Archive for February, 2011

some certainty

Yes there is at least one thing we know for sure: this team is not going to have a winning record. Not a whole lot of people likely care, and for good reason. But there should be something to care about. All I can come up with is getting a good pick. It’s the players yet to be on this team that I care about more than anything else.

In a way that includes next season’s Ed Davis. I expect him to be a different player in his first full season. Already we have seen a difference from when he first took to the court. His knee is getting stronger. He’s got some improved quickness. Give him the summer and and a full camp, and I can’t see why he wouldn’t have an expanded role to step into.

James Johnson? Who knows? I like that he has been on the team’s radar for a long time. Picking him up was not just a whim. This was not just giving a young athletic guy a shot. In the minds of Colangelo and co., there was already some commitment to having him fill some needs on the wings. He looks like a guy that can defend. And he can pass the ball. The problem is that we have seen similar things from a couple of different guys named Wright, and a guy named Weems, and eventually some nice two-way abilities tail off in every instance. The question is whether Johnson has over-achieved thanks to the adrenaline rush of finally seeing the court. On a team that is sorely lacking in so many areas, just being able to exhibit some passion, intensity, and effort, can make any player look better than they really are. I’m trying to care about him. I just need to see guys like him and Davis and the guy that gets picked in a few months, able to fill enough roles properly to allow for any five guys to play off each other, and magnify some of the strengths that are starting to show through.

We have seen them look like a team that can consistently amount to more than the sum of its parts, precisely twice this season – in the win in Orlando, and last week against Chicago. Everything broke just right in both those games, but all the same it was nice to see 48 minutes of executing on both ends of the court. To be able to see more than two games where that happens might lead me to care. And I have to think we need to be seeing it happen at least in bits and pieces for the remainder of the season. The first quarter last night was a good example. Now let’s see where they can find some options once the easy scoring dries up, without resorting to one-on-five play. If we don’t start seeing more of a team coming together at times, then it’s going to be hard to give a passing grade to the coaching staff, or to assess which players are worth keeping. They will be in danger of starting from scratch next season. And that is about as happy a prospect as Franco and Hathaway hosting the Oscars again.

Twenty games doesn’t amount to much in the big picture, but they need to be able to extract some possibilities and get a sense of where a little fine-tuning can net a few good results. Right now they are looking through the wrong end of the binoculars altogether, so the fine-tuning knob isn’t going to make a great deal of difference for the most part. But there has to be a few moments where they get a glimpse though the small end and gain enough of a sense of the importance of details in making each other better, so that something can be carried over into next season. That is going to be Triano’s challenge. He doesn’t need to make me care at this point. He needs to be able to give his players a sense of a bigger picture of what they can care about. Otherwise a lack of details is going to magnify the obvious weaknesses: we’ll see guys like Bayless and Barbosa looking increasingly lost, we’ll see DeMar and Andrea looking as incomplete as ever, we’ll see Ajinca and Weems amounting to little. There needs to be some sense of certainty that can start working it’s way positively through the lineup. There’s not going to be a lot of it – they just need to make sure it doesn’t get lost altogether as the season winds down. And to be honest, I’m likely to miss it, because until the sense of a team being pieced together smacks me in the face harder than an ounce of Brut, it’s going to be hard to care.

no shot

The San Antonio Spurs play a smart game of basketball. They take away the paint as much as possible. And then they count on the opposing team taking enough bad shots to make the biggest difference. They know they will take good shots, because they are disciplined, and they all insist on it from top to bottom. And they have the means and know-how to manufacture good opportunities. That doesn’t just simply mean they have guys like Manu and Tony that can create for themselves, because even when those guys are making their moves, the rest of the team is doing something to make them that much more effective, and being ready to get their own chance once the defense has been broken down. There was an instance last night where Ginobili got into the paint on a break and turned the ball over when he expected an unguarded Hill or Neal to be cutting to the basket instead of falling back behind the arc. It was a mistake that was not lightly brushed off. The open guy that is filling a passing lane on a break, is going to be going to the basket next time.

