The Spurs are good enough, in fact, to be the second best team in the stacked Western Conference. With a record of 37 and 14, and currently riding an 8 game winning streak, San Antonio is playing better basketball than almost any team in the league. They have beaten the Thunder, the best team in the West, twice this year.
This was, of course, meant to be the year where it all unraveled for Greg Popovich’s group. The Spurs were badly exposed in the playoffs last year against the 8th seed Grizzlies. They were derided as too old, too slow: a team past its best.
Once again, however, as with every year in the Duncan era, they will head into the playoffs next month with a very good shot at winning it all. The Spurs juggernaut just keeps rolling, confounding critics in the process.
The End of an Era?
In past few years, those writing their pre-season predictions and power rankings have largely dismissed the Spurs. Duncan is too old, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli are both past their primes, and it is time for R.C. Buford to begin rebuilding. Or least that is the perception of many experts.
Indeed, at the start of this season, coming off the prolonged lockout, that opinion was justifiable.
With a shortened season, and the extremely congested schedule that came with it, teams like the Spurs were expected to struggle. San Antonio’s championship core is either close to 30, or on the wrong side of it. Teams would be expected to play 4 or 5 games a week, with a few dreaded back-to-back… to-back (I got tired just writing that) stretches thrown in. Questions about Duncan’s durability and the oft-injured Ginobli’s ability to withstand such a punishing schedule, contributed to the skepticism surrounding the Spurs’ chances.
However, skeptics, myself included, failed to take into account one major alleviating factor: Greg Popovich, the savviest coach in the NBA.
The Power of Pop
If any coach in the league was going to find a way to help his team adapt to the rigours of an insane regular season, it was going to be Popovich.
The NBA’s longest tenured coach has done an excellent job of managing his veteran player’s minutes, vital in such a physically taxing year. He has resisted the temptation to overplay Tim Duncan, in an effort to save his fragile knees, and keep him fresh for the playoffs. Ginobli, although injured for much of this season, has also been used sparingly when available. In their series against the Grizzlies last year, the Spurs missed Manu immensely, and Popovich knows that he needs his mercurial Argentinian shooting guard fit and ready for the post season.
Popovich has even gone so far as to give Duncan, Parker and Ginobli entire games off this season. In a blowout loss to Portland, San Antonio’s big three were all scratched from the line-up. The short-term consequences were ugly, but it was a decision carried out with long-term benefits in mind. Popovich has a clear understanding of the Spurs’ priorities.
Popovich’s ability to put out a well-coached, cohesive unit on the floor night after night, has given the Spurs an edge that other teams lack. This, of course, is a product of many years of excellent coaching that has helped shape the unselfish, team-first identity that has defined the Spurs for so long. Given the schedule this season, teams have not had the time to hold regular practices. This has undoubtedly hurt some of the younger teams, comprising of players that lack maturity. These teams would benefit from the stabilizing effect that regular practice creates.
A consistently organized unit like the Spurs is far better equipped to deal with the lack of routine. Even younger players coming into the team, rookies like Kwahi Leonard and Cory Joseph, would have been forced to buy into the egoless, business-like ethic from the start of the season. Having a distinct team identity, where each player understands his role, re-enforced by Popovich’s on-the-court leaders like Duncan, lessens the impact of not being able to hold team practices. With his years of installing good habits and structure in the organization, Popovich has given his team the tools to cope with such a crazy season.
On the Court
Along with another Coach of the Year type showing from Popovich, it’s the players on the court that deserve a huge portion of the credit for the Spurs’ success. Tony Parker, in particular, has been fantastic this season.
The French point guard, who was the subject of trade discussions in the off-season, has been indispensable for the Spurs this year. Averaging 19 points and a career high 8 assists per-game, Parker is quietly having one of his best seasons in San Antonio. It is no surprise that some have thrown his name into the MVP discussion. Parker has always been incredibly effective driving to the basket, finishing with his patented runner, but his assist numbers reflect how great he has been at distributing the ball this season. He has played like a true point guard in every sense. As a team, the Spurs have also excelled in this aspect of the game.
San Antonio is currently 5th in the league in assists per game, a statistic that is directly related to the team scoring over 100 points per night on average. The Spurs are one of the most effective and efficient offensive teams in the league, partly because they move the ball so well. This bodes well for the playoffs, where moving the ball effectively becomes vital in order to open up well-set half-court defenses.
Another factor that bodes well for the Spurs entering the playoffs is their roster depth. As of now the Spurs probably have the deepest roster in the NBA. When Duncan sits, Popovich has effective big men like Tiago Splitter and recently acquired Boris Diaw to bring on. A player like DeJuan Blair, improving all the time, also provides versatility in the front-court. He can play both the power forward and centre positions.
Just as important, immensely promising rookie Kawhi Leonard and wily veteran Stephen Jackson can play the small forward position, or give Ginobli cover at the two-guard spot. Gary Neal, Patty Mills and Danny Green (another great Spurs pick-up) add good depth in the backcourt.
It is easy to focus on the age of San Antonio’s stars and ignore the fact that they possess a lot of young, talented, and athletic role players. The Spurs legitimately go 9-10 deep and are built for a long playoff run.
Another Championship in the Alamo City?
Of course, the image of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol beating up Tim Duncan inside, while Tony Allen strangles the Spurs on the perimeter, still looms large. It is easy to forget that the Spurs went into the playoffs off the back of a great regular season last year as well.
Is San Antonio better equipped to deal with the likes of Memphis this year?
That match-up is still tough, but the Spurs are a deeper team this season. Stephen Jackson, who was not part of last year’s team, adds much needed toughness on the wing and the ability to knock down the big shot, while Leonard and Green have the length and athleticism to bother opposition players at the perimeter. Popovich will also be hoping that, unlike last year, Ginobli will be able to play substantial minutes in the playoffs. His dynamic presence is key to the Spurs moving forward.
The Spurs will have to tighten up on the defensive end going into the playoffs, as their play on that end has been far from stellar. Defense wins championships, as the Spurs know well enough. Popovich and Duncan will no doubt reinforce that message to the team as the playoffs draw near. This is a highly intelligent group of players that have the ability to play solid defense, and should heed to that message.
In-tune offensively, and likely to improve defensively; this Spurs team will be a tough one for anyone in the West. They are well coached, extremely well balanced, deep, and very dangerous. I, for one, would not bet against them winning a 5th NBA championship this year.
Actually, I am officially done betting against the Spurs.
Zach Salzmann is an avid follower of the NBA. When he is not watching basketball, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend, he is watching something else sports-related.
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