Preview: San Antonio Spurs

2017-18 San Antonio Spurs


Projected Record: 56-26 (4th in West)

Over/Under: 54.5

2016: 61-21 (2nd in West)


Key Additions:

  • F Rudy Gay
  • F Joffrey Lauvergne
  • F Derrick White
  • G Brandon Paul
  • F Jaron Blossomgame

Key Subtractions:

  • G/F Jonathon Simmons
  • C Dewayne Dedmon
  • F David Lee

Summary

Strengths:

  • They’re the Spurs
  • Kawhi is a top-five player
  • Depth
  • Coaching and experience

Weaknesses:

  • Lack defensive bigs
  • Age
  • Might matchup poorly with best of West

The Spurs are the Spurs, and they’ll probably continue to be the Spurs until the day Gregg Popovich retires from coaching. Picking the Spurs to win 50+ games is one of the easiest bets in sports, and despite the West’s influx of talent this year. Popovich’s Spurs are smart and experienced, making up for their lack of explosive youth with veteran know-how that will allow them to pick apart the younger elite of the West, especially as those teams adapt to new star players and focal points.

There are cracks showing in San Antonio’s approach; extensions for Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge were questionably lucrative, the Jonathon Simmons saga was strange, and they whiffed on their free agent courtship of Chris Paul. They’re likely just not quite good enough to topple Golden State, despite the 20-point advantage they built on the Warriors in Game 1 last year before Kawhi Leonard’s ankle injury took him out of the series. Nobody can really keep pace with Golden State, though, and they’re still a great team in the immediate going, capable of going toe-to-toe with other top Western Conference teams like Oklahoma City and Houston.

Leonard and Danny Green are among the best defensive wing tandems in basketball, and Green’s spot-up shooting plays off Leonard quite well (though his two-point percentage has dropping worryingly the past two seasons). Patty Mills is among the league’s best backups at the point, and he and Manu Ginobili will keep the three-pointers falling on the bench unit. Youngers Dejounte Murray and Bryn Forbes have upside, and one of the two needs to step up to fill some of the minutes left by the departed Simmons.

LeMarcus Aldridge is a question mark, because he looked legitimately lost in the playoffs at times last year. He feels like a natural choice for the “big man who abruptly starting bombing threes” trend, but he took only 56 attempts last season, the second highest mark of his career. He’s a difficult player to utilize against great teams – especially in the West – because he doesn’t add much as a defender and his offensive repertoire is just so outdated. It seemed like he was a likely trade option this offseason, but he ended up signing an extension instead. Now the Spurs have to figure out how to use him more effectively.


Most Valuable Player: Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard is my pick for MVP this season, because of all the the front-runners for the award last year, only Leonard and LeBron James didn’t add at least one multiple-time All-Star in their prime (at least not a healthy one), and LeBron will likely be coasting for much of the regular season the way he has been for years. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony will cut down on Russell Westbrook’s counting stats, Chris Paul will do likewise for James Harden, and Steph Curry and Kevin Durant will do so for each other. Leonard is the only one of the group that probably won’t have another All-Star on his team, which illustrates how much responsibility Kawhi has for the Spurs success this season.

Kawhi Leonard is the best one-on-one defensive player in basketball; so destructive on defense that teams started scheming to just not move the ball to his man at times, like a football team dodging a lockdown corner. He’s also an elite scorer who has seemed to diversify his offensive game every season he’s been in the league. This year, I’d imagine he continues to progress as a facilitator; his assist numbers every season he’s played, and he approached five per game in the playoffs, suggesting increased opportunities for him going forward. It’s not hard to imagine Kawhi going for something like an efficient 27-6-5 this year, which, combined with his lockdown defense, would likely be more than enough to walk away with the MVP.

One possible sticking point: Leonard has quietly struggled to stay healthy during his career. He’s surpassed 70 games played only twice in his career, each of the past two seasons, but is coming off a brutal injury that cost him most of their playoff series against Golden State and is already expected to miss the Spurs’ season opener this year. If he can’t play 70+ games this year, it might be difficult to make his case for MVP (not that that’s what the Spurs care about anyways).

X Factor: Rudy Gay

The obvious choice here is LaMarcus Aldridge, but I feel as though Aldridge is going to continue to be more or less the same guy we’ve known him to be for some time. I’m more interested in Rudy Gay’s return from the Achilles injury last season, because he’s quietly been a pretty decent contributor for Sacramento the past few years and a return to full health would provide an invaluable secondary scoring option next to Leonard. For a time, Gay was emblematic of the inefficient volume scorers that were falling out of vogue in the NBA, but he’s operated off the radar in Sacramento for a few seasons now and improved his three-point shooting a respectable amount while playing acceptable defense. If he’s all the way back from his injury, his $8 million price tag could be a bargain.


Conclusion

The Spurs are going to continue to be what the Spurs have been for a long time now: an experienced team built on precision and execution. They don’t match up well on Golden State and may not be better than some of the West elite, but nobody actually matches up well on the Warriors and they’re certainly good enough to give teams like Oklahoma City and Houston a hard time – especially while those teams go through transition periods integrating their new stars.

The front office has given some cause for concern – I understand but don’t love the extensions for LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol – and they may start to decline over the next few seasons though unless they strike improbable gold in the draft or can lure a star over to team up with Kawhi Leonard. This year, though, they’ll continue their streak of 50-win seasons. Who knows, maybe Steph Curry lands the wrong way and the Western Conference suddenly gets quite a bit more interesting? That might be the only thing that pushes San Antonio – and maybe anyone else – to a championship this season.

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