It bespeaks the brilliance of Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford that the San Antonio Spurs have somehow managed to defy Father Time and remain a powerhouse in a conference as ruthlessly competitive as the West. With nary a superstar in sight (Tim Duncan is far too old, Manu Ginobili is hurt far too often, and Tony Parker’s greatness is hardly on par with that of LeBron, Kobe, Rose, etc.), and despite a hodgepodge supporting cast comprised of D-Leaguers, cast-offs, undrafted free agents, and late First Round/Second Round draft picks, the Spurs are on track for the second seed and home-court advantage through (at least) the first two rounds of the postseason. Few of their prospective playoff opponents can sleep peacefully knowing that the league’s most successful team of the last fifteen seasons will be waiting for them come playoff time.
But can the Spurs be counted a legitimate title contender? Or are they destined for another disappointing denouement to an otherwise impressive season?
We have, after all, seen this movie before. Last season Duncan and co. proved rumors of their demise premature en route to capturing the league’s best record; of course, rumors of their revival would in their turn ultimately
prove hallow, as the Spurs became only the third #1 seed in league history to fall to their First Round opponent. And though they essentially played shorthanded in that series, San Antonio’s failure to contain the devastating Randolph-Gasol tandem spoke to a much larger problem in regards to the latest incarnation of the Spurs dynasty: a marked inability to defend against the league’s premier big men.
Unfortunately, this season has offered little to mollify concerns in regards to this particular deficiency. Indeed, the Spurs have been entirely unsuccessful in containing the likes of Dwight Howard (23-18, 58 FG% in 2 games),
Of course, the Spurs cannot and should not be entirely discounted this postseason. With Tony Parker enjoying one of his greatest seasons, a healthy Manu coming off the bench, the venerable Tim Duncan on the low block, and a deep (if unconventional) and versatile brigade of role players augmenting the Big Three, San Antonio certainly has a puncher’s chance of earning its fifth Finals appearance in franchise history. Indeed, throughout the season the Spurs have demonstrated that they’re more than capable of hanging with the league’s elite, as can be evinced from the success they’ve enjoyed against the Thunder (2-1), Clippers (2-1), Grizzlies (3-0), Jazz (3-1), Magic (2-0), Sixers (2-0), Nuggets (2-1), Celtics (1-0), Pacers (1-0), and to a lesser extent the Mavs (2-2) and Rockets (2-2).Blake Griffin (22-13, 53 FG% in 3 games), Kevin Love (20-14, 46 FG% in 3 games) LaMarcus Aldridge (25-7, 60 FG% in 2 games), and Chris Bosh (30-8, 63 FG% in 1 game) (though they have fared relatively well against Dirk Nowitzki, the Grizzlies’ duo, and Luis Scola). Coupled with their general defensive shortcomings (they rank 17th in points allowed per game, 21st in defensive field goal percentage, and according to 82games.com are only 11-9 when facing teams characterized as having “good” offensive production) and one begins to wonder how far a squad as reliant on its (admittedly astounding) offense can advance when the pace slows and defense becomes an imperative.
What’s more, of the fifteen games San Antonio has lost thus far, only three could be considered true blowouts: a 40-point massacre at the hands of the Blazers (without Duncan, Ginobili, or Parker in uniform), along with two early-season drubbings in Miami and Houston. Five of the Spurs’ other losses were decided by five points or less, and only three (excluding the aforementioned blow-outs) by ten points or more. And with an offense as potent (3rd highest scoring average) and efficient (2nd highest FG% and 3rd highest 3FG%) as San Antonio has seen in quite some time (the last season in which the Spurs ranked in the top 3 of scoring: 1984), the Spurs will pose a daunting threat to whoever has the misfortune of meeting them in the postseason.
Yet however impressive the Spurs’ transformation from a defensive juggernaut (from 1998-2008 San Antonio earned a top-three defensive rating every single season, and even in 2009 still managed to rank fifth) to an offensive powerhouse, a return to the Finals will require a much tougher and resilient style of basketball. One, ironically enough, that the Spurs perfected over the course of a decade (and change) in which they captured four titles and were a bane to those teams (Nellie’s Mavs and the Seven Seconds or Less Suns being the most prominent examples) which lacked the requisite mental and physical fortitude to persevere in May and early June. That they’ve come to resemble that which they once trampled with abandon is a stunning development, one that bodes ill for a team that can no longer rely on Tim Duncan to simultaneously anchor both the offense and defense when needed.