Nobody is really talking about the Spurs as potential title winners this year. Should they be? The Spurs are currently 30 - 14, good for the second best record in the West and the fourth best in the NBA. The Spurs are one of the few teams whose core players are championship-tested with their current teams. And the Spurs have played so well this season with one of their best players, Manu Ginobili, missing a good chunk of the seson due to injury…which would argue that they are even better than their record indicates. What's not to like?
Well, let's start with the reasons that they aren't getting much championship hype (which isn't necessarily the same as whether they SHOULD be getting that hype). First, the Spurs aren't exciting to a Sportscenter/YouTube raised audience that likes their dunks vicious, their blocked shots tomahawked into the front row, and their superstars ultra-charismatic narcissists. The Spurs' personality of the last 15 years has been shaped and molded by Tim Duncan and Greg Popovic… one of the most unassuming superstars ever, and an almost militaristic coach who is all about discipline and team. And their home market, San Antonio, is not exactly a media metropolis or steeped in NBA history. In other words, even in their hey-day, to many these Spurs were boring.
Second, the Spurs are considered old. Because the mental association of the team revolves around Duncan, who turns 36 years old next month and last won an MVP 10 seasons ago, the feeling is that the team itself is also old and on its last legs.
Finally, this is a "what have you done for me lately?" league, and the Spurs haven't won a title since 2007. They've lost in the first round of the playoffs in two of the last three seasons, including last year when they were the number one seed with 61 regular season wins before getting dismantled by Zach Randolph and the Grizzlies. The most recent iterations of Spurs have become a lot more associated with playoff disappointment than parades, so why would this year be any different?
Well, for starters, these Spurs are a different beast than what has come before. And it starts with Duncan no longer being the straw that stirs the drink. If you check out the year-to-year Regularized Adjusted +/- numbers through the years, you'll see that during the championship years Duncan was always ranked one of the top few players in the NBA. Even in the last few years, Duncan has maintained a steady top-15 ranking in the league as one of the most impactful players. But if you look at this season so far, in the RAPM purely from 2012 you won't find Duncan until well down the list into the 70s. While the sample size of half of a season is too small for complete confidence in any APM calculation, the trend is reflected in the raw on-court/off-court +/- stats where Duncan is currently sporting a negative value (-1.74) for the first time since these stats became available more than a decade ago.
But while Duncan might not be the catalyst for team success anymore, his individual box score stats don't show much slippage at all from last season. His scoring has actually increased a bit, he is still averaging more than 11 rebounds and almost two blocks per 36 minutes, and he is sporting the second-lowest turnover percentage of his career. So if Duncan's level of play hasn't changed much, why is he is no longer pulling the ship for the Spurs? And why is it a good thing?
The first answer to both questions is Tony Parker. Parker is having arguably the best season of his career, taking control of the Spurs offense with a career-high eight assists to go along with 20 points per game. His advanced box score stats (PER, Win Shares) are as good as they have ever been, and he has maintained his health as well. The last season that Parker had that was comparably good in the box scores where he didn't miss at least 10 games was 2007…the year that he ended the season as the Finals MVP. But what's different than previous years is that this time Parker's individual excellence is reflected in the +/- stats as well, as he leads the Spurs starters in both 2012-only RAPM as well as on/off +/-. And completely outside of stats, Parker's on-court demeanor this season has been one of a leader. More so than any time I can remember, he is owning his role as team leader and playing with that swagger on the court.
Parker's renaissance is perfectly in-line with the league-wide trend towards perimeter players dominating the offenses. Ever since the league adopted its new no-handcheck enforcement policy in 2004, the penetrating perimeter point-producer (4 Ps!) has been one of the most coveted weapons in the game. And when Ginobili is healthy, the Spurs have two of them that can operate as well in that aspect as anyone in the league. In fact, a healthy Ginobili/Parker combination is the best backcourt in the NBA. The "healthy" part of that equation has been the major sticking point in the last several years, but with Ginobili getting his big injuries out of the way early this year there is actually a reasonable chance that he gets into playing shape and peaks just in time for the postseason, which would be a far cry from his general tendency to wear down over the season and enter the postseason on fumes. Finally, new acquisition Stephen Jackson can provide similar contributions from the swing slot, taking even more pressure off of Ginobili to do it all.
