Last season: Evil triumphed over good, and the Spurs lost a HEART-BREAKING (but ridiculously entertaining) 7 game series to the Axis of Ego. Had it not been for the gut wrenching disbelief that followed game 6 and into game 7, I’d have ranked this the best Finals since the Bulls once again denied Stockton and Malone that elusive NBA championship banner. Had it not been for LeBron James’ epic bricks that missed so badly that normal rebounds didn’t apply, the NBA landscape, and championship paradigm, could look dramatically different today. The Spurs should have defeated the most devastating collection of talent in decades with the following recipe: fundamental, unselfish offense, featuring mostly pick and rolls, help defense that rarely fouls, and (over)reliance on limited role-players. They are the anti-Heat – a team predicated on physicality, drawing fouls, and defending with positionless, ultra-athletic (and long) players capable of switching everything. Most importantly, they were assembled organically, like the underdog Hoosiers that won with coaching, unselfishness, a system, and just a smidge of Jimmy Chitwood star-power. Ok, that’s a lie. Even you, reader, probably agree that Tim Duncan is one of the top 5 PF/C (whichever way you lean) of all-time. The thing is, you are probably underrating him. Tony Parker too. Only a few contrarians mention Parker each year as the top Point Guard in the league. The Spurs like it this way. Winning is all that matters – and each player assumes a critical role in a well-oiled machine of basketball purity. Oh how I wish the Spurs had knocked off the Heat, while the talking heads obsessed over the right ratio of plays run for Dwyane Wade.
The Spurs squeezed so many wins out of their roster last season. Popovich perfected schemes for his personnel, calling on role players to step up and embrace their playing time. He had to. Manu Ginobili is hurt as often as he’s healthy, and Duncan’s minutes needed to be curbed. Tony Parker missed a decent chunk of games as well. But the team found balance, with the infusion of a truly eclectic bunch of cast-offs and has-beens. Danny Green (it hurts) led the team in minutes played, despite being best described as a 3 and D shooting guard almost incapable of creating offense for himself. Kawhi Lenoard established that his rookie season was no fluke – increasing almost every statistical category while handling more responsibility on offense and defense, as he capped off a solid season with an epic coming-out party in the Finals. The team filled out the roster with the island of misfit toys. With a lack of individual talent, swathes of sub-average PERs, and little ability (or willingness) to try to compete using the modern “drive and draw fouls” approach to offense, the Spurs dominated in a stacked division by sharing the basketball (1st in Assist Rate), shooting the lights out (3rd in TS%), and suffocating offenses with a help and recover defense that rebounded exceptionally well (3rd in Defensive rebound rate) and almost never put people on the FT line (1st in the NBA in not-committing fouls). It was highly entertaining, and truly a foil for the modern NBA. The Duncan/Parker/Ginobili dynasty is undoubtedly playing in its twilight years, and I desperately hope the Kobe/LeBron worship that has defined the last decade doesn’t completely overshadow the relentless expression of unselfish, even beautiful basketball that the Spurs have dedicated themselves to.
What they’ve done this off-season: Drafted Livio Jean-Charles, a long combo forward that raised eyebrows at the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit. Aaaaaaand…former Buckeye DeShawn Thomas. I like the Thomas pick, he can fill it up from a variety of positions on the court – a bit of a ying to the Green/Bonner/Mills yang of refusing to dribble and just launching away from deep. The Spurs were quiet in free-agency, letting Gary Neal walk and signing former Bull Marco Belinelli. Pounding the rock has a pretty well thought-out argument for a Marco/Manu – SG/SF rotation.
How they match up with the Cavs & The match-up to watch: The Spurs were 6-0 in the Byron Scott era, exploiting the Cavaliers porous and lazy defense. Overcoming the Spurs approach to the game requires a tenaciously disciplined defense that turns their sharpshooters into a weakness by making them put the ball on the floor and shoot off the dribble. The problem is, this is Tony Parker’s forte. The Thunder beat the Spurs by switching on defense, using their long arms to close out on shooters, and dressing up 1999 Kevin Garnett like 2012 Serge Ibaka. The Heat beat them by missing the basket so severely that the inflatable ball, exploding with kinetic energy, careened to wide open shooters on broken plays. So if you can do either of those things, I guess you can beat the Spurs. The match-up to watch will be Waiters vs Green, two wildly different players – one with a limited ceiling, that almost always plays within himself, and one with limitless potential, that needs to learn to play within himself to be successful.
Other Thoughts: The only thing more shocking to me than the decision the NBA made to fine the Spurs for choosing to rest their starters during a grueling stretch of pre-New Year basketball was how many fans agreed with the decision. I only wish the Spurs’ third stringers would have held on against the Heat, in that cruel night of foreshadowing. That would have made the fine that much more ludicrous, and shown the NBA for what it truly is: co-conspirators with the soulless Axis of Ego. Use your preferred internet search engine to find out how much money the NBA fined the Heat for sitting James, Wade, and Bosh against the Spurs in March. I pray that Popovich stuns the world again and gets one more shot at the Heat – everyone is focusing on the Clippers, Rockets, and Thunder, and the Spurs wouldn’t have it any other way.