As another year comes to an end, for the San Antonio Spurs, it’s time to reflect upon the years past and look forward to 2018 for an array of new opportunities.
For the San Antonio Spurs, this means it’s time to continue working with the newest squad in hopes of winning the coveted sixth championship title. To do so, they’ll need to reflect on 2017 and decide what needs to change in the new year to reach that goal.
5. Get Kawhi Leonard back to form
Even without star forward Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio managed to stay afloat. Through 27 games without Leonard, the Spurs won 19 games and secured the third spot in the competitive Western Conference. If not for LaMarcus Aldridge’s return to All-Star form, San Antonio would struggle to contend.
His 22.2 points and 8.3 rebounds have anchored the Spurs on both sides of the floor, which is something that Leonard has been relied upon for in the past. Aldridge continues his superb play even with Leonard returning from injury, but the Spurs will need much more than that to compete with Houston and Golden State in April.
The long and grueling rehab that Leonard endured was no easy task, so he’s been slowly eased back into the rotation. Through his first five games, he’s averaged just 19 minutes and has put up 12.6 points per contest on 49.1 percent shooting from the field.
He’s been able to put up notable stats as he readjusts to NBA game pace. Per 36 minutes, he’s averaging nearly 24 points and eight rebounds, meaning that his output is generally on pace with his production from last season and the minutes he’ll eventually be earning. Coach Gregg Popovich is transitioning Leonard back into his game, but it hasn’t been easy. If he doesn’t return to form soon, the team’s early success won’t last as Minnesota and Oklahoma City have begun to pick up steam, winning seven and eight of their last 10 games respectively.
Regardless, Leonard’s minute totals continue to increase and his scoring has begun to pick up. For the Spurs to truly solidify their position as an elite team in the West, the tandem of Leonard and Aldridge will need to reemerge as one of the league’s deadliest combos.
Next: Pick up the pace
4. Pick up the pace
While San Antonio has never been a particularly fast paced team, they’ve proven in recent years that they’re capable of pushing the tempo. Transitioning defense into offense and attacking on the fastbreak was a huge emphasis for San Antonio through their five championship runs and has been a staple of Popovich’s game plan for nearly two decades.
So far this season, the Spurs haven’t pushed the ball as well as they could. They rank a lowly 28th in pace and just 20th in fastbreak points. Age may very well play a factor in this, considering that their only current starter below the age of 30 is Leonard at 26. Regardless, they’ll need to pick up their pace in the new year to compete with the league’s elite.
In theory, Leonard’s reintroduction to the lineup should help with this. Forward Kyle Anderson, who’s notorious for his lack of agility, has filled in for Leonard as the starting small forward throughout the season. With Kawhi retaking the reins, San Antonio should look for more fastbreak opportunities. His ability to pick off passes and drive coast-to-coast is something that the Spurs sorely missed in his absence.
Clearly pace isn’t something that’s held the Spurs back considering their current tie for this third most wins in the NBA. They can survive just fine at their current tempo, but increasing their speed is one way to rattle opponents and increase their scoring margin.
Next: Don't take Manu for granted
3. Don’t take Manu Ginobili for granted
There are very few players who could do the things that Manu Ginobili does on a regular basis. His uncanny craftiness and competitive nature is unmatched, even at the ripe age of 40. As difficult as it may be for fans to face, this may be the twilight of his career. Not only is he the second oldest active player in the league behind Vince Carter, but Ginobili is the 17th oldest player in league history.
— NBA (@NBA) December 30, 2017
Ginobili currently holds the record for most three-pointers made in Spurs history with 1,456. He’s also the only Spur to win the Sixth Man of the Year award and has won four titles with the team. Now in his 16th season as a key member of the Spurs, Ginobili is averaging 8.4 points and 2.4 rebounds in roughly 21 minutes per game.
Despite his age, Ginobili is one of the most important players on the Spurs roster. His clutch antics, unmatched leadership and multifaceted skill set are invaluable to Coach Popovich. There’s never been a player quite like Manu Ginobili and there probably never will be again, so embrace what time is left in his career.
Next: Return to conference finals
2. Return to the conference finals
Even in a new season, San Antonio’s abysmal collapse in the 2017 Western Conference Finals looms over the team. After the injury to Leonard that led to Golden State’s sweep, fans and spectators are left wondering: “What if Kawhi didn’t get hurt?” A return to the Western Conference finals would not mend the wound left by that loss, but would allow San Antonio to prove themselves once more.
This will be no easy task, but this Spurs team has shown signs of life despite rampant injury troubles to start the year. They’re currently tied with Golden State for second in defensive rating at 101.5 and block the third most shots in the NBA with 5.6 per game.
In addition, their rotation is as deep as it’s ever been.
They’ve got youth and athleticism in the backcourt with DeJounte Murray and Bryn Forbes steadily contributing throughout the season. Meanwhile, wing players such as Rudy Gay and Kyle Anderson are available to create plays and handle the ball. All the while, the team’s veterans continue to implement Spurs basketball by emphasizing ball movement, basketball IQ, quality defensive rotations and a team-first mentality.
San Antonio has been counted out numerous times in the Popovich era but continues to consistently dominate the competition and provide a challenge in the playoffs. As Popovich builds more cohesive rotations with his new personnel and distributes minutes accordingly, the Spurs will improve as a team heading toward the postseason.
Next: Make a splash in free agency
1. It’s finally time to make a splash in free agency
In the modern NBA, stacking talent is a major factor in succeeding as an organization. The San Antonio Spurs have never been a team built through free agency, but rather through extensive scouting and drafting. Unfortunately, this style of team building may not be enough in 2018.
Between the championship history, excellent coaching and quality of thief roster, San Antonio should be a destination for free agents. While the relatively recent additions of Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay have been strong signings, the Spurs have yet to land a marquee free agent since signing Aldridge in 2015. In a summer with stars such as LeBron James and Paul George will enter the market, San Antonio has a chance to expand on an already great team by adding an additional talent.
Unfortunately for General Manager R.C. Buford, cap space will be a bit tight heading into next season, but changes can be made. Depending on the outcome of the 2017-2018 season, they may need to consider some major moves to pursue free agents come July.
As the new year approaches, so does another chance at the next Larry O’Brien trophy that San Antonio has so deeply yearned for since 2014. With the proper resolutions and changes in 2018, they may be able to walk away with the trophy once again.