When Spurs fans look back on the Duncan-era quasi-dynasty, they may very well see 2008-09 as a major transition season. It marked the first time the Spurs couldn't count on the dominance of Duncan and their two other stars, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, to rule the West. They required more help, but none was available.
Duncan struggled with knee problems and wasn't his usual dominating self for the latter half of the season, while Ginobili's troublesome ankles cost him 38 games and the entire playoffs. That left Parker to strain under all the heavy lifting, evidenced by his owning the league's fourth-highest usage rate.
Granted, there are five players on the court, so it wasn't just a three-man team. Unfortunately, San Antonio extracted shockingly little from its role players, as age and injuries sabotaged the production of previously reliable weapons. Bruce Bowen finally succumbed to Father Time at age 37, losing his starting job and retiring after the season, while the likes of Fabricio Oberto and Jacque Vaughn also vanished from the scene. Even the veterans who kept producing found themselves taxed -- 36-year-old Michael Finley, for instance, started 77 games and played 30 minutes a night because of the shortcomings of those around him.
HOLLINGER'S '08-09 STATS
W-L: 54-28 (Pythagorean W-L: 54-28)
Offensive Efficiency: 106.2 (T-12th)
Defensive Efficiency: 102.0 (6th)
Pace Factor: 90.4 (27th)
Highest PER: Tim Duncan (24.51)
As long as Duncan dominated, the Spurs could survive such issues. After lazing out to a 9-8 start, they went 30-9 over the next 39 games, and it appeared they'd finish with a patented San Antonio late-season charge.
But then Duncan's knee problems cropped up -- officially "tendinosis," which is a chronic ailment that may not go away. Duncan kept playing but wasn't up to his usual standard, so the result was an erratic 15-11 finish that dropped the Spurs to the third seed in the Western Conference. Were it not for a last-second 3 by Finley in the final regular-season game, they would have finished outside the conference's top four teams for the first time since drafting Duncan in 1997.
As it was, San Antonio won 54 games because its star trio, even diminished, could still carry them through on many nights. But a tired Spurs team succumbed in five easy games to Dallas in the first round of the playoffs. This was San Antonio's earliest playoff exit since the 2000 first round against Phoenix, when Duncan was hurt.
The Spurs' advanced age and conservative playing style did produce one interesting element, however: Statistically they were a basket of anomalies, one of the truly unique teams in NBA history.
Spurs games were notable for the absence of turnovers, free throws and offensive rebounds by either side, which is a big reason their contests seemed so dull much of the time. The Spurs were savvy and sound enough to keep opponents off the offensive glass and prevent the types of mistakes that lead to free throws, but they weren't athletic enough to do those things themselves either. Similarly, they knew how to take care of the ball offensively, but they didn't have the wheels to create steals on defense.
The result? The Spurs were the least likely team to produce a turnover at either end. San Antonio turned it over on just 12.9 percent of its possessions, the best rate in the league, but forced turnovers on just 12.8 percent of opponent possessions, the worst rate in the league. The average NBA game last season featured 29.3 turnovers; the average Spurs game had 23.4, or about one-fifth fewer.
The Spurs owned the same distinction at the free throw line. San Antonio was the league's worst team at getting to the stripe, earning just .251 free throw attempts per field goal attempt. This was a key reason the Spurs finished only 12th in offensive efficiency, as they were seventh in field goal percentage and shot well on 3s but couldn't generate enough easy points from the stripe.
The primary driver behind that was the inability of the Spurs' secondary players to get to the line. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili accounted for nearly two-thirds of the team's free throw attempts. With the rest of the roster composed almost entirely of standstill shooters, they produced only seven foul shots a game between them; Parker nearly matched that total by himself.
Fortunately for San Antonio, they were as good at preventing free throw attempts as they were bad at creating them. San Antonio permitted only .249 free throw attempts per field goal attempt, a league-leading total that explains why they finished sixth overall in defensive efficiency.
