2016-17 record: 61-21. 2nd in the Western Conference. Swept by the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
Transactions: 22 points.
That’s how much the San Antonio Spurs were up on the Golden State Warriors in game 1 of the Western Conference finals when Zaza Pachulia stuck his foot under Kawhi Leonard on a closeout while the Spurs best player and NBA MVP candidate was executing a jump shot. Leonard – who had been battling an injury for the entire playoffs – rolled his ankle and left the game and the series.
He had 26 points, 8 rebounds and three assists when he left the game and the Warriors outscored the Spurs 58-33 the rest of the way and swept them out of the playoffs.
It’s impossible to know what would have happened the rest of the way if San Antonio had their best player in the line-up. Would the Spurs have hung on to win the game and made a series of it? Would the Warriors incredible firepower with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson just overwhelmed the Spurs anyway? We’ll never know.
All we know is that they were winning big before Kawhi went down. Injuries suck.
That uncertainty had to be weighing heavily on organization heading into the off-season. With Tony Parker likely unavailable due to a quadriceps tear suffered in their second round series with the Houston Rockets and David Lee, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, Pau Gasol, Jonathan Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon hitting the open market, the Spurs were suddenly at a cross-roads in a sense. They could bring back the team that had just won 61 games and made it to the conference finals or they could chase a big name in free agency and try to go at the Golden State Warriors with increased firepower.
Despite rumours linking them to Chris Paul (who ultimately went to the Rockets) and Kyle Lowry, the Spurs made it clear pretty quickly which direction they were heading in with their first major transaction of the summer: bringing back Patty Mills on a four year, $50 million deal and signalling that the team was going to largely stick with what had brought them to the dance last season.
Mills averaged 9.5 points and 3.5 assists and 21.9 minutes while coming off the bench for the Spurs in 72 of the 80 games he played in last season, but when called upon he can rise to the occasion with increased minutes or as a starter which is what the Spurs are going to need him to do with Tony Parker likely on the shelf for the first half of the season.
His 41.4% three point shooting last season should carry over to this year and give the Spurs a lethal attack and good spacing when he’s on the floor. The Aussie will also prove to be an invaluable mentor to the team’s point guard of the future Dejounte Murray. Stability and continuity are important for a system like the one in San Antonio and keeping Mills ensures that both are intact as the team copes with the absence of Parker.
The Spurs didn’t land a big star to try and keep pace with the Warriors or Rockets in the West, but they did add a solid veteran scorer in Rudy Gay on a 2 year, $17 million deal.
Living in Toronto, there were a lot of Raptors fans around who scoffed at the signing as they remembered Gay as a black hole offensively who stopped the ball whenever he touched it and bottomed out in the Big Smoke by shooting 38.8% on 18.8 attempts before being traded to Sacramento in a deal that totally revitalized the franchise. What they didn’t see is that Gay’s efficiency completely recovered in Sacramento as he averaged about 45.5% shooting on about 15 attempts per game during his three and a half seasons there and saw his player efficiency and win shares restored to pre-Toronto levels while with the Kings.
There are questions around Gay’s health as he’s coming off an Achilles tendon injury at 31 years old, but if he is at 100% he’ll likely fill the old Boris Diaw role quite nicely as a stretch four in small line-ups who will bring a quicker pace, ball handling, shooting and inside scoring to the line-up. Gay has the versatility and athleticism to guard bigger players and will offer a much needed consistent scoring option with the 18.7 points he averaged last season. Given how often, he had to be the focal point in Sacramento, I’d expect his numbers to get even better with the Spurs.
Gay has already stated he doesn’t mind coming off the bench and will bolster scoring in small line-ups and also open up opportunities for his teammates with the floor spacing he creates. Most importantly, he can help Kawhi Leonard carry the burden on offense. If the Big Truck can come back healthy, this could turn out to be a quality signing on a very team friendly deal for the Spurs with all of the impact of some of the bigger deals handed out last summer.
With the departures of David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon in free agency, San Antonio needed to add to their front-court depth and did so with the signing of Joffrey Lauvergne on a two year, $3.2 million deal which is a nice low cost move for the underachieving Frenchman who has been pushed out of loaded front-courts in Denver and Oklahoma City before landing in Chicago who have now committed to the tank.
