The Spurs are not a favorite among casual basketball fans — fans who deride the team’s so-called ‘boring’ style of play, where consistency and execution trump flash and controversy. But, year after year, this team is right back in the thick of things in the always tough Western Conference, on its way to its 3rd consecutive No. 1 seed this season.
On paper, Tim Duncan, 36; Manu Ginobili, 35; and Tony Parker, 30 — a cornerstone that’s delivered San Antonio 3 NBA championships since 2003 — are old, and sometimes they even play as such on TV, but somehow this team keeps finding a way to win under Gregg Popovich. Of the 3, Parker’s the only one to not noticeably have lost a step, though all 3 are still major contributors, but San Antonio’s found young gem after young gem, whether it’s Danny Green, 25; Kawhi Leonard, 21; Tiago Splitter, 28; Nando de Colo, 25; or Gary Neal, 28.
The Spurs’ success is really a testament to Popovich and the coaching staff, GM R.C. Buford, whose draft-first style has fueled the league’s new rebuild model (exhibit A: Oklahoma City), and the people of San Antonio, who consistently rank among the NBA’s best in attendance, despite a not-so-sexy on-court product. San Antonio’s the only team to rank in the top 8 in scoring offense, No. 4 at 104.2 points per game, and defense, No. 8 at 96 points per.
The buck with this Spurs team stops with Parker, who’s putting together an MVP-caliber season in any non-LeBron James year. At 21.1 points a night, Parker’s averaging his best scoring numbers since 2008-09 and the 2nd-best of his career. His assists, 7.6, are only a shade under last year’s career-high of 7.7, and his 3+ assist-to-turnover ratio is among the league’s best. He’s shooting an absurd 53.4% from the field (remember, he’s 6’2″), a career-best 38% from 3 and 82.7% from the foul line. All in only 33.1 minutes per game.
Duncan, 16.8 points and 9.7 rebounds, is still an All Star, but he’s lost much of his lateral quickness and lift; statistically, this is actually Duncan’s best year since 2009-10, in terms of points, rebounds, blocks, 2.7, and minutes, 29.7. His 49.4 field goal percentage is still strong. As for Ginobili, at 12.3 per game, he’s putting together his lowest-scoring season since 2002-03, his rookie campaign. Less is asked of Ginobili, though, given the ascendance of Green and Neal. Ginobili, 23.3, actually plays about 4.5 minutes less per game than starting 2-guard Green.
But the reason this team is good is its depth. Counting the aforementioned 3, Popovich plays 9 guys at least 20 minutes a night, and 4 others — DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner, de Colo and Patty Mills — have averaged at least 10 minutes per in 44 or more appearances. Considering teams are only allowed to suit 12, not 13, up on any given night, that stat is absolutely insane.
Of all the young prospects, Leonard’s my personal favorite. The second-year starter at small forward, Leonard’s averaging nearly 11 points a game and offers intensity on both ends, athleticism and an ability to connect from outside (38.3%), spacing the floor for Parker and Duncan. His only stat to not increase over last year is field goal percentage, down to 48.3% from 49.3% in 2011-12.
The Spurs are 2nd in the NBA in field goal percentage, 48.5, and 5th in 3-point percentage, 37.9, thanks largely to Green, 43.2%, and Bonner, 42.2%. Speaking of Green, here’s a guy who could never find the floor in Cleveland, appearing in 20 games (mostly garbage time) on the 2009-10 Cavaliers, but has blossomed in San Antonio’s system, with consistency on both ends of the floor and a developing ability to create his own shot off the dribble.
Rounding out the starting unit is Splitter, who’s also improved mightily over his 3-year career. For the first time in his Spurs tenure, the 6’11” Brazilian is a double-figure scorer, chipping in 10.4 points and 5.8 rebounds on 59.2% shooting in 23.9 minutes. His touch is also improving — he’s shooting 74.4% from the stripe, up more than 20 points over his rookie year. Also in the frontcourt is Blair and Boris Diaw, both former starters; Blair’s role, one that’s gradually diminished over his 4-year career, is bruising toughness, even at an undersized 6’7″ but 270, and Diaw’s to space the floor and hit from outside, where he’s a 42.6% marksman.
The one other guy worth mentioning here is Stephen Jackson, the journeyman scorer who’s found his niche in San Antonio. Jackson, 34 and a 3-time 20 points-a-night scorer, is averaging his lowest scoring totals since 2001-02, at only 6.4 points per game in 20.3 minutes. But when the playoffs roll around, Popovich will undoubtedly use Jackson’s shooting, given his range and ability to score in isolation situations. Captain Jack, after all, shot 53.5% in last year’s postseason, and a crazy 60.5% from 3.
AT 45-14, San Antonio’s 2 games up on Oklahoma City for the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed and 4 games up in the win column on the Miami Heat for the NBA’s best record. Of San Antonio’s 23 remaining games, 13 are against likely playoff teams, but 16 are at home, where they’re a conference-best 22-3. So, in other words, the Spurs are likely to grab homecourt advantage throughout, meaning OKC will have to win at least 1 in its building should they meet in the Western Conference Finals, like they did last year.
Last year, San Antonio won its first 10 playoff games before dropping 4 straight to the Thunder, now without James Harden, who scored at least 15 points (including one 30-point effort) in 5 of 6 games in that series. If the 2 were to meet once more, which is by no means a sure bet given the competitive landscape out West, I prefer San Antonio’s chances this year, due to the development of their bench talent and the departure of Harden, whose isolation scoring and big-time shot-making ability was key to OKC’s win in 2012. How the Spurs match up with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat, of course, is another story.
Looking even further into the future, financially speaking, the Spurs are in as good a position as anyone. From top to bottom, there’s not a single bad contract on their payroll. Ginobili’s an unrestricted free agent this offseason, whom I expect Buford to return at a team-friendly rate. Jackson’s $10 million comes off the books this summer, as does Blair’s rookie deal; Jackson could return with a major pay cut, but Blair, who’s been reportedly on the trading block for some time now, will probably sign elsewhere. Duncan’s owed $10.36 million in 2013-14 and has a player option for said amount in 2014-15, at which point he’ll probably retire, if next year’s not his last.
Buford will likely extend affordable qualifying offers to Leonard, Splitter and Neal, all 3 of whom I’d guess stick with this franchise for the indefinite future. Say Diaw, $4.7 million, and Mills, $1.13, pick up their player options, and San Antonio will have 11 guys under contract for 2013-14 with at least more than $10 million to spare (and likely re-sign Ginobili with wiggle room). That, my friends, is why San Antonio has not missed the playoffs since 1996-97.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.