December or Bust: Can the Manu-less Spurs survive in an improving Western Conference
By Michael A. De Leon
The Spurs come into the 2008-09 season with one of the big three sidelined until December. Will the Spurs so-called youth movement in the offseason be enough to keep them above .500?
Additions: Roger Mason, George Hill, Desmon Farmer, Anthony Tolliver, Pop's Beard
Subtractions: Robert Horry, Brent Barry, Damon Stoudamire
Aside from Tony Parker, this has to be the Spurs weakest area. At point guard, I expect Parker to improve even more on his numbers from last year. He'll get more touches and will be relied on more with the absence of Ginobili. I don't think Parker is yet in his prime and his game continues to expand. Last season we saw his assists increase while turnovers weren't as much of an issue. That was apparent in the first round of the playoffs last season against the Suns. Parker consistently outperformed Nash and in one game netted more than 40 points and 10 assists.
As solid as Parker is, point guard becomes a weakness when he heads to the bench. Jacque Vaughn will likely start the season as Parker's primary backup and while he is a solid vet who will make smart decisions and play tight d, Vaughn becomes a liability on offense and because of his reluctance to shoot and inability to regularly hit mid-rang jumpers, defenders will sag off of him to double Duncan. George Hill is still a question mark. He still has a ways to go before he can be considered an NBA-caliber point-guard, but he is able to contribute in other areas. He's an excellent on the ball defender, has long arms to grab steals and don't be surprised if he ends up grabbing more rebounds than some of our bigs. If Hill can regain the shooting touch he displayed at IUPUI, he'll likely keep defenders honest. Roger Mason has played some point and Desmon Farmer can also fill in, but he'll likely be in a suit on the sidelines for most of the season.
With Ginobili out, Michael Finley and Roger Mason will be asked to step up and play a larger role. Finley came in to training camp 15 pounds lighter and he seems to have bulked up a bit as well. He began working 2 days after the Spurs Western Conference Finals loss to the Lakers. I'm hoping Finley has lost more than a couple of pounds. Losing his inconsistency and hesitation to shoot when the game is on the line would be a nice change. Roger Mason almost joined the Spurs a year ago when the Spurs had him in for workouts. The Spurs ended up getting their man this summer, albeit at a much higher salary. Mason is known as a player who can light it up off the bench. I follow the Wizards regularly, so I saw my share of Mason last season and liked what I saw. I liked that Mason wasn't just a spot-up shooter and he showed some versatility by starting at point guard when the Wizards lost both Gilbert Arenas and Antonio Daniels to injury. So far this preseason, Mason hasn't shown much. His shooting percentages have been off, but we are still more than 24 hours away from the Spurs first regular season game, so I'll hold off judgement for now. Mason will likely have more minutes this season than he has his entire career. The opportunity will be there, and if he can take advantage of it, the countdown to December may not be as painful. I don't put it past Pop to activate Farmer if he needs instant offense. Farmer has come out of nowhere and impressed this preseason. In fact, Pop's reason for keeping Farmer on the roster was “ball go in hole.”
Pop will likely start the same frontcourt he did last season. There have been several reports out of training camp that said Bruce Bowen has not lost a step. I expect more of the same from him this season. He'll look to hit the corner three and defend the opponent's best player every game. I expect more of Ime Udoka this season. Udoka will be Bowen's primary backup and he should get consistent minutes under Bowen. Udoka will continue to hassle guards and forwards on the perimeter, fill passing lanes and take his shots when he gets them. Anthony Tolliver, who can play both forward positions, did not play well through preseason, but shined in Summer League action. If activated, Tolliver can be expected to rebound and get hustle points. He's worked on his range and shooting since he left college, so he can hit the three-ball and mid-range jumper as well.
Tim Duncan will be the same unappreciated, but dominating big man he has been. I really do not expect Duncan to show any signs of a decline. He'll be the first priority on offense, look to pass out to open shooters and clean up the mess on the other end of the court. Backing him up will be Kurt Thomas. Thomas is a smart vet and is an asset on defense. He can defend the dour and five, rebound and hit a face up 12 footer with accuracy. I really expect Thomas to contend for and eventually win the starting center spot sending Fabricio Oberto to the bench where he can daydream about Karch Kiraly.
When Ian Mahinmi recovers from his injury, he'll probably be activated and backup Oberto at center. He hasn't done anything to stand out through summer league and preseason, but he does have height, speed, athleticism and long arms to swat away shots. Aside from Tim Duncan, the Spurs haven't had a shot blocker in the post since David Robinson and I look forward to seeing Ian redeem himself in become a presence in the paint.
With all the age on this roster, will this be the year it catches up with the Spurs? I ased this same question in last season's preview and said no. I would have to disagree this year. I think the Spurs age as well as their decision to not strengthen weaker areas through free agency and the draft will end up hurting them. I'm usually more optimistic, but unless Manu comes back on a tear and some of our new players step up, I thing the second round will be the farthest they get this season, especially in an improving western conference.