Will Flaws Hold the Spurs Back?
The San Antonio Spurs are clearly the second fiddle in the Western Conference this season. With the addition of Kevin Durant and several other key role players, the Golden State Warriors are the favorite to make it to their third straight NBA Finals. And while the Spurs seem like the only other viable team that has a shot of taking down the new super team, they have their deficiencies as well. Every team in the NBA, no matter how great, always endures its fair share of trials and tribulations over the course of the long 82 game season. Aside from the 72-10 Chicago Bulls of 1996, which was as close to perfection as possible, no other team in any season has not struggled in one way shape or form. That being said, the San Antonio Spurs, with notable upgrades at several positions, will see arduous times in several aspects of the game.
The biggest gaping hole in the San Antonio Spurs roster is the absence of Tim Duncan. The twin pillar of success in the organization along with coach Popovich, Duncan has been the backbone of the team for 2 decades. His scoring, leadership, and rim protection were his three most defining traits. While management acquired Pau Gasol, a clear upgrade on offense, with fresher legs, his defense does not bode nearly as well as the Big Fundamental's. Sure Pau will be able to last more than 20 minutes a game (a la Duncan last year), and will score in the mid to high teens, while distributing the ball at a greater efficiency. He will even stretch the floor more than Duncan could in the latter stages of his career. But San Antonio already has Lamarcus Aldridge to do that. Both bigs play the game in a very similar manner. Duncan was a better contrast to that of one Lamarcus Aldridge. And inside, Timmy never faltered in regards to making a defensive play to either cause a momentum shift in the game, or save the game in a clutch situation. Gasol as the center, while not a dud on defense, will definitely create more of a highway to the basket for opposing dynamic athletes such as Russell Westbrook and LeBron James.
Rim protection is a pivotal category of basketball, even in today's outside oriented style of play. Aside from that, every championship team needs a bench that can not only build on the fluidity and progress of the starters, but also work in conjunction with them. The development of wing Kyle Anderson and guard Dejounte Murray will serve huge dividends on the part of the Texas team. But aside from them, there are not many bright spots. Patty Mills went from 6th Man of the Year candidate to an accident waiting to happen last year. His inconsistent play raised many eyebrows, including mine. The loss of David West, Boris Diaw, and Boban Marjanovic were also very crucial. Boris Diaw quietly established himself as one of the most significant pieces on the roster. His ability to stretch the floor as a big, his mindblowing passing, and his defense, particularly on LeBron James in the 2013 NBA Finals, were some of his greatest achievements in the black and silver. He was the driving force of the bench, and what he brings to the table is now absent from the bench. David West was a rough rider who took his talents to the Warriors. His ability to knock down the midrange jumper, bang on the boards, and be a leader in the locker room will thoroughly be missed. And lastly, Boban Marjanovic was a big body with tremendous upside and a knack for scoring in the low post.
The bench replacements for the trio of bigs exiting out of the backdoor are as follows: David Lee, Cady Lalanne, and Matt Bonner. As an outspoken advocate for the mistreatment of David Lee over the course of the last 3 years, this signing was solid. However, once an all-star, but no longer. Replacing David West, he lacks the physicality, toughness, and leadership to bring something different to the table. His ability to score in volume will be useful, but he brings as much baggage as he does upside, so time will tell if he can be a viable 6th man. Cady Lalanne is a young prospect who quite frankly, has little to no NBA experience. However, nobody is better known for developing bigs under the bright lights than Gregg Popovich. Matt Bonner, on a concluding note, has been with the franchise for over a decade. He knows the system in and out. But the Red Rocket has seen his 3 point efficiency dwindle. Just from an eye test, he is not the same guy who can be relied on to play significant minutes, and is a one trick pony whose one trick, isn't really one any more. Therefore, outside of David Lee, the backup frontcourt is lacking, as is the shooting guard slot. Future first ballot hall of famer Manu Ginobili is in the final season of his career. Averaging 10.1 points per game over his last 2 seasons, that number is likely to go down, along with the mediocre 44% field goal percentage he has been sporting. Many questions lie with the bench. They will need their young guys to step up. Otherwise, there is a chance the second unit could be ran out of the gym.
The starting lineup this year garners a grade of B+. The only teams getting a better grade are the Cavaliers at an A- and the Warriors at an A+. The Spurs bench receives a grade of C+. While not bad, there are many questions arising. How can they contend with the likes of the Warriors or Cavaliers bench, which have both been revitalized. One last issue the Spurs might face this season is transition. Tony Parker is a shell of his MVP caliber days, Danny Green sees headlights whenever tasked with handling the ball, and outside of Leonard and Aldridge, nobody else can really move well enough in the open court. Gasol will obviously be able to move better than one Tim Duncan, but in today's game, many points can be stolen in transition, and the Spurs are deficient in that category as well. Unless backup Dejounte Murray blossoms... and quickly, they don't have many alternatives to that issue. Imagine in a perfect world, the Spurs matching up against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, which right now is most likely going to happen. Players 1-5 can simply run, run, and oh yeah, run some more. How in the world will the Spurs, who simply put are old once again, run with those boys? The task seems insurmountable.
All in all, any team coached by Gregg Popovich will make the playoffs and has a 75% chance or greater of advancing to the second round. Unless they slip to the 6th seed again and face one of the powerhouses like they did 2 years ago, chances are they make it to the semi-finals at least. But from there, are they really secure? Young teams are improving every day. And it's entirely feasible to fathom a team like the Utah Jazz or the Portland Trail Blazers coming out of nowhere and knocking the old heads off. The likelihood of that happening is not particularly great, but the Spurs are no strangers to upsets every few years (ie. Memphis 2010, LA Clippers 2015). Hopefully all of their issues can be fixed, either through midseason trades and acquisitions, or the development of camaraderie and maturation. Otherwise, the Warriors will surely coast to the finals.