For the fifth time since 1999, the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA Championship. They’ve somehow found a way to keep their championship window open despite the masses anticipating it closing for years now. Tim Duncan has proven to be ageless, Gregg Popovich remains at the top of his game as a coach and R.C. Buford continues to put the right pieces around them to keep them in a position to contend.
As the rest of the league raced to try to catch up to the Spurs this offseason, they stood pat, as they should, because they were far and away the best team in the league last season. They’ve set the bar that everyone else is trying to reach, and as the season gets set to start, there appears to be very few teams equipped with what it would take to dethrone them, but only in their best-case scenario.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 San Antonio Spurs.
Five Guys Think
One of the most underrated stories of the summer, lost in the shuffle of LeBron James’ homecoming and Carmelo Anthony’s big decision, was the fact that San Antonio brought back all the major players that just won a championship together and shamed the two-time defending champion Miami HEAT into disbandment. Assuming those key players can remain healthy, they’re a good bet to finish atop the Western Conference and enjoy yet another deep run in the playoffs. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are apparently ageless, Tony Parker is still among the league’s most underrated players, Kawhi Leonard is on the cusp of stardom and Gregg Popovich is unequivocally the best head coach in the NBA. Who in the world bets against a setup like that?
1st Place – Southwest Division
Every year around this time, the same question is often asked. When will Father Time pay a visit to the San Antonio Spurs? Every year around this time, naturally, predictions are released anticipating a bit of slippage for the Spurs’ aging core. However, every year the group manages to silence skeptics and defy expectations. After adding another Larry O’Brien trophy into the collection last season, maybe it’s time to just go with the flow and enjoy the greatness that’s on full display. Another year, another year of title contention in San Antonio. Bank on it.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Lang Greene
As Kawhi Leonard emerges as the face of the San Antonio Spurs and Tim Duncan begins to think more and more seriously about the prospect of retiring, the immediate future is far from a guarantee for the Spurs. Around them, the Southwest Division seems to have gotten tougher with the upgrades that the Dallas Mavericks have made. This also could be the year that we begin to see the New Orleans Pelicans take flight. At some point, age and attrition has to catch up to the Spurs, especially without adding anyone this past offseason who is certain to crack their rotation. If the Spurs are able to remain healthy, though, another season with the same cast playing the same system should yield some beautiful basketball. As perhaps the best two-way team in the league, even with their health concerns, betting against the Spurs just doesn’t seem wise. At this point, the smart money still has them being one of the final four teams in the conference, at least. And finally, going back-to-back? It certainly isn’t out of the question.
1st place – Southwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
The Spurs aren’t going anywhere. This is one of the best organizations in sports because they’re a perennial contender and they are a model franchise when it comes to finding and developing talent. The latest example is Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who should only continue to improve this year. San Antonio did a good job bringing back Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw this summer, while adding Kyle Anderson – one of the most intriguing rookies in this class due to his versatility. This year (and, it seems, every year for all of eternity) the Spurs will be in the mix to win it all. We’ve all learned to never bet against San Antonio, and Leonard could be poised for a monster season to follow up his amazing Finals series.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
After making just minor changes two summers ago when they lost in the NBA Finals, you knew the Spurs were going to be quiet this offseason while everyone else tried to put together a team that could compete against them. The Western Conference is going to be tough as always, but every team still appears to be a notch below the Spurs. It’s the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls out East that look like they could be troublesome for them, but that’s a long ways down the line. For years, I’ve been guilty of writing their obituary prematurely and thinking that they’re done as contenders. However, it’s impossible to make that mistake this year. I’m hard pressed to think of a team that is as well-rounded and complete as this year’s Spurs team. Outside of injuries, it’s hard to see anything getting in their way of another championship.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: Tony Parker. Parker’s scoring average dipped nearly four points from 20.3 in ’12-13 to 16.7 in ’13-14, but that was due more to the health of his surrounding cast and the improvement of guys like Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Boris Diaw than any drop off in Parker’s game. Parker remains one of the league’s most difficult covers, and he had an efficient true shooting percentage of .555 with a 25.7 usage percentage and a PER of 19. The improvements he’s made as a jump shooter have made him virtually unguardable. He still prefers the drive over the jump shot, but the 25 threes he hit at a 37 percent clip last year were among the best marks of his career. For someone who used to drive Coach Pop nuts and get benched for his decision making, Pop now has the utmost trust in him and gives him as much freedom as he’s ever given any player.
Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard. When the San Antonio Spurs traded George Hill for Leonard in the 2011 NBA Draft, a big part of their reasoning was his defensive potential. They felt like he had the tools to be an elite-level perimeter defender, something the franchise had been sorely lacking since the retirement of Bruce Bowen. Fast forward three years ahead and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich now has the confidence in Leonard to call on him to defend any position one through four. In an era that will largely be remembered by LeBron James’ dominance, no player has proven to be more effective in defending him than Leonard. He was tapped as the Spurs’ next great player after his rookie year by Coach Pop, and that’s the more accurate way to describe him now.
Top Playmaker: Tony Parker. One of the things that makes the Spurs such an efficient and difficult team to defend is that they have several quality playmakers and no matter what combination is on the floor, everyone is a willing passer. In terms of pure court vision and the ability to find make plays for others that the average player doesn’t even think to attempt, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and rookie Kyle Anderson may be the best on the team. However, as the point guard and facilitator of the offense, the top playmaker is Parker. His assists dropped from 7.6 in ’12-13 to 5.7 in ’13-14, but he still led the team in dimes and by virtue of his offensive responsibilities, blazing speed and the ability to break down defenses with regularity, he should lead the team in assists once again in ’14-15.
Top Clutch Player: Tony Parker. This is another one that could go to a number of players. Manu Ginobili has often found himself with the ball in his hands because of his unpredictability and craftiness, while Tim Duncan gets a lot of touches with the game on the line as well, whether it be inside the paint or even beyond the arc in a pinch. However, Parker has become the captain of the offense and is the guy who has earned the right to have things flow through him with the game on the line. At this point in his career, with four championship rings to his credit, Parker has seen it all and done it all. There’s no position he hasn’t been in and while he’s surrounded by other quality options in the clutch, he’s become option number one when it matters most. Just by virtue of Popovich’s approach, though, he will give other guys opportunities in the clutch, especially in the regular season, just for growth and development purposes. When it truly matters, though, a play call designed for Parker to make a play, whether it be pass or shoot, is likely coming.
The Unheralded Player: Tiago Splitter/Boris Diaw. It’s too difficult to gives this honor to either Diaw or Splitter, so we’ll split it among the two of them and call them the co-unheralded players. There were a lot of people calling for the Spurs to let Splitter walk in free agency two summers ago and the Portland Trail Blazers were ready to sign him away if they would have let him, but they matched the Trail Blazers’ offer and were rewarded for their faith in him as he played a critical role in their run to a championship. The same can be said about Diaw, who was basically run off by the Charlotte Hornets. It took him a year to really come into his own and get into shape the way that Pop wanted him to, but Diaw was stellar in the playoffs and in the discussion for Finals MVP. With both being very skilled, unselfish and locked up with new contracts for the next few years, the Spurs have perfect complements to play alongside Tim Duncan and make sure that his work load stays manageable throughout the regular season.
Best New Addition: Kyle Anderson. The uniquely versatile UCLA product takes this honor by default as the San Antonio Spurs had a very quiet offseason. Anderson is the only new, fully-guaranteed contract on the books from last year, as the team opted to just re-sign Patty Mills and Boris Diaw while adding a couple of non-guaranteed camp invites during free agency. Anderson is likely to see far more time in the D-League with the Austin Toros than with the Spurs, not so much because the 30th overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft couldn’t contribute, but because there’s simply not room in the rotation. Once Diaw was re-signed, Anderson’s chances at having anything that resembles a significant role went out the window. If Aron Baynes ends up staying with the team, that’s another spot down the depth chart that Anderson falls. This year is going to be about watching and learning for Anderson, unless an unfortunate string of injuries leads to him being called on out of necessity, or he surprisingly outplays those in front of him.
