The San Antonio Spurs After 88 Games
Can the Spurs beat the Rockets? An optimistic, pessimistic, and realistic look at the Spurs-Rockets series.
The San Antonio Spurs are 88 games into their post-Duncan era, more importantly, they are 88 games into their 2017 championship campaign. After a 61-win season, the second-seeded Spurs just beat the seventh-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs. They will face the Houston Rockets Monday in the second round in a Texas Showdown.
So Who are the Spurs after 88 games? Well the Spurs are the Spurs. To quote the late Dennis Green, “They are who we thought they were.” But are they? Well yes, of course, they are. They are the model of consistency in the NBA, winning 50 games for the 18th straight season and 60 games for the second consecutive year. They have the league’s best coach, defense, and two-way player. But is that enough to get past the Golden State Warriors? Is it even enough to get past Houston Rockets? Well, it depends on how you look at it.
A few weeks ago Ringer writer Shea Serrano aka Juan Wick, wrote about Playoff Scary teams and put the Spurs in the “Hello? 911! There’s Someone in My House” group (Included the Rockets and Celtics), which is a pretty good group to be a part of, right?. But that is just it “pretty good.” Are the Spurs just pretty good? Is anyone scared of the Spurs past the second round? Are the Spurs Playoff Scary? Well, it depends on how you look at it.
Despite posting the second-best record in the NBA and the fifth best in franchise history this Spurs team still has a lot of questions to answer. Like is Tony Parker still good enough for us to win a championship? Are Bertans and Simmons going to get legitimate minutes in the playoffs? Is Pau Gasol reliable? Oh god, is LaMarcus even reliable? What’s up with Patty’s hair? Is Danny Green more than a good defender? Can Danny dribble a basketball? Who does Pop trust? Do the Spurs have another gear? Are the Spurs just smoke and mirrors? These questions mentioned in this piece depend on how you look at the Spurs. For me, there are three ways to look at it, pessimistically, optimistically, and realistically (the middle ground). Why are they optimistic? Why are they pessimistic? When are the pessimists right? When are optimists right? Let’s just look at the facts.
The Klaw. Kawhizzle. Kawhi Leonard. He is the best two-way player in the NBA and the leader of a 61-win Spurs team. Kawhi can arguably be the best player on the court at any point this postseason. He was 2nd in PER (27.62) during the regular season and is currently leading all players in the postseason with 45.27. The Spurs is Kawhi’s team. Kawhi might have disappeared late the playoffs in the last year but not this year. So who is Kawhi this year? Well just watch this.
It is hard not to be optimistic. The Spurs won 61 games during the regular season. They just beat a gritty Grizzlies team in six games. They have a top-2 player. They have the league’s best coach. They have the league’s best defense. They have league’s best bench which averages 39 ppg and has a 3.4 plus-minus. The Spurs are 7–2 against the other top five teams in the NBA and did I mention they won 61 game? They did.
It is easy to ignore flaws. Being an optimist is easy. Well, who are those pessimistic people?
Do y’all know that one guy who never lets you enjoy your wildest theories? They are those people who told you your “Jon Snow is not dead” theory to, and they said that Jon Snow was dead and he is never coming back, ever. They also might be the person who told you that there was no way the Cleveland Cavaliers were going to come back down 3–1. They probably said “I told you so” after Odessa-Permian lost to Dallas Carter at the end of “Friday Night Lights.” They always claim they are just realistic — mostly they are just pricks, but sometimes they are right. Anyways, that is who we are going to be for this section because sometimes they have a point and sometimes it is important.
