By David Thiessen
When I look back on this season, one word pops into my mind: injuries.
Before the season began, the big questions were how would the Spurs play without Manu Ginobili to start the season and could the Big Three avoid any injuries? The answers were poorly and a resounding no. The Spurs started 2-5 and needed a 55 point, 10 assist and seven rebound game from Tony Parker to beat the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves. All totaled, the Big Three missed 55 games with Ginobili missing 38 due to various ankle injuries. Making matters worse, Tim Duncan has been playing with a bum knee that has kept him out of the second game in back-to-backs and there is no quickness or explosion in his moves. Even more discouraging, Duncan’s knee problems can’t be identified quickly with some acronym. This isn’t an MCL or ACL injury. It’s simply wear and tear from playing over 1,000 games in his 11 seasons. This knee injury is here to stay, folks.
While the injuries to Ginobili and Duncan have defined the season, and doomed the Spurs championship hopes, it has opened the door for others to step up. I’ll always remember this season for the missed chances due to injuries, but I’ll also remember it for the other players.
There was Roger Mason Jr. filling in while Ginobili was out, averaging 15.1 points and 50% shooting from behind the arc during the month of November. He shot his way into Spurs lore by having the cajones to take and make big shots. It began on November 17 against the Los Angeles Clippers when he hit a three with 8.4 seconds left and the game tied at 83 for an 86-83 win and a 5-5 record. The legend grew on Christmas Day with the entire nation watching the Spurs play the Suns. Mason sat the entire fourth quarter but came in with 4.3 remaining and the Spurs down two. Parker drove and kicked the ball out to Mason, who calmly drained a corner three at the buzzer. Still, Mason’s reputation as a clutch performer came to fruition against Los Angeles Lakers on January 14. Down two with 10 seconds left, Matt Bonner inbounds the ball to Mason in the corner, who takes a dribble and pulls up just inside of the three-point line. Derek Fisher bumps him from behind and Mason makes the shot while falling down and calmly drains the free throw for a 111-110 victory, which was quite possibly the apex of the Spurs season at 25-12.
But it wasn’t all about the emergence of Mason. Matt Bonner, the Red Rocket, all of a sudden became a three-point specialist and the Spurs starting center. No, he still can’t rebound, defend nor dribble, but Bonner spread the floor. There was George Hill stepping up when Parker went down and showing signs of becoming one of the best defensive guards in the league. His offensive game still needs developing, but Hill showed that he has the potential to become an integral part of this Spurs team.
With Ginobili missing nearly half the season and Duncan playing gimpy for most of it, Parker had an opportunity to take another step forward with his game. He responded with career highs in points (22) and assists (6.9) while also adding three boards and a steal while shooting over 50% from the field. After the All-Star game, Parker upped his averages to 24 points, 7.5 assists and 52% shooting. He began to take over games, attacking the basket and then finding open shooters when the other team collapsed on him. Finally, people began to wonder if Parker actually could assume the role of franchise player in a couple seasons.
Despite the excitement of watching Mason and Hill come in and add athleticism and youth, and Parker taking the next step towards superstardom, I can’t help but look back on this season and see it as the beginning of the Spurs decline.
Ginobili and Duncan’s injuries were ones of age and abuse. Both have had long careers defined by tough playoff battles. Their bodies simply began to break down. While it’s remarkable that the Spurs clawed their way to a 54-28 record and a Southwest Division championship, this is the first time in nearly a decade that the Spurs don’t have a legit shot at winning a title.
It was also the first time that Pop searched and searched for a set rotation but never found one. I’ll also remember this season for the way Pop handled the line up, shuffling Mason and Hill around and killing their progress as the season progressed. Some people might say that Pop did a great job coaching this year because he helped the Spurs win 54 games with Ginobili and Duncan ailing, but I look at his body of work this year and see a failure to develop talent, especially with Hill. While Hill’s offensive acumen is lacking, he is a superior defender to Jacque Vaughn, more athletic, a better rebounder and more likely to score 10 points. Yet, Pop declined Hill’s minutes as the season progressed and has said Hill won’t play significant minutes in the playoffs. Instead, Mason has played backup point guard and demonstrated that he doesn’t have the vision for it.
Ultimately, I’ll remember this season as bittersweet. It was one of missed opportunities. Had Ginobili and Duncan remained healthy, the Spurs would have had a shot at winning another title. Instead they can only hope to give it their best shot and maybe win a series or two. There was an opportunity to develop Hill into the backup point guard, but Pop showed odd distrust of youth and killed his progress. Yes, we did get to see the emergence of Mason, the Red Rocket become a reliable outside shooter and Parker become an All-NBA player, but in San Antonio success has been measured by championships, and there will not be one this year.