Are The San Antonio Spurs Still An Elite Team?

The San Antonio Spurs have come rolling out of the gate in this NBA season and are sitting at 12-3 with the top record in the Western Conference. The Spurs mostly disappeared from championship discussions after their meltdown against Oklahoma City in last year’s playoffs. Is this strong start a sign San Antonio has to be re-inserted into conversations about the elite teams in the NBA, or is that jumping the gun? Let’s take a closer look at this year’s Spurs as they get set for a nationally televised visit to Miami on Thursday (8 PM ET, TNT).

Gregg Popovich is as good a coach as there is in the NBA and it shows with the way this team executes offensively. They were first in the league in offensive efficiency a year ago and they sit at fifth in the early part of this season. Tony Parker’s performance has held steady, with his 17 points/7 assists per game pretty close to last year’s pace. Tim Duncan keeps churning out the numbers, at 19 points/10 rebounds and mixing in a couple blocks per game. Around these two core players, Popovich then fills in the blanks with a deep supporting cast.

There have been some minor tweaks to playing time, all of which have had the effect of making San Antonio a little bit younger. 25-year-old Danny Green is getting more minutes and averaging 11 ppg. And prior to Kawhi Leonard’s knee injury that will keep the young power forward sidelined for a month, he was getting increased minutes. The playing time came at the expense of veterans Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw. It’s not a dramatic shift by any means, but anything Popovich can do to keep this mostly veteran team’s legs fresh will help.

What the Spurs aren’t doing well right now is shooting the three-ball. Manu Ginobli is sub-30 percent from behind the arc, while the rest of the backcourt is a few percentage points off last year’s norms. If I’m San Antonio, I’m looking at this as a positive—Ginobli shot 41 percent from three a year ago and will come around. There’s nothing more fickle in basketball than shooting from the outside and the fact the Spurs have won 12 of 15 without doing it to previous standards tells you good things about this team.

The concern for San Antonio is defense. It’s not that they’re a bad defensive team—they ranked 11th in defensive efficiency a year ago and are seventh this year. If they can hold that #7 ranking and maybe increase it by a bit, it can be championship-quality. But right now this is not a team that’s as good on the defensive end as Miami and probably won’t be as good as Oklahoma City.

Its possible San Antonio could fix the problem—to begin with it, it’s a “problem” only by the standard of winning games against elite teams deep in the playoffs. The defense as is can still you win you 55 games in the regular season. Whether it’s tactical adjustments or whether it’s the need for some new personnel, the Spurs can fix it. Defensive help can be acquired prior to the trade deadline.

And the other issue is going to be age—Parker and Duncan are both at the tail-end of their careers and they were run over by a young and hungry team in last year’s Thunder. The age factor and the defense are almost certainly related to each other. That’s why I believe this Spurs roster needs some tweaks if they’re going to compete for an NBA title. But while Popovich and the front office make those decisions, let’s enjoy a well-coached basketball team that’s going to win a lot of games along the way.