But while the Spurs' strong perimeter players are important, the key to playoff basketball is size up front. Size alone was enough for me to endorse the Lakers as the team to beat out West, despite the inherent flaws on the team that several of you pointed out in the comments last week. And Duncan's individual brilliance the last few years has somewhat masked just how little the Spurs were getting from their other big men. It was this exact weakness, in fact, that Randolph and Marc Gasol exploited in the playoffs last season to send the top-ranked Spurs home in the first round. This season, though, the Spurs are getting contributions from their other bigs, especially Tiago Splitter. Part of the reason that Duncan's raw on/off +/- is negative, is because when he goes to the bench Splitter (+6.47) and Matt Bonner (+10.74) have come in and played well enough that the second unit has thrived. Splitter, the highly rated import who has found his legs in his second NBA season, has even showed the ability to spot-replace Duncan at a high level in games Duncan has sat out. Duncan and Splitter give the Spurs two 7-footers that they can put on the court, and along with contributors Bonner and DeJuan Blair gives them a quality stable of bigs to go along with their perimeter threat.
Overall, there is a lot to like about the Spurs this season. I'm sticking with my stance last week that the Lakers are the team to beat out West, but the Spurs are also right there and could very legitimately end up as the last team standing once the West is won.
Around the League: A few Twitter update thoughts (@ProfessorDrz) from last week's trade deadline:
•Wallace in Jersey: As a Gerald Wallace owner, I'm happy with his trade to New Jersey where he'll get to freelance as a larger part of the offense next to a great distributor in Deron Williams.
•Howard better with drama gone?: Dwight Howard said that he was only sleeping 2 - 3 hours at a time during the season due to turmoil over his potential departure from Orlando. That can affect performance. The last week hasn't shown a major spike in Howard's level of play, but if he feels more at ease post-trade deadline it could show up as an increase in production just in time for the fantasy playoffs.
•Nene in Washington, McGee in Denver: The big man swap of Nene and JaVale McGee would not seem to immediately change the fantasy prospects of either player. In terms of actual game play, McGee could benefit from George Karl's more structured approach and Nene's understated impact could be important for the Wizards coming off of the canvas. But in terms of raw box score numbers, I don't see a big change for either.
•Sessions in LA: Ramon Sessions is looking like a great acquisition for the Lakers, with the potential to really change how the team operates. Sessions has averaging 14 points and six assists over his last three games off the bench in LA, and this strong play has earned him almost 29 minutes in each of the last two. Sessions is an actual point guard, something that the Mike Brown offense sorely needed to run smoothly. The one potential drawback, though, is if Kobe Bryant doesn't want to give up his role as the primary ball-handler to Sessions. This was the topic of an interesting article this week, as in the Rockets game Sessions had the offense moving late in the game until Bryant came back in and everything stalled. Stay tuned for how it works out.
•Young in LAC: Nick Young is a scorer, pure and simple. He was competing with another young player with a similar skill set (Jordan Crawford) while in Washington, but his trade to the Clippers could be good for him. The Clippers are built entirely around Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and Caron Butler wasn't hacking it as the third scoring option. Young is a more dynamic scorer than Butler, and also is young and athletic enough to run with Paul and the Lob City boys.
Big Movers in the Rotowire Fantasy Basketball Cheat sheet
•Melo and Amare up with new coach: New coach Mike Woodson has returned the Knicks' offense to a focus around Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, earning them back a few slots in the rankings that they had lost in the last days of former coach Mike D'Antoni. I expected this to make Jeremy Lin slide far down the rankings as well, but he has maintained his solid play and remains a top-60 player right now.
•Gallinari and Chandler: Danilo Gallinari was just rounding into form (seriously, have you seen his ridiculous behind-the-back bullet pass from this weekend?) when he broke his thumb. The timetable hasn't been set for his return, though it doesn't sound as though he'll be out for long. But in his absence, newly returned Wilson Chandler has moved back into the starting line-up and responded with a double-double in his first start.
