David Stern and his associates have made a consistent and conscious effort to make the NBA a faster, more exciting game, bringing back the high scoring flair of the days of Spurs legend George Gervin. The rule changes have been highly publicized, making young, athletic players like Dwayne Wade virtually unstoppable (as made evident by Wade?s 97 free throw attempts in the 2006 Finals). Most teams, notably the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards, have thrived in the new NBA. Other teams, like the Indiana Pacers, have been left behind, dinosaurs lingering in an evolved game.
And then there are the San Antonio Spurs, an organization that has been heralded for its ability to succeed in whatever model of NBA is prevalent. When the grind-it-out style of the mid to late 1990?s reigned supreme, the Spurs excelled with tough, defensive teams featuring the likes of Mario Elie and Avery Johnson. As the game opened up, so did the Spurs, constructing the quickest backcourt in the league with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Success always followed, ultimately creating the most successful franchise in the four major sports since Tim Duncan joined the team.
Now, following a 4-5 stretch and distressing losses to the rival Lakers and Mavericks, the Spurs find themselves in a position they aren?t generally associated with: slow to adapt. The team that was always cutting edge is now glancing at their competitors, wondering how they?ve been passed in evolving with rule changes and new personal in the wild, wild West.
The new NBA is structured on speed and athleticism, and the position that has been most redefined is the hybrid 3-4 (the versatile small forward/power forward). The model of the position is Shawn Marion, who has consistently given the Phoenix Suns minutes at the power forward, forcing defenses to adjust. His height, length, and athletic prowess negate his lack of bulk in a league focused on uptempo offenses.
But Marion is not alone. It seems like every team has a 3-4 guy now, and the teams that don?t are drafting them high off the board. Dallas owns the versatile Josh Howard. Golden State just traded for the flexible Al Harrington to play multiple positions in Nellie?s new scheme. Memphis and Chicago drafted rangy small forwards early in the 2006 draft, selecting Rudy Gay and Tyrus Thomas, respectively.
In fact, you?d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of teams that don?t have a small forward that can play minutes at the power forward. Tayshaun Prince, Caron Butler, Rashard Lewis, Gerald Wallace, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, and Josh Smith are only the most notable players that fit the mold. Less household names like Ruben Patterson and Desmond Mason fill the same void for their teams, allowing coaches to match smaller teams with athleticism without sacrificing rebounding or physical presence.
Go ahead; name the teams that don?t have one of these pivotal guys. Minnesota (who seems to have a 6?5? and under rule for their guards)? Maybe Toronto or Indiana? Probably, but none of those teams have won consistently as much as the San Antonio Spurs.
And therein lies the problem, the Spurs have failed to adapt to the 3-4 position. There is no Kirilenko or Iguodala for the Spurs. The wing spots are instead held down by aging shooters like Michael Finley, Brent Barry, and Bruce Bowen. Manu Ginobili, despite his speed and agility, doesn?t have the size or rebounding skills to play power forward minutes. The Spurs consistently falter when playing with a smaller lineup featuring Finley and Barry alongside Duncan on the frontline. Finley and Barry get bullied on the boards, and for a team built on defense, their inability to get key stops at the end of games is obvious and often puts Duncan at risk of picking up fouls while covering for defensive blow-bys.
Granted, 28-12 is a respectable record and still has the Spurs in the thick of it in the West. A favorable upcoming schedule should bolster the win total before the All-Star break. But the flaw in the roster makeup is becoming more and more evident.
The answers to the problem seem few and far between. The one player on the Spurs roster with the physical characteristics to play the hybrid position, rookie James White, is far too inexperienced to expect production from. The team is also without the assets to deal for the likes of Corey Maggette, since most of the tradable players on the team are in their twilight seasons.
The likely solution would be to invest in a young bench player before the deadline, an athlete that the Spurs could groom for the role (perhaps tapping the rosters of the Golden State or Memphis for a player like Dahntay Jones or Mickael Pietrus). The contract of Eric Williams does have some value, and teams have been high on the slumping Beno Udrih. However, barring an unexpected steal before the trade deadline, the Spurs may have, for the first time in recent memory, dug themselves into a hole that they can?t immediately get out of.
If that?s the case, then the Spurs are going to remain in a position that they aren?t familiar with: falling behind in the ever-modernization of the NBA.
Elliot can be reached at email@example.com