San Antonio Spurs 99, Phoenix Suns 106: Corey Maggette’s last stand?


AT&T CENTER–So far as longshot last stands go, there are few settings better than one can attempt to make theirs than the Alamo city. Staring down the end of his career in his 15th season, Maggette is hoping for a better outcome than the denizens of the old San Antonio mission.

An athletic bull of a slasher out of Duke with a knack for getting to the free throw line, Maggette had popped up on the San Antonio Spurs radar from time-to-time over the last decade. After bouncing around the league, from Milwaukee-to-Charlotte-to-Detroit, Maggette found himself, for the first time in his basketball career, without a guaranteed place to play this upcoming season.

"This was it for me, I was going to retire. I got a call from RC to come in and see what I could do," Maggette said when asked about other training camp opportunities. “It’s a humbling experience, of course, but it’s fine. It’s a position in your life where things change, and I’m okay with that.” 

The thought of adding Maggette’s particular skill set to the Spurs motion offense, stripped of the unessential deadweight accumulated through years of playing on bad teams, can be enticing–even if its just for 10-15 minutes against certain matchups. That deadweight of course had been his propensity for stopping the ball to isolate defenders, where he’s taken poor shots more often than not.

Through two public appearances–the Spurs open scrimmage and, after not playing in the preseason opener, Sunday’s matchup with the Phoenix Suns–Maggette has played within himself, using the Spurs off ball symphony to catch the ball on the move, coming off screens with a full head of steam to get to the rim, and quite frequently, the free throw line.

Starting in place of Kawhi Leonard, who was given the night off, Maggette scored 10 points, going 8-8 from the free throw line. After being a go-to option on offense for most of career, Maggette kept the ball moving, attacking when a lane presented itself, and reversing the ball or dishing it off to a teammate (three assists) when nothing was there.

“He looks like he’s caught on to what we’re trying to do,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s an intelligent player who’s been in the league a while. He knows how to try to fit in and that’s what he’strying to do with us; we’ll see if he can absorb enough to be part of this team.”

Fitting in with the Spurs generally means playing defense, never a specialty for Maggette, who fouled out in 27 minutes. Three of those fouls were of the careless variety, allowing a basket and a foul on an attempt on a chase down block, reaching out and grabbing a player on a clear path violation, and closing out too hard on a closeout, the slight contact oversold on Maggette’s sixth foul. In general, his rotations were always a step slow and perhaps a little lost, not an uncommon thing for a player joining the Spurs.

“Every time somebody new comes to this team it takes a little bit of adjusting [for them] to look around and see what they expect from you and how you’re going to fit in with what Pop wants from you,” Manu Ginobili said. “It’s not like when you go to any team where everyone is new and everything starts from scratch. It’s a well arranged and season team and you just have to fit, so it takes everyone a little bit.”

With the starting lineup returning intact this season, it’s often up to Ginobili to help the new pieces fall into place in the second unit, and just as he’s done with DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter in years past, he’s slowly developing a chemistry with new acquisition Jeff Ayres.

It’s early, but Ayres appears to bring a solid all around skill set to the second unit. If nothing else, Ayres is bigger than DeJuan Blair with a nice shooting touch. He finished the game with 10 points on 5-8 shooting, showing a consistent release from midrange and a little range on a soft hook shot. The Spurs offseason acquisition also showed a solid feel for the game, putting up five assists, most notably a high-low pass from the elbow through a tight window to a cutting Nando De Colo–an essential staple of the Spurs offense.

Perhaps just as encouraging, the well-rounded skill set allows Ayres to slide in next to any of the other Spurs’ big men, something that limited Blair’s time last year as his deficiencies on defense and lack of range made pairing him with any big men other than Tim Duncan an iffy proposition.

“He’s really a solid player, is what he is. He has a good knowledge of what he does well and he pretty much sticks with that,” Popovich said. “When you combine that with his aggressiveness and his hustle, he’s going to be a valuable player for us.”

Going back to Ginobili’s words about new additions fitting in, the amount of corporate knowledge on hand allows for a different approach to preseason than most teams. There isn’t a reinventing of the wheel or adjustment period needed–the rotation remains largely intact. The starting lineup revolves around Tony Parker’s playmaking, Duncan’s ability to act as the glue to everything else the Spurs do on both ends, and Leonard, Tiago Splitter, and Danny Green filling in the gaps and providing plus defenders at their positions.

Off the bench, Ginobili remains the primary ball-handler and playmaker for the second unit. Mainstays in the second unit figure to be Marco Belinelli, providing outside shooting and a secondary playmaker,Cory Joseph as a defensive, caretaker point guard who provides energy and hustle, and Boris Diaw as a French swiss army knife whose versatility remains helpful despite a dull, rounded blade.

If most of the preseason is merely a formality to everything we know about the Spurs, the rest of it revolves around how well the remainder of the roster can fit into the situational roles set for them.

Can Patty Mills operate as the spark plug, microwave force off the bench in limited spurts? The 11 points a little under 15 minutes, while providing at least pesky defense, offers hope that he can provide the self-contained offensive punch lost with Gary Neal’s departure.

Will Ayres learn the defensive rotations quickly enough to supplant Bonner as the Spurs fourth big man, moving Bonner to the situational roles he appears best suited to? And, finally, can any of the otherplayers stand out enough to convince the Spurs to carry a full 15-man roster?

The lone tool the Spurs currently lack is an oversized wing behind Kawhi Leonard. But, as Ginobili pointed out after the game, the league isn’t flush with small forwards like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony–physical forwards that can pound smaller players to submission in the post.

If Maggette is going to stick with the team, it’ll be because he brings a unique skill set that can help the the team more than a need to fill a tradition small forward on the depth chart behind Leonard. After the game Popovich said Maggette would offer a nice insurance policy if he could do enough to make the roster while noting the Spurs have enough depth on the wings without him.

While the thought of Maggette might be nice, the question remains whether the actual Maggette can still fulfill that role.

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