Oct 28, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (21) gets his championship ring from team owner Peter Holt (right) during a ceremony before the game against the Dallas Mavericks at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
For the Spurs fans who are wondering what basketball will be like without “The Big Fundamental” at the helm, I would advise them to take a look at the teams before they drafted Tim Duncan.
With Stars like Sean Elliot and David Robinson, the Spurs of the 90’s were perennially competitive, but it wasn’t until they drafted Duncan that they finally made the NBA Finals.
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This will be the year that Gregg Popovich will be more of an instructor than a coach. Almost half of the roster is gone from last year, and with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili on the downside of their careers, this season signals a major transition into a new era of Spurs basketball.
This begs us to ask five key questions concerning the Spurs 2016-2017 season:
1. How Much Will The Team Miss Timmy D?
Although it is true that Duncan was losing his effectiveness on offense, he was stellar on the defensive end, ranking 2nd in the league in plus/minus ratio (Only Golden State’s Andrew Bogut’s 5.45 was better than Duncan’s 5.43 rating). Duncan was the defensive anchor for the Spurs last year, and there was a discernible difference for the team when he was off the court.
Mar 10, 2015; San Antonio, TX, USA; Toronto Raptors power forward Amir Johnson (behind) shoots the ball over San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (21) during the second half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Just his presence alone cut down on backdoor layups or blown switches stemming from the pick and roll. Duncan not only knew where his job, but also where the other four players needed to position themselves.
By adding Lamarcus Aldridge, and Kawhi Leonard’s steady progression, the team was already tailoring the offense away from Duncan. However, had Duncan come back for a final season (highly unlikely because a farewell tour seems a bit out of character for him), he would have played a huge part in the locker room culture.
It is immeasurable how much a veteran presence (not mention Hall of Famer) can affect wins and losses. This is where they will miss Duncan the most. When you have a player with his resume, who not only likes to be coached, but also was a de-facto assistant coach himself, it only makes the coaching staff’s jobs that much easier. It is the behind the scenes stuff–the things you don’t see on the court, that will illustrate how much the Spurs lost with Duncan retiring.
Next: No. 2 Where will the scoring come from this season
Nov 30, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shoots the ball against Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) during the first quarter at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
2. Where Will The Scoring Come From This Season?
The days of Parker carrying the offense are over, instead his job is to get the ball to the right people so they can make plays. Whereas this decade’s previous teams emphasized motion, multiple cuts and passing, this team will be looking for the front court to carry the brunt of the offense.
I don’t believe that offense will be a problem for the Spurs this year. Pau Gasol will help out tremendously on the front line scoring. He is an underrated passer, and was at one time a player who could score a basket any time he wanted. Neither Gasol nor Aldridge, are your typical post-men. As finesse players, both prefer to play facing up, rather than bang inside the paint, but Aldridge’s nearly automatic jumper could open up the post for Gasol to get some easy looks.
Will Leonard start taking over games on the offensive end? Inquiring minds want to know. Leonard has shown a new wrinkle to his offensive game each season, and I see that trend continuing. At times, he has been explosive, but I believe his 3 point shooting will determine the effectiveness of Gasol and Aldridge . If he can hit 40 percent from beyond the arc, defenses can’t just collapse on Gasol and Aldridge.
Danny Green is very streaky shooter, and his offensive play has declined over the past two seasons. The Spurs will need Green to consistently hit open shots if they are going to keep teams honest.
This year’s roster has no real bangers, and they will have trouble against the bigger, more physical teams. I foresee a lot of “pick and pop” plays with Lamarcus and Tony this season; with Gasol making some plays in the high post. How they do on offense night in and night out will be determined by their shooting. A cold spell from outside the paint may lend to some long nights–especially if they are trading 2’s for 3’s against the Golden State Warriors.
Next: No. 3 How will the Spurs look on defense?
Dec 28, 2015; San Antonio, TX, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (L) posts up against San Antonio Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (R) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
3. How will the Spurs look on Defense?
Refer to question No. 1. Aldridge was an underrated defensive player during his time in Portland, but he and Duncan made a formidable duo in their one year together. However, when one of them sitting down compromised their rim protection.
In the playoff series against Oklahoma City, the Thunder exploited this anytime either player subbed out of the game.
Apr 7, 2015; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Danny Green (14) takes the floor prior to action against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Gasol has never been known as an elite defender (unlike his brother Marc who only a couple of years ago won defensive player of the year), and will certainly not be counted on for his rim protection, but having Aldridge on the court will most certainly ease the pressure on Pau.
In years past, a rotation of big men were ready off the bench when Duncan got into foul trouble. Players like Matt Bonner (when he was an effective 3 point option), Arron Baynes, Tiago Splitter, and even Boris Diaw (more on him later) were effective chess pieces for Popovich to use as counters when fouls came into play.
Last year in the 2nd round, Oklahoma City kept attacking the rim, and anyone (Boban Marjanovic for example) Popovich brought in was a liability on one side of the court or the other. The Spurs are very thin upfront going into this season. Bringing David Lee off the bench helps the front court on offense, but with the way he plays defense, I don’t see how he stays on the floor.
