State of the Spurs: Fine without Parker?

It is a cruel-but-ironic twist that nobody outside of LeBron James has done more damage to Tony Parker’s long-shot MVP candidacy than Parker’s own teammates. 

San Antonio’s point guard is out hurt. An ankle injury is expected to keep him away four weeks. “The Spurs hardly even realize he’s gone” is saying too much, but they did crush the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday in their second full game without Parker, shooting 54 percent from the field in a 101-83 win in San Antonio.

“That’s a championship team right there,” Bulls big man Joakim Noah said.

Wednesday night, yes.

But with Parker out, the Spurs started Cory Joseph at point guard, and that’s a long drop. Joseph had four points, two assists and one steal in 24 minutes. That this was not a problem is a testament to the Spurs’ water-like properties – they just flow to the open space. Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter both had double-doubles, Kawhi Leonard had 14 points and seven rebounds, Manu Ginobili had 18 points and nine assists off the bench and Patty Mills scored 13 on six shots.

It was all so very Spurs.

And, look, nobody – not even Noah – thinks the Spurs would win a seven-game series over the Oklahoma City Thunder or Miami Heat with Joseph playing point guard. Nobody is saying that. It’s just that because, despite everything we know about the Spurs and their “nobody is bigger than the team” identity, the basketball fan’s bent is still to try to explain their extraordinary success by attributing it to the performance of one MVP-caliber player. That’s the way the league supposedly operates. Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, LeBron James in Miami and Derrick Rose in Chicago.

This is a tiny sample size we’re working with, here. Two games. Maybe four more weeks of this will reveal a level of indispensability to Parker that wasn’t visible Wednesday night.

But it would be characteristically Spurs if it didn’t.

Who’s Hot: Kawhi Leonard

The small forward is 17-for-28 (60.7 percent) from the field in his last three games, scoring 14 points each time. Leonard is a 49-percent shooter on the season and averages 11 points.

Who’s Not: DeJuan Blair.

Blair’s role in San Antonio has been reduced this season anyway – he’s playing just 13.7 minutes per game, down from his career average of 19.1 – and he is just 1-for-6 with four points in the Spurs’ last two games. He played just seven minutes and didn’t score Wednesday against the Bulls.

Three Thoughts

1. The continued interest in (and consternation over) DeJuan Blair’s eroding role with the Spurs is one of those puzzling non-stories that sometimes get pushed by a bored press corps. This is a 6-foot-7 center we’re talking about. Certainly Blair has some unique capabilities for a player his size, and would probably play a larger role for some other NBA teams, but so what? He’s not on another NBA team. He’s on the Spurs, and they have the best record in the NBA and they just don’t really need him that badly. There are guys like this on every NBA roster. Why should anybody other than DeJuan Blair’s friends and family care that he wants to play more?

2. I don’t think the Spurs are going to give up the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, even with Tony Parker out, but that could be a more meaningful scenario than it seems. As things stand now, the Spurs would play the eighth-seeded Utah Jazz in the first round, and probably not have any trouble. But the team in position for the seventh seed at the moment is Houston, which is a scary matchup for an older team. The Rockets are exceedingly young, and play faster than anybody. The Rockets aren’t built for a championship run, but they are the kind of team that can easily just steal a game by playing 100 miles an hour and making 15 3-pointers. On the other hand, the Spurs are 3-0 against Houston this season.

3. Is it possible that part of the Spurs’ success over the years is owed to their being the only major professional sports franchise in San Antonio? Certainly it helps to have one of the best coaches ever, maybe the best power forward of all time and one of the best point guards of his generation. Let’s not minimize that. But the Spurs always have great crowds, and that has a lot to do with them being the only sports show in town, and crowds affect basketball games more than they affect any other sport. Maybe this is just a small factor, but it has to be a factor.
Quotes of the week

“There are two choices; you can cry and moan or you can play the game and compete.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, neatly laying down his team’s options for dealing with Tony Parker’s absence.

“Wayne Gretzky.”

Canadian-born Spurs guard Cory Joseph, providing the exhaustive list of hockey players he is able to name.  

“This is something I’ve worked through the last couple years. Not playing in the playoffs, up and down in minutes and all that, that’s something I never went through in my life, so it kinda caught me off guard.”

Forward DeJuan Blair, on his diminished role with the Spurs.

Tower of Power?

The Spurs are undefeated since Parker went down two-and-a-half games ago, and that includes a win over the Chicago Bulls, so there’s no doubt San Antonio, which owns the league’s best record, is a championship contender.

Playing without Parker for four weeks will put a strain on their chances of grabbing the top seed in the Western Conference, but whether they’re the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, chances are the Spurs and Thunder are meeting in the conference finals anyway.