In preparation for Sunday's tip-off between the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers, we're taking a look position by position at the two teams. Yesterday, we examined the guard match-up that without Kobe Bryant and perhaps Steve Nash is clearly tips in San Antonio's favor. How will the Lakers bigs fare in comparison?
Starting Small Forward: Metta World Peace vs. Kawhi Leonard
In this battle, you've got a pair of defense-first small forwards, one at the tail end of his usefulness and one just beginning it. Leonard is finishing up his second season as an NBA starter for coach Gregg Popovich. He's upped most of his numbers from his rookie year while maintaining his excellent shooting percentage (.494/.374/.825), including 11.9 ppg, 6 rbg and 1.7 spg. What sets him apart from the other 3s in the league is Kawhi's defense. Next to Tim Duncan, he's arguably the Spurs' best one-on-one defender, using his quickness, strength, long arms and massive hands to disrupt opposing wing players. He's faced the best small forwards in the league and held his ground for the most part.
Opposing him is Metta World Peace, who still functions as one of the better defensive small forwards in the NBA. He's certainly a step slower than he's been half a decade ago, but his strength, quick hands and intelligence have kept him as a starting-caliber player. This season his defense has waned depending on his energy level and ability to get around laterally, but Metta is even a step slower than that after a miraculous two week recovery from knee surgery. He's obviously still rounding into shape, hitting only 4 of his 17 attempts from the three-point line, failing to get back to even his very modest 34% throughout the year.
EDGE: 6 years ago, this wouldn't have even been a contest. Then again, Kawhi Leonard would have been 15, but the argument still stands. If Metta was fully recovered from his knee injury, it'd be a much closer call; Kawhi clearly takes this battle. In order to win the match-up, World Peace will have to use his size, strength and experience to bully his much younger counterpart both offensively and defensively. However, Leonard's speed and quickness on defense and still evolving offensive game will run laps around the former Ron Artest.
Starting Power Forward: Pau Gasol vs. Tim Duncan
Just when everyone thinks these two vets are past their effectiveness, they keep proving everyone wrong.
A victim of trade rumors for two seasons now, Pau Gasol has been called done and washed up for, well, two seasons now. He's teetered on the edges of ineffectiveness because of injury and misplaced roles in the offense. Oddly, Pau has only come to life since his most serious injury of the season: tearing his plantar fascia during a game against the Nets. In April, Gasol has averaged a titanic 17/12/6 on 51% shooting and 75% from the line. He's still a step slow on defense, but has improved as he's gotten further away from the injury, blocking 2 shots a night in the last 5 games.
Duncan on the other hand has been declared dead every season for the last 3, but has come back stronger every year. Incredibly, Timmy has increased his rebounding and scoring every of those years, while remaining an anchor on the Spurs defense. It's amazing to look at his stat line this year and realize he's putting up these type of numbers in his age 36 season. He established a career-high with 81% free throw shooting and his 2.7 blocks per game rank only second to his 2.9 in his 2002-2003 MVP campaign.
EDGE: Two weeks ago, it would've taken seven seconds or less to declare Duncan getting the edge here. Now, it's not so clear. With Pau being the number one option for the most part and effectively flashing his full array of moves, it's going to be a much closer battle than it should be. Tim Duncan gets the edge, but only by a narrow margin.
Starting Center: Dwight Howard vs. Tiago Splitter
It seems that Dwight Howard has finally arrived in Southern California--just 6 months after we all thought he'd get here. Even as the Lakers center still managed to lead the league in rebounding at 12.4, he was not the player everyone expected he'd be from October to March. However, in April, it looks like he's nearly fully recovered from offseason back surgery, averaging 21 ppg, 10 rpg, 2.4 bpg on 61% FG. He's been absolutely dominant defensively, especially after Kobe went down against the Warriors last Friday. Even when considering the personnel leading to the 18th worst defensive team in the league was behind him, Dwight kept two teams to 86 and 95 points (the second in OT) by blowing up pick and roll and playing stellar last second paint defense in both contests.
Meanwhile, Splitter has turned into a very useful starting center. The Brazilian center has established career highs with 10.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.6 apg on 56% shooting and 73% from the line. He's a solid defensive presence and has become much more consistent on both ends of the floor.
EDGE: Finally! The Lakers and Dwight Howard take this in a landslide. If Howard can avoid foul trouble, he should be able to put up big numbers on Splitter. However, Popovich has been very upfront with his willingness to intentionally foul Howard and make him hit free throws, which could completely skew this match-up.
Bench Bigs: Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison vs. Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair, Tracy McGrady
Even with the season-ending injury to Jordan Hill, the Lakers have been just fine thanks to the emergence of Earl Clark. The forward has come back to Earth since his hot shot start as a regular in early January--through the beginning of March, he's only averaging 6 points and 4 rebounds. Jamison has been a steady and bench-saving presence for the Lakers, pouring in 9 points a night off the bench seemingly when the Lakers needed it most. Neither Clark nor Jamison are great defenders (definitely an understatement for the latter), but with Howard and Pau guarding the paint as well as they have, it seems not to matter as much lately.
On the opposing bench, the Spurs are losing a lot with Boris Diaw going down to back surgery in mid-April. In his stead are three relatively unsteady options at forward, Bonner, Blair and a newly-signed T-Mac. The "Red Mamba" is wildly inconsistent for the Spurs, providing so-so defense, rebounding and offense from night to night. The same could be said for Blair, who at one point in the season was getting DNP-CD'd by Pop. There's no telling whether or not McGrady can even contribute anymore, seeing as his career seemingly died three seasons ago.
EDGE: The Lakers bench has the edge here, because as great as Blair and Bonner could be--on the boards and at the three-point line respectively--their unreliability really hinders an otherwise fully functional Spurs team. Jamison is the most steady big offensively on either team, and hopefully his defense won't hurt the Lakers as much as it should.
The Bottom Line
Unlike a very uneven guard matchup, the Lakers have the overall edge in the battle of the bigs. With Pau Gasol playing as a "point center" on many possessions and Dwight Howard finishing possessions and grabbing offensive boards, it's extremely difficult beating the twin towers when they're on the floor. Tim Duncan is still operating at the peak of his powers on both ends (and cementing--with granite and marble--the label of "best power forward of all-time") and Kawhi Leonard should aid in giving any forward fits on the perimeter. However, a very thin bench of Spurs bigs is what tips the scales here. If World Peace and Clark can start hitting outside shots and Pau and Howard can stay on the floor, this battle isn't even close.