The San Antonio Spurs have, in a unique way, defined NBA basketball for 15 years. They haven’t been a dynasty in the sense of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers or LeBron’s Heat, all of whom have won consecutive titles in that timeframe. The Spurs have just churned it out, winning four titles and nearly taking a fifth last June in Miami before Ray Allen ripped their hearts out. The Spurs are at it again, with a 38-15 record coming into All-Star weekend in New Orleans.
A big reason San Antonio won the West a year ago a suffering playoff disappointment in 2012, is that their defense moved from being merely okay to being very good. The Spurs have continued the positive trend, ranking fifth in the NBA in defensive efficiency (points adjusted for tempo). The area head coach Greg Popovich has to be concerned with is the rebounding, where the team is middle of the league. It’s great to force the misses, but you’ve got to clean them up and right now Tim Duncan (10 rebounds a game) is the only one doing that consistently.
The Spurs are seventh in offensive efficiency, doing it with the complete team-oriented approach that has marked this franchise’s play for the last fifteen years. The three-point shooting is a case in point. San Antonio doesn’t have any regular rotation player breaking the 40 percent threshold from behind the arc. Yet the team overall is so consistent that they’re actually the league’s best at converting their trey opportunities.
Tony Parker continues to run the floor at the point, averaging 18 points/6 assists a game, and hitting 50 percent from the floor. Duncan gets 16 a night, and then Popovich fills in the spots around them with role players from Boris Diaw to Marco Bellinelli to Danny Green.
Manu Ginobli is still an X-factor for this lineup. He was brilliant in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals and put the Spurs on the threshold of a title. Then he made mistake after mistake in Games 6 & 7 and gave it back. Ginobli is averaging 12 points/4 rebounds/5 assists, though he’s currently out with a hamstring injury right now. The good news is that he should be back by the end of the month and at this point in his career it’s probably best to save some regular season wear and tear anyway.
San Antonio can’t be quite as sanguine about Kawhi Leonard’s injury situation. The young small forward who came into his own in last year’s Finals broke his hand on January 22. He was averaging 12 points/6 rebounds and was becoming the team’s third-best player. He’s absolutely vital if the Spurs are going to make another deep run in a stacked Western Conference bracket and we’re not yet sure how the injury is going to play out. Leonard is scheduled for an X-ray over the All-Star break and we’ll then know more.
It’s hard to look at this San Antonio team and see a fifth NBA title—or even a sixth Finals appearance—in the future. They seem to be a step behind the triumvirate of Indiana, Miami and Oklahoma City that are setting the standard right now.
But the Spurs’ status as a veteran team means we have to give them a big benefit of the doubt—they can’t push too hard in February and that’s going to show up in areas like rebounding stats. And everything we’ve learned about the NBA playoffs over the years tells us never to rule out the veterans.