But it's the rebounding numbers that are most phenomenal. San Antonio was the best defensive rebounding team, pulling down 78.1 percent of opponents' missed shots, and yet the worst offensive rebounding team, collecting only 22.1 percent of their own missed shots. It doesn't seem possible that a team could rebound so well defensively and so horribly offensively, but in fact the two are very different skills. Additionally, San Antonio's playing style -- with Duncan having his back to the basket and four shooters spacing the floor -- has never been conducive to high offensive rebound totals.
Nonetheless, the Spurs' statistical anomalies from last season are truly amazing -- they were the league's best team in three different categories, and yet the league's worst team at the other end of the court in those same three facets of the game.
In the big picture, however, those bizarre stats served as a red flag showcasing all the areas where the Spurs changed from an "experienced" team into a just plain old one. The Spurs were too smart to beat themselves, but often they couldn't do much to beat the opponent either -- they just didn't have the athleticism to force turnovers, create second shots and get to the free throw line.
With the freshness date on the Duncan era drawing closer, the Spurs ventured into unusual territory by going well over the luxury tax to try to squeeze a fifth ring from his prime. The Spurs will sit roughly $10 million over the tax line and have enough expiring contracts and overseas assets (especially Brazilian center Tiago Splitter) to spend much more if they so choose.
The flip side is that the Spurs could pull back and start dumping assets if this season's team doesn't work out the way they hope. For the moment, however, it's full steam ahead, with the only real dilemma being whether to extend Ginobili's contract beyond this season. He'll be an unrestricted free agent after the season, but extending him now would almost certainly make the Spurs a luxury tax team again next season -- something they may be reluctant to pursue on a repeat basis given their small market.
Traded Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas to Milwaukee for Richard Jefferson. This was a huge decision for the Spurs, as it not only makes them a luxury tax payer this season but also precludes the possibility of diving into the juicy 2010 free-agent market -- that will have to wait until 2011 at the earliest.
That said, the Spurs weren't going to stay in contention without a decisive move such as this one. They badly needed another player who could create his own shot, especially given the injury woes of Duncan and Ginobili last season, and Jefferson upgrades what had been their weakest position.
As an added plus, Jefferson quietly put together a very good season shooting corner 3s in Milwaukee, making 45.9 percent from that area according to NBA.com/hotspots. If he can keep knocking down that shot, it will help tremendously since he's likely to get a ton of attempts from there; from Bowen to Danny Ferry to Jaren Jackson to Sean Elliott, the Spurs have been spotting up their small forwards in the corner since a year or two after Columbus landed.
Let Drew Gooden go, signed Antonio McDyess to a three-year, $18 million deal. This was another major coup for San Antonio. The Spurs addressed the lack of a quality frontcourt player alongside Duncan by using their entire midlevel exception on McDyess. Because McDyess is almost exclusively a mid-range jump shooter, offensively he should collaborate very well with Duncan; additionally, he'll sharply improve that pathetic offensive rebounding rate from last season.
McDyess has said he wants to play only two more seasons, which makes the Spurs' offer essentially a two-year deal with a golden parachute at the end. But if it comes to that, in 2011-12 they can afford to pay him $6.7 million not to play because they should be well under the cap by then.
Drafted DeJuan Blair, Nando De Colo and Jack McClinton. Blair was the steal of the draft as an early second-round choice. He was one of the most dominant players in college basketball last season, but teams fretted over his troublesome knees and his lack of height. In that sense, he's very similar to another recent second-round steal, Leon Powe. Blair's knees may derail his career at some point, but he's likely to be a very productive reserve until that point.
McClinton was a late second-rounder whom the Spurs cut when he didn't want to play overseas, while De Colo, a 6-foot-5 wing from France with a modest game but a spectacular name, will play in Valencia, Spain, this season. (And if someone there doesn't invent a mixed drink called a Nando De Colo by the end of the season, I'll be very disappointed.)