Lauvergne has never averaged more than 17.6 minutes per season, but he should get a bigger role in the Spurs rotation this season as Gregg Popovich really liked what he saw in training camp and with that stamp of approval, he should be able to offer a lot in terms of rim protection and rebounding and use his 6’11”, 220 pound frame to bully his way to the basket. He will make an ideal small-ball centre as with someone like Rudy Gay playing out on the perimeter he can focus on rebounding and second chance opportunities. The 26 year old Frenchman is likely on the verge of his best NBA season in San Antonio.
After much speculation of an impending retirement, Manu Ginobili is returning to the Spurs on one last deal for 2 years and $5 million. At 40 years old, his best days may be behind him and he’s coming off a season where he averaged a career low 18.7 minutes per game, but El Contusione still has a lot to offer the team. He’s going to play the vital role of veteran mentor, but can still play very effectively off the bench as he hit 39.2% three last season, is still an excellent play-maker and did had the best play of the entire 2017 NBA playoffs with this block.
I’m so glad we’re getting more Ginobili. I really didn’t want to see him go and even if he isn’t the player he once was, he’s still got a lot more incredible highlights to give us before he rides off into the sunset.
Despite being being linked to CP3 in all kinds of rumours, the Spurs didn’t get him, but they did land Brandon Paul who like Jonathan Simmons and Danny Green before him could become another D-League success story. The 26 year old looked good in Summer League stints with Cleveland and Dallas and offers the Spurs some depth at the two guard on a two year minimum deal.
37 year old Pau Gasol is coming back to San Antonio on a three year, $48 million deal. The Spaniard thrived in a bench role for the Spurs last season as he offered 12.4 points and 7.8 boards on 50.2% shooting in 25.4 minutes per game last season. He also showed some three point stroke on his limited attempts as he shot 53.8% on just 1.6 attempts per game and his stroke could allow him to increase his range and stay relevant as he ages.
Like the rest of the veterans the Spurs brought back, the future Hall of Famer still has a lot to offer the team as he can mentor younger players and help bring along new addition Joffrey Lauvergne, while still playing quality minutes in his own right and still offering a lot as a stretch-5 for San Antonio. It’s really an ideal situation for the Spanish legend as he winds down his career on a team that can best make use of his skills.
It wasn’t a splashy off-season for the Spurs and, at first glance, none of their moves brings them closer to closing the gap with the Golden State Warriors, you can’t undervalue consistency and a lot of key pieces are back, which is important for any perennial contender.
2017 NBA Draft: With the 29th pick in the draft, the Spurs selected Derrick White, a combo guard out of Colorado, who is such a Spurs pick with such a Spurs story. He came out of nowhere after starting his collegiate career playing Division II ball to earning first team All-Pac 12 honours in his senior year while putting up an impressive 18.3 points, 4.3 assists, 4.1 boards, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals with the Buffaloes. Only Frank Mason III, Dennis Smith Jr, and Markelle Fultz put up 18/4/4 in power conferences last season.
White stands at 6’4.5” and 190 pounds with a 6’7.5” wingspan. He doesn’t have elite level speed or explosiveness but plays with tremendous pace and has excellent footwork which serve him well on the back-end. Any shortcomings in athleticism are made up by White’s excellent instincts and feel for the game which allowed him to make plays in the passing lane and even protect the rim in different situations. He also held his own against smaller and speedier guards and his defensive versatility should serve him well at the pro level.
The 23 year old is an opportunistic scorer with a strong feel for the game. He shows a great deal of poise and patience when making plays and lets the game come to him which served him well last season in the jump from DII ball to the Pac-12. White can score at all three levels with efficiency as evidenced by his 40.3% three point shooting and excellent jump shot. He’s equally adept at pull-ups and catch-and-shoot jumpers and can scorch opposing defenses when he heats up. But he’s far more than just a shooter as he is very creative and versatile near the basket and hit 45% on floaters and 62% of his finishing opportunities last season.
He can immediately add back-court depth to the Spurs with Tony Parker out to start the season and will thrive in Gregg Popovich’s system. It’s another excellent pick in a seemingly never-ending series of them for San Antonio.
At the 59th pick in the draft, another typical Spurs story played out. The “how did he fall that far and how did the Spurs get him?” scenario perfectly played out when San Antonio drafted Jaron Blossomgame a 6’7” forward out of Clemson who put up 17.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in his senior year with the Tigers.
