- NBA Rank: 1
Conference Rank: 1
- San Antonio Spurs
"It's a big boy game"Gregg Popovich
Remember last year's Spurs preview? We could basically just reprint that. Still, as a fan, I think it bears repeating: the San Antonio Spurs are the most innovative team in the modern NBA. This year they're the defending champions, bringing back the entire group that just won the Finals in historic fashion and our projected title favorites.
Since Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich came together in 1997, the San Antonio Spurs have won over 70% of their games, a 17-season mark that easily leads the NBA. This unparalleled run of excellence began with the individual talents of Tim Duncan and David Robinson, but has been sustained through brilliant franchise management.
The Spurs have been leaders in almost every NBA innovation over the last fifteen years. They were among the first teams to realize the untapped value of international players, drafting future franchise cornerstones Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili late in the first and second rounds and gradually becoming today the most international team in the league. They were innovators of draft-and-stash player development, letting young players, who might not be able to immediately contribute to an already successful team, develop in Europe until their skills are needed. In 2007, they became just the second team to purchase a D-League affiliate, and can now do the same trick with domestic players. They were early adopters of SportsVU, and while the Spurs don’t publicize their use of analytics, it’s become an annual tradition for them to draft someone well-loved by Arturo’s model.
They were also early adopters of the corner-3. They've been able to smoothly transition from the grind-it-out, defense-first Spurs of the late ‘90s to the three-and-D Spurs of the mid-2000s to the pass-first, up-tempo-offense Spurs of today. And now, as Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker have aged, they’ve become leaders in controlling player minutes and roster depth, managing to rebuild around younger players without ever falling from contention. Coach Pop is very clear that “standing pat never works.”
The Spurs keep finding ways to improve what they do, and the Spurs keep winning.
|Nando De Colo ||301.0||27||0.124||0.8|
|Shannon Brown ||103.0||28||-0.216||-0.5|
|Damion James ||50.0||26||0.043||0|
|Othyus Jeffers ||34.0||28||0.186||0.1|
|Malcolm Thomas ||15.0||25||0.155||0|
Indicates that the player is no longer with the team.
It all came together: the shift to a pass-first offense; the deep rotation roster; the limitation of player minutes to keep everyone’s legs fresh. Following what could have been a morale-destroying loss in the 2013 Finals, the Spurs regrouped, rededicated themselves to their principles, and put together a storybook season.
They had the league’s best record, despite becoming the first team ever without any player averaging more than 30 minutes per game. They used an 11-man rotation all season, and played with a “next man up” philosophy so that when one player went down, another took the floor to run the exact same plays. This tactic produced 29 different starting lineups over the course of the season, and unprecedented levels of teammate trust. The Spurs’ second unit alone, the so-called Foreign Legion, put up numbers that would have easily earned a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. In the table above you can see how balanced they were, with eight different players producing between three and ten wins. The roster depth meant that in the playoffs, when rotations usually tighten, no Spur had to average more than 33 minutes per game.
When they got to the Finals, a rematch with the same Heat team who had so narrowly won the year before, the Spurs humiliated them. It was by far the most dominant Finals performance in the history of the NBA, with Boxscore Geeks favorite Kawhi Leonard playing LeBron James to a standstill and becoming the youngest Finals MVP since Magic Johnson. Tim Duncan, five-time champion, choked up voice as glitter rained from the rafters: “It makes last year okay.”
|Kyle Anderson ||3.0||1,003.7||21||0.123||2.6|
Indicates that the player is new to the team.
So how do you spend the summer after the most dominant championship win in league history? If you’re the Spurs, you briefly flirt with Pau Gasol and then re-sign all your players. The 2014-15 Spurs will be the first team since the 1991-92 Bulls to bring back every member of a championship team. The only new addition is Wins Produced darling and draft day steal, Kyle Anderson.
There have been more changes amongst the coaching staff than the players. With longtime assistants Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown departed for head coaching gigs with the Hawks and the 76ers, Popovich will be relying on some surprising new people for advice. His new assistant coaches are Ettore Messina, the two-time Euroleague Coach of the Year who won a championship with a young Manu Ginobili, and Becky Hammon, former face of the WNBA San Antonio Stars and the first woman ever hired to be a full time NBA assistant coach. What these coaching acquisitions, and lack of player acquisitions, say is that we should expect more of the same. More pass-first offense (a hallmark of the European style), more deep rotations, more limited minutes.
The latter is important, because health issues could still sink this team. Ginobili has been rehabbing a stress fracture in his leg all summer and says he's not yet in basketball shape. It seems unlikely to me that his per-minute efficiencies will match last year. Patty Mills had rotator cuff surgery and will miss half the season. That may actually be good for the Spurs in the long run–they re-signed him at a discount–but it's hard to predict how effective he'll be this year when he returns. They'll also be starting the season without the services of Tiago Splitter (calf injury) or Kawhi Leonard (pink eye). But except for the month Kawhi was out with a broken hand, during which they only played .500 ball, the Spurs showed last year that they have the roster flexibility to deal with some injuries. And as long as Kawhi can stay healthy, there's only so far this team can fall.
Margins of error in the Western Conference are razor thin. But with a reinvigorated brain trust leading the same personnel, the Spurs are well positioned to make a third consecutive trip to the Finals and repeat as champions for the first time in team history.