– Yannis Koutroupis
Who We Like
Kawhi Leonard: There’s something about the bright lights, NBA Finals stage and LeBron James that brings out the best in Kawhi Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP. His rapid development into one of the best small forwards in the game has perfectly coincided with the end of his rookie contract, which can be extended before October 31. The Spurs have a history of taking care of their own and considering how irreplaceable Leonard is, they’d likely prefer to get something done prior to the deadline and avoid going through restricted free agency with him next summer. Leonard would likely fetch a max offer sheet in that scenario and is justified in asking for it now. Traditionally the Spurs have been able to keep their stars at a discount and have only handed out a couple of max contracts. There will probably be some back and forth in negotiations, but because both sides want to work out a deal, it’s safe to say they’ll find a middle ground – and Leonard will walk away with the handsome pay day that he has more than earned.
Gregg Popovich: Even though Phil Jackson still has him more than doubled in total championships, it’s starting to get really hard not to call Popovich the greatest coach of all-time. Two years ago he came within a game of winning the championship, then without any major roster changes, came back and won the championship in convincing fashion this past season. He’s always quick to give all of the credit to the players, but coaching had as much to do with their championship run last year as any single individual did. What makes it even more impressive is that he was able to do it without two of his longtime assistants in Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer, who earned head coaching jobs with the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks, respectively. Popovich is a living legend in coaching who every coach strives to be like. His impact on his profession will last long after he decides to call it a career.
Tim Duncan: Duncan cemented himself as the greatest power forward to ever play the game years ago. What he’s done since is distance himself from the competition in a manner that may never be matched and put himself in the discussion of greatest players ever. He’s aged as gracefully as any player in league history, and at 38 years of age he remains one of the best players at his position. He’ll forever go down as the ideal franchise player because of his selflessness, work ethic and the way he’s adjusted his game to remain a serious force at an age other greats became a complete non-factor at. Perhaps most impressive of all is the way he’s embraced guys like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and now Kawhi Leonard sharing the spotlight with him. He takes as much joy in their success as he does his own, a quality that cannot be taught.
R.C. Buford: In a day and age when most executives are graded by the major trades or free agent signings they make, Buford has built a dynasty off of elite scouting, patience and internal development. Clashes between management and coaching happen frequently throughout the league, yet the only time you’ve heard of a conflict between Buford and Pop was when Pop suggested that he was ready to maybe just work in the front office, and Buford declined, telling him “I need a coach, not a general manager.” That turned out to be another wise decision in the long line of them that Buford has made at the helm of the Spurs. Without the ability to spend freely or go into the luxury tax, Buford has always found a way to keep the Spurs competitive and he believed in his stars longer than most executives would have. Unfortunately for rival executives with aspirations of following his blueprint, it’s really rare for ownership to display the kind of belief and commitment to his vision that the Spurs’ owners have. He may not garner the same kind of mainstream attention that Duncan or Popovich do, but make no mistake about it, Buford is one of the best to ever hold his position as well.
– Yannis Koutroupis
The Spurs are a deep, talented, experienced and unselfish team with great chemistry. You never hear of issues in their locker room because they look at the character of a player before they look at their talent level and make sure they only bring in guys who fit into their system and put the team first. Offensively the Spurs scored 108.2 points per 100 possessions, which ranked sixth in the league, with impressive efficiency (53.7 effective field goal percentage and 57.1 true shooting percentage – both ranked in the top three). Popovich has really opened up the playbook, allowed for more running in transition and given shooters like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green the green light to fire as they see fit from beyond the arc. Everyone is involved offensively, evident by their league leading 19.1 assists per game. The real reason the Spurs were able to get back to hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy, though, was their improved defense. They only allowed 100.1 point per 100 possessions, the fourth best mark in the league. Leonard and Tiago Splitter were really key in that aspect. If the Spurs continue to defend at that level, a sixth championship is going to be well within reach.
