By Craig Kwasniewski
A banged up Lakers squad easily handled the Spurs Monday night, winning 101-89 without Kobe or Bynum. Several well-written "what's wrong with the Spurs?" articles followed along with the general feeling that the championship window is closing and quickly.
Does the blame fall squarely on Richard Jefferson? Is Tim Duncan's game on the quick decline? Is Manu Ginobili pulling a Central American baseball player on us and really 5-years older than his birth certificate? Or does Gregg Popovich no longer get through to he troops, falling in that long-term head coach malaise that Phil Jackson says happens after years of coaching the same group... basically do players just tune out the same coach speak?
All really good reasons for the Spurs decline but I think it's a far greater and more simpler reason... The Spurs are no longer trying to win championships and instead are focused on beating the Lakers. Now this comes off a little arrogant, especially from a Lakers fan like myself, but allow me to explain, and the best way to understand it is to compare college football rivalries.
UCLA and USC are HUGE rivals here in LA. The college football relationship between the two schools is a little different than most college football powerhouses. USC recruits, practices, plays (and some say pays) and prepares for an NCAA championship every single year. This is their goal from day one. UCLA on the other hand plays to beat USC. Now I'm not saying that USC doesn't want to beat UCLA, because they do, I'm just saying that their big picture is more than just beating UCLA. Yet ask any UCLA football fan and the most important thing is to "beat SC!"
Somewhere in the last 2 years the Spurs went from the big picture of winning a title to re-arranging their team to beat the Lakers. This change of focus really started in 2007-08 when a Bynum-led front line proved to be a major problem to the Spurs and was fast-tracked after the Gasol trade. So it makes sense to revamp your squad to beat the two-time Western Conference Champs, obviously all roads to the Finals pass through LA.
But see that's the problem, the Spurs lost their direction along the way. Before 2008 the Spurs were notorious for ability to find the true diamonds in the rough or convince key veterans to sign at the right price and piece them around one of the best players in the history of the NBA, Tim Duncan. The list is endless in cap-friendly and talented finds: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Steven Jackson (yes Captain Jack has a ring from 2003), Michael Finley, Bruce Bowen, Jaren Jackson, Steve Kerr, Robert Horry... I can go on and on. These players all learned and won by playing the Spurs way of basketball by deferring to the combined leadership of Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich.
That somehow changed the past two years. They signed vets like Antonio McDyess and Theo Ratliff (???) to counter the Lakers size and went for the rare big-splash deal with Richard Jefferson. Two really past their prime vets and a swingman making $14-15 mil. per year who by the way is a terrible fit with Pop's system. This is completely out of character for the Spurs. Where is the tried and true 8-year vet like the Roger Mason acquisition two years ago? Instead they're stuck with Richard Jefferson's horrible contract and are over the cap for the first time in like forever. Now I really liked the DeJuan Blair pick but even that may not end well because HE HAS NO ACL'S... which out of nowhere could be a problem.
Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Popovich are all still in or at the tail end of their primes and can rally if the Spurs return to "Spurs Ball" this summer and find a way to revamp their roster. What they should stop trying to do is build their team to beat the Lakers. Yes, the current champions are here in LA, but it doesn't guarantee that they're a lock for the championship, especially after how much they struggled last season against Houston and this season against Denver.
Look at what Dallas did in the offseason; they followed the old Spurs model and signed players to fit THEIR system (BTW - Shawn Marion should would have been that veteran the Spurs usually sign). They didn't build/improve their team to beat LA, they built their roster around Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki and gave it a go. And through January they looked like a top tier team in the West... which is what the Spurs should be shooting for, instead of LA.