Once Again, the Spurs are Flying Under the Radar

The San Antonio Spurs have a chance to be one of the best teams in NBA history: maybe the first team in NBA history to go undefeated at home, depending on what happens with the Golden State Warriors. And no one seems to care. The Spurs are headed for at least 68 wins, and they probably won’t even make the Finals. Let’s examine how they got to this point.

Since star Tim Duncan arrived 19 seasons ago, the Spurs have made the playoffs every year. Remarkably, since the 1998-99 lockout, they have won 50 games in every season since, including the lockout shortened 2011-12 season in which there were hardly 50 games to win.

NBA: Finals-San Antonio Spurs at Miami HeatDuncan was almost always the focal point of those teams, leading the team to four championships from 1999-2007, and winning two MVP’s in that span. Along with guards Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, Duncan had been the focal point of the Spurs machine, with the team always able to substitute different role players around them and have success.

That star-studded trio won titles in 2003, 2005, and 2007, and was very successful in the first decade of the new millennium. The Spurs started off the second decade, 2010-11, with a 61 win season and the first seed in the West. Doubters, however, believed that win total was helped by an easy schedule.

Ginobili suffered an injury, and the Spurs bowed out in the first round to the eighth seeded Memphis Grizzlies. This was the first time since the first round had been expanded to seven games that an eighth seed beat a first seed. For all their past success, the Spurs recognized a need to re-tool and change their style of play.

The Spurs decided they needed to play faster, and they needed some new personnel to accomplish this. The Spurs decided the first place they needed an upgrade at small-forward, and they traded up in the 2011 draft to pick number 15, where they selected small forward Kawhi Leonard.

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Leonard has since turned into the best defensive player in the league, winning the 2014-15 DPOY, and Leonard has grown into the Spurs’ best offensive player as well. However, he wasn’t always this capable offensively. In his first couple seasons, Leonard was strictly a cut to the basket and corner three type player. But the Spurs’ excellent staff developed his game, inside and out.

In the 2014 Finals, Leonard showed some of this improvement, averaging 18 points, 6 rebounds and 1.6 steals a game in the five game thrashing of the Miami Heat. This includes a 29 point performance in Game 3, which was his career high until this season.

hi-res-170251259_crop_northLeonard shot 58% from three in that series, and played probably the best-ever defense anyone has ever played on LeBron James. Leonard won Finals MVP that year, deservedly so, and has built upon that since with his DPOY last season and his first All-Star selection this season. Leonard is averaging 21 points on 51% shooting and 46% from three, completing his transition as the focal point of the Spurs offense.

However, small-forward wasn’t the only position that needed an upgrade after that season. The player the Spurs traded for Leonard, George Hill, was the team’s reliable backup point-guard, and was actually Coach Gregg Popovich’s favorite player. The Spurs needed a backup guard to play behind Parker.

Besides a backup point-guard, the Spurs also needed to find a starting shooting guard, in order to bring Ginobili off the bench where Popovich thought he played best. So to address those needs, they brought in Patty Mills and Danny Green, respectively.

Mills is a point-guard whose best skill is to shoot three pointers, and he does it particularly well off the dribble. At shooting-guard, Green fits perfectly as a player who runs off of screens, hits three pointers, and plays good perimeter defense. Mills and Green were instrumental in dethroning the Heat in the 2014 Finals.

San Antonio Spurs v Dallas Mavericks - Game FourSan Antonio also thought they could use some depth in the front-court. So in 2012, after Boris Diaw was waived by the Charlotte Bobcats, the Spurs picked him up. Diaw, is a good (albiet hefty) example of a point-forward, an exquisite ball handler and all around tricky player. Then, this last offseason, the Spurs signed both Serbian giant Boban Marjanovic, who is 7”3’ and is all around very skilled, and David West, a former NBA All-Star forward who has a very reliable 18 foot jumper.

