Contender Series III: San Antonio Spurs

This is part three of Contender Series, one where I discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the best NBA teams, taking into account previous history of play and capability of flipping the switch and getting into playoff mode. In this part, I will analyze the San Antonio Spurs.

Why they will win:

It seems kind of unfair. After what was likely the most recent dynasty we witnessed with 5 titles and winning 50 games in each season (except the lockout shortened season) in the Duncan/Popovich era, the Spurs are having none of that rebuilding process. They are smoothly transitioning from that era to a new one lead by Kawhi Leonard and to some extent LaMarcus Aldridge.

What can we say about Kawhi Leonard? He has officially emerged as a superstar and arguably a top-5 player. From guarding LeBron in the epic 2013 finals, to winning the finals MVP in 2014 and becoming the Defensive Player of the Year in the 2014-2015 season it has been a great evolution to witness. He is the best perimeter defender out there, being able to contain players from Kevin Durant to LeBron. He has accumulated the most defensive win shares in the league to this point with 3.7 and is 3rd in defensive rating. All of this was sort of expected for a player like Leonard. What has made him a superstar was his evolution on the offensive end. He is averaging a career high 19.8 ppg and 6.6 rebounds in just 32 minutes per game. He his shooting nearly 48% from 3-point range (2nd in the league) and 88% from the free-throw line, while posting the 7th best offensive rating of the league and 6th most offensive win shares so far. All this adds up to 25.4 PER which is 5th in the NBA and a +/- of 8.3. Superstar-ish enough right?

Aldridge on the other hand has looked to adapt to a more free flowing Spurs offense. On that end he has filled his role. He is averaging just 16.1 points, but he is doing so on just 29 minutes per game and shooting 50% from the field. Meanwhile, his partner down low is doing what Duncan does, nothing special. Just posting the number one defensive rating in the NBA and continuing to be a force to be reckoned with, likely the best interior defender in the NBA for the 200th time. By logging just 25.9 minutes, Popovich hopes that he is again rested for what they are hoping is a long run in the playoffs.

The rest of the team is, as always, Spurs like. Tony Parker seems to be back to consistently commanding a dominant offense, Ginobili adding the typical spark off the bench and one of the best benches in the NBA, filled with veterans with roles that we may not truly see or appreciate until the playoffs roll and see a rotation extend to 10 or even more players without missing a beat.

While the Warriors can make the claim that they are winning at an astonishing rate and use it to say they are the best NBA team, the truth is that the Spurs, while with an inferior record, have the highest point differential with a +13.3 to the Warriors 12.7. Sure, the Spurs were humiliated by the Warriors but, as it is the case with the Spurs, we do not really know who they really are until the playoffs. In the West, where it used to be extremely tough to even get to the conference finals, there is one real threat (Warriors) and one to a lesser extent (Thunder) so the path may not be as clouded. If they do get to the finals they would, in all likelihood, face the Cavaliers and LeBron (whom they have beaten 2 times in 3 tries) who should not be as much of a challenge as the Warriors. The challenge therefore lies in getting to the Finals, but with the Spurs talent and experience most of us have learned not to doubt them.

Why they will not win:

This is a hard task. Finding a knock on the Spurs armour is nothing short of amazing, but there are some issues that may need to be addressed.

The first one is the obvious one. Age and the mileage on the more veteran bodies could be a realistic barrier. With the age of Duncan, Ginobili David West, and to a lesser extent Parker, they are more susceptible to injuries and cannot handle the task of playing 40+ minutes per game in a competitive series like they could when they were younger. Part of this problem has been addressed in years past by coach Popovich by limiting severely the minutes but it still does not change the fact that injuries are more likely to occur as they advance in age even when playing limited minutes. An injury to Duncan specially could prove to be a devastating blow to their championship expectations.

There is also the issue of the Aldridge adaptation. While he has seem to fit into the offense in theory, he has had some no shows this season, like the 5 points in a loss against Golden State. While he can be rated as an average defender, there is a concern when he is not playing besides a true rim protector like Tim Duncan, and his ability to anchor a defense manning the middle.

However, the biggest issue against the Spurs case as NBA champions are their threats. The most obvious one is the Warriors. Golden State is playing at an all-time great pace piling win after win and destroying the competition. It does not help that in their only meeting (albeit one without Duncan) they were smashed, losing by 30 points. They seem to be the lock to make to the conference finals so only then will we truly see which one has the upper hand. But it will not be a cruise for the Spurs. If they finish number 2 and Oklahoma City gets the 3rd seed, a meeting in the conference semi-finals could be in order. The Spurs have had a tough time dealing with the Thunder when the latter are fully healthy with Westbrook being able to abuse Tony Parker offensively and Durant being Durant. Even if the beat the Thunder, it could drain them out and make it a lot harder to beat Golden State. If they are able to make it to the finals a final test against LeBron awaits them. If Cleveland is fully healthy it would be extremely difficult to defeat a LeBron who feels his time to bring a championship to Cleveland as a franchise player is coming to an end. While being able to surpass one or two of these obstacles seems possible for a team like the Spurs, could they pass by all 3 to a ring? It would an extremely tough and arduous task.

By: Step Back-J

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