Signed Theo Ratliff to a one-year deal for the minimum. This was strictly an insurance deal to get another true center into camp to join Duncan, as the Spurs found themselves unusually devoid of length in the frontcourt this summer. He'll be most helpful if the Spurs get their wish and meet L.A. in the conference finals, where he could prove useful matching up against the Lakers' Pau Gasol.
Let Ime Udoka go, signed Marcus Haislip to a one-year deal for the minimum. A "reimport" from Europe after failing as a first-round pick with the Bucks several years ago, Haislip's translated stats from Europe weren't very good and I'd be shocked if he can crack San Antonio's rotation.
Signed Keith Bogans to a one-year deal for the minimum. Bogans struggled last season and isn't likely to play a major role. However, because he defends and shoots 3s, he's a good fit in San Antonio's system and provides some insurance if Finley suddenly succumbs to age.
Sure, it's nice having Duncan, but they may not need him much with the weapons they've added on the perimeter. Parker came into his own as the team's go-to star last season, using his devastating quickness to blow apart defensive coverages and, increasingly, creating shots for teammates as well as for himself. Ginobili plays only 30 minutes a night but yields superstar production in that time, with his driving ability, outside shooting and passing talent all far beyond the capacity of the typical wing player.
Jefferson, meanwhile, provides a new element -- a big, strong wing man who can finish on the break and post up smaller opponents. He'll take a lot of the strain off Parker and Ginobili, and as such should be a massive upgrade from the small forward situation a year ago.
Two younger players also figure in the mix: George Hill and Roger Mason. Mason was overmatched as a starter last season, but established himself as one of the best long-range shooters in the league, especially in late-game situations. He'll be more at home coming off the bench this season. Hill, meanwhile, enjoyed an encouraging rookie season and figures to step up into a greater role as a combo guard off the bench.
Biggest Weakness: Health
It's hard to know what exactly the Spurs have this season until we see Ginobili and Duncan compete in a real game. Duncan was able to play through his knee injury last season, but it muted his performance considerably -- especially at the defensive end, where he lacked the explosion and quickness to dominate around the basket. Regardless of the knee, he's 7 feet tall and knows how to play, so he should still produce at a high level. But he's not going to put up superstar numbers if he isn't at full strength, and it appears his injury is a chronic, wear-and-tear malady resulting from the 12 NBA seasons he's played.
Ginobili is another question mark after missing the end of last season because of a stress fracture in his ankle -- on the heels of missing the start of the season with an injury in his other ankle. While he's expected to show up at camp fully recovered from the stress fracture, he's been increasingly injury-prone the past four years. Considering he's 32 and absorbs lots of contact on his forays to the rim, there's a concern he'll miss games more regularly going forward.
The Spurs are the best organization in sports, hands down. If you prorate the strike year in 1998-99, last season was their 12th straight with at least 53 wins -- four of which produced championships. It's a ridiculous rate of success that still hasn't received the recognition that it deserves, especially given the modest spending by small-market San Antonio in that time frame.
That said, these next few years should present an even greater challenge to the Spurs' organizational excellence. It's real simple: They're fighting a wickedly strong tide. The Spurs are an old team, and their best players are the ones with the greatest age and injury concerns.
The injury worries with Duncan and Ginobili seriously crimp the hopes of rivaling the Lakers at the top of the West, even with the additions of Jefferson, McDyess and Blair in the offseason. While the newbies should take some of the load off Parker this season, San Antonio's championship hopes have always been predicated on having the league's best big man as a centerpiece and its best Sixth Man as a crutch -- now it's unclear if either of those propositions remain viable.
They'll win lots of games, because that's what they always do, and undoubtedly they'll make a few shrewd in-season moves to boost their chances further. But for all the thrashing in the water the Spurs did this summer, the riptide of age might pull them right back to the same spot it did a year ago.
Prediction: 53-29, 1st in Southwest Division, 3rd in Western Conference
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
Things didn't exactly go according to plan in Dallas, but the Mavs made the best of it. Clinging to their perch at the back end of the Western Conference's elite, Dallas struggled out of the gate and squeezed little or nothing from most of its role players.
