While we've all been busy jumping on, off, and back on the Miami Heat bandwagon with one eye on the Carmelo Anthony saga, something strange and different -- yet not very new at all -- has defined the first half of the 2010-11 NBA season.
It's a team with a core and philosophy that's been plugging along for more than a decade now, just winning games, and more than occasionally, championships. They're not interesting or controversial, and hardly ever lead the Hoopshype rumors page. They're just good.
Better than everybody else, in fact. They're the San Antonio Spurs.
|Gregg Popovich has Tony Parker and the Spurs sitting atop the NBA. (Getty Images)|
"Somebody's got to have the best record, so we happen to have it now," Popovich said. "It's early in the year, and things will probably come back to center. We're not going to keep up this pace, that's for sure. It's not going to happen. For now, we've been a healthy team. A lot of teams have been dinged up. We've just played well. Richard Jefferson's a different player from last year. The young kids are doing well. That's all I know."
That's all anybody needs to know. The small-market Spurs didn't win the championship of July; they didn't have to, because they won the lottery and got Tim Duncan 13 years ago and have made all -- or mostly all -- the right moves ever since.
"I'm not Plato, you know?" Popovich said. "We got Tim Duncan. And then [Tony] Parker came and [Manu] Ginobili came. And as I've said a thousand times, we didn't screw it up. We thought of nothing new, we did nothing amazing. We didn't create the light bulb. We didn't do anything."
Just win. Are the Spurs the best team in the NBA? It doesn't matter until June, and nobody knows that better than the Spurs. But here's what you need to know about how they've evolved into a team that has managed to re-open the window of opportunity that was supposed to have been closing.
First, Popovich and his coaching staff made the wise decision to adjust the offensive point of emphasis ever so slightly away from Duncan. Instead of the inside-out approach that helped them win four championships in the Duncan era, the Spurs are more perimeter-oriented. Longtime sixth man Ginobili is starting and carrying more of a workload than ever. And the Spurs are taking advantage of a much improved Richard Jefferson and more athleticism than they've had in years. They pick their spots in the transition game, break down defenses off the dribble, and use the 3-point shot as a weapon instead of a response to double-teams against Duncan. The Spurs (.399) are the second-best 3-point shooting team in the league at the halfway point.
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As they've always done, they found a hidden gem, Gary Neal, to go with last year's hidden gem, George Hill. Neal went undrafted out of Towson State, which is almost as obscure a basketball school as Hill's IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis). When the Spurs brought him in for a free-agent workout last summer, Popovich said he'd never even heard of him. The whole league has heard of him now; Neal has emerged as a dark horse in the race for sixth man of the year. He's averaging 8.7 points, shooting .396 from beyond the 3-point arc, and gives the Spurs a perimeter reserve who has to be guarded.
"You have to find players that are willing to fulfill roles and you have to know what roles you need to have filled to go around your star players," Popovich said. "That's the key, wherever they might come from -- the draft, free agency, or out in the park -- you've got to find people who can fill those spots."
As much as the Spurs have evolved offensively, their championship hopes still rest on the defensive end -- as always. After a rough patch recently, Popovich gave his team a stern talking-to about what has been their calling card for years.
"If we wanted to have a chance to play with the big boys and be the last team standing, we really had to make a better effort defensively," Popovich said. "And the five games after that, they did. They decided to do that. We'll see if it continues or if it's just a blip on the screen."
The Spurs are anything but a blip. They're still standing, and one way or another, the 2011 NBA championship will have to go through San Antonio.
Now, after handing the Spurs a midseason honor they care very little about, here's a look at my individual awards at the halfway point:
Midseason MVP: LeBron James, Heat. Nobody, myself included, thought LeBron or Dwyane Wade could win MVP honors playing on the same team. But here's my thinking: James' impact on the Heat, combined with his absence in Cleveland, is irrefutable evidence that he's the most important and valuable talent in the league. When he's out of Miami's lineup, as has been the case recently due to an ankle injury, the Heat are far less dangerous. And you only have to look at the wreckage he left behind in Cleveland to see the flip side of his value. The Cavs (8-23) arrived at the halfway point having lost 13 straight and 23 of 24.
Midseason rookie of the year: Blake Griffin, Clippers. Duh. With 27 consecutive double-doubles, capped by Sunday's NBA season-high 47 against the Pacers, Griffin has already lapped No. 1 pick John Wall for this award. Not only has Griffin been great, unguardable and electrifying, but he's also making an impact with his attitude. This guy does not back down, and his enthusiasm already is causing a backlash. (Witness the multiple ejections Griffin's feistiness caused in the Clippers' victory over the Lakers on Sunday.) The long-dormant Clippers (15-25) may have gotten off to too slow a start to make the playoffs, but maybe not. Griffin is so good that he's removed the "laughingstock" prefix from one of the most laughable franchises in NBA history.
Midseason coach of the year: Tom Thibodeau, Bulls. Yeah, Thibs has Derrick Rose, who is making a rather convincing case for MVP honors himself. But the Bulls (28-13) have been without Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah for long stretches and still arrived at the halfway point 15 games above .500 and a virtual lock for a 3-5 playoff seed. And Thibodeau makes Chicago the team with potentially the best plan to defend LeBron and Wade in a playoff series.
Midseason sixth man: Glen Davis, Celtics. Jamal Crawford's production is down, and so is Jason Terry's. So if not one of them, then who? With frontcourt injuries to Kendrick Perkins and Jermaine O'Neal, Big Baby's bench production has been more important than ever to the East-leading Celtics (31-9). Davis (12.6 ppg) has doubled his previous career scoring average, and his rebounds are up, too. If not sixth man, Big Baby might be a factor in the most improved race.
Biggest surprise: Kevin Love, Timberwolves. We knew Love had talent, but he started the season in Kurt Rambis' dog house and has emerged as one of the most dynamic box score-stuffers in the league. His historic 31-point, 31-rebound game in November got everyone's attention, and now Love is as sure a bet for a double-double as any player is for any statistical accomplishment on a given night in the league. He deserves to be an All-Star based on his numbers alone, but will it be enough to take a spot from aging Hall of Famer Duncan? If so, the Spurs will probably be happy Duncan will get to spend All-Star weekend with his feet up, resting for the championship push.
Biggest disappointment: Brandon Roy, Trail Blazers. This is no reflection on Roy, because clearly it's no fault of his that his knees have betrayed him at the age of 26. Selfishly, this dishonor is more about my own sense of devastation that such a compelling talent may never be the same. Not only is Roy a dynamic player, but he plays the game the right way, is a good teammate, and generally deserves better. My biggest hope for the second half, and beyond, is that Roy gets back to doing all those things at the highest level. Fingers crossed.