DALLAS – Francisco Elson isn't exactly a well-known quantity in the NBA. The 7-footer has played three relatively anonymous seasons in the league, all with the Denver Nuggets as a decent backup center. Unless you're a hardcore basketball fan, you've probably never heard of him. In fact, "Francisco Elson" sounds a lot more like the name of the principal at your local Catholic high school than a dominating NBA center.
But if you didn't know Elson before, you will soon enough.
The San Antonio Spurs' quiet offseason pickup made a huge splash Thursday night in the teams' season opener, showing great speed, length and activity at both ends of the floor while helping the Spurs to a 97-91 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. His defense of Dirk Nowitzki changed the game and halted a hot shooting start by the Mavs.
For San Antoino head coach Gregg Popovich, slowing down Dallas occupied most of his thoughts throughout the offseason. Last May's epic seven-game series loss to Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals was more than just a defeat. It was a setback for Popovich's system.
The Mavericks took the Spurs out of a defensive comfort zone they'd been in for the better part of nine seasons. Using the dual shot-blocking tandem of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, Popovich built the best defensive scheme in the NBA. The strategy was simple: send the offensive player with the ball toward the baseline, where one of two centers was always there waiting outside the lane to block the shot.
When Robinson retired, Rasho Nesterovic and Nazr Mohammed filled his role – with assists from Malik Rose and Robert Horry – and San Antonio continued its tradition of outstanding interior defense that has been instrumental in the franchise's three NBA crowns. But in the playoffs last season, Dallas put a lineup on the floor that destroyed the Spurs' defensive system. The Mavericks went small and proved too quick for San Antonio's big lineup, forcing Nesterovic and Mohammed to the bench. The aging Horry was ineffective trying to cover Nowitzki, and when Popovich put Bruce Bowen on the 7-foot All-Star, it freed Josh Howard to attack the defense because the Spurs had no answer for him.
In the end, Popovich altered his lineup to match Dallas' speed, but in doing so, he compromised the long-standing, two-center-pronged defensive strategy that San Antonio hung its hat on. With the lane opened up, the Mavs obliterated the Spurs' defense, averaging 104 points and getting to the free-throw line an astounding 32 times per game. Even though San Antonio came within one basket of winning the series, it was a decidedly un-Spurs-like team that went down in defeat.
Following the season, Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford searched for a big man who could help them play their preferred defensive style. The league was going through a downsizing trend, with more and more teams playing smaller, quicker lineups, so the plodding Nesterovic and Mohammed were unloaded.
Popovich and Buford went after the more agile Elson, a restricted free agent with the Nuggets. Their timing was right because Denver was in the midst of giving Nene Hilario a $60 million deal, and with a loaded frontcourt and huge salary-cap concerns, the Nuggets failed to match San Antonio's three-year, $7 million offer. Popovich was intrigued by Elson's combination of size and quickness, but admittedly, he wasn't sure what he was going to get.
Elson quickly established a presence during training camp, picking up the defensive system with ease and wowing the Spurs' coaching staff by routinely finishing second to Tony Parker in team sprints. His offensive game surprised the staff, too.
"He can score down on the block," Popovich said before Thursday's game. "The only thing I want to see is if he can do it in a real game, under pressure."
Elson dispelled any of his coach's doubts right away against Dallas, spinning around Erick Dampier and nailing a 10-foot jump hook as soon as he touched the ball. Elson went on to make five of seven shots in the game, scoring 12 points, grabbing six boards and blocking two shots. But it was his defense against Nowitzki that had his teammates most excited.
The Mavs – after making 53 percent of their shots in the first half – cooled off considerably as Elson hounded Nowitzki while also protecting the lane with his shot-blocking presence. Dallas scored just 16 fourth-quarter points as San Antonio pulled away.
It was only one game, of course, and the Mavericks are trying to incorporate four new players into their 10-man rotation. They will surely improve as the season goes along. But Elson's interior presence and ability to cover Nowitzki seemingly has given Popovich's team the edge over its Texas rivals again.
Because if these two teams meet in the postseason, it appears the Spurs will be able to play the game the way they like it &nash; with two centers patrolling the lane and a slower, more grinding pace. And as they've proven time and again, when the Spurs play the game on their terms, they usually win.