The Mavs rode their star power and some successful tweaks by new coach Rick Carlisle to a 50-win season and a first-round upset of San Antonio, salvaging a rocky campaign that began 2-7 and at several junctures looked like it might end with a trip to the lottery.
The Mavs had a strong five-man nucleus in Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, Dirk Nowitzki and Brandon Bass, offsetting the limited production from the rest of the troops. The two guards were the most pleasant surprises. Terry won the Sixth Man Award after agreeing to come off the bench, posting arguably the best season of his career at age 31. Kidd was no Devin Harris, but he had a good year by his recent standards and posted one of the league's best adjusted plus-minus marks.
Around this core, Carlisle had to constantly mix and match, particularly on the perimeter. To keep Terry coming off the bench required juggling Devean George and Antoine Wright in the starting lineup; it's not clear that either of them belonged in the NBA, much less starting for a playoff team. Others who auditioned for the spot were no better, including Matt Carroll, Shawne Williams, Gerald Green and an injury-riddled Jerry Stackhouse.
Up front, the Mavs somehow thought that using their entire midlevel exception to bring back DeSagana Diop would be a good idea. Even though they had employed him for three and a half of the previous four seasons, they appeared stunned by his lack of offensive skill. Within half a year, they shipped him to Charlotte for the slightly more useful Ryan Hollins.
HOLLINGER'S '08-09 STATS
W-L: 50-32 (Pythagorean W-L: 48-34)
Offensive Efficiency: 108.1 (T-5th)
Defensive Efficiency: 105.3 (17th)
Pace Factor: 93.9 (16th)
Highest PER: Dirk Nowitzki (23.20)
The situation in the backcourt would have been even more dire were it not for the emergence of pint-sized J.J. Barea at the point. Dallas often used Barea, Kidd and Terry in the same backcourt to avoid having to play the likes of Wright or George longer than they absolutely had to.
But thanks to the Mavs' key quintet, Dallas finished fifth in the NBA in offensive efficiency and led the NBA in free-throw shooting. The Mavs would have performed even better had they produced a reliable 3-point threat to complement Nowitzki; instead, the Mavs ranked 25th at 35 percent from downtown. Kidd surprisingly made 40.6 percent of his rare 3-point attempts, but no other Mav -- not even Nowitzki -- was able to match the league average from this distance.
If the Mavs' offense was a pleasant surprise, the defense was a disappointment. Carlisle has a reputation as a defensive coach, but Dallas ranked only 17th in defensive efficiency. The odd part is that the Mavs were very good in the most important category: 2-point field goal defense. They ranked eighth at 45 percent.
Unfortunately, they lacked the ability to force turnovers. Dallas opponents turned the ball over on only 13.7 percent of their possessions, placing the Mavs 26th out of the league's 30 teams. Another thing that hurt them, however, was beyond their control. Dallas opponents shot 79.8 percent from the line, pinning the Mavs 29th in free throw "defense." Clearly this resulted from luck rather than skill, and if its opposition had shot the league average of 77.1 percent, Dallas would have ranked 11th in defensive efficiency rather than 17th.
Of course, luck can swing both ways, and in this case it did. Dallas went 18-5 in games decided by five points or less, enabling the Mavs to win 50 games despite having the scoring margin of a 47.6-win team. The boost from winning so many close games more than offset the bad luck from their opponents' free throw success.
Owner Mark Cuban's contrarian instincts were on display for all to see this summer -- while everyone else was selling, he and general manager Donnie Nelson were buying. But before we delve into the nitty-gritty of the Mavs' offseason, one other important asset bears mentioning: the de facto expiring contract of Erick Dampier. He's scheduled to make $13 million next season but none of it is guaranteed, which means a team looking to cut its 2010-11 cap number could trade a player to Dallas, acquire Dampier, and waive him before next season.