With a 6’10” wingspan, Blossomgame has the length to play either forward position and he has shown a lot of defensive versatility with his ability to switch onto multiple positions and offer effective D on both the perimeter and around the basket. The 24 year old does have a lot of work to do on his fundamentals and especially his off-ball defense, but has the potential to really develop into a solid presence in the back-court at the NBA level.
On the offensive side, Blossomgame isn’t a particularly adept shot creator on the perimeter, has erratic long-range shooting (his three point percentage dropped from 44% as a junior to 25.5% last season), but he does have some intriguing versatility that he can really build on at the pro level. He runs hard in transition and is a smart cutter off the ball which leads to easy finishes at the rim. The former Tiger is also quick off the ground and strong at the basket and on the offensive glass. If he works on his shooting, he can become an effective stretch-4 in the NBA.
Blossomgame will start his NBA career with the Austin Spurs in the G-League which will help him continue to work on his shooting and his defensive fundamentals, but should he do that successfully could find himself up with the big team sooner rather than later. It’s a solid pick for the Spurs as they have time to develop another front court presence in their system behind an aging front-court on the pro team. If he develops into a rotational player in San Antonio that’s excellent quality at the 59th spot in the draft.
Outlook: We already knew that Kawhi Leonard is one of, if not the, best defender in the NBA. He’s got the back-to-back defensive player of the year awards to prove it, nobody comes close to him in terms of his ability to lock down an opposing team’s best player – even if it’s an elite superstar – and the only player in the league who comes close to him on the perimeter is Draymond Green.
Standing at 6’8” with an astounding 7’3” wingspan, the Klaw’s long arms allow him to hound the ball handler relentlessly, cut off passing lanes or even block shots and rebound like a big man. He’s got the speed and athleticism to stay in front of literally anyone he’s matched up with and the tenacity and force of will to excel in any match-up. Opposing teams go to ridiculous lengths to avoid match-ups with him – even removing his man from the equation entirely. There are very few players in the history of the league who have that type of impact on the back end.
What he we found out last season is that as otherworldly as Kawhi is on defense, he may be just as incredible on the offensive end as he took a major leap last season by averaging a career high 25.5 points – good enough for 9th in league scoring – on 48.5% shooting to go along with 5.8 boards and 3.5 assists. His usage rate ballooned to 31.1% which was 8th highest in the NBA and his player efficiency rating was third in the league at 27.6. He finished 6th in both offensive and defensive win shares and 3rd in win shares per 48 minutes on the way to finishing third in MVP voting.
Any concerns about the Spurs having a two-way superstar following the retirement of Tim Duncan were emphatically laid to rest with another break out season for Kawhi Leonard on the offensive end. He’s the new face of the franchise and carrying on the proud tradition of leadership by example and a hard-nosed workman-like approach to the game that defined the Tim Duncan era of the team. He can do it all on both sides of the floor and at times seems like he was conjured up from Gregg Popovich’s wildest dreams with his versatile defense and incredibly efficient offense that allows him to hang with just about anybody when it comes to scoring. He dropped a career high 41 points on LeBron and the Cavs last season.
That level of elite two way play is incredibly rare and allows Gregg Popovich to keep up with other teams as the league places increased emphasis on position-less basketball. One set I’d expect to see more of this season is seeing Leonard at the 4 in small line-ups with his length, athleticism and speed will create match-up problems against bigger and slower players on both sides of the floor and allow the Spurs to get the jump on opposing players and stretch the floor with his range (he’s a career 38.8% three point shooter) and also allow Pop to space on the wings to deploy another athletic shooter and really maximize tempo and space on the floor.
There are some questions about Leonard’s health as he’s been shut down for the pre-season to help recover from a nagging quad injury last season, but that’s seen by most as a precautionary measure and he should be back at full strength for the regular season. When he is, expect even bigger things for Kawhi this season with Rudy Gay having been brought into share the scoring load and to offer another weapon on the wing and open up more space for Leonard to operate.
With the other two MVP finalists, James Harden and eventual winner Russell Westbrook, both getting superstar additions to the team in the form of Chris Paul for Harden and Carmelo Anthony and Paul George for Westbrook while the Spurs largely stayed the course, I’d anticipate that Kawhi Leonard has a good chance of grabbing his first MVP award this season. He’ll definitely be in the conversation as he remains the driving force on this team and its sole superstar. Kawhi’s only 26 years old. We haven’t seen his best basketball yet, which should scare the hell out of opposing teams.
