Saturday, April 30, 2011

The End of an Era

A couple of weeks ago, Sports Illustrated's cover story proclaimed the new "small ball" revolution in the NBA. One of their examples happened to be the Spurs, who this year went to a smaller, higher scoring lineup in order to take more of the focus off their aging big man, Tim Duncan. Duncan, of course, had been the rock of a Spurs foundation that had won four NBA titles since 1999. But Duncan's skills were clearly in decline.

With apologies to S.I., and anyone else who loves "small ball", I will always believe that in the NBA, much like in the mind of a woman, size matters. Give me bigs--young, athletic bigs, preferably--over small scorers. I'll beat you every time. Kids on the playground learn this basic premise at an early age--the tall guys are always picked first when choosing sides.

(Note: There are, of course, occasional exceptions to any rule. In this case, Shawn Bradley would be an example of being the exception to the "always give me a tall guy" rule.)

Spurs "small ball" didn't work too well against a younger, hungrier, and bigger Memphis team. The Spurs joined the Mavs as the only top seeds to ever lose a best-of-seven to an eight seed. The Grizzlies made San Antonio look old, slow...and small. Zac Randolph was a beast and was way too much for the Spurs aging and undersized power forward Antonio McDyess. And, Marc Gasol was too much for Duncan to handle. That's right--Tim Duncan had a tough time with Marc Gasol. Not Pau Gasol. Marc.

It's not that Duncan was awful in this series (12 ppg and 10 rpg). He just isn't the Tim Duncan of old. Now, he's just old Tim Duncan.

In the 2003 playoffs, at the height of his powers, Duncan scored 37 points and grabbed 16 boards in the series-clinching game against the Lakers. That day (and that series), Duncan dominated an in-his-prime Shaquille O'Neal, who found himself matched up with Duncan more than usual, as the Lakers had no answer for "The Big Fundamental" (as Shaq called him).

Fast forward to 2011--the series-deciding game 6 in Memphis. Duncan scored just 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Gasol had 12 and 14. Gasol was so effective guarding Duncan that the Spurs never ran the offense through the Duncan post--a complete departure from the glory days. Instead, the Spurs had to run everything through Parker and Manu on the perimeter, where they were no match for the young, quick, and athletic Grizzlies. I counted exactly one time that Duncan scored on Gasol from a traditional low-post set. And, I counted exactly one Duncan bank shot--the familiar 16-footer from the side that used to be automatic. Not anymore.

NBA champs are built from the inside out. You have to have big, strong guys inside who can attack the rim on offense and who can get easy, post-type shots in the paint. Those same guys have to be able to defend the rim on the other end. If you have one of those guys, you are golden. If you have two of those guys, you are almost unbeatable (think the current Lakers, or the Duncan/Robinson Spurs). If you have none of those guys, you are this year's Spurs.

I never liked the Spurs chances in this postseason (not that I thought they would lose to Memphis!). The fact that they won 61 games in the regular season was a miracle--one of Popovich's best coaching jobs ever. But they were never going to be a postseason match for the better clubs. Duncan turned 35 this week. When a big man ages, he can lose it quickly. Very quickly. Add to that the fact that the other "bigs" on the SA roster aren't very big at all. McDyess is old and hasn't been a good leaper for years. Matt Bonner will play hard, but he seems more of a 6'7 guy than his actual 6'10. DeJuan Blair couldn't get off the bench in this series. Blair is the Spurs top backup C and PF, but he plays smaller than his 6'7 (which is a generous listing). It got so bad for the Spurs that Popovich gave significant minutes to Tiago Splitter, the Brazilian project who barely sniffed the court during the regular season. Pop was simply desperate for some size to try to slow down the Memphis parade to the rim. He probably would have played Swen Nater if the big Dutchman had been available.

In the post-Robinson years, Duncan was still so dominant that the Spurs could get away with average players alongside him. They won titles with the likes of Rasho Nesterovic, Nazr Mohammed and Fabricio Oberto riding shotgun with Duncan. Everything went through Duncan, and nobody could stop him.

Now, age and mileage have caught up. Last night in Memphis officially marked the end of the Duncan Dynasty. It was an incredible run. Having followed the Spurs since I was a kid (and since they were in the ABA), I never thought I would see them win a championship. Duncan delivered four. It had to come to an end at some point. This is that point.

Duncan has another year left on a big contract. It's likely he'll play next season (if there is a next season), but the title-winning window has closed. Duncan will go down in history as one of the ten greatest players the Association has ever seen. But in this Memphis series, Duncan was just another guy. Zac Randolph was the alpha-male.

In the Duncan era, I've never seen a team make the Spurs work harder on both ends of the floor than Memphis did in this series. Ever. To hell with "small ball"--if Tim Duncan had been 25 instead of 35, the Spurs would have won the series in five games. That's how much a dominant big man means to a team. But, time marches on, and Duncan's march has slowed down to a crawl--and thus all around him slows down, too. The Duncan Dynasty is dead. Long live The Big Fundamental.


  1. This article pretty much makes me want to cry...

    Spurs need to blow things up with these steps.

    1.) Fire Pop...bring in Mike Brown, he at least understands what Spurs winning basketball used to be...

    2.) Buyout Jefferson, Bonner and Mcdyess...I know the Spurs are too cheap to do this but, in a perfect world, they would be gone. Bonner and Jefferson because of their performance, Mcdyess because of his age.

    3.) Start Duncan, Splitter, Anderson, Hill and Parker...bring Manu, Blair, Green (or Butler) and Neal off the bench. Sign or draft a defensive minded backup big and true backup PG.

    4.) If the Spurs get off to a bad start and it is clear they are not going to compete for at least a division TP while he still has value and encourage Duncan/Manu to retire as Spurs or trade them to a contender for a chance to win 1 more ring.

  2. I"ll assume that getting rid of Pop for Mike Brown was a joke. Although, I do wonder how much longer Pop will coach. I think he's under contract only through the end of next season. I could see him stepping down, then (which may coincide with Duncan retiring).

    McDyess is already retiring. Jefferson has been such a tremendous bust, it's baffling. At some point they will have to deal either Parker or Hill--probably Parker, although that will be a tough trigger to pull.

    Any way you cut it, it may get really ugly for a while.

  3. Great post! I'm interested to get your opinion on one thing though, even though it may be a little off topic, and a little bit meaningless.

    I agree TD is one of the greatest players to ever play the game, who doesn't? One of the best big's to ever play for sure, in the same likes of Bill Russell and Kareem.

    My question is though, how much of it is due completely to Duncan himself?

    No doubt he is beyond talented and a hard worker for sure, but Pop is a sure fire hall of fame coach. For my money, the best NBA coach today, beside an obvious Phil Jackson.

    To extend outside the NBA, let's take Tom Brady for example. No question he is a hard worker and most likely an obsessive compulsive perfectionist, but how much credit can TB take for his success with BB at the helm?

    Do great coaches make great players? Do great systems make hall of fame athletes? How much of it is talent and how much of it is coaching and system IQ's?