Who’s Going to Win the West? The Case For And Against the Spurs

Posted: 02/12/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

I’m continuing with the posts on all of the contenders here with the San Antonio Spurs. This should be one of the easier posts of the 13 I plan on doing, as the Spurs have been contenders for long enough that we know exactly what they’ll need to win or how teams can beat them. The defending champions haven’t been dominant this year, but then again they often aren’t in the regular season, and yet they always win 50+ games (they’ve won 50+ in every year in the Tim Duncan era, which is now in its 17th year, except the strike shortened year of 98-99, when they played at a 50+ win pace). And guess what? The Spurs are on pace for 53 wins. Yawn.

Unfortunately, those 53 wins might only get the Spurs a sixth or seventh seed in this loaded Western Conference. Ultimately, though, I think the Spurs will be able to win on the road if they start firing on all cylinders like we’ve seen in the playoffs over the past few years. The case for them is simple: we’ve seen it before, they have Gregg Popovich, they have the player with the best resume among active players in Duncan, and they have a burgeoning star in Kawhi Leonard who can guard any wing player. Leonard, who has had an injury-plagued season but is now healthy, has great agility and his long arms have allowed him to average 2.1 steals in just 32 minutes per game. He’s made LeBron James (among others) feel uncomfortable in the playoffs in the past few seasons, and could surely do the same against Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, or James Harden. That’s why Leonard is such an important player for the Spurs’ playoff hopes. Oh, and he’s also their leading scorer.

And then there’s Duncan, who’s having another efficient season. Take a look at these two stat lines:
20.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, .8 steals, 2.3 blocks, 50.5% FG, 69.5% FT. This is Duncan’s career line per 36 minutes.
17.4 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 2.3 blocks, 48.7% FG, 72.5% FT. This is Duncan’s per 36 minute line this season. Pretty impressive.

So the Spurs have Duncan and Leonard and one of the two or three best coaches in NBA history. They’ll be unstoppable come playoff time, right? Well, maybe not. The biggest worry I have is the play of Tony Parker. Parker, who’s 32 years old now and is in his 13th season, is playing a lot worse this year than he has since maybe his rookie year. He’s the rare point guard who is neither a steals maestro or a good three-point shooter and has always relied on his terrific drive-and-dish-or-layup. That’s why it’s very worrying that he’s below five assists per game for the first year since his rookie season after averaging 7.6 assists just two seasons ago. His scoring is also way down, and his 14.5 points per game are his worst since his rookie season. He’s also getting to the free throw line a lot less, as his 2.5 free throw attempts per game are his lowest since, wait for it… his rookie season. This could all just be Tony Parker saving himself for the playoffs, but I think it’s a little more than that. Parker’s had some injury issues this season, and he just looks a lot less explosive. That’s really bad, because the Spurs rely on Parker’s playoff heroics so often.

Everything else, though, is just so… Spurs. Manu Ginobili has his peaks and valleys, but that’s nothing new for the Argentinian. Danny Green has been a very good defensive presence this season, and we all remember his heroics against the Heat two seasons ago. He, like Kawhi, is becoming a bigger part of San Antonio’s success, especially from beyond the three point line, where the Spurs take 28% of their shots. Bench guards Cory Joseph and Patty Mills can both score 20+ in any given game, while big man Tiago Splitter is slowly becoming the player he was the last few seasons after missing the first few months.

When you compare the Spurs with other Western Conference playoff teams, it’s easy to become pessimistic about their chances. They don’t have the flashy superstar or the great record or the fast-paced offense that many of their compatriots have, and they are likely to enter the playoffs as the road team. But they have such an amazing track record that you can’t even come close to counting them out. Do I think they’ll win it all again? No, I don’t. I felt after last year that the championship would probably be the last one in the Duncan era, and I still feel that way. But would I be shocked if they did win it all? Not at all. In fact, if I had to place a “shock rating” on each Western Conference contender, the Spurs would probably finish middle of the pack, behind Golden State, Memphis, and Oklahoma City but ahead of teams like the Mavericks and Clippers. The first round playoff matchup will always be important, as it is for any team. But whether the Spurs make a run and enter the playoffs as the #4 seed or drop to the #8 seed, the Spurs are a team everyone should take seriously come playoff time.

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