Given that the team opted not to add a second superstar, LaMarcus Aldridge is going to have to better as he enters his third season in San Antonio.
Last season was a disappointment for the 32 year old big man. His 17.3 points and 7.1 rebounds were his lowest averages since his rookie season. His season was defined by uneven play – potentially stemming from the tendinitis in both knees that plagued him on-and-off all year and also the heart arrhythmia that caused him to miss some time in March. Whatever the reason, LA just wasn’t the same as he missed his first all-star game since 2011 and his inconsistency carried over into the playoffs to the point where he was called out publicly by Gregg Popovich due to a particularly poor effort in game two of the Western Conference finals with Kawhi Leonard on the shelf.
After a summer with continual rumours that the Spurs were trying to move Aldridge, he’s still on the team and has reportedly met with Pop to discuss his unhappiness with his fit in San Antonio and a willingness to work together to play to LA’s strengths more in the system. The likely starting point could be taking more advantage of the 6’11”, 260 pounder’s range as he attempted only 56 three pointers last season but connected on 41.1%. That could go along way toward mitigating his shooting from 10-16 feet which fell to 38.7% last season.
If Aldridge is willing to stop placing so much emphasis on those mid-range fade-aways and play within the Spurs’ system, I’d expect a redemption year for him. There’s no question that when he’s healthy, happy and motivated, LA can still be among the league’s elite big men. Although his age and an influx of all-star calibre talent to the West might prevent his return to the all-star team, there’s still potential for him to capture some of that all-star form and for the Spurs to stay in the top tier of a loaded conference, it’s essential that he does.
Danny Green remains one of the best three-and-D wings in the entire league and he’s coming off a season where he his defense was finally formally recognized as he was named to the NBA’s second all-defensive team. Green finished 9th in defensive box plus/minus and remains an integral part of the Spurs excellent perimeter defense.
The goal for Green this season should be to improve his overall efficiency. He put up 7.7 points on 39.2% shooting including 37.9% from three point range which are well below his career averaged of 8.8 points on 42.3% shooting including 40% from downtown. If Green can get back to his career averages or even approach his most efficient seasons, he can really bolster the Spurs offensive attack in addition to his elite wing defense.
One of the players I’m most excited to watch on the team this season is second year point guard Dejounte Murray who is projected to be the starting point guard with Tony Parker still on the shelf. The 21 year old is expected to be the point guard of the future in San Antonio and it’s easy to see why as he stands 6’5” with a 6’9” wingspan that will allow him the thrive in the modern game as he can use his length and athleticism to fill the stat-sheet with rebounds, blocks and steals.
Murray spent the summer working out with Manu Ginobili and has blown away Spurs vets with his work ethic and commitment which are really the key ingredients to success under Gregg Popovich. His rookie see season saw him play about 8.5 minutes per game and average 3.4 points, 1.1 boards and 1.3 assists which adjusted to a per 36 minute basis equates to 14.5 points, 5.4 assists and 4.7 boards and I honestly believe those numbers could be even higher in an increased role this season given the poise he showed as a rookie having to step into bigger minutes in the playoffs with Parker’s injury. His 39.1% three point shooting last season is another reason to expect big things from him in his second year.
With the departures of David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon, youth will play a role in the Spurs front-court as well with 24 year old Davis Bertans factoring more into the rotation this year. The 6’10” Latvian exceeded all expectations in his rookie year which saw him hit 40% from beyond the arc and is coming off an excellent performance at EuroBasket which saw him average 14 points a game in the tournament, which positions him for a big year in San Antonio where he’s going to enjoy more minutes in the rotation and can stretch the floor with his shooting.
Another 24 year old Kyle Anderson has a lot to prove as he enters his fourth season with the team. With Boris Diaw’s departure, he really filled in the jack-of-all-trades role of the bench for San Antonio last year and although it wasn’t reflected with gaudy stats he performed well and saw his three point shooting jump dramatically to 37.5% from beyond the arc. His speed and court vision allow him a lot of versatility in terms of where he can play and with the addition of Rudy Gay, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him deployed as a two guard in some line-ups. It’s going to be up to him to have a big season to stay catch on in the rotation and ensure his future with the Spurs.
