Spurs Copying Mavs As Playoffs Draw Near

Jacob Eisenberg explains how the Spurs have taken a page out of the Mavericks’ book for a change…

For the past decade, the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs have been regarded as two of the most dominant regular season teams in the NBA.

Both teams, led by their Hall of Fame-caliber power forwards, consistently surpassed 50 wins every season. The only thing that separated these two franchises was the teams’ polarizing performances in the postseason.

Dallas, once considered a perennial playoff disappointment, found their postseason groove in 2011 on their way to wining the franchise’s first championship.

Meanwhile 250 miles southwest in San Antonio, the Spurs, a perennial postseason Goliath, lost their postseason edge as they became only the second number-one seed since postseason expansion to be ousted in the first round.

Old, uninspired and fragile, the Spurs looked like a far cry from the team that won four championships from 1999 to 2007.

By all accounts, the fortunes of these two franchises seemed to flip. Dallas, for the first time since Dirk Nowitzki’s arrival in 1998, was the team to beat.

Conversely, for the first time since Tim Duncan’s arrival in 1997, San Antonio’s title window appeared shut.

Star guard Tony Parker put it best when he told reporters on May 19, 2011, “We will always have a good team, but we can no longer say that we’re playing for a championship.”

Nearly one year later, however, the Spurs look revived. By following a similar blueprint that was drawn out by Dallas in 2010-2011 of making under-the-radar acquisitions to fill voids, Spurs’ General Manager R.C. Buford has subtly reshaped his roster and positioned his team for a postseason run.

The Mavericks, entering the 2011 playoffs, were coming off arguably their least inspiring postseason effort of the Dirk Nowitzki era.

In 2010, expectations were at an all-time high within the organization as the team acquired Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood at the trading deadline.

Still, the Mavericks disappointed greatly in the playoffs when, as the number-two seed, they were upset in the first round in six games. The clock on Dirk Nowitzki’s career ticked louder than ever as he was turning 32 — the consensus final year of an NBA player’s prime.

The Spurs, entering these 2012 playoffs, are coming off arguably their least inspiring postseason effort of the Tim Duncan era. Expectations were high last season after Head Coach Gregg Popovich successfully transformed the traditionally defensive-oriented Spurs into one of the league’s top offenses.

The Spurs won more games in the regular season than they had since 2005-2006 and were fully healthy entering the playoffs for the first time in several years.

Regardless, San Antonio’s play underwhelmed audiences as they were thoroughly defeated by the Memphis Grizzlies — a team that had lost 15 more games than San Antonio in the regular season.

Dallas recovered from their 2010 postseason dud and went on to win 57 games in the 2010-2011 season.

Regardless, Dallas received little notice from around the league as their reputation of postseason chokers encouraged fans to dismiss them as serious playoff threats.

The Spurs appear to have rebounded from last year’s playoff disappointment, as the team owns the league’s fourth-best record despite losing Manu Ginobili to a strained oblique for most of the season.

Still, like in Dallas last season, fans continue to overlook San Antonio as memories linger from last year’s embarrassing elimination.

Following their 2010 playoff elimination, the Mavericks finally ended their search for a defensive big man with the acquisition of Tyson Chandler. Acquiring Chandler, however, gave the Dallas fan base little optimism as they were forced to witness the Miami Heat assemble a super-team.

While Chandler had proved to be an intimidating defensive presence over his career, concerns about his durability made skeptics declare that the Mavericks would need more than just an oft-injured center to reasonably compete with the Lakers and Heat.

Knowing the Spurs had major holes to fill in the summer of 2011, Buford was forced to get creative.

By trading George Hill — the team’s only young star — for the fifteenth overall pick in the draft, Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio added their first defensively-gifted forward since Bruce Bowen’s departure in 2008.

In Leonard, the Spurs finally found a player that could match up in size and speed with the likes of the Western Conference’s elite scorers such as Kevin Durant.

Analysts around the league were both intrigued and confused by the move. After all, George Hill had been the team’s rare glimmer of hope for the future, and Leonard was merely an unpolished rookie. Very few thought trading Hill for Leonard was an upgrade.

The 2010-2011 Mavericks continued to bolster their team following the acquisition of Tyson Chandler. With a lack of a three-point specialist on the roster, the Mavericks signed Dirk Nowitzki’s old friend Peja Stojakovic to a contract for the remainder of the season.

In San Antonio in 2012, acknowledging this may be their last chance at a championship, the Spurs put all their cards on the table by acquiring Stephen Jackson, a key-piece from their 2003 Championship Team.

Just a week after trading for Jackson, the Spurs continued to fortify their roster by signing
Tony Parker’s old friend Boris Diaw to a contract for the remainder of the season.

The 2010-2011 Mavericks’ acquisitions panned out as Chandler cemented himself as a defensive stalwart and a capable offensive finisher. In the NBA Finals, Chandler made a name for himself by intimidating LeBron James from driving to the hoop.

Peja Stojakovic, meanwhile, helped Dallas sweep the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs as he made all six of his three-point attempts in a 122-86 romping of the defending champions.

While the success of the Spurs’ acquisitions cannot be fairly determined until after this year’s playoffs, the transactions San Antonio made have already paid dividends. Jackson is inspired again as reuniting with Duncan and Popovich appears to have restored his motivation.

Boris Diaw’s court vision has given the Spurs an extra playmaker on the floor (he had nine assists in just 24 minutes of action on April 3 as the Spurs dismantled the Cavaliers by 125-90), and most importantly, Kawhi Leonard’s 7’3” wingspan has helped him turn himself into a premier defender as he leads the team in steals.

As Tim Duncan told the San Antonio Express-News, “The steals, the one-man fast breaks, all those things — they’re great for us. He adds a new dimension to our team.”

While the Spurs continue to take a back seat to the Heat, Bulls and Thunder in terms of league-wide recognition, San Antonio’s retooled roster has given them confidence.

The team is eager to redeem themselves from last season’s postseason embarrassment and return to the NBA Finals.

After sleeping on the Mavericks last season for their previous season’s playoff struggles, fans should be careful not to make the same mistake with the Spurs this year.

Originally Published in The Emory Wheel on 04/05/2012

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