one point they were on pace for 70 wins and it was a realistic possibility that they could reach that mythical 70 win level.
Parker and Ginobilli were slicing up defenses and getting open looks for everyone. No one was happier about this development then Matt Bonner who led the league in three point percentage because of it. Gary Neal’s transition to the NBA from being a basketball nomad in various euro-leagues was made much easier because he was always put in a position to get a great shot because of the defense being constantly off balance from the ability of the Spurs guards to get into the lane and draw guys in.
Everything was working for the Spurs for much of the regular season due to this offensive focus shift. But not everything came up roses for the Spurs. There was certainly a dark side for the Spurs this season, and it emerged just before playoff time.
When Ginobilli went down with a sprained elbow in the last game of the season, the Spurs lost more then their best player for the 1st game of the playoffs. They lost their swagger. The Spurs had struggled against Memphis the whole season. But with Manu wearing a bulky elbow brace and being hounded by Tony Allen, nothing was coming easy. With Manu not having the effect on the defense he normally does it put Tony Parker in a situation where he had to take more responsibility within the offense and he didn’t respond like a former finals MVP. He made poor decisions and was outplayed in most of the games by Mike Conley of all people. This put more pressure on the frontcourt to produce, and they did not.
Richard Jefferson had an inexcusably bad playoff series. He made a conscious choice to be a less active member of the offense at the worst time. Duncan was over-matched defensively and no one the Spurs threw at Memphis slowed them down. The Spurs also looked tentative and overwhelmed at times by the situation during crunch time. Very un-Spur like.
But when your best player, floor leader, and tone setter of the offense is some what limited in what he can do. You can see how quickly the structure of an NBA team can fall apart. An opportunity was surely missed this season. But the successes and failures of this season are building blocks for the upcoming season.
The Spurs found out that by changing the focus of their offense they can still play at a very elite level in the NBA. This will probably hold true with the current personal for the next two seasons, at least. By getting bounced in the first round, the Spurs learned the hard way they need more depth at the small forward position. Richard Jefferson isn’t getting it done playing 30 minutes a game. You can’t have a guy with a PER in the 12′s seeing that much court time.
A retooled Spurs team that’s based around the lessons learned from this season will be a dangerous one next year.