This is the first in a series of ‘post-views’, an idea thought up by Lives, which essentally previews a selected team’s season after seeing them play a few times.
After just two games, it is clear to me that the San Antonio Spurs, who last year posted an astonishing 61 regular season victories, are once again a title contender. It seems like this team just never dies and that is certainly the case thanks to the best coach and GM tandem in the NBA. Coach Pop and GM R.C. Buford have defied the age of Tim Duncan and have built a team that, 11 years after the first title in this dynasty, are still competitive.
One of the myths that would lead you to believe that the Spurs are, in fact, not a contender is that they are an old team.
The Spurs, as I learnt watching the telecasts of the first two games this season, actually have an average age of 27; just 1 year above the league average. One might then point to the fact that their three best players – Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan – are well above this average age, but this is misleading. Tony Parker is by no means an old player. He is absolutely still in his prime and shouldn’t even be part of this conversation. Ginobili, at 34 years old, is, in basketball terms, younger than his age will tell you. After years of playing limited minutes off the bench (and don’t think this wasn’t planned by Buford/Popovich), Manu has enough in the tank to carry the team for two or three more years and last season proved this. You may look at his history of injuries and doubt the likelihood of this but most of his recurring ankle injuries are a thing of the past. The last two seasons he has been unlucky getting injured before the playoffs as both occasions were ‘impact’ injuries – one-offs. If he can avoid another one this year, he should be able to take his team through the playoffs – at least past the first round.
Now, the one player who, admittedly, is old and on the road to retirement is Tim Duncan. He is no longer capable of playing 30+ minutes a night and he now struggles to take on the more powerful big men in the NBA, case-in-point being last year’s playoff series against Memphis. The reason that the Spurs don’t have to worry about this, though, is that he is no longer the focal point of that team. Last year Pop decided the team were going to go out and run with Tony and Manu.
They did so all the way to 61 victories.
This is Manu’s team now. His stat sheet isn’t as impressive as the likes of a LeBron James or a Dwyane Wade but, believe it or not, Ginobili should still be considered a top 10 NBA player. To truly understand why you need to watch the Spurs play night in and night out. It sounds cheesy, but it seems like every single play that Manu makes uplifts his team, to the point where his stats can be multiplied in terms of actual value. Whether it’s with a steal that no-one saw coming, or by earning a pair of free throws from nothing, everything Manu does has a great effect on his team. There really is no other player in the NBA who manages this quite like Ginobili.
The most impressive – and important – thing that the Spurs have done so far is to build a young supporting cast to help their aging stars along their way. Kawhi Leonard, DeJuan Blair, T.J. Ford, Tiago Splitter and even the much-criticised Richard Jefferson all gel into this team so well. It’s plain to see that the Spurs have had a long-term plan in place to fill future needs through the draft – rather than taking the glamorous pick – and they have done just that. In Anderson, Leonard and Jefferson, the Spurs have three long, athletic swingmen, capable of fitting into a number of roles to help out the team. They can defend, they can hit the three and they can slash to the basket. When the Spurs traded away Pop’s favorite player in George Hill for Kawhi Leonard there were questions as to who was going to fill his role as the back-up point guard. T.J. Ford, in his first two games, has shown that he is as pass-first a point guard as any and once again the Spurs front office have found a perfect fit.
It may be surprising, but I still believe that the Spurs are, quite possibly, the best team in the West. Think about it. The Mavs and Lakers are on their way down in a hurry, the Nuggets and Blazers don’t have enough star power to take them to the next level and the Spurs have just made quick work of the young, upstart Clippers and Grizzlies in their first two games of the season. I watched both games and they were impressive. The Grizzlies and Clips have a lot of growing up to do if they are to contend – growing that the Spurs have had a decade to do.
The one team that might just be better than the Spurs are the Oklahoma City Thunder, most people’s pick to represent the West in the NBA Finals. Fair enough. They have size, athleticism, youth and one of the best scorers in the game in Kevin Durant. Once again, though, Durant’s recent scuffle with Westbrook shows that they are yet another immature team with a lot of talent.
For the Spurs to really surprise the league and win their 5th franchise title there are a few things that need to happen. Popovich needs to manage Manu and Timmy’s minutes well until the playoffs, something he is entirely capable of and Ginobili needs to avoid another major injury just before the playoffs. Maybe he should sit the last few regular season games, just in case. Finally, there is one roster move that needs to be made. With Duncan playing reduced minutes, surrounding him with Blair and Splitter (who have been impressive so far) is not enough. They need anohter inside force, another banger. Bonner won’t cut it – he’s one of the few players in the league (like our Steve Novak) who is literally just a three-point shooter. Instead the Spurs are going to have to go elsewhere to find their man. Whether they go to their D-League affiliate, the Austin Toros, or they convert a draft pick or a bench player into a big man via trade is beyond me but it needs to be done. The only thing that held them back from advancing in the playoffs last year was their inability to match up with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Whilst both Blair and Splitter have improved, they need one more.