That, in turn, gives the Mavs a very powerful trade chip given the precipitous decline in the luxury tax level expected in 2010-11. For teams looking to shave cap money, the Mavs provide an easy out with the Dampier contract, allowing the Mavs to extract a high-quality player for the privilege. It's possible they won't play this card until next summer, when it'll peak in value, but it's certainly on the table.
Finally, if things go horribly wrong this season, don't look for the Mavs to tank the season or start trading contacts, because they have little incentive -- they owe a completely unprotected first-round pick to the Nets in 2010 as a result of the Kidd trade.
Drafted Rodrigue Beaubois, Nick Calathes and Ahmad Nivins. Although it may not pay immediate dividends, I'm a huge fan of the Mavs' draft. Beaubois is one of the most athletic players in Europe, and while he may not be a rotation player right away, he has a very high ceiling for a late-first-round draft pick. I'm even more fond of Calathes, who lasted until the second round because he'd already signed with a team in Greece but graded as one of the top point guards in the draft. Nivins was a solid, late-second-round pick as a power forward who can contribute rebounding and some scoring, but he's headed for Europe this year.
Traded Devean George, Antoine Wright, Jerry Stackhouse and cash for Kris Humphries, Greg Buckner, Nathan Jawai and a signed-and-traded Shawn Marion. This complicated four-way trade netted Marion for Dallas without using the Mavs' midlevel exception, allowing the Mavs to maximize their offseason resources. The enabler was Stackhouse's partially guaranteed deal, which the Mavs sent to Memphis along with enough cash to pay it.
That in turn cleared the way for Toronto to sign-and-trade Marion to Dallas on a five-year, $40 million deal, with a few spare parts thrown in. Buckner came from Memphis and was later waived and Jawai may not make the team, but Humphries is a definite keeper who could provide some much-needed brawn off the bench.
While the acquisition enhances the Mavs' talent base in the short term, Marion's deal is a major risk -- five years is a long time for an athleticism-dependent forward who slipped noticeably over the past two seasons. He'll be 36 by the time it ends and likely will offer only a fragment of his current production at that point. Additionally, he's an odd fit in the Mavs' lineup since Dallas already has two very capable forwards in Howard and Nowitzki. It appears they'll accommodate Marion by having Howard start games at shooting guard and Nowitzki finish them at center, but it's also possible they'll trade Howard.
Let Brandon Bass leave, signed Marcin Gortat to a five-year, $33 million offer sheet. This was the low point of the Mavs' summer, as they thought the luxury-tax-paying Magic were going to back away from matching Gortat's expensive offer sheet and let them have the rebounding, finishing center they coveted. They became even more assured when Orlando hotly pursued Bass -- so sure that the Mavs let Orlando sign Bass because they presumed it meant Gortat was theirs. Oops. Orlando matched Gortat's offer and snagged both players, leaving the Mavs devoid of a major frontcourt asset.
Let Ryan Hollins leave, signed Drew Gooden to a one-year deal for $4.5 million. Dallas extracted excellent value from this deal because of how it's structured. Only $1.9 million is guaranteed, which means the Mavs can trade Gooden to a team looking to shed money and acquire a player making as much as $5.7 million any time between now and July 19. As with the Dampier trade, it gives the Mavs a major leg up in any trade discussions, especially given the team's willingness to take on salary and pay additional luxury tax.
The other part, of course, is that Gooden is a pretty good player. He takes knocks for his flightiness and knack for forgetting play calls, but he's also a very good rebounder who can score and defend. For as long as he's around, he can replace much of what Bass contributed.
Signed Quinton Ross to a one-year deal for the minimum. A wing defensive stopper with little scoring ability, Ross could play a prominent role because of the Mavs' shortage of shut-down stoppers on the wing. There's little upside here, but he could help set a defensive tone for 10 minutes a night before Terry checks in. Put it another way: He's better than Antoine Wright or Devean George.
Signed Tim Thomas to a one-year deal for the minimum. Dallas viewed Thomas as a potential fourth big man in the rotation, but he hurt his knee late in the summer and his status is in some doubt entering training camp.