– Yannis Koutroupis
You can’t really mention any weaknesses on the Spurs without coming off as nitpicky. They’re a complete team that can play just about any style of basketball. Statistically they were close to middle of the pack with their rebounding rate, but were still in the top half and it certainly wasn’t an issue as they ran into teams in the Western Conference Finals and NBA Finals that played primarily small ball. They are one of the older squads in the league, so there’s injury concerns, but every team, regardless of their age, can be set back by untimely injuries. The Spurs’ age may make them slightly more susceptible to them, though. On the court, they’ve struggled to find backups for Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker that are consistently reliable, but have gotten by just fine with what they have and often just utilize the versatility of Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw when they’re not getting what they need from whoever is Parker and Leonard’s back up at the time.
– Yannis Koutroupis
The Salary Cap
The Spurs still have their full Mid-Level (5.3 million) and Bi-Annual (2.1 million) Exceptions, but have already committed to 14 guaranteed players. The team has three partially guaranteed players (Bryce Cotton, JaMychal Green and Josh Davis) fighting for the one remaining roster spot — each with small promises ($50k, $60k and $20k, respectively). The team has also been linked to free agent forward Michael Beasley. Aron Baynes remains a restricted free agent, and could take that 15th guaranteed spot if he accepted the Spurs’ $1.1 million qualifying offer – although both he and the Spurs may be looking for a sign and trade instead. Carrying a championship roster, San Antonio is well below the luxury tax threshold ($76.8 million) with just $67.8 million in guaranteed commitments. The Spurs also have a $1.5 million traded player exception for Nando De Colo, expiring on 2/20/15.
– Eric Pincus
At first blush, it is hard to imagine the Spurs exceeding last year’s mark even if they are firing on all cylinders since Popovich so rarely puts his foot on the gas during the regular season. Yet it should be remembered that last season’s number one seed was accomplished with myriad injuries throughout the early part of the year. Parker played only 68 games, Leonard 66, Green 68 and Splitter 59. Ginobili also played only 68 games, although he so regularly misses time that a higher total for him seems unlikely. But a few more games from those players and the Spurs could conceivably exceed last year’s total, although the injury to Patty Mills that will keep him out much of the year could hurt.
The Spurs’ depth and system-based success gives them perhaps the lowest floor of any team, as one key injury will affect them less than other good teams. But age-related declines from Duncan, Ginobili, Diaw and perhaps most importantly Parker could cause the Spurs to take a bit of a step back.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
Will age and/or complacency catch up to the Spurs?
With last year’s team that was the best in the league by a significant margin back intact and geared up for another run, there’s very few things that can get in their way of a third straight Finals appearance and potentially a second-straight championship. Recently, Coach Pop came out and said that he was worried about complacency, a legit concern considering that last year’s team was fueled by their failures from the previous year, where they came so close but ultimately fell in seven games to the Miami HEAT. They’re not going to have that this year, but considering the maturity level, experience and competitiveness of this team, those banking on complacency knocking them off their throne will likely be disappointed. The most pressing issue is their age and the injury concerns that come with it. Their core has a lot of miles on their legs. With an average age of 28 years and two months, the Spurs have the fourth-oldest team in the league (without Kawhi Leonard, Cory Joseph and Kyle Anderson, the Spurs would have the oldest roster in the league by three years). Coach Pop has become magnificent at managing his aging stars’ minutes, even if it costs him money for giving guys a night off, but injuries are a part of the game and sometimes unavoidable. They’re already going to be starting the season without Patty Mills, but should benefit from the fact that most of their roster, outside of Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter – who played for France and Brazil in the FIBA World Cup, respectively – had a restful summer.
– Yannis Koutroupis
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