Of course, the biggest element of the Spurs success is always going to be coach Gregg Popovich. He’s the best coach in the basketball – if not all of sports – who has guided the Spurs to 20 straight playoff appearances and likely a 21st to come this season with their worst record being 50-32 in that span. That’s a hell of a floor.
Popovich is also one of the best human beings ever to coach in the NBA. As evidenced by his media day press conference and insightful commentary on white privilege in the United States.
The key to Pop’s success has always been his ability to anticipate changes to the game and adjust his strategies accordingly. Emphasis on perimeter play? The Spurs were already doing it. A focus on long distance shooters? The Spurs were already doing it. Position-less basketball and small line-ups? The Spurs were already doing it. He’s also seemingly got an answer for everything.
On paper, the Spurs were horribly outgunned by the Houston Rockets last season yet managed to beat them in six games including winning the deciding contest without Kawhi Leonard in the line-up. They did this through a team focused defense based attack that forced the Rockets into throwing up desperate three point attempts and continually trapped James Harden on the blocks while on the offensive end they beat the Rockets in the passing game with 32 assists to Houston’s 22.
Unselfish basketball is the key to Popovich’s system and the Spurs success. The system in San Antonio requires every player to buy into the system and give an optimal effort on both sides of the floor.
It’s resulted in the best defense in the NBA as the Spurs finished last season with a league best 104.1 defensive rating and held opponents to just 44.3% shooting. With elite-level perimeter defenders like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green on the team, it’s easy just to chalk up their success to the presence of great individual defenders, but it’s much more than that. It’s also a team effort. Every player on the team does their job and everyone is willing to pitch in on switches and double teams where necessary to create the optimal match-ups for the team on the back-end. That level of commitment and precision is why the parts can change year-to-year, but the Spurs always play stifling team defense. It’s all in commitment to Pop’s system.
Their offense, too, is based on unselfishness and defined by passing, cuts to the basket and continual motion to create the best look inside or on the perimeter. It’s a system that works time and time again because of commitment to off the ball movement from everyone on the floor to outwork the defense and create the best opportunities. It’s all about movement and also having shooters on the perimeter which has allowed the Spurs to stay relevant while the game changes as they were able to lead the NBA in three point efficiency – hitting 39% as a team last season.
Popovich’s system will always keep the Spurs competitive. It’s why they don’t need to chase big name superstars in the off-season, but can instead focus on players who fit into the system. Bringing back key pieces like Ginobili, Gasol and Mills was ultimately paramount to the team as Pop already knows what these guys bring to the table and more importantly how and where they fit in the system. It’s also why it was a better choice to the Spurs to opt for a Dejounte Murray/Patty Mills tandem to fill in for Tony Parker rather than roll the dice in free agency. Pop is bringing along Murray to fit into the system and Mills has played it for years.
Consistency is often the key to success in team sports and in bringing back so many key pieces, the Spurs have kept the core of a 61 win team intact that lead the league in defense and three point efficiency last season. It shocks me that in the face of that kind of continuity, there are still those who doubt how the team will compete in the new look West when the answer is so obvious – the same way they always have.
Yes Gasol and Ginobili’s best days are behind them, but they’re still valuable contributors and Murray and Bertans will develop into valuable contributors as the two vets wind down their careers. It’s a cycle that has played out time and time again in the organization and has only resulted in more success. The team also has one of the best players in all of basketball in Kawhi Leonard and a great deal of depth.
I do see the win total maybe falling a bit as the West is even tighter than it’s been in years past, but regardless of how many teams got better around them, the Spurs are still positioned near the top of it.
Come play-off time, I’m not betting against them even when they’re matched up against the much higher powered Rockets or Thunder. They’ve proven themselves too many times when they’ve seemed outmatched and outgunned.
In basketball, the best system can triumph over the best collection of players and for 20 years and running it’s hard to argue that there’s a better system in place than the one in San Antonio.
This off-season may not have gotten them closer to the Golden State Warriors in terms of the otherworldly level of talent that team possesses, but the team is still well positioned for another match-up with the Warriors in the West final and if Kawhi Leonard stays healthy this time, we might get our answer to the lingering question remaining from last year’s match-up.
Prediction: 55-27. 3rd the Western Conference. Likely a re-match with the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals.