Watch for the Coil

When I was watching the Spurs lose to the Celtics last Thursday night, someone in the announcing team of Marv Albert, Mike Fratello and Reggie Miller made the comment that “teams don’t have to double Tim Duncan anymore.” It was a startling analysis that for the first time in my life made me wonder if the Spurs just didn’t have it anymore. This was a Spurs team that hadn’t looked great to start out the new season but was still coming off of a five-game winning streak. They had taken advantage of a favorable stretch of games against the Wizards, Bucks, Warriors, Rockets (road), and 76ers.

It certainly hasn’t been the same Spurs team we’ve seen over the past decade. They look lost. Not only did they look lost but they also look different – bad different. The offense isn’t the main problem. It is the defense, which is causing the issues. It’s hard to think of a Spurs team playing such poor defense but with another long and grueling year under their belt in the Duncan/Popovich era, the crisp rotation and execution of basic defensive fundamentals seem to be fading out. They aren’t just fading out. The Spurs haven’t played defense this poorly (106 defensive rating) since the tanking extravaganza of 1996-97 when San Antonio held David Robinson out in order to secure Tim Duncan (112 defensive rating).

But this isn’t that tanking Spurs team. That team’s top five scorers were Dominique Wilkins (37 years old), Vernon Maxwell, Vinny Del Negro, Avery Johnson and something called a Carl Herrera. This Spurs team nearly eclipsed those points with just Duncan, Tony Parker, and Roger Mason’s son last season. This Spurs team is deeper than ever and coming into this season was sporting a newly healthy Manu (we’ve heard that before) and a version of Tony Parker that scared opposing point guards last season. Of course, this is assuming everyone can stay healthy.

Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have already missed nine games between them. Parker has been battling an ankle injury that has taken away his quickness. Without his quickness, his playmaking ability suffers along with his already questionable defense. When his playmaking ability suffers, he can’t create as many shots for himself or his teammates. This is probably why you’ll notice his scoring is way down along with his assists but his turnovers are at a career worst.

When you couple this with the fact that Manu Ginobili’s groin isn’t helping him be Manu Ginobili, the Spurs are trying to figure out how to get the most out of five new rotation players and Tim Duncan not being double team worthy anymore, a 13th straight season of a plus-60 winning percentage seems not only unlikely but quite laughable.

So should we consider them done?

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As some of you may remember, I’m a high school basketball coach. To be more specific, I’m a high school basketball junior varsity assistant coach. I have been since the summer. It’s one of the more fun things you could ever do as a hoops nerd like myself.

Back in the summer, our mission as a team was simple: become better basketball players. Maybe that seems too basic right off the bat but when you consider that many high school programs go into the summer in order to win tournaments, it’s a bit refreshing to know that we just taught them the fundamentals of basketball and our school’s program. We didn’t really have many plays. We didn’t have a press or a press break. We went in there to grow as basketball players. Considering these things, the fact that we went 17-4 during the summer shows you just how talented our junior varsity team was/is.

A local, affluent high school didn’t take that approach. They had every weapon and scheme that they’d use this season ready at their team’s disposal back in June. They went into the summer tournaments for free t-shirts and tournament titles. In one of our four summer losses, our team lost to this affluent high school. Let me rephrase that; our team was annihilated by this high school. We ended up losing by around 40 points because they pressed, zoned, and came up with every trick they had to blow us out and embarrass our guys.

Our head coach of the JV (and good friend/future groomsman of mine) told the team after that loss to not hang their heads. He said that the goal of the team that beat us was to win the tournament in the summer and that when we played them in a tournament during the season, we’d be better off for this experience.

We had our first tournament of the season this past weekend. Due to scheduling confusion, we forfeited our first game of the tournament, which took us immediately out of tournament championship contention. It was an unfortunate misunderstanding and unfair to our kids. But we had to live with it even if it wasn’t our fault. So we told the team to prove to the rest of the teams moving into the winners’ bracket in the tournament that they dodged a bullet by not having to face us.

Well, wouldn’t you know that in the last day of this tournament (because of the scheduling issues) we ended up playing this affluent high school that had previously blown us out in the summer. We jumped out to an early lead behind some hot shooting from a ridiculously talented freshman guard that we have and smacked them in the mouth early. We were up 17-6 after the first two minutes and looked like we were going to blow them out, like they had previously done to us. Everything we were running was working and our press breaker was making their press a cute afterthought as we flew up and down the floor. But as in every competitive basketball game, they made a run.

In fact, they made a couple of runs to put us down by about six points with five minutes to play in the game. When we jumped out to our early double-digit lead, the cockiness in their expression was completely wiped away. You could see that not only were they taking us seriously (which they hadn’t planned on doing) but also they were afraid they couldn’t keep up. Now, with them looking to close the game out, we were the team with the thoughts of not being able to keep up.

But then something happened to our team. I can’t describe it as a switch being flipped or a strategy of basketball being implemented to correct what was going wrong. It was more of a general understanding throughout our 12 guys that we were better than this team, had already proven it and we were going to prove it in the final five minutes. All of a sudden offensive rebounds fell our way, jumpers crawled over the rim and in, and our first step was a little quicker than their defensive slides.

We stormed back into the game by forcing turnovers, running our offense correctly, and playing big on the boards despite having our two best big men in foul trouble and their big men towering over our guys. Our system of basketball was being executed perfectly. We found ourselves up six with one minute to go with our improved basketball players outlasting their same basketball schemes. With about 56 seconds left on the clock, our formerly hot-shooting freshman guard stole the ball at half court on an errant pass, he took off up the court and began to gather himself as he went up for a sure fate-sealing transition bucket to sure-up the win for us.

As he gathered himself, both the head coach and I thought to ourselves that he shouldn’t try what he was about to do but at the same time, anticipation was rising within us. His steps slowed, his dribble became deliberate, and his body coiled, ready to explode. This allowed a kid on the other team to catch up with him, not knowing what was about to happen.

Within the blink of an eye, we saw a 14-year old kid launch himself towards the basket, cock back the ball in his hand and rip the ball through the rim with a ferocity I’ve never seen out of someone so young. He punctuated the win with a fast break, tomahawk dunk over an unsuspecting defender that was arguably the biggest Eff You moment I’ve ever experienced in a live game. The place erupted. I lost my mind and jumped off my seat in unison with our bench. The game was ours, the summer was forgotten, and the future of our team was one to be feared by opponents.

And in reflecting on this, I can’t help but look at the current state of the San Antonio Spurs. Ever since their last NBA title win in 2007 their players have become older and more injured, their team defense has become worse every season and their annual playoff longevity has become shorter each time. The Spurs aren’t exactly a team that starts historically slow like they are now (they’ve started out 9-9 once in the past 10 seasons) but they’re always a team that kicks it up after February begins. Over the past 10 seasons, Tim Duncan’s teams have increased their pre-February record from a collective 312-147 record (67.9%) to 264-99 mark (72.7%) after February 1st.

The Spurs have only dropped from their pre-February winning percentage to their final winning percentage three times in the past ten seasons. In the four seasons in which they’ve started close to this slow (11-7 in 2000, 11-7 in 2002, 9-9 in 2003, 10-8 in 2008), they’ve never finished below 54 wins. So why is there so much worry about these Spurs now?

It’s very possible that they’re working on making their team better and more playoff ready when the second season rolls around in April. It’s possible they don’t mind being blown out in November and December because they know when they face those same teams in March, April and May that they’ll have improved players peaking in a system that has been refined throughout the 82-game campaign. It’s irrational to write them off now just because other teams like Denver, Phoenix, and the Lakers are trying to thump teams now.

Don’t assume the sun has set on a Spurs team that should have a much better record than they do. They run about 10 guys deep, which is not something you’ve been able to say in the past. They’ve brought in good new veterans (like Antonio McDyess and Richard Jefferson) along with younger rotation players (like DeJuan Blair and an always maturing George Hill) who are acclimating themselves to the Spurs system. The plan is to use all 82 games to prepare themselves for the two months worth of playoffs they expect to endure. Trust that there is a program for growth that eventually leads into the program for winning.

For now, just wait for the Eff You moment that George Hill, Manu Ginobili or anybody else might surprise you with. You’ll see it coming when they begin to coil.

Seth Carstens