•Butler down: Caron Butler peaked earlier this season with his surprising 3-point shooting, playing off of easy shots created by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Butler has been in a shooting slump for the last month that already had him sliding down the rankings, and with the new addition of Nick Young now competing for the same role Butler slides out of the top-100 for the first time since January.
•Fernandez done for year: Rudy Fernandez will undergo lower back surgery and miss the rest of the season.
•Nelson looking alive: Once left for dead after a terrible start to the season, Nelson has been playing his best basketball of the season for the last month and has earned a boost back into the top-100 of the rankings.
•Matthews benefits from the Wallace trade: Wesley Matthews had fallen into the doldrums in Portland, with Gerald Wallace and Nic Batum eating into his production potential. With Wallace out of town, Matthews has been looking more like the player that burst into the fantasy spotlight last season.
•Carlos Delfino (64% owned in Yahoo! leagues): Delfino has been one of the hotter players in the league since the trade deadline, and his long-range shooting ability and all around game match well next to the aggressive driving backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.
•Gerald Henderson (51% owned): Henderson has made this list a couple of times this year, only to fall back off the radar due to either inconsistent play or injury. However, the youngster is playing well again recently, averaging almost 20 ppg over the last week. He is primarily a scorer without another dominant strength, but he shoots a solid percentage and contributes a few boards and rebounds as well. And plus, 20 points is 20 points, worth having if you can get it for cheap.
•Jason Thompson (43% owned): Thompson has been a monster of late, notching five straight double-doubles including back-to-back 21 and 15 games last week.
•Ben Gordon (43% owned): One of the most maddening things in fantasy sports is when a player under achieves for so long that you give up on him…only to have him immediately explode once you've moved on. That happened to me this week, as I finally responded to Ben Gordon's awful season by either benching or dropping him in several leagues…only to have him detonate for 45 points, including an NBA record 9-for-9 from 3-point range on Wednesday night. That was more points than Gordon had scored in his previous six games combined! While I am not expecting another point barrage like that any time soon, Gordon will likely continue to start for as long as Rodney Stuckey (toe) has to sit out…and the talent is obviously still there. So at the very least keep Gordon on your radar, and he could also be worth a short-term flyer in leagues like mine where someone has dropped him.
•Danny Green (14% owned): My personal feeling is that Manu Ginobili and Stephen Jackson will eventually squeeze Green out of his minutes. That said, you have to respect production and the hot player concept as the fantasy playoffs approach. And Green has been hot of late, averaging 17 points and almost three 3-pointers per game from the starting line-up over the last week.
Best Players in NBA history: Kobe Bryant
In this section of the Lab I pick one of the top players in NBA history as voted on in this project and discuss some of his career accomplishments…in other words, what made him so great that he deserves a spot among the greatest? This week's player is Kobe Bryant, an amazing player that is either battling Michael Jordan for the title of best player ever or may not even be one of the top-3 players of the 2000s...depending on who you ask.
Kobe is an electric basketball player, capable of hitting impossibly difficult shots regularly enough that we expect him to make them every time. He is the closest thing that we've seen stylistically to Jordan, from the height to the swagger to the athletic ability to the fadeaway jumper, Kobe's game (by design) is often a mirror image for his Airness. And because Kobe has hit the memorable shot so many times he has earned a reputation as an assassin...a player that scares his opponents and makes his fans feel safe when he has the ball in his hands. His game is aesthetically pleasing, and has a mano-a-mano component to it on both offense and defense that makes him feel something like a gunslinger...and he's won those shootouts often enough that his over-the-top "Black Mamba" nickname actually gained regular use without seeming ridiculous.
We know that Kobe is an all-history level player...so the question is, where does he fit into the pantheon? Is Kobe as good as Jordan? Is Kobe one of the top-5 players in NBA history? Is Kobe even a top-3 player of the 2000s?
My answers to those last three questions are: not as good as Jordan, not quite to the top-10 of All-time (more like top-15), and...no, not a top-3 player of the 2000s.
To read more about Bryant's career and weigh in with your opinions, be sure to check out this week's blog.
Keeping up with the Professor
If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on Rotowire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.