*Photo Credit: © National Basketball Association
If your sole criterion for judging an organization is sustained winning, then the Spurs have been immaculate. They’ve won at least 50 games in each of the last 18 seasons and are currently on pace to do so again, despite the fact that forward Kawhi Leonard and point guard Tony Parker, two of their best players, have not played a single possession. GM R.C. Buford consistently finds diamonds in the rough, and coach Gregg Popovich unfailingly helps these gems realize their full potential, yet somehow they always fall under the radar. But now, with Cleveland’s and Oklahoma City’s slumps making marquee headlines, the Spurs continue to maintain their status quo of excellence.
To say the Spurs have been slumping is disingenuous. They’re 13-7 and in third place in the Western Conference, but this is not an indicator of any deeply-embedded flaws. The winning record can largely be attributed to Popovich; in spite of their dearth of talent, they’ve rebounded well, abstained from fouling, and avoided turnovers. They’ve also shown they can beat quality opponents with wins over Minnesota, Toronto, and Oklahoma City.
In all fairness, they have fallen off in some areas. They’ve slipped from 2nd to 8th in net points per possession and from 2nd to 11th in three-point percentage. All things considered though, they’re doing more than an adequate job of staying afloat amidst injuries.
So how have they done it? For starters, Coach Pop has benefited from some new personnel. Former top-ten pick Rudy Gay migrated from Sacramento and has remained solid as he ventures into his early 30’s. Gay was leaned upon heavily on some helpless Kings teams, but he’s since transitioned into a smaller, albeit efficient, role. He’s advanced past the first round just once in his career, but the stellar forward has a robust drive to make the most of his opportunity in San Antonio.
In addition to the wily vet, some new youngsters have also aided the Spurs in trucking along. Sophomores Dejounte Murray and Bryan Forbes have both blossomed in their second years in the Association. Forbes, an undrafted find by the savvy Buford, has improved both his overall and three point field goal percentages by over 30%. Such a presence at the wing is invaluable; it effectively prevents the opposition from double-teaming. Murray, a point guard taken late in the first round, has not quite maintained the same efficiency, but his minutes have nearly tripled; he is now seventh on the team in minutes after being all but a benchwarmer last year.
Perhaps the greatest unexpected boon to the Spurs, however, is the surge of forward Kyle Anderson. Nicknamed “slow-mo” for his methodical style of play, he fits the Spurs’ motif to a T, as he has no problem plodding around and waiting for an optimal shot to appear. Much like Murray, he’s taken on a prominent role, going from fleeting role player to third on the team in minutes. He’s had a nearly 3 to 1 assist to turnover ratio, hit over half his shots from the field, and been an elite defender to boot. If not for his venerable play, there would be a much more woebegone vibe in San Antonio over not having Leonard.
The future reinforcements of Leonard and Parker project to be quite the injection of life. Though time-tables on the two are currently hazy, neither is expected to be out for long, so help is on the way. Leonard is a borderline MVP candidate who can defend, shoot the three, and handle substantial volume. The 35-year-old Parker is far removed from his days of yore, but he still maintains a Kyrie-like ability to finish in traffic with aplomb. Parker will usurp a healthy portion of Murray’s minutes, perhaps enabling the latter to become more efficient. A potential lineup of Parker-Anderson-Leonard-Lamarcus Aldridge-Pau Gasol should strike fear into the hearts of opponents.
Ultimately, though, we have to judge San Antonio by the Golden State barometer. The Spurs were thoroughly embarrassed by the Warriors last postseason, though many of their struggles could be attributed to Leonard’s absence for nearly the entire series. The Spurs have to think they could have given them a run for their money had Kawhi been healthy, and this time around they may be even better. San Antonio didn’t make flashy improvements like Houston and Oklahoma City, but when healthy, they are the best bet to supplant Golden State as alpha dogs in the West.