April 19, 2012
By Luka Papalko & Dan Peyton
The San Antonio Spurs have spent most of the last 15 years cultivating a well-earned reputation as one of the most successful franchises in the NBA. Their basic identity over this stretch of dominance has been that they are a simple, smart, small-market team that thrives on great coaching, elite defense and an efficient roster built around one of the greatest big men of all time in Tim Duncan. Despite all this, the 2012 Spurs have have been a bit of a surprise in racking up the third-best record in the league this season after many had written them off following their disappointing 1st Round playoff exit last summer. The reason for surprise is because they’ve done it by shedding most of the cliches that have become synonymous with their brand of ball over the years. The Spurs are no longer the boring, grind-it-out team that just tosses it into the post and wins ugly games with their suffocating defense. In fact, they’ve been barely average on defense this season and have thrived off a less-Duncan-oriented, free-flowing attack that ranks at or near the top of almost every offensive category. The Spurs have somewhat reinvented themselves, and in doing so, have won 72% of their games thus far. But does San Antonio’s regular season dominance mean they’re an obvious threat to win it all? Maybe not.
The biggest difference between this year’s version of the Spurs and most of their championship teams is that the offense has become more perimeter-oriented with less reliance on having everything go through Duncan. According to hoopspeak.com
, the Spurs are the 8th-fastest team in the league in terms of tempo; they also get nearly 25% of their scoring through 3-pointers. On any given possession, three or four different players might dart out beyond the arc at some point during the play, and thanks to San Antonio’s rapid, smart ball movement, the three’s they take are usually wide open. It all happens at such a quick pace that it almost seems chaotic. This is fun to watch, and the Spurs have used the 3-pointer as a major weapon this season, but one has to wonder just how effective this will be in the playoffs. In a 7-game series, teams become so in-tune with the gameplan and the opponent’s tendencies that by about Game 4, there are no more surprises; it just becomes about matchups and execution. It’s hard to see the Spurs getting so many uncontested shots against an elite team that’s been watching film on them for two weeks straight.
One of the problems San Antonio faces is their lack of players who can hit contested shots. A lot of credit is due to RC Buford and Greg Popovich for how they’ve consistently put together rosters that win 50+ games every year with hardly any highly-drafted players. For instance, this season alone, Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair, Gary Neal, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, and Patty Mills are all averaging at least 15 minutes a game, and not a single one of them was drafted in the first round (Green and Neal weren’t even drafted). That’s half the active roster for the team with the 3rd-best record in the league, and every one of those guys have surprised people all season long with their productivity. However, as mentioned previously, the playoffs become more about matchups, and none of those six players is a tough matchup at either end of the floor. They’re a collection of role players and specialists who give max effort every night, and thanks to great coaching, they’re always in the right place at the right time. These “system guys” have proven valuable throughout the condensed regular season, but in the playoffs, when every opponent gives max effort every night, and every opponent is well-coached, what advantages do they have? The bottom line is, the Spurs rely on a lot of role players who can’t score in one-on-one situations. This would be fine if at least a few of them were able to compensate by playing great defense, but other than Splitter, none of the players mentioned in this paragraph offer much on that end, either.
The rotation for San Antonio features three big men who don’t defend particularly well and can’t be counted on to score if they’re not open (and the same could be said of recent acquisition Boris Diaw). This really hurts them in a conference loaded with some of the game’s best post players. In the past month, the Spurs have allowed Brandan Wright and Ian Mahinmi to combine for 15 points and 17 rebounds in a loss to the Mavs. In a loss to Utah, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson crushed them to the tune of 30 points, 20 boards, and six blocked shots. Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka, and Pau Gasol are all putting up numbers against the Spurs that exceed their season averages vs. the rest of the NBA. To top it all off, Andrew Bynum’s 30-rebound effort helped LA cruise to an easy win in San Antonio just a few days ago. The fact that all of these teams are potential playoff opponents has to be a major concern for the Spurs, whose road through the Western conference was just recently made even more difficult by Zach Randolph’s return from injury.
In the wake of the Lakers loss (which Gregg Popovich perfectly described by saying, “they beat us to death”), the Spurs have responded well, with nice home wins over Memphis and Phoenix, but their downfalls remained largely the same. They got “beat up” by the Memphis frontcourt of Marc Gasol, Marreese Speights, and Zach Randolph, who, for now, is still coming off the bench while he works off some of the rust. The trio combined for 39 points and 28 rebounds while shooting 50% from the floor. Surprisingly, Randolph actually did the Spurs a favor by settling for far too many missed 17-footers, rather then bullying them down low as he’s done in the past. Danny Green and five bench players all made three’s in the game. But as the game wore on, Memphis seemed to settle in and nearly came all the way back from a late 13-point deficit until a couple questionable coaching decisions perhaps cost them a chance to force OT in the end. Phoenix never stood a chance, as they lack any semblance of dominant post play (starting center Channing Frye had 3 rebounds and took only one shot, a three; and Marcin Gortat just isn’t the type of player who can stand up to Duncan) and their role players were out-hustled from the start by the Spurs’ ancillary players. The Spurs hit nine 3-pointers this time, including four in the opening quarter.
This is still a very, very good team. Though Duncan can’t dominate games on both ends like he did in the past, he’s still a remarkably efficient scoring option, and the step or two he’s lost as a lockdown post defender is mostly made up for by the fact that he still rotates and shuts down the pick-and-roll like few big men can. Tony Parker (how many players could pull off a move like this http://tinyurl.com/7s4tpch
) and Manu Ginobili are two of the best playmakers in the NBA at any position, and Kawhi Leonard is having a remarkable rookie season, shooting 37% percent from beyond the arc after being unable to even crack 30% from the college three-point line just a season ago (another player who’s never seen this many wide open looks in his life). If the three aging cornerstones of this franchise can carry the scoring burden for one last grueling playoff run, the Spurs could still come out of the West and everybody will act like they saw it coming. But that just doesn’t seem likely given the path they’d have to take just to get to the Finals. This is one of the weakest defensive teams the Spurs have had since the 90’s, hovering around the middle of the league in opponents’ points per game and opponent FG%. They don’t force turnovers (24th) or protect the rim well enough (24th in blocks) to get the crucial stops needed at the end of playoff games, when a possession or two could end up being the difference.
At the end of the day, this is a team that has been masterfully built to handle the rigors of this lockout-shortened season, and indeed, they’ve milked out as many wins as possible from their extraordinary depth and a “new” offensive attack that seems to always catch lesser opponents off guard. But none of it will matter this spring, when a “heavyweight” team like the Lakers ultimately wears them down over the course of a series, just like Memphis did last year.