Evaluating the 2011 Spurs
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For what seemed like the fifth straight preseason, critics claimed the San Antonio Spurs were going the way of the dodo. But for once, this theory appeared to be coming to fruition. The Spurs were coming off the business end of a 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Phoenix Suns in May. Geriatrics like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Antonio McDyess were set to have major roles in '10-11 without ample backup to alleviate their minutes. There was speculation that free agent to-be Tony Parker would test the market for greener pastures after the season. Richard Jefferson was underwhelming in his first year in silver and black, posting his lowest scoring average since the '01-02 season. Making matters worse, Western Conference powers Los Angeles and Dallas bolstered their rosters in the offseason, and upstart Oklahoma City appeared ready to challenge for a title. A last stand at the Alamo, indeed.
So it's apropos that at the halfway mark of the season, San Antonio has the best record in the league at 36-6. To put that in perspective, the Spurs are on pace to hit 70 wins, a feat accomplished by only one other team in NBA history ('95-96 Bulls). The Spurs have been benefactors from a bill of good health, as coach Gregg Popovich has rolled out the same starting lineup every game this season. Ginobili has reverted to his '07-08 form, averaging 18.9 points and 4.7 assists a game. Parker, who signed a contract extension in late October, is on pace for a career high in assists and steals. Jefferson has unexpectedly become a long-range assassin, shooting a career-best 42.4 percent behind the arc. To help limit his minutes and maximize his efficiency, McDyess has been coming off the bench, a move that has helped second-year forward DeJuan Blair gain more experience.
Saints and WinnersThe 2010-11 Spurs are on pace for 70 wins.
A huge catalyst for the Spurs' success has been the play of the bench. Thought to be the Achilles' heel, the "secondary Spurs" have proved to be one of the best second units in the league. Guard George Hill has provided scoring when Ginobili and Parker need a breather, and Matt Bonner is second in the league in three-point field goal percentage with a ridiculous mark of 50.4 percent. After a three-year stint in Europe, rookie Gary Neal finally found his way to the NBA and has become one of the league's first-half surprises, chipping in 8.7 points a game. And while Tiago Splitter has underwhelmed thus far, the Brazilian big man has shown glimpses of greatness despite dealing with a few bumps and bruises.
And then there is the great Tim Duncan. The Big Fundamental will finish his career as the best power forward in the history of the league, but the stoic Spur is clearly near the end of the proverbial road. Duncan's first-step and quickness are almost non-existent, and while never considered a "skywalker" the Wake Forest product seems more rooted to the ground than years past. This sentiment, added with the element that Pop has limited his forward's minutes to preserve him for the playoffs, has correlated to career lows in points (13.7) and boards (9.5) for Duncan.
Yet don't let modest figures minimalize the 12-time All-Star's contributions to San Antonio's start. With his physical talents diminishing, Duncan has relied on his superior court IQ and sound fundamentals to maximize his performance, as well as that of the team. His average of 2 blocks per game are the most since the '06-07 campaign and his defensive presence is a major reason the Spurs own the league's best point differential at +8. Furthermore, Duncan is still capable of the occasional scoring outburst, notching 18 or more points 10 times this season.
With San Antonio's splendid start forcing detractors to overhaul their preseason predictions, we thought it would be fitting to simulate this Spurs team against the other four championship squads of the Duncan Era. We pitted the '10-11 version of the Spurs against their historical counterparts 251 times, and here are the results:
The 1998-99 Spurs owned the best record in the league with a 37-13 mark (this season was shortened to a 50-game schedule due to a lockout). Duncan posted averages of 19.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, earning All-NBA First Team honors in the process. David Robinson started to show signs of decline, but still averaged 15.8 points and 10 boards. The dynamic duo of Duncan and Robinson bulldozed through the playoffs, going 15-2 including a 4-1 Finals win over the New York Knicks.