As for the wings, you can count on Green and Leonard to provide great perimeter defense. It is at point guard however, that will be the Spurs most glaring weakness. It is no coincidence that the teams with the league’s best three point guards (Cleveland, Golden State, and Oklahoma City) gave San Antonio the most trouble.
No one has ever accused Parker of being a lock down defender, and at the age of 34 (ancient for a guard) he is no longer as quick as he once was. What Patty Mills lacks in height (he measures generously at 6-foot) he makes up for in effort, but there is a mismatch anytime he is guarding Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, or Kyrie Irving.
This might be the year where we see the Spurs play a lot of zone defense.
Next: No. 4 Who else needs to step up for the team?
Mar 8, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kyle Anderson (1) dribbles in the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) at Target Center. The San Antonio Spurs beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 116-91. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
#4 Who Else Needs To Step Up For The Team?
What set San Antonio apart from other teams was their depth. Their role players last season could have easily started for a bulk of the teams on the east coast. This year’s roster is loaded with upside, but losing key bench players like David West and Boris Diaw (and sometimes Boban) has left room for other players to fill their roles.
Last year’s international triumvirate of Mills, Ginobili, and Diaw had a knack for coming into the game and stretching eight point leads to 15 points.
I am unabashedly a Jonathan Simmons fan. I love his athleticism, and his hustle. He strikes me as a less grimy, less confrontational Stephen Jackson. I expect him to show some progress this year if the Spurs are going to compete night in and out.
I am hoping that this is the year Kyle Anderson makes his presence felt, besides he looks like one player that will have a long career with San Antonio. With the loss of Diaw (AKA The Most Interesting Man in the World),
Anderson could be the perfect utility player to fill Bobo’s absence. I wonder if Popovich and R.C. Buford had this in mind when they traded Diaw to the Jazz to free up cap space for Gasol.
Much like Duncan, you can never truly replace a
Oct 16, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Kyle Anderson (1) looks up the court in the game against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports
player as cerebral as Diaw. He is too quick for most big men and too big to be guarded by smaller players. He is the consummate point forward; who nine times out of 10 makes the right play when the basketball is in his hands.
On paper, Anderson is a potential nightmare with his 6-foot-9 230 pound frame. He can take pressure off the guards with his ball-handling skills, and his underrated passing (people forget that he was among the nation’s leaders in assists when he played at UCLA). San Antonio certainly needs him to take his game to another level this year.
After watching how well Mills played in international play during the Olympics, I would not be surprised if this is finally the year that he starts. Parker says that he wants to play five more years , but barring him going to the bench, I don’t see how that is possible.
Parker couldn’t even stay healthy during the Olympic games, and he is going to need a significant cut in minutes to remain fresh for the playoffs. Mills is indispensable at this point, and the Spurs will need him to ease the load that Parker once carried. The drafting of Washington Husky, Dejounte Murray hints at the inevitable change of the guard (pardon the pun) that needs to happen for the Spurs to remain elite.
In what will surely be Ginobili’s swan song, I expect him to give fans the usual “razzle-dazzle” style of play that we’ve seen for the past decade plus. He will be captaining the second unit for about 19 minutes each game, and I’m sure that for every three times that he provides a magical stretch of play that pushes the Spurs to a win.
There will be at least one moment where he makes an inexplicable decision to cement an L. Win or lose, there is a magical element to his exciting style of play, and basketball may never see another player like Manu again.
Next: No. 5 Will Spurs haters finally get some schadenfreude?
Jul 7, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Kevin Durant poses for a photo with his jersey during a press conference after signing with the Golden State Warriors at the Warriors Practice Facility. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
#5 Will Spurs Haters Finally Get Some Schadenfreude?
When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, they simultaneously weakened their strongest Western Conference competitor by strengthening their already elite core unit. The Durant-less Thunder still boast one of the deepest front lines in the league, but they now have zero outside shooting. They are a Russell Westbrook injury away from being the Milwaukee Bucks of the west.
I think this is finally the year that the bottom falls out for the Dallas Mavericks, as their all around depth strikes me as suspect. Utah will be tougher this season, with the additions of George Hill, Joe Johnson, and Diaw being worth at least eight more regular season wins. They will replace Dallas as a playoff team.
Houston has a talented roster, but Mike D’Antoni will only enable James Harden to play even less defense (if that is possible).
The Clippers brought back the same team as last year, and should finish at least 3rd or 4th in the conference. Though the Blazers have one of the best back courts in the NBA, they struggle to score without Damien Lillard or C.J. McCollum.
The rest of the teams in the west (except Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans–both bubble teams) are lottery bound.
50 wins and a deep run in the playoffs may not win Popovich NBA Coach of the Year, but it would certainly be deemed a success. The league as a whole is better this season, which is good for the NBA and its fans. Last year, both the Warriors and Spurs broke their franchise records for wins in a season.
The Spurs won’t break any records in 2016 (but then again neither will the Warriors), but San Antonio fans will have plenty to cheer for this season; despite the loss of favorites like Boban, Boris, and Timmy.