Most of the work that was done by the Spurs, was just rudimentary execution of cuts and pick and rolls, done with enough care and precision to provide easy baskets. It did not require any great displays of athleticism or talent. It required more than one guy working together for the benefit of the whole team, and knowing what options might follow, and which ones to choose. The Toronto Raptors ran down the court and tried to get shots off before the Spurs could settle in on defense. They got open shots, and even a nice number of good shots. But if they didn’t get a shot up in a hurry, they tended to get bogged down, with no real options. There was a point in the second quarter where DeRozan held the ball on the perimeter and looked for Bargnani to free him up for a drive with a screen. Bargnani stood frozen, three feet away, seeing nobody was going to come out and guard him there, and called for the ball. He shot the three and made it. Hooray. But there is no nothing to celebrate if that is going to be the level of offensive execution we can expect from the two guys that got their shots. The defense did not have to work, and they got the Raptors to take what has not been a high percentage chance. When it came to the Spurs tightening up in the fourth quarter, it was not like they needed to worry about a lot of options. The Raptors had not really demonstrated any ability to get beyond taking the first open look that was available. And even though Andrea stayed away from the fadeaways and showed more discipline then he has in a month, after a few hard fouls, he didn’t force the issue at all. It ended up being left to Barbosa to use his speed alone while four other guys watched. Needless to say, the Raptors are a long ways away from being the Spurs.

OK. That’s obvious right. Need to keep the expectations in check. But can they not at least strive to play as a team and execute plays on some level that shows some kind of commanding presence that can be built on? The sad truth is that they are not made to do so. Aside from Jose and DeMar and Amir, you are not going to see much integrated into the offense beyond taking that first hint of an open shot. This team could really use another solid veteran or two that could make it easier to head in that direction. Instead we got Barbosa coming in with his predisposition to go one-on-five. And we got Kleiza with his predisposition to force his own dribble into a crowd or force his post-game while everyone watches. And really, it’s been a problem beyond this season, and it likely starts with the need for five weapons on the court at all times when the culture of any successful team can make do with a BB gun as long as it is one of five that is working together. It’s a matter of where the emphasis lies, and with the progress of DeRozan and Johnson, there is at least a little hope that tide might turn.

I honestly preferred the slower pace, the reliance on defense and the need to execute in half-court sets (as difficult as it proved to be) during the long losing streak. To me, it gave an indication of which players have the most value. It turned out that there were only so many good shots that could be made available to Amir and DeMar, and our high-volume guy in Bargnani ended up putting up some terrible numbers. The answer? Apparently that was forcing Jose to take more shots. The result? A solid shooter, and a guy that could qualify as a solid vet that could lead them towards executing properly, went 2 for 15 against the Bucks. They turned him into the same undisciplined hack that has been counted on far too often for far too long. Now that they are back to the quicker pace, with Barbosa and Bayless back, it seems that flaws are just being hidden, and not all that well. Can we actually expect a team that doesn’t make opposing defenses work (beyond shutting down the first option early in the shot clock) to then be able to read what good offenses are doing and react accordingly? It looks like we need to wait for more talent and more athleticism before it’s going to look like anything will work on both ends of the court. I only wish that something of a foundation could be put in place before that occurs, and I fear that what remains in place will be the old foundation of five different guns that all work alone to get shots that only help the opposing artillery lead a charge. This team can score easily enough, but when the style of play, and the inevitable misses, don’t give their shaky defense a chance, then it becomes clear they are playing a different game than the Spurs, or just about anybody else. So will they just insist on trying to reinvent the game altogether, and achieve mediocrity at best? Or will a real team take hold? If they are committed to a rebuild, then not choosing the latter could be pretty scary. A rebuild needs a foundation, and a foundation needs players that can support each other in some small ways to start with at least. Seeing attempts to mask deficiencies when building strengths as a unit is in order, is going to be hard to go through for the rest of this season. I can understand that it might be necessary at this point. What carries over will be telling.