The NBA goes into the All-Star break tonight and Miami’s visit to Oklahoma City (8 PM ET, TNT) is a high-profile way to go into the weekend. A lot of observers, myself included, think a LeBron vs. Durant rematch in the Finals is close to a foregone conclusion. But of all the teams that would vehemently disagree, none would have more credibility in doing so than the San Antonio Spurs, so today let’s take a closer look at the only franchise in sports history that manages to fly under the media radar while winning four titles.
San Antonio’s depth was its calling card during last year’s run to a league-best 50-16 record in the lockout-shortened season and it’s been so again this year. The Spurs have nine players who log 20-plus minutes per game, and that doesn’t even get to personnel like three-point shooting forward Matt Bonner. This depth was never more apparent than in a high-profile decision by head coach Gregg Popovich to rest stars Tim Duncan and Tony Parker for a TNT-televised road game in Miami back on November 29. David Stern was sufficiently upset about the ruination of the big TV game that he fined Popovich. But the Spurs managed to hang with last year’s champs even without their big guns and only lost 105-100. It begs the question of how Stern could have justified fining the coach if San Antonio had won the game.
Duncan continues to quietly produce from his power forward spot. The future Hall of Famer is averaging 17 points/10 rebound/3 blocks per game at age 36. In the backcourt, Parker is 30-years-old and averages 21 points, with 7 assists. Parker also shoots 54 percent from the floor, one part of a phenomenally efficient San Antonio offense. As deep as the Spurs are, as good a coach as Popovich is, you don’t win NBA championships without stars coming up big in June and there’s no substitute for Duncan and Parker at crunch time.
The good news is that there are a lot of legs on hand to keep the veteran stars rested and ready. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are both young (25 & 21 respectively), and each are lights-out from the field and behind the three-point line. In the middle, 28-year-old Tiago Splitter joins with Boris Diaw in providing Duncan some consistent rebounding help each night. And there are veterans off the bench, in Manu Ginobli and Stephen Jackson. The sharpshooting Ginobli is an X-factor in the playoffs if he can keep himself healthy. He’s only shooting 38 percent from behind the arc so far this year, but has the capability to get extremely hot from long range.
San Antonio seemed to be steamrolling to an NBA title last June when they won their first ten playoff games. Then it all went south immediately, as they lost four straight to Oklahoma City in a Western Conference Finals that ended in six games. One of the underlying problems that San Antonio showed, even if their postseason win streak, was that they were not championship-caliber defensively. Teams consistently hit 46-47 percent from the floor, putting a lot of pressure on the offense to run at maximum efficiency. As you get deeper into the playoffs that’s just very tough to do. The Spurs were the equivalent of a baseball team who needed to hit a lot of home runs to cover for their pitching. You can look really good when it’s all clicking, but if it stops, things get away from you without advance warning.
Will things be different this year, or has San Antonio become a really good regular season team—deep, well-coached, some proud veterans, and certainly able to make it to a conference finals, but lacking the ability to take the final steps? There are some early indicators that Spurs fans have to like. Last year, San Antonio ranked only 11th in defensive efficiency—obviously not bad, but not championship-caliber. Meanwhile, teams like Miami and Chicago (who was title-quality when Derrick rose was healthy) were in the top five. So far this year, the Spurs ranked 3rd in defensive efficiency and it’s the Heat who are merely adequate. Perhaps things will be different in the playoffs, but all you can do right now is improve during the Dog Days, and San Antonio has done just that defensively.
A fall-off in rebounding is a concern—from 6th in the league last year to 19th this time around, something that detracts from defensive improvement when you don’t close the possession by boarding the missed shot. Here though, I have to say that if the biggest problem the Spurs have come playoff time is wondering whether Duncan can clean up enough rebounds, I’d say their in the best possible shape.
San Antonio closed the first half with a flourish, winning blowout games at playoff contenders Brooklyn and Chicago with key players taking turns resting. The Spurs will open the post-All Star break phase of the schedule with a couple nationally televised games—at the LA Clippers on Thursday (TNT) and at Golden State on Friday (ESPN). Both games tip at 10:30 PM ET.
The under-the-radar Spurs again have the best record in the NBA, and now they’re a better team defensively. It’s just about Popovich finding the right balance between keeping his veteran stars rested and trying to secure homecourt advantage. It’s a delicate balancing act in a competitive conference, but there’s no coach in the game more suited to do it. I still find it hard to imagine the league won’t find a way to get LeBron and Durant matched up for the title again, but the Spurs keep building on the load of respect they’ve already got from basketball fans.