By Fred Silva, Project Spurs Staff Writer
Just after the news broke that Antonio McDyess had accepted the Spurs offer, Project Spurs reader named “Onion King” posed the question, “What does this do to the starting lineup?” At first glance I nearly ignored it as I thought it was a pretty simple answer. But when I gave it some thought, there are a lot of intriguing lineups Coach Popovich has at his disposal. He will have to consider not only individual talent, but the collective talent of the players, and will have to make sure that he does not make the starters great at the expense of the second unit.
First, let’s all sit back and enjoy this dilemma. As far as dilemmas go, this is one you invite. We have a plethora of talent this year with the drafting of DeJuan Blair, the signing of Antonio McDyess, and the trade that brought us Richard Jefferson. We easily have one of the top four rosters in the League and will be right back in the national spotlight.
Let’s start with what to me is the most likely starting lineup: Parker, Mason, Jefferson, McDyess, and Duncan. This is likely because I think Coach Popovich will choose to bring Ginobili off the bench so he can better manage his minutes. Jefferson will give us more of a defensive presence than Finley and is a more dynamic scorer. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Jefferson, he is athletic on his drives, has a decent midrange game, and hits 40% of his threes. It seems he took the last year off defensively, but who can blame him? He played for the miserable Bucks. Expect his defense to return as he joins the Spurs and has a reason to care about his team. Given this starting lineup, the second unit would include Hill, Finley, Ginobili, “Big Guy X”, and Bonner. The “Big Guy X” spot will be fought for by Blair, Mahimni, and Hailsip in the coming months. For the rest of this article, I will assume Blair wins this spot because it is the most likely scenario. Regardless, you have to like that lineup. Ginobili and Hill will create off the dribble while Bonner and Finley use the three point line to spread the floor and Blair positions for boards.
The most talented lineup the Spurs could put on the floor would involve the same starting lineup except Ginobili would replace Mason. I expect we will get to enjoy watching this lineup close out games, but not to start them. If the Spurs start Ginobili, the starting line up would be a force but at the detriment of the second unit. And here is the next wrinkle to what could be the starting 5 — just how good do we want to make our second team? Having a great second unit is a much underrated advantage. When the other teams go to their second unit, it would give the Spurs the option of building a lead while the starters sit. This is why the Spurs bring Ginobili off the bench. The team will lose very little when Duncan and Parker take their rest because Ginobili is such a presence on the court.
Now here is my favorite starting lineup: Parker, Mason, Finley, Bonner, and Duncan. That’s right, our starting lineup from last year. Give me a chance to explain, because I know some of you are about to go “Ron Artest” on me. Can we all first agree that the starting lineup was not an issue last year? They played very well together. The “wheels” came off because Ginobili succumbed to injury and the Spurs did not know what to do with the second unit. The starters would get a lead or at least would be tied, but the Spurs lacked a second unit that could keep pace. They would lose the advantage while Parker and Duncan rested, and when they came back in, momentum was lost and you know how that story ends. So that’s my first reason, our starters from last season played very well together.
Second, there is no reason to train a new starting lineup when there is nothing wrong with the original one. Bringing new players into the Spurs system is difficult. Look at what happened to Drew Gooden. He played well offensively, but how many defensive lapses did he have per game? 3, 4? I’m surprised Coach Pop still has hair. It’s an easier transition for a player to ease them into the rotation, rather than starting them right away. The Spurs have this luxury, since the starting 5 from last year are still intact. And do not discount the chemistry that a starting 5 develops over a year. Teams that drastically change their starting lineup generally have a rocky first few months. It takes time for a starting 5 to gel with each other, so why go down that road if you do not have to?
My third reason, and most likely the best reason, is the second unit: Hill, Jefferson, Ginobili, Blair, and McDyess. That’s an offensive explosion! I just got goose-bumps. That second unit would easily be the best second unit in the League. As I stated before, it is a huge advantage. Hill, Jefferson, and Ginobili would all be deadly off the dribble and great on a pick and roll with Blair’s big frame. Jefferson, Ginobili, and McDyess would open the lane for these drives as they are deadly jump shooters. And if you watched Blair at all when he played for Pitt, you know he is a beast on the boards. I guarantee this second unit would absolutely destroy any other second unit in the League. In fact, I believe they would have a better +/- than our starters because of the weaker talent they would face each night. This lineup would also serve to limit Duncan’s minutes during the regular season, which would be huge. Duncan had to play more minutes than normal last season because the Spurs needed him out there. But with this second unit, Coach Popovich would have the luxury of resting Duncan for longer periods of time.
As you can see, the Spurs are in a great spot. They have a plethora of options in terms of lineups, and that is a fantastic sign. Currently, the team has 9 proven players that all will require playing time; that is 8 more than Minnesota has. Think about that. And it’s cold in Minnesota. Really, Minnesota sucks in general. So be glad that you are a Spurs fan and be proud of what the organization did this summer. They made it clear they are going to maximize Duncan’s championship window and go for broke. I love the strategy and think they really can’t go wrong with whatever starting lineup is chosen. What a great time to be a Spurs fan.