This is the final installment in a three-part look at the big men the Spurs had during each of their championship seasons. A main focus for the Spurs this season was improving their frontcourt, and this will allow us to compare the current frontcourt to previous ones. Today we will look at the 2009 team and compare it to the four championship teams. Part one and part two.
We’ve seen the Spurs big men evolve from the most important aspect of the team to one of its weaknesses. Tim Duncan’s frontcourt partner has moved from David Robinson to Nazr Mohammed/Robert Horry to Fabricio Oberto. Once again the Spurs have remade their front court and Duncan has a new partner in crime – Antonio McDyess. With the additions of DeJuan Blair and Marcus Haislip, and Ian Mahinmi playing with the Spurs full time, the power forward and center positions will look significantly different from last season. Will it be enough?
What makes this group of big men so hard predict is that they are relatively inexperienced or new to the Black and Silver. Besides Duncan, the only returning big is Matt Bonner, who started much of last season but fell out of favor come playoff time because of poor shooting, limited offensive skill and poor rebounding ability. If we accept that Bonner’s minutes will drop from 24 per game to something in the low to mid teens, which is very reasonable, then we also accept that most of the Spurs production from the big men will come from new players to the team.
The pressure will be on McDyess to replicate his numbers from last year with Detroit where he averaged 9.6 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting 51%. If you look past these traditional statistics you will see that McDyess is still worthy of a starting position even at the age of 34. He recorded his best Total Rebound Percentage of his entire career, grabbing 19.6% of all available rebounds while on the court. For reference, Duncan had a TRB% of 18.9% last season. He also has his lowest turnover rate, which calculates turnovers per 100 possessions, of his career with a TOV% of 8.3%. He is probably the best big man to play alongside Duncan since David Robison.
After McDyess come all the unknowns. Blair fell into the Spurs lap during the draft because of his lack of ACL’s in either knee. It’s not often that you find a NBA-ready big man with the 37th pick, a player who was the best rebounder in college in the past five years. While he is only 6’7”, Blair uses his 7’3” wingspan, soft hands and innate rebounding ability to dominate the offensive boards, a skill any NBA team would like. He needs to work on his defense, especially defending the pick-and-roll, because he is not very mobile, but Blair shows the potential to become a Paul Millsap-like player.
There is also Mahinmi, who has shown promise while playing for the Austin Toros. An athletic 6’11” center, Mahinmi is fast and can really jump. He has a nice touch around the basket and a decent jump shot. His potential is vast on the defensive end with his ability to block shots and grab boards. However, he is not completely developed physically and is coming off an ankle injury, so he is still shaking the rust off his game. There are questions about whether he can play with enough intensity and stay out of foul trouble. If he can, Mahinmi has the potential to contribute nightly.
Finally there is Marcus Haislip, a former lottery pick that fell out of the league. He entered the league very raw and never really developed during his three years in the NBA. Overseas he developed a jump shot and harnessed some of his athleticism. Hopefully he can provide energy off the bench, something the Spurs have not had with their big men.
The point of this series was to see how the Spurs big men evolved from championship team to championship team and compare them to this year’s big men. We can identify three types of big men that the Spurs have sought. First is the seven foot center who is usually athletic. Think of Nazr Mohammed or Francisco Elson. The next type is the player who might not physically fit the traditional role of big man but fills the position either through intellect or hustle. Think of Malik Rose or Fabricio Oberto. Finally there is the big man who likes to shoot threes and stretch the defense. Think of Robert Horry or Matt Bonner.
This year’s squad has a few players from each type.
Ian Mahinmi fits the athletic center role. Even though his ankle injury set him back a year and he is still young, Mahinmi could easily equal or better Elson’s production. His ceiling is much higher than that of course.
DeJuan Blair fits the player who might not fit physically, in this case the fact that he is 6’7”, but fills the role through hustle or basketball IQ. He does have size in a horizontal manner and long arms to help out with his lack of height. While there will be an adjustment to the NBA, Blair could become the Spurs best rebounding big man since Robinson.
Of course Bonner fits the shooter role. I’m expecting his minutes to drop though.
Haislip does not fit into any of those types. He is a little different than what the Spurs have had in the past. Typically they have gone for veterans, and the athletic big men they signed were usually centers. Haislip is possibly the most athletic big man they have had in the past decade and he does not bring a stellar reputation. His inclusion shows a new path, one that is looking more towards hustle and energy.
McDyess is most similar to Kurt Thomas, who the Spurs never won a championship obviously. Since we are comparing this year’s group to one’s that won championships, I would say that McDyess is most similar to Robinson of 2003. Both can control the boards, play solid post defense and hit the 15-foot jump shot.
I expect that Pop will keep the rotation shorter at first, which fits with his reluctance to play rookies or new players at the beginning of the season. Based on 1999 and 2003 we know that he is okay with playing just three or four big men on a regular basis. Duncan is playing fewer minutes than he did in those seasons, but do not expect all six big men to see regular minutes. That does not fit with Pop’s pattern.
If I had to rank the big men from the championship teams, it would be in this order: 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007.
So where does this year’s group fit? Unfortunately, after Duncan and McDyess, most of the players are too hard to predict either because of newness or because we do not know how many minutes they will play. However, I do think they have the potential to be the second best since 1999 group that was carried by Duncan and Robinson. They have more scoring and better rebounding ability than either the 2005 or 2007 groups already with McDyess and Blair. The 2003 group still has to be ahead of them because Robinson and Rose were such steady post players, even if that team only had three reliable big men.
However, in the end, to be considered one of the best collections of post players, they will have to help this team win a fifth championship.