This summer the Spurs management threw away their frugal business model, unlocked their war chest, and bought themselves enough major free-agents to go toe to toe with the Lakers for the Western Conference Championship. Or so they hope. Added to the roster via free agency were Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, and Theo Ratliff. The Spurs also landed massive rookie power forward DeJuan Blair with the 35th pick in the draft, which some regard as a steal. Do the Spurs now have enough to unseat the ridiculously talented Lakers?
Not if you check the pre-season betting lines. The online bookies currently list the Lakers at +120 (close to even money) to win the West, while making the Spurs a 7-1 dog. That’s quite a spread.
One that I think is wrong. I believe the Spurs have more than a decent chance to unseat the Lakers. Why? If you watched the Western Conference Finals last year, you saw a Spurs team that was seriously over-matched against the Lakers. The Spurs had no reliable weapons on offense other than Tony Parker. Tim Duncan was unable to get much accomplished offensively against the long Lakers front line. Manu Ginobili was simply awful, operating at only 50% on a bad ankle. Roger Mason, the Spurs’ sharp-shooting 2, completely disappeared. On defense, Duncan was playing on an island, with no help from the other Spurs big men. And no one could guard Kobe Bryant, least of all the clearly over-the-hill Bruce Bowen. So what’s changed?
Everything. Here are 7 reasons why the Spurs might beat the Lakers in the West this year:
1) Richard Jefferson: the Spurs acquired an all-star to replace the washed-up Bruce Bowen. Although he may have been acquired partially as a Kobe stopper (see my Lakers post), Jefferson is rugged enough to create problems for Artest. And he is a terrific and underrated scorer. Having played with Kidd and Carter on the Nets, and Redd on the Bucks, Jefferson knows how to fit in, and will be a great third option on offense. For the first time since Sean Elliot, the Spurs no longer have an offensive hole at small forward.
2) Increased depth on the front line. In Ratliff, McDyess and Blair, the Spurs acquired some big bodies that can do the dirty work guarding centers in the paint, and allow Duncan to preserve his body. Ratliff and McDyess are still above average defenders. And I would not be at all surprised to see Blair playing center as well. Remember the job he did on Thabeet? He’s a tough load to move, and a rebound machine.
Bynum, Gasol and Odom had their way last year against the aged, arthritic and immobile Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto, and the game but undersized Matt Bonner. How much will Bynum be able to get accomplished against a three-headed rotation of Ratliff, McDyess and Blair? How effective will Gasol and Odom be against a rested and rejuvenated Tim Duncan?
3) Tim Duncan. Duncan had a rough year last year, suffering from tendinitis in both knees. He struggled to make an impact in the playoffs, and when it was over, admitted that he was no longer the player he used to be. He hasn’t taken it lying down. This offseason, he changed his workout and his diet, and remade himself: he came into training camp 15 lbs. lighter. That will help his knees, as will the help he has gotten on the frontline, and Pop’s determination to bring him into the playoffs in top shape. There is speculation he will be rested in back-to-backs.
The return to health of Manu Ginobili and the addition of Richard Jefferson will also have a huge effect on Duncan’s game. Last year, the Lakers overloaded the strong side whenever Duncan touched the ball. This year, he’ll have Ginobili and Jefferson on the weak side, and the eagle-eyed Duncan knows how to get them the ball. That should open things up considerably for his own offense. I look for a rejuvenated Tim Duncan in the playoffs this year.
4) Manu Ginobili. Ginobili was a ghost of himself in last year’s playoffs, suffering from a stress fracture in his ankle. A summer away from basketball has helped him completely heal. According to reports from training camp, he is all the way back, and the best player in camp. When healthy, Ginobili is one of the best two-way 2 guards in the league, and if the player Brent Barry nicknamed “El Contusion” can remain healthy going into the Conference Finals, the Lakers are in for a far stiffer battle from the Spurs than they got last year.
5) Tony Parker. Parker gave the Lakers fits last year, and you can only expect the problem to get worse this year. Parker is the spear pointed directly at the Lakers 35 yr. old Achilles heel, Derek Fisher. He simply can’t be guarded by the Lakers, and the problem only got worse with the addition of Jefferson to add another option and spread the floor.
6) Superior depth overall: The Lakers are not a deep team. Other than Odom, who do they have coming off the bench? Powell, Walton, Vujacic, Farmar? I don’t believe any of these guys could even MAKE the Spurs. I’ve already discussed the Spurs deep front line. But how about Roger Mason, “behind” Ginobili? I expect him to be far more play-off ready this year. How about George Hill, behind Parker? By the end of the year, I think people will be talking about him as one of the best backup point guards in the league. Keith Bogans, another new acquisition, is a terrific wing defender to back up Jefferson. Michael Finley can still contribute. This is a deep, deep team.
7) Greg Popovich. This could be the subject of another post or three, but I would take Greg Popovich over Phil Jackson in a playoff series any day. I don’t think its close. Just to keep it simple: Greg Popovich, schooled by Don Nelson, is a master at making playoff adjustments. Phil Jackson almost never makes adjustments. Usually, given the superiority in talent of his squad, he hasn’t had to. But in the rare cases where he has had to make an adjustment in order to win a series, he has failed miserably. Taking the recent Lakers-Celtics Finals debacle as an example: Would Jackson allow Kobe and Gasol to run pick and roll against the Celtics? No. Allow Gasol to face up and create against immobile behemoth Kendrick Perkins? No. Unleash Kobe? No. Push the tempo and try to run the aged Celtics off the court? No. With Phil Jackson it is Triangle, Triangle, Triangle, for better or worse, until death do us part. Perhaps he’s afraid he’d lose his aura as Big Chief Triangle if he allowed his superstars to bust the mold and win a series despite him.
After reviewing all of these factors, there are two conclusions that I’m reasonably certain of: First, we’re going to see a hell of a series in the Western Confererence Finals. Second, whether they ultimately beat the Lakers or not, the Spurs are mispriced going into this season. If you are an opportunistic bettor like myself, that’s what you look for. Check back for my upcoming post on pre-season bets to see how I’m going to play this.
Other posts in this series: The Lakers.