After Ray Allen took the life out of the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, a lot of people—including myself—thought their era of contention would draw to a close. It had been seven years since the Spurs last won a title, yet they have managed to stay relevant every season since.
“I don’t take it as a redemption,” Manu Ginobili told David Flores of Kens5.com. “I think we had a hell of a playoff run last year, and it just happened that we lost. We had an unbelievable regular season. We put ourselves in a great situation to be No. 1 overall. And we’re going for it, like ever year.”
San Antonio finished the regular season with a 62-20 record, good for 1st in the brutally tough Western Conference. With 30 road wins, they managed to become the 13th team in NBA history to accomplish the feat. Seven of those previous 12 teams went on to win the championship.
Since 1996, Gregg Popovich has been at the helm of the Spurs, guiding them through four championships in a decade span. Although the Spurs have not won since 2007, they have managed to win at least 50 games for 15 straight seasons. Like Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots, Popovich conducts a strict system style of team ball consequently demanding respect and discipline from every player, no matter how valuable or invaluable they are to the franchise. Known as one of the most stable and consistent franchises in North American professional sports, the Spurs have remained a powerhouse franchise throughout the 21st century.
One of the most important things that coach Popovich has preached from the start of his tenure has been team defense. The Spurs finished the regular season 4th overall in defensive efficiency at 100.1 points allowed per 100 possessions. According to Synergy Sports, the Spurs as a team allow 0.86 PPP (points per possession), third best in the league.
Offensively, the Spurs have been one of the most unselfish teams in the league for awhile now. Since the ABA-NBA merger, San Antonio is the first team to not have any player average more than 30 minutes per game. Moreover, the Spurs lead the league in assist ratio at 19.1 (percentage of team’s possessions ending in an assist). No player on the roster averages more than six assists per contest, yet at 2,064 total assists, the Spurs finished with the most total assists by any team according to NBA.com.
Since the Spurs shifted away from relying on Duncan as the main go-to guy on heavy half-court sets, they have followed the rest of the league and starting playing a more up-tempo style. Anyone that watches the Spurs usually finds an open three-point shooter wide open from the perimeter. This past season, 20.1 percent of their plays were via spot-up shooting per Synergy. Their pedigree on offense relies on Tony Parker to speed through the lane and find open shooters around the perimeter. Only 8.6 percent of their plays relied on posting up, proving how far the Spurs have gone away from halfcourt basketball.
Like all of Spurs teams in the past, Popovich surrounds his starting five with deep benches. With the departure of Gary Neal, Aussie journeyman Patty Mills was given more responsibility of backing up Parker. Albeit Mills averaged just less than 19 minutes a game, he managed to score 10.2 points and shoot 46 percent from the field in 81 games this season. Additionally, offseason acquisition Marco Belinelli has been the perfect fit to the Spurs style of ball: capable of shooting the three and creating off the dribble. Contrasting to previous seasons when Ginobili was relied upon to do so much for the offense off the bench, the arrival of Belinelli and the emergence of Mills have lessened the pressure on aging Argentinian Manu Ginobili.
Some may argue that 13 of the Spurs’ 20 losses have come against the other top-4 seeds in the West and top-2 seeds in the East. However, this is misleading since the Spurs rest much of their players throughout the long grueling 82 game season, and on many occasions against the elite teams. Everyone knows how little Greg Popovich and his personnel care about the regular season.
A good argument can be drawn that Oklahoma City will beat San Antonio as they did in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, but this Spurs’ team is on a mission to get back to the Finals. Sure, Kevin Durant is playing at an unbelievable MVP caliber season, but with the trade of James Harden and Russell Westbrook’s three knee surgeries in less than a year, there is too much of the unknown as to how far Durant can carry his team past the Spurs.
Even the demanding Popovich has been amazed at how this season has gone so far, given how last season ended.
“What does impress me about the group is the fact they’ve competed and gotten themselves in this position after a devastating loss in the Finals last year. I think that’s pretty impressive. I don’t think a lot of people have picked up on that, but I have. And I’m really impressed with them,” said Popovich to Mike Monroe of Express News.
With the improved depth and Popovich’s legendary presence, it is difficult to see any other team beating the Spurs four times.