The past four Spurs seasons have been a rollercoaster emotionally. Many fans transitioned from optimistic to pessimistic. The Spurs went from being the NBA champions to a barely scary playoff team. How? Take a look at the last four seasons. In 2014, we won the Championship. In 2015, LeBron went back to Cleveland; insert the three-point era and Steve Kerr, Steph Curry, and the Warriors; the Spurs lost a first round 7 game series to the Clippers. In 2016, the Warriors won 73 games; the Cavaliers came back down 3–1 and won the title; the 67 win Spurs transitioned from the Duncan era to the Kawhi era and lost in second round to Durant-Westbrook Thunder. In 2017, the Warriors signed KD; the Cavs are the defending champions; insert the Rockets with James Harden, Mike D’antoni, and the 9th best offense in NBA history; the Spurs win 61 games with one all-star, and Kawhi becomes Kawhi, and the result is unknown. So are we destined to lose again?
In the past four seasons we have seen not only seen a championship, and a first round and second round exit, but we have seen the evolution of the NBA. The evolution is scary even for the consistent Spurs.
The evolution brings the small ball and the three-pointer and changes the NBA. Before 2015 a jump shooting team could not win a championship. Before 2016 a team couldn’t win more than 72 games. Before 2016 a team couldn’t have four superstars.
The Warriors are scary.
But the Rockets are scary too. They are scary because they can beat us. Remember that because we barely got by the Grizzlies. The Rockets are the third best team in the NBA.
But the Spurs won 61 games and had the second-best record in the NBA. Didn’t the Spurs win the regular season series? Why should they be scared?
Well, there a lot of reasons.The Spurs will play the Rockets in the second round. The Rockets are coached by Mike D’antoni. D’antoni coached that pesky Suns team in the mid-2000s. So think of that team but on HGH. They are the Suns 2.0. The 55-win Rockets had the third-best record in the NBA regular season and had the 9th best offense of all time. They broke the record for most threes taken in a single season with 3306. They led the league with most 3 pointers made as well with 1181. They average 115 points per game. They attempted the most free-throws per game. They play faster than anyone in the playoffs with a pace of 103.9. They have arguably the best pick and roll offense of all time. And if all of that was not enough they have James Harden.
They have James Harden, who accounted for the most points in the history of the NBA for a single season. Harden accounts for 56.6 points per game and was the first player ever to both score and assist on 2,000 points. He was unstoppable during the regular season averaging 29, 11, and 8 with a player efficiency rating of 27.43. He is incredible and someone who can obliterate everything you believed in. Watching Harden play is incredibly frustrating because he does everything. His Euro-step is incredible. If you stop his Euro step, he can pass it out to Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, or Lou Williams. If no one is open, then he will just lob the ball to rolling Montrez Harrell, Clint Capela or Nene off the pick and roll. Even if Harden did not have his best series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, he is still terrifying.
Here comes the pessimism.
The Rockets are a terrible matchup for the Spurs.
During their four-game regular seasons series, the Rockets controlled the pace but eventually lost three out of the four meetings. Which is good for the Spurs, but the point differential was just three points. In fact, three of the four games were decided by just two points. Those three games could have just been as easily lost as won.
What does all of this mean in the playoffs? Well, it depends. From a pessimistic point of view, it doesn’t mean much. And they are sort of right. The playoffs are a different game and the last two years are perfect examples of why. The 2015 Spurs were bounced after a promising 55 win season in the first round, and the 2016 Spurs were bounced after a franchise-best 67 wins.
The new NBA has not treated the Spurs kindly in the Playoffs. Many writers blame it on the Spurs reluctance to abandon the big man and convert to small ball. The 2016–17 Spurs are no different. They still play with the four big rotation of LaMarcus Aldridge, Dewayne Dedmon, Pau Gasol, and David Lee none of whom are excellent defenders ultimately making them liabilities when guarding the Rockets pick and roll or three-point frenzy. In the regular season the only Spur to post a positive +/- against the Rockets was Lee (+15.4). Aldridge had a -4.0, Gasol -6.3, and Dedmon had an atrocious -32. 3. However, Dedmon might be the only one who can athletically match up with the Rockets offense. Even though +/- does not tell the entire story, the Rockets pick, and roll will limit the defensive impact of the Spurs bigs.
