The Spurs May Be Headed Towards Another Early Exit
The foundation of San Antonio’s stellar season may also be their undoing
The San Antonio Spurs are the benchmark for excellence in the NBA, yet their last two seasons have had disappointing endings. In each of the past two years, the talent and dominance that was revealed during the regular season failed to appear in the postseason. An injury to Kawhi Leonard in 2014–15 bumped the Spurs to the 6th seed, despite being one of the top teams in the conference. Yet even though the team was at full strength for the postseason, they still fell in the first round to the Clippers. Last year, the Spurs had one of the all-time great regular seasons in NBA history, only to be dispatched with relative ease by the Thunder in round two, denying NBA fans the highly-anticipated showdown with the Warriors (given the Conference Finals that ensued, no one can complain . . . well, except the Spurs. And . . . uhh . . . the Thunder).
Two seasons does not a trend make, but there are reasons to expect another disappointing end to a Spurs’ season. For as well-equipped as San Antonio is to dominate the first 82 games of the season, they’re also set up to fall well short of the showdown with Golden State that fans are still drooling in anticipation of. Here’s why:
The Bench is Misleading
The Spurs have the best bench in the league, by far. This is an asset, of course, albeit one that makes it easy to overrate the team as a whole. While the Spurs are devoid of a bench superstar, they have a plethora of team-oriented, fundamentally-solid role players, who are all able to step onto the floor and run both the offense and the defense with fluidity and discipline.
On the season, the Spurs have the second-best net rating in the league, outscoring opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions. The starters are a touch lower, with a fourth-best rating of 7.5. The net rating for the bench, on the other hand, leads the league — and it ain’t close. The Spurs’ bench rating of 8.9 towers over the Warriors’ second-best mark of 5.8, and only 10 teams in the league have a positive rating from their bench unit.
This is not to say that the Spurs bench is better than their starters; they’re not. But they are much better, relative to their counterparts across the league.
So, what’s the problem? The problem is that the spurs extract much of that bench value from being an incredibly deep team. DNP-CDs are virtually nonexistent in the world of Gregg Popovich, as San Antonio routinely trots out 14 or 15 players, even in close games. While most teams occupy their final roster spots with players who should be in the D-League, or players who should be in retirement, the Spurs are legitimately 15-deep with quality role players who fully understand how to play in the team’s system.
In the playoffs, of course, teams shorten their rosters. Starters get more minutes, top bench players get more minutes, and players who don’t provide much value get jobs as full-time cheerleaders. Teams get to trim the proverbial fat from their rosters, and strengthen their overall product.
What happens when a team has no fat to trim, no weakness to eliminate? It may seem like a champagne problem (and it is), but it also means that while 15 playoff teams have a clear and simple way to get better this postseason, the Spurs do not.
Most teams play an 8-man rotation in the playoffs, meaning the next crop of subs (9–12) get mostly left out. For the Spurs, players 9 through 12 in terms of MPG are Jonathon Simmons, Dewayne Dedmon, Kyle Anderson, and Davis Bertrans (it’s worth noting that Dedmon is currently starting, but usually getting bench minutes). The real plus-minus (per ESPN) for those players is -0.41, +3.15, +1.34, and +0.07, respectively. By comparison, the 9–12 players on the Warriors (Patrick McCaw, Ian Clark, David West, and JaVale McGee) have respective ratings of -4.55, -1.54, +2.67, and +0.30. For the Rockets, San Antonio’s likely second-round opponent, players 9–12 (Montrezl Harrell, Nene, Chinanu Onuaku, and Kyle Wiltjer) have respective ratings of -0.67, +1.79, and -1.31 (Wiltjer does not have enough minutes to qualify, due to the fact that recently-traded Corey Brewer and KJ McDaniels were getting minutes).
Long story short: the Spurs’ record and net rating are so good in part because players like Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon are significantly better than players like Patrick McCaw and Montrezl Harrell. If the Spurs cut the tail off their roster, they won’t really get much better; everyone else, however, will.
You Won’t See Much Small Ball
Gregg Popovich does things his way, which makes sense since his way almost always works. In the playoffs, however, it can occasionally get him into trouble. Pop still believes in playing two bigs, and almost always has some combination of Dedmon, Bertrans, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, and David Lee on the floor. Pop is reluctant to play without a traditional 4 on the floor, and that can be problematic once the playoffs start.
The game becomes more calculated in the postseason, as coaches begin to attack mismatches, target certain areas of the game, and play their best players more. A twin tower lineup may work well during the regular season, but it’s a lot harder in a seven-game set against a team like Houston, which starts Ryan Anderson at the 4, and gives plenty of minutes at the position to Trevor Ariza. When healthy, Golden State almost exclusively plays two guys at power forward: Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant. Both of those players can do well defending Aldridge or Lee, but the inverse certainly cannot be said.
Despite this, Pop sticks with what got him where he is. The Spurs have excelled in the regular season playing one way, and they’ll try that way in the playoffs, results be damned. In the disappointing playoffs last year, Aldridge managed virtually as many minutes per game (33.7) as Kawhi, Tim Duncan added nearly 22, and Boris Diaw and David West both eclipsed the 17 MPG mark.
As talented as Aldridge may be, he’s not a very good fit for a playoff team. While he can stretch the floor out to the 3-point line, he’s not as quick or athletic as Lee or Bertrans, so he doesn’t provide much in terms of mismatches. Aldridge is also, generously, half the defender that Dedmon is, so he provides no value as the defensive anchor in an otherwise small lineup.
San Antonio’s best lineup, especially in the postseason, is Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Leonard, and Dedmon, yet we’re unlikely to see much of that: on the year, Leonard has played just under 2,200 minutes, and he’s shared the floor with Aldridge in 1,650 of them. A large lineup has given the Spurs an excellent record for nearly two decades straight, but it will likely give them an early exit for the third year in a row.
There’s not much to be said about Tony Parker. He’s had an incredible run with the Spurs (he won a Finals MVP alongside peak Ginobili and peak Duncan!), but he’s about to turn 35, plays an outdated style of basketball, and can no longer play defense. He ranks below average defending the pick and roll, and defending in isolation, and he rarely ever shoots threes. In a seven-game series, teams will attack Parker on both ends of the floor.
Against likely first-round opponent Memphis, Parker will be unable to stay with Mike Conley, while being too small to hide on Vince Carter or Tony Allen. On the other end of the floor, the Grizzlies will likely leave Parker open, and instead double team Aldridge or Leonard.
There’s no joy in watching legends get exposed. Unfortunately, neither Parker’s game nor his athleticism is equipped for a seven-game series in 2017.
The Spurs have many things: the best coach in the NBA, the best two-way player in the league, a bevy of veteran savvy, and nearly endless depth. Those things have led San Antonio to the second-best record in the league, with the top seed still well within reach as we enter the final two weeks of the season.
But the same things that earned them a 60+ win season may also earn them a third consecutive early exit. They’ll dance with the ones who brung them, but it may be an early night in San Antonio.