If there is any condemnation to be made on this squad, it was the lack of peripheral landscape given to the All-Star big men. Sean Elliot and Avery Johnson were solid starters, but the cupboard was pretty bare for the '99 Spurs. This could explain why the '11 Spurs won this matchup 51.43 percent of the time. Young Duncan took his sage-like self to town, averaging 26 points and 13 rebounds in the series. But the '99 Spurs could not counter the production of Parker and Ginobili, who combined for nearly 44 points per contest. The '11 bench outperformed their '99 adversaries, outscoring the second unit by an average of 32 to 23.
NBA Simulation Results
|@ 1999 Spurs||48.5665||101.098|
This was perhaps Duncan's finest individual season, garnering his second straight MVP award with averages of 23.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.9 blocks. He also submitted one of the greatest Finals performances of all-time with 21 points, 20 boards, 10 assists and eight blocks to clinch the series victory for the Spurs over the New Jersey Nets in Game 6. Parker began to come into his own, averaging 15.5 points and 5.3 assists in a starting role. Ginobili arrived from the Euroleague during the '02-03 season, and despite a slow start, became an integral part in the playoff rotation. The Spurs received additional help from a young swingman named Stephen Jackson, whose offense penalized opponents for focusing on Duncan and Parker. This year also marked the swan song for the Admiral, who retired after 14 seasons, all with San Antonio.
Robinson's ride into the sunset must have given the '03 Spurs the emotional edge as they defeated the '11 squad 54.08 percent of the time by an average score of 102 to 99. Present day TD could not keep up with his past, as the 27-year-old Duncan averaged 28 and 15 to pace the '03 Spurs to triumph. Jackson was vital with 16 points and two steals per game, and Robinson chipped in with 9 points and 9 boards per contest.
NBA Simulation Results
|@ 2003 Spurs||54.0817||102.431|
This team is remembered for two things: 1) Robert Horry adding to his "Big Shot Rob" legacy with 21 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, including the game-winning shot, in Game 5 of the Finals and 2) Participating in one of the more boring Finals ever conducted (although the series went seven games, four of the contests were blowouts). The trio of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker turned in All-Star caliber years; former journeyman Bruce Bowen had transformed into of the NBA's elite defenders; Brent Barry and Horry gave San Antonio a solid presence off the bench.
But despite this firepower, the '11 Spurs come out on top in a nail biter, winning 50.42 percent of the time by an average margin 105 to 100. Neal and Hill were the difference in the series, as the two averaged a combined 28 points per game. In keeping with the trend of our simulations, the younger of the two TDs prevailed, as '05 Duncan finished the series with a 24-12 average, compared to the elder Duncan's 14-8.
NBA Simulation Results
|@ 2005 Spurs||49.5782||100.032|
The '07 roster had little overhaul from the '05 team, save for the addition of scoring presence Michael Finley and big men Fabricio Oberto and Francisco Elson. While the '07 Spurs swept the Cavs to give Duncan his fourth title, this season has somewhat of an asterisk next to it thanks to the proceedings during the Conference Semifinals against the Suns. In the closing moments of Game 4, Horry clobbered Steve Nash into the scorers' table. Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw left the bench area as this occurred, and although they did not participate in the ensuing squabble, both earned one-game suspensions for Game 5. Without any frontcourt presence, the Suns lost Game 5, and ultimately the series in Game 6. Additionally, Game 3 featured a plethora of shaky calls, most which seemed to favor San Antonio.
There's no controversy in our simulation engine's result, as the '11 edition wiped the floor with the '07 Spurs, winning 66.25 percent of the matchups. For the first time, '11 Duncan held his own against, well, himself, averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds. Hill and Neal again proved to be menaces, pouring in 27 points a game, and '11 Ginobili added averages of 19 points and 5 assists.
NBA Simulation Results
|@ 2007 Spurs||33.7513||101.098|
The '11 Spurs still have an arduous road ahead to claim the championship crown. But as our simulation illustrated, they have more than enough ammunition in their arsenal to compete with their historical contemporaries.
Joel Beall is a Content Writer for Whatifsports.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.