And what about the aging Tony Parker? Well, Tony’s scoring, assisting, and rebounding averages are his worst since his rookie year. He has been inconsistent, to say the least, this season. More importantly, he has struggled the last two playoff years significantly against elite point guards like Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. This year Parker will face James Harden, the leagues leading assister and second leading scorer, in the second round. Even though Parker will most likely not be tasked with guarding Harden, he will most likely be outplayed by him. Additionally, he will have to face the fierce Patrick Beverley.
The Tony Parker of old is gone, but his splits against the Rockets have been a point of optimism averaging 14.3 points while shooting 53% and 57% from three. He was also incredible in the Memphis series averaging 21.6 points per 36 minutes with a PER of 21.6. If Tony can keep it together, the Spurs can make a run.
However, recent history tells us a different story. I will pessimistically point back to the past two playoffs years where Parker posted an averaged a 10.4 PER, 10.6 ppg, and more importantly the On-Off offensive rating -4.4 in 2015 and an abysmal -10.1 in 2016. The Spurs offense was much better with Parker off the court. Parker has looked very fluid through his first two games against the Memphis Grizzles in the 2017 playoffs with a 25 PER while averaging 16.5 ppg and shooting 71% from three. Gregg Popovich has long called Parker the engine that makes the Spurs machine run, but with not many miles left it will be interesting to how much more he has to offer.
One of the most important question of the playoffs is who will Gregg Popovich trust going forward? Popovich who typically shrinks his player rotation to nine players will likely go with his starting five of Parker, Green, Leonard, Aldridge, and Dedmon or Lee, and his four-man bench of Mills, Ginobili, Anderson and Gasol.
Pop keeps his playoff inner circle close and exclusive like Bob De Niro in “Meet the Parents.” It is a circle of trust. Outside that circle trust stands regular season favorites like Jonathon Simmons and Davis Bertans. Last year Simmons and fan favorite Boban Marjonivic fell victims to being out of the circle by only playing a combined 68 minutes in the Spurs ten 2016 playoff games. Both Bertans and Simmons have played less than 60 minutes in the six games against the Grizzlies. Bertans, a lights out three point shooter, and Simmons, an exciting human highlight reel offer the Spurs huge amount of versatility both offensively and defensively. Simmons especially who has shown flashes of becoming a good player this season this season will be looking to show off his athleticism during the playoffs.I won’t pretend to understand the genius that is Gregg Popovich, but I would like to see Bertans and Simmons against the high-scoring Houston Rockets. That might just be my optimism talking.
Lastly and most importantly, LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE. Where has the guy been? Where has his jump shot gone? Where has his defense gone? Where has the pick and pop gone? Statistically, this has been Aldridge’s worst regular season and playoffs. In the first round, Aldridge was terrible averaging 14 points, 7 rebounds in 38 minutes with a PER of 14.7 To say the least this not what Spurs fans expected after last year and 84 million dollars. There is no way the Spurs can beat the Rockets in a seven game series without Aldridge playing his best basketball.
Let’s stop being extreme and just be realistic
So there has to be a middle ground. Are the Spurs just smoke and mirrors? No, you can’t win 74% of your games and be smoke and mirrors. Can the Spurs beat the Rockets? Yes, they can. Can they lose to the Rockets? Yes. Are Rockets a bad matchup for the Spurs? Yes. They are unbelievable offensively. Pop even called them the “only team he watched film on.” But do not forget the Spurs have the league’s best defense. The Spurs have a top ten offense while the Rockets allow 109.3 points per game and have a worse defense than the 28-win Philadelphia 76ers. So maybe the Spurs have the advantage. Or maybe the Rockets will rain threes and outscore the Spurs. Only the future will tell whether we were too pessimistic or too optimistic about this Spurs team.
Spurs in 7.
TAKE THAT FOR DATA.