By Michael A. De Leon
The Spurs have made quite a few changes from last years team that went 63-19. Right out of the gate, they made a trade sending Rasho Nesterovic to the Toronto Raptors for Matt Bonner and Eric Williams. That was clearly a money decision. With the trade of Rasho, I figured the Spurs had Nazr in the bag for next season, but as we now know, he signed a free agent contract with the Pistons after Ben Wallace fled to Chicago and has done pretty well for them in pre -season play so far.
The front office tried to recover by going after Joel Pryzbilla and Alonzo Mourning, but with those players going back to their teams, they settled on luring away Francisco Elson and Jackie Butler with warm weather and bigger paydays. While age and the center position are weaknesses with Mr. Rusty Spur possibly being the starter, the Spurs still have the big three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker
Francisco Elson slimmed-down Duncan has looked pretty good in training camp so far and with an entire offseason of rest, I expect him to be back in MVP form. Before suffering with plantar fascitis, he was playing great basketball and devouring opponents. A lot of NBA writers like to point out that last season was Duncan’s worst, averaging just over 18 points and 11 rebounds per game and even say he may be on the decline. But even while injured, Duncan played great when it mattered most, averaging 32.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and just over 2.5 blocks per game in the seven game playoff series against the Mavericks. I’m expecting Duncan, who is entering his 10th NBA season, to have a marquee year and probably his best before he really starts on his decline after next year.
The biggest question is still at center. Will Duncan slide over to center or will Pop use a center by committee approach using Elson, Oberto and Butler? Let’s face it, center has been the biggest positional weakness since David Robinson decided to hang up his sneakers in 2003, but that didn’t stop the Spurs from winning the 2005 title. While Spurs fans may see the offseason as a failure for not bringing in a big name free agent center and due to the loss of Nazr Mohammed and Rasho Nesterovic, I don’t see Elson, Oberto and Butler as a step back from the centers we had last season. While Mohammed has looked good for the Pistons, he never quite got it done consistently, and neither he or Rasho provided the Spurs with enough rebounding. That was apparent when a 6-5 Bonzi Wells outrebounded both our centers in the first round series against the Kings.
While I think Oberto will improve a bit due to him getting more playing time, I think Francisco Elson will end up being the Spurs starting center. If you’ve seen any of the preseason games, you’ll know that Elson is good running the floor, and can even run alongside Tony Parker on fast breaks, which is something neither of our previous centers could do. Elson has never been a beast on defense, but I think he’ll suffice, and with added minutes, he should be able to pick up his rebounding totals. Not to mention, Elson’s mobility and athleticism should help if the Spurs find themselves in another playoff series with the Mavericks. Jackie Butler looks promising, but I still think he’s a bit of a project. The good news is that he is young, entering his third season and has time to learn. He did look good with 11 points and 5 rebounds in 21 minutes against Miami this preseason.
At the three, the Spurs don’t exactly have any Spring chickens. Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley and Eric Williams are all thirtysomethings who have seen better days. Bowen, however, is still one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and even though we saw a bit of a decline in the Dallas series, I think he’ll do well once again manning the three, and he may have some added motivation after being cut from the Team USA roster and being snubbed for Defensive Player of the Year once again.
I expect Michael Finley to have a solid season playing the 6th man role backing up both Bowen and Ginobili. Finley is a reliable outside threat and is still quite athletic as we saw with two jaw dropping dunks in the playoffs. With a full year in the Spurs system, Finley now knows and has grown accustomed to his role on the team. Bonner may also spend some time at the three because of his range. Despite his size, he’s not really known to take the ball inside and score in the paint, but he should help spread the floor when he’s in the game.
Unlike Duncan, Manu Ginobili did play this summer, but he didn’t have to play much the way Argentina was taking care of teams in the opening round of the FIBA World Championships. He looked really good scoring 14 points in the first quarter the other day and if he can manage to stay healthy, I see another All-Star game in his future as well as the Spurs being able to rack up the wins. I’ve heard that Pop has asked Manu to work on his mid range jumper, and hat should not only extend his career, but he’ll much harder to defend. Keep in mind that Manu has yet to break the 30 minutes per game barrier in his NBA career. That’s mostly due to the recklessness he plays with and the potential damage more minutes could cause to his body. That has yet to stop him from being dangerous scorer and averaging upwards of 15 points a game the last two seasons. With more minutes and a more complete offensive game, we could see the playoffs Manu in the regular season.
Tony Parker has looked great in the preseason, mostly in the Europe Live tour. In two games in France, he averaged 26.5 points and 7.5 assists in under 30 minutes per game. It may have been a preseason game and it also may have been against two international teams. But it was also coming off a finger injury he suffered just before the start of the World Championships. More importantly, it may also be a preview of the upcoming season as Tony starts to become the main piece of the Spurs puzzle. Last season he lead the Spurs in scoring with 18.9 points and racked up 5.8 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game along the way. It doesnt look like Tony has lost a step and with even more time under Chip Engelland, he’s adding more to his arsenal. With a steadily improving field goal percentage, if he can turn the ball over less this season, he should soldify himself as a top 5 point guard this year.
The starting backcourt is a solid duo, and one of the best in the league, but there are a few questions when Tony and Manu head to the bench, mostly at point guard. This seemed like the season Beno Udrih would take over the backup point guard spot, but reports out of training camp say Pop is frustrated with Udrih, who is injured again and has not suited up the last couple of games. While I like Udrih and I preferred him over Nick Van Exel last season, Beno needs to toughen up physically and mentally if he has any plans to lead a team at the point any time soon. Luckily Jacque Vaughn was signed in the offseason as the third point guard and has played well so far this preseason. Vaughn is a decent defender and has a high basketball IQ. Brent Barry will spend time at both guard positions and although he’s a defensive liability, he’s still a pretty accurate shooter and can get to the rim.
I’ve predicted a 58-24 record for the Spurs this season, but you can look for those numbers to go up as well as their chances to get deeper in the playoffs. But with a team this old, it’s all dependent on health.
Go check out the rest of our Season Preview package over at ProjectSpurs.com. Aside form a Spurs preview, the other offerings include a Southwest Division Preview, power rankings, predictions, a feature on the new additions and a podcast edition of the season preview.
By Michael A. De Leon