View Full Version : John Hollinger: Spurs probably won't be much better

09-13-2005, 05:34 PM
"It's over."

That's been the sentiment around the league ever since the Spurs announced the signings of Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel. Magic Johnson, for instance, expressed those exact words to the San Antonio Express-News last week.

Michael Finley
Can Mike Finley help the Spurs win title No. 4?

"They remind me of the Lakers when we were winning championships back in the 1980s," Johnson said. "They just play the game and play to win. Nick and Finley will add to that, and I think they're going to win it again. They've added two great role players that can come in off the bench and add firepower."

Johnson isn't alone in that opinion. The Spurs hardly needed any help after winning their third title in seven seasons, especially with key players like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in their respective primes. Plus, they pulled off an unusual coup for a championship team by retaining every key player.

The acquisitions of Finley, Van Exel and Argentine big man Fabricio Oberto seem to make the Spurs an even more daunting obstacle for Western Conference foes. But here's the question for the other contenders: How much will the new guys help? Do the additions make the Spurs overwhelming favorites to repeat as champions? Or do teams like the Heat, Pistons and Suns still have a fighting chance?

To examine that question, let's take a closer look at the players the Spurs added and how they'll fit into the larger puzzle. Finley, for instance, had a solid if unspectacular season a year ago. Using my Player Efficiency Rating (PER, my measure of a player's per-minute statistical production), Finley's rating of 14.34 was slightly below the league average for a shooting guard. He was better the two previous seasons, at 17.55 and 17.81, but now that he's 32 one can probably expect a PER of around 15.00 this season. In fact, the projections in this year's "Pro Basketball Forecast" (shameless plug alert) see Finley with a PER of 14.95.

If that's the case, then Finley may not add much to the equation for San Antonio. The two players he's taking minutes from are Brent Barry and Devin Brown (who departed for Utah once Finley had taken his spot). Barry's PER last season was 14.01 while Brown's was 14.57. Barry had been even better than Finley the two years before, and he projects to have a slightly higher PER this season at 14.96. Brown's numbers don't project quite as well (13.92), but the difference between him and Finley is small (see chart). Considering the slim margin between the players, one has to wonder if the impact of Finley's addition will be as great as some think.

Player 2003-04 2004-05 Projected 2005-06
Michael Finley 17.81 14.34 14.95
Brent Barry 18.28 14.01 14.96
Devin Brown 13.10 14.57 13.92

Point Guards
Nick Van Exel 13.02 12.47 12.54
Tony Parker 15.60 17.97 16.22
Beno Udrih -- 14.24 14.48

Fabricio Oberto -- -- 14.55
Rasho Nesterovic 15.27 12.00 13.43
Tony Massenburg 9.64 8.44 8.20

The same goes for the procurement of Van Exel, who at this point in his career is markedly inferior to the Spurs' other point guards. Nick the formerly Quick clearly has no chance of unseating incumbent Tony Parker, but even backup Beno Udrih seems to have the upper hand. Udrih's PER of 14.24 last season was substantially better than Van Exel's 12.47, and because of Van Exel's arthritic knees, Udrih also is a superior defender. While Van Exel provides some comfort as a third point man should one of the top two suffer an injury, it seems doubtful he'll play enough to significantly alter the Spurs' fortunes.

That leaves us with the final piece of San Antonio's puzzle, Oberto. Though the least heralded of San Antonio's offseason pickups, he could be the most important. Based on his European stats, Oberto's projected PER of 14.55 would be a big improvement from what the Spurs got last year from reserve big men Rasho Nesterovic and Tony Massenburg. Those two players combined to play nearly 2,500 minutes a year ago, including some key moments in the playoffs. Having Oberto replace them as the Spurs' fourth big man (behind Duncan, Nazr Mohammed and Robert Horry) should result in improved production from that spot for the 10 to 20 minutes he's on the court each night.

However, there might be a large difference between Oberto and Nesterovic at the defensive end. Oberto is the shortest of the Spurs' frontcourt players and didn't put up impressive shot-blocking or rebounding numbers in Europe, while the 7-foot Nesterovic was an underrated force as a shot-blocker in the middle. While Oberto is certain to provide drastic offensive improvement, he'll give some of that back at the defensive end.

Overall, then, the additions of Finley, Van Exel and Oberto to a championship nucleus sound impressive, but the real impact might be smaller than people expect. Finley's prime offensive skills are 3-point shooting and avoiding turnovers, two things that Barry already does exceptionally well. And while any NBA exec would trade Devin Brown for Finley in a heartbeat, the two are close enough in ability that it's not likely to affect San Antonio's win-loss record very much. Meanwhile, the other newbies might have trouble just getting on the floor. Van Exel shapes up as the team's sixth-best guard (behind Parker, Udrih, Ginobili, Barry and Finley), while Oberto gets in line behind Big Shot Bob for minutes off the bench in the Spurs' frontcourt.

This isn't to say the three signings will have no impact. Certainly they improve San Antonio's ability to withstand injuries, for instance, and adding Finley also keeps him away from the Spurs' rivals. In the end, that might be the most important impact of all. While Finley would have solved desperate needs in Denver, Phoenix and, to a lesser extent, Miami, the Spurs already had a quartet of competent players to man his position. Thus, their addition of Finley and the others seems a bit like Bill Gates finding a nickel on the street -- yes, it's nice, but it really doesn't change the big picture much.

John Hollinger, author of "Pro Basketball Forecast 2005-06," writes for ESPN Insider.

09-13-2005, 09:25 PM
"Overall, then, the additions of Finley, Van Exel and Oberto to a championship nucleus sound impressive, but the real impact might be smaller than people expect. Finley's prime offensive skills are 3-point shooting and avoiding turnovers, two things that Barry already does exceptionally well."


09-14-2005, 11:33 AM
Wow, what a crap article. I didn't know too much about this guy before. Now I know that the way he values stats is a little bit skewed.

It would help if he included in his self-serving article some explanation of what the relative differences in PER's mean.