Welcome to “Pretty Much Screwed,” our 2012-13 guide to the upcoming NBA season, in which we identify the reasons why your favorite team might have to start looking forward to 2013-2014 — and highlight at least one reason for you to be hopeful. Today: the San Antonio Spurs, where Pops, Tony, Timmy and Manu try and keep the nasty going as they again start another season as one of the favorites in the West.
There’s a common theme to the beginning of every San Antonio Spurs season: they’re the “dark horse” pick for the title. They’ve become favorites for that segment of the press who still reads the newspaper every morning, and thinks a hyperlink is a fictional term from the original Back to the Future. That’s because the Spurs are old, at least speciously, because their big three, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and now Tony Parker are all in their 30’s, and have been through countless playoff battles over the years. They’ve still succeeded in gaining a foothold in the Western Conference regardless of the focus on their age (and really, Tony is only 30—though now divorced). The Spurs have won the Western Conference’s top seed the last two years; except, judging by the preseason media focus, it’s really been the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers that are the might in the Western Conference. Maybe the pundits have a point. San Antonio isn’t getting any younger, and there are already noticeable slips in the big three’s play.
Manu Ginobili isn’t as young as James Harden.
This wasn’t so obvious in last season’s Western Conference Finals series between the Spurs and Thunder where the two best 6th men in the league played pretty evenly through six games. Nor was it clear during the regular season, when Manu came back from injury to play 34 games for San Antonio and set career highs in field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage. Yes, Harden rightfully took home the NBA’s sixth man of the year award, but Manu was playing at a historically efficient level. The difference though, lies in mileage, both on Manu’s body playing in so many postseasons in San Antonio, and all the games he’s played for Argentina in the Olympics (where this summer’s London Games were probably his last). Manu has played over 18,000 minutes during a decade-long career in San Antonio, and he turned 35 this past July. Yes, the Steve Nash’s of the NBA exist, but Manu doesn’t have the help of the superior Phoenix training staff, and he’s been knocked out with some severe leg injuries in past years, not to mention the start of last season. He’s healthy now, but how long can that last, and when do his helter-skelter forays to the left side of the rim stop becoming commonplace in yet another 82+ game season?
Tim Duncan can’t defend the rim like in the past, and San Antonio’s defense has suffered as a result.
Before last season’s epic offensive run, San Antonio had been at or near the top of the league’s team defense rankings. But last year, after Popovich sped up the Spurs’ style of play, they fell to 16th in the league in points allowed, and 10th in defensive ranking (per basketball-reference). You could chalk that up to a decreased emphasis on defense as they got out and ran with a newer, younger, lineup, or it could be attributed to the Big Fundamental, Tim Duncan. Duncan is entering his 16th NBA season, and he turns 37 at the end of April. His age means he’s just not the same defensive presence he once was. His averages per 36 minutes have remained permanently plateaued, but he’s only playing 28-30 minutes a night and can no longer rotate as quickly for weak side help when wing players get into the lane. DeJuan Blair is undersized (but not on the girth front), and Matt Bonner is a serious downgrade on the defensive end no matter how many New Hampshire mountains he runs.
Tim Duncan is probably the greatest power forward in the history of the game, and certainly one of the best players of his generation. But he’s getting old, and while the stats don’t back it up when they’re elongated for changes in playing time, he’s not the force around the rim that he once was.
San Antonio’s offense-first approach doesn’t work as well in the playoffs.
Defense wins championships. No one knows this better than Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. In the last 10 years, no championship team has been lower than 9th in defensive rating per basketball-reference (and only the 2006-07 Miami Squad fell even that far). And in case you forgot, San Antonio won two titles in that span, so Popovich is well aware of this trend. Last season, San Antonio ranked 10th in basketball-reference’s defensive ratings, which seems pretty good, but they also ranked 11th in defensive efficiency per hoopdata. To give you some comparison, they ranked 2nd in defensive efficiency the last time they won the title, in 2007. Sure, San Antonio is also scoring like they’d never scored before, as Popovich shows us he’s not just a one-trick pony, but once Oklahoma City figured out how to slow down that high-octane offense, San Antonio was lost. And then they couldn’t do enough to slow down the three-headed Ghidorah of the Thunder.
One reason you might not be screwed: They’re still the Spurs and all of this pandering has been mere squabbling, at best, in an attempt to discredit a legit title contender.
I’m tempted to write that as long as Popovich is stalking the sidelines (and enjoying a nice Cabernet in the offseason), the Spurs will be in contention come spring time. But with Duncan and Ginobili in the twilights of their careers, change is coming for the proud franchise from Texas. That doesn’t mean they’ll immediately fall back into the lottery. General Manager R.C. Buford and Popovich have done a more than admirable job filling in the pieces around their big three to atone for the reduced minutes for Duncan and the injury problems plaguing Ginobili.
Tony Parker just turned 30 and is still in his prime, putting up some of the best numbers of his career last season. Kawhi Leonard is a legit starter and a budding All Star. – Now that he’s finally got a full training camp to prepare for this season, expect to see rapid progression in his effectiveness. Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson are perfect pickups from last season, and they represent prior Spurs veterans that looked done, only to suddenly morph into their better selves under the tutelage of Pop. Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal and Danny Green will also be a part of the rotation, and all Spurs role players perform sound, Popovich-infused basketball as they run all over the court buttressing the league’s best offense. The Spurs have one or two more runs for a title with this group, as evidenced by their Borg-like 20-straight (and 31 of 33) wins to end last season and begin the postseason. But OKC beat them in four straight after they started the playoffs 10-0, and their season ended like it began: with few believing they still have what it takes to win another one with this group. You can be sure Popovich will have his team right back playing again for a title this season; the only question is whether they can weather the perfect storm in Los Angeles, and the still improving group in Oklahoma City, to come out of the West. It’s gonna be fun to find out.
Actual season prediction: 59-23, 1st in the Southwest Division, and 2nd in the Western Conference.