I haven't been so kind to the San Antonio Spurs in this new year. They're 27-18, in 2nd place in the Southwest Division, and they've kept their heads up .500 in January despite a tricky schedule.
I still stand by last week's Roundup -- doom, gloom, and Latin references available at your leisure -- but it's time for a bit of positivity.
The Spurs have eight games on the Rodeo road trip that begins tonight, and it's one of the most crucial remaining stretches for Gregg Popovich's team.
"If we're going to become the contender we believe we can be," Manu Ginobili said Sunday, "we've got to show up."
Right you are, Mr. Ginobili, and I'm going to be the online-only NBA columnist I believe I can be, I've got to break out the time-honored "numbered list column" at one point this year.
So, for your reading pleasure, here are eight reasons to be excited about this Rodeo road trip:
8. Richard Jefferson Appears to Have a Pulse.
31 times this year, Jefferson has scored at least 10 points. But this surprised me: he's only topped the 20-point barrier in five games this season.
Jefferson hasn't been the dynamic scorer that Spurs fans thought they were getting when the team traded for him back in June. He certainly hasn't been the missing piece that the Spurs hoped would get their team back to the NBA Finals.
But seeing Jefferson play in person three times last week, it looks like the eighth-year forward is starting to be more aggressive on the offensive end.
On Sunday, his first quarter against Denver was especially promising. In the early minutes, Jefferson took his defender off the dribble three times. He finished the quarter with only seven points, but he took six shots -- more than any other Spur.
Jefferson's averaging 12.4 points per game, but what’s surprising is how infrequently he's shooting the ball. He’s averaging exactly 10 field goal attempts per game – the fewest since his rookie season. Since that rookie year, he hasn’t averaged fewer than 11.4 field goal attempts per game.
Jefferson’s goal on this road trip: look for his shot a bit more.
7. The Bench is Back.
As of Sunday, the Spurs led the league in total bench points (40.6), rebounds (17.6) and assists (9.6) per game. Thanks to key contributions from DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner and a pair of rising point guards (more on them in a minute), Popovich has one of his deepest benches in years. The question: can the bench pick up the scoring slack down the stretch?
6. The 44 Percent Mark.
Popovich succinctly told media after Sunday's loss to Denver: "If you can't make a bucket, you can't win.... People have to step up and make some damn shots."
I'll take it a step further: the Spurs' shooting woes can be summed up in a single number. Looking at the season so far, there’s a magic number for the Spurs: 44.
Shoot above 44 percent, and the Spurs almost always win. Shoot below it, and the Spurs almost always lose.
This season, the Spurs are 4-12 when shooting below 44 percent, and 23-6 when breaking 44 percent.
Of the 16 sub-44 percent days, eight have come on the road. But more significantly: the Spurs have broken the 50 percent mark 16 times at home. They’ve only done it four times on the road.
Break 44 percent on this road trip, and the Spurs might be able to pick up a few wins -- and ground on the division leaders.
5. Tim Duncan May Be Having the Most Underrated Year of His Career.
This won’t be a career year for Tim Duncan, at least not by the numbers. But in 2010, no NBA player – save for LeBron James – has been more important to his team than Duncan has.
Last Wednesday’s performance against Atlanta was a Duncan masterpiece: he grabbed a career-high 27 rebounds en route to his 20th career 20-point, 20-rebound game. But consider this: he also dished out six assists, making him the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabber in 1976 to get at least 21 points, 27 rebounds and 6 assists in a game.
Duncan’s in his 13th NBA season, and he’s still averaging a double-double per game. This has been an incredible season to date by a player who already may be the best power forward in NBA history.
Consider this: take Kobe off the Lakers for a few weeks, and Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom would pick up the slack. Take Carmelo off the Nuggets – as was the case on Sunday – and Chauncey Billups and Kenyon Martin will look to shoot more often.
But take Duncan off the Spurs, and what’s left? Could a starting front court of Jefferson, Blair and Antonio McDyess hold down the paint for a few weeks?
Be thankful, Spurs fans, that the Big Fundamental is having such a strong 2009-10 campaign.
4. Roger Mason, Jr., Has Been Shooting His Way Back Into the Lineup.
Roger Mason, Jr., was a revelation for the Spurs in the 2008-2009 season. But in the opening month of the 2009-10 season, Mason's shooting touch went cold. In October and November, he shot below 35 percent from three-point range.
In December, that percentage rose to 39.2, but Mason really started to turn it on in January, when he shot 44.6 percent from beyond the arc.
When Mason and Matt Bonner are hitting from three-point range, it changes the entire dynamic of the Spurs’ offense. The three-point shot opens up lanes for Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and George Hill to drive through. It creates space for McDyess to take his mid-range jumper. And most importantly, it prevents teams from collapsing multiple defenders on Tim Duncan in the paint.
3. George Hill is Figuring It Out.
When Tony Parker went down with an ankle injury last Wednesday against the Hawks, it wasn’t cause for panic. The way George Hill has been playing of late, there’s not much of a drop off from Parker to the second-year guard out of IUPUI.
Hill has scored in double figures in 11 of the last 12 games, and in his two most recent starts, he’s dished out a total of nine assists. His line against Memphis was particularly impressive: 18 points, 5 assists and 3 steals in 35 minutes.
Talking to Hill on Sunday, he said that his confident play dates back to the summer league, when he had the opportunity to build trust and prove his worth to the Spurs’ coaching staff. It’s easy to forget that Hill is only 23 years old, so he’s still maturing and learning how to play within Gregg Popovich’s system.
But he’s getting better – and quickly. He’ll be a key to success on this road trip.
2. Gregg Popovich is Still At the Helm.
How’s this for positivity? Only 16 coaches in NBA history have won 700 games. Popovich is one of them.
He’s 713-349 lifetime – and that includes his pre-Duncan 1996-97 season, in which the Spurs finished 17-47.
If there’s anything Spurs fans have learned this decade, it’s that Gregg Popovich consistently delivers. This season has been one of his biggest challenges as coach, but the Rodeo road trip is Popovich's chance to get his team back on track.
1. Have You Seen the Schedule?
To date: the Spurs are 10-12 against teams that are above .500, and 16-6 against teams that are below .500.
On this eight game road trip, five of the games (Sacramento, L.A. Clippers, Indiana,
Philadelphia and Detroit) are below .500.
If the Spurs can get through the initial Portland-L.A. Lakers-Denver stretch, they’ve got a shot at a winning road trip.
There’s still much basketball to be played, but the Spurs need wins in this stretch to stay alive in the playoff push. Only four games separate the West’s third best team (Dallas) from the division’s 11th best team (Memphis).
Like Ginobili said on Sunday: this team could be a contender. Starting tonight, we’ll see if they’re ready to prove it.
The Roundup is a weekly look at Spurs basketball and the NBA. Dan Oshinsky is a digital media producer at KENS 5. He can be reached at email@example.com.