The 2012-13 NBA season is winding down to a close, and likely with it, so is DeJuan Blair's tenure with the San Antonio Spurs. Nearly four years into his NBA career, Blair's time in San Antonio can be summed up partly by a few blips of tantalizing production, but mostly by unfulfilled promise that have left both player and franchise equally disappointed.
A free agent this offseason, Blair will likely end his Spurs career in favor of a team that can offer a more consistent role in line with talents that are far too competent to be relegated to the end of a bench.
Barring medical issues, it would appear a safe bet that the best of DeJuan Blair's NBA career will not be with the team that drafted him. But does that make his time with the San Antonio Spurs a complete bust?
Drafted with the seventh pick in the second round by the Spurs, Blair was immediately viewed as another steal by the savvy Spurs front office. A projected late lottery pick, Blair's draft value plummeted due to concerns about his knees (he has no ACL's) and lack of height.
Though those medical issues have yet to surface, the concerns about his physical limitations have proven to be very real. Knowing what we know now, Blair's actual draft value should have fallen somewhere between his projected value (a late lottery pick) and where he was actually drafted, which would still leave him a steal.
And yet, it's hard to consider him as such given the high expectations imposed upon him after some extraordinary performances early on, most notably a 28-point, 21-rebound performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder his rookie season and where he has ended up this season.
On the outside of the rotation looking in, Blair has played the fewest games and minutes of his NBA career. It's been a frustrating season individually for Blair, even as the Spurs have enjoyed great success. On the court Blair has been professional as one could expect, but off it, his emotions have boiled over into the public eye on occasion (as have his agent's comments) as it did recently in some of his since-deleted Instagram posts:
In each of the previous two seasons, Blair has had productive stints in the starting lineup. Though the Spurs were certainly successful with Blair in the starting lineup, that success also had a clearly defined ceiling attached to it due to the limitations in Blair's game.
His lack of height will always create some problems on the defensive end at one of any defensive schemes most important positions. Though some undersized centers have succeeded (Chuck Hayes comes to mind), Blair often compounded his struggles by not adhering to Popovich's defensive schemes completely or trusting his position defense. While he collected a high rate of steals for a big man, he often took himself out of position to do so.
With Blair in a prominent role, the Spurs were doomed to mediocrity on the defensive end.
Still, the undersized center from Pittsburgh retained enough offensive value in the proper context to help offset his deficiencies and remain a viable rotation player. His low base and wide stature allow him to set some brutal picks, and his agility, soft hands, long arms, and understanding of space and timing made him a favorite pick-and-roll weapon of Manu Ginobili.
Unfortunately for Blair, as the Spurs roster evolved, the contexts under which he thrived were phased out.
During Blair's rookie season, the Spurs had two traditional big men with range in Tim Duncan and Antonio McDyess they could pair with Blair to protect him defensively and not surrender any spacing due to his lack of range. As circumstances required Popovich relax some of his defensive standards, the Spurs at times could pair Blair with Matt Bonner as the team outscored opponents' second units. Those lineups obviously no longer exist.
If the addition and development of Tiago Splitter as a no range pick-and-roll savant hasn't made DeJuan Blair's skill set redundant, he and Boris Diaw have certainly made Blair expendable. Splitter offers the same offensive presence as Blair in a taller, better defensive package, while Diaw has proven a better front court pairing alongside both Duncan and Splitter.
Because of this most assumed that the Spurs would look to unload Blair at the trade deadline if for no other reason than to avoid losing Blair to free agency for nothing.
And had the Spurs received an offer at their asking price, reportedly a first round pick, they likely would have. Whatever they were offered, the Spurs front office determined they could extract more value from Blair as a player over the course of a few months than they could late in a weak draft. And despite Blair's dwindling role the last two seasons, they have received tremendous value as Blair has succeeded in his self-proclaimed role.
"My job is to keep Tim [Duncan] fresh for the playoffs," Blair told me during last season's training camp. "My job is to do the dirty work to help keep his legs fresh at the end of the year."
In that regard Blair has succeeded admirably. Even for a player who falls out of the playoff rotation, there is value in a viable rotation player capable of eating up regular season minutes. In a way, Blair has operated somewhat as Duncan's personal stunt man, standing in for the Spurs star during the most dangerous moments while ceding the spotlight during the most important shots.
And even as Duncan's resurgence and relatively good health have rendered Blair's role less important, there is still value in a player who can step in, knows the system, and help change the complexity of a game on the verge of turning south, as he did in contributing 11 points and seven rebounds in 23 minutes off the bench against the Atlanta Hawks.
"DeJuan’s been very professional,” San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said. “I haven’t played him very much at all and he’s stayed in shape, he’s ready to go, he’s part of the team.”
And he will continue to be a part of the team for so long as the upcoming playoff run lasts. Blair will likely be called upon at some point during the playoffs as Popovich searches for answers through a tough stretch. Though his time will not end here as many expected, there still remains time to leave it in a better light.