However, the Spurs signed a big fish last summer, former Portland Trail Blazers All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who rapidly changed the direction of the franchise for the better. San Antonio did not know who was going to be their big man of the future after Duncan retired, but now they know.

Aldridge brings a different skill set; Duncan prefers to play from the post, while Aldridge really enjoys the elbows. But this is a different team now, and it is starting to show. Aldridge gives this team two go-to scorers, along with Leonard, and now Aldridge is starting to get acclimated to the team’s general unselfish culture.

iTo build on that, Aldridge is averaging five less points (and shots) per game, and has scrapped the three-point shot he started shooting last season. Not only that, but Aldridge is shooting 42% from the dreaded 16-23 foot range, and is taking his highest percentage shots from that area, as 31% of his shots come from that range. Aldridge is assimilating into the fast-paced half-court offense of the Spurs, and is really perfect for that spot.

The Spurs in the past few seasons have played a very fast pace in general, but this year they have slowed down their offense in an attempt to integrate Aldridge. This doesn’t mean they slowed down in the half court however; the ball movement is as crisp as ever, especially with the bench lineup led by Ginobili.

Parker runs the starting group, but Aldridge and Leonard really are leading the charge on offense. The Spurs are actually averaging more assists per game than in years past, placing third in the league in APG at 24.8. The Spurs are in the bottom ten in pace this year, averaging a mere 96 possessions, yet they are third in offensive efficiency this year.

However, while San Antonio has been good on offense this season, the area where they’ve really excelled is on the less glamorous defensive end of the floor. That slow pace has helped the Spurs to the best defense in the NBA by a mile, with a defensive efficiency rating of 96.5, one of only two teams below 100.

151124090050-lamarcus-aldridge-kawhi-leonard-san-antonio-spurs-v-portland-trail-blazers.1200x672

One of the reasons for this successful transition to slower play is because since they have Aldridge and Leonard as those two go-to scorers, Tim Duncan, with less of an offensive burden, can focus on protecting the rim and defending the post. Leonard may be the best defender in the league, and Green is a premier defender in his own right.

The bench’s defense is not bad either, with Mills being a better defender than Parker actually. Ginobili is still capable on defense, and Diaw is a good defender despite being built more like a football lineman than an NBA power-forward. The Spurs held the Warriors, who are averaging 110 points a game, to 79 points at home in their most recent contest.

But the majority has not paid any attention to San Antonio, because they lack excitement like Steph Curry, whose Warriors are chasing 73 wins. Basketball purists have noticed the Spurs, but Kawhi Leonard isn’t making half court shots from the tunnel, like Curry and teammate Klay Thompson. Lamarcus Aldridge isn’t racking up triple doubles and technical fouls like Warriors’ stud Draymond Green.

usa-today-8413343.0The Spurs are in a smaller market, and are a generally less “flashy” team, so they will not be leading SportsCenter unless they are beating the Warriors. It’s not a problem for coach Popovich though, as he prefers his team to stay on the low end of things as long as they are successful, which is almost always the case.

Currently sitting at 62-12, the Spurs have a chance to win 70 games. Will it happen? Probably not, seeing as they have the Warriors two more times, and Popovich values resting his starters before the postseason. The Spurs are 4 wins away though from being the one of the first teams to go a perfect 41-0 at home, and we may have two teams who go undefeated at home in the same season (the Warriors).

The Spurs have not lost back-to-back games this year, which is something even the Warriors can’t say. Given the way the Spurs have played this year, it is not out of the realm of possibility that they win 69 games and tie for third most wins in NBA history. Then in the playoffs, Popovich and Duncan can compete for a sixth ring together, that is, if they can get past the juggernaut that is Golden State.

It should be the most epic Conference Finals of all time, assuming both teams make it there.

Statistics provided by: ESPN.com, basketball-reference.com, and NBA.com

Images thanks to: sportingnews.com, USA Today, Grantland, Bleacher Report, Getty Images, ESPN.com, NBA.com

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