Signed James Singleton to a one-year deal for $1.03 million. Singleton accepted Dallas' qualifying offer after failing to get a better deal anywhere else as a restricted free agent. He's a tweener, but he played very well last season and probably should have seen more extended playing time. Given the crowd at the forward spots, he may not see much more daylight this season, but if he plays, he'll contribute with his rebounding and finishing skills.
The Mavs have the best trio of forwards in basketball with Nowitzki, Howard and Marion, and they benefit further from having the likes of Gooden, Humphries, Singleton and Thomas coming off the bench -- all of whom are natural forwards.
Nowitzki is obviously the star and although he's getting up in years at age 31, time should treat him well given his size and shooting ability. Nowitzki's shooting talent should help create openings for Marion to dart to the rim for dunks and second shots, skills he's used his entire career to exhaust opponents from either forward spot. Once again, Marion will likely split his time between the 3 and the 4. Howard made the All-Star team two years ago, and his play hasn't dropped off as much since then as some would have you believe. Even last season he averaged 22.5 points per 40 minutes, and he's still among the best two-way players at his position.
Finding minutes for those three alone would use up most or all of the 96 minutes available at the two forward spots, but Dallas has plenty in reserve. Gooden and Humphries are two of the best rebounding power forwards in the league, and both can score as well. Singleton can make a similar rebounding boast from either forward spot, while Thomas makes for a great floor spacer when Nowitzki is off the court.
This is almost too much of a good thing, requiring the Mavs to farm some of their minutes out to other positions. Humphries, Gooden and Nowitzki will almost certainly play stretches at center, and Howard will see lots of action at shooting guard.
However, Dallas' forward depth also opens up trade possibilities, especially involving Howard (who has a team option for next year that a cost-conscious team could decline) and the aforementioned Gooden contract. At the very least, the Mavs can trade from a position of strength.
Biggest Weakness: Age
The Mavs weren't a good defensive team last season, ranking 17th in defensive efficiency, and with the age of the roster, there's a decent chance they'll be worse this time around. Nowitzki, as noted above, is 31, and he's not the only graybeard on the roster. Marion is also 31 and depends much more on his wheels than does Nowitzki; starting center Dampier is 34, and Tim Thomas is 32.
The age concerns are more prominent in the backcourt. Look back at veteran teams that crashed suddenly, and age in the backcourt was a major factor for nearly all of them. Kidd, obviously, is the major question at 36. The Mavs already have to tweak their backcourt rotation so that he never has to defend a speedy point guard; while he was very good against bigger guards a year ago, another lost step might change that situation.
He's not the only worry, however. Terry is 32, and while he had a career year last season, he's also a small guard who relies heavily on his speed. Even Howard, at 29, is not immune from these worries, especially given the ankle problems that bedeviled him last season.
The Mavericks won 50 games last season and made several upgrades to the roster by acquiring Marion, Gooden, Humphries, Thomas, Ross and Beaubois. Those additions should help offset the unfortunate loss of Bass and the age issues that are creeping up nearly everywhere, but I'm not sure it does anything more than that.
They'll win more than they lose because they have Nowitzki and a decent supporting cast, as well as a coach in Carlisle who excels at optimizing his roster. However, it's hard to imagine them playing much better than they did a year ago. Plus, the Mavs are unlikely to be as fortunate in close games as they were last season, which is likely to cost them a couple of games in the standings.
The one wild card is what the Mavs might do with the contracts of Dampier and Gooden, as those may still be converted into another star. Such a move could push Dallas into the West's elite, and the possibility can't be discounted given how many teams are looking to shed salary while the Mavs seek to add it.
Short of such a development, however, the Mavs are neither young enough nor deep enough to hang with the top teams in this conference. Based on the current roster, it looks like another year at the tail end of the West's playoff roster and an early May tee time.
Prediction: 47-35, 3rd in Southwest Division, 7th in Western Conference
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.