Despite being the hottest team in the NBA and passing the Thunder for the top spot in the Western Conference (before essentially forfeiting it back Monday night), the San Antonio Spurs are widely ignored as legitimate title contenders.
For now, we’ll ignore the naysayers’ arguments as to why the Spurs stand little chance against the Heat or Bulls if they were to reach the NBA Finals. San Antonio must first fight its way through the NBA’s varsity division before dealing with Derrick Rose, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade.
Let me be clear; my opinion is unequivocally biased. Aside from my fading 76ers, I’ve followed the Spurs more than any team since David Robinson joined the NBA. I’ve grown used to fans, experts, and even other teams ignoring and writing off the Spurs. Sometimes though, such lack of respect just doesn’t make sense. This is one of those times. The Spurs are just as, if not more, likely to reach the NBA Finals as their Western Conference foes. If you disagree, feel free to share. I’d love to point out why you’re wrong. For now, let’s cover the most popular arguments against the Spurs.
The Argument: Memphis has Rudy Gay back this year. Plus, the Grizzlies eliminated the Spurs in the 1st round of last year’s playoffs.
Rebuttal: This is all true. Rudy Gay’s stellar play this season deserved All-Star recognition. He’s been terrific in carrying the Grizzlies, especially in Zack Randolph’s absence. However, adding Rudy Gay back to an imposing frontcourt doesn’t automatically make the Grizzlies better.
Rewind to the 2011 playoffs. The Grizzlies continually pounded the Spurs inside to alarming success. Randolph and the immensely underrated Marc Gasol owned the paint. Tim Duncan was on an island defending Memphis’ powerful duo. DeJaun Blair was too small to make an impact. Tiago Splitter too inexperienced. Antonio McDyess too experienced (old and slow). The Spurs had absolutely no frontcourt depth. As a result, the Grizzlies had their way and bullied San Antonio out of the playoffs. If the two teams were to meet again in the postseason this year, things would be different for two reasons.
First, the Spurs are significantly better in the frontcourt. Tim Duncan’s physical decline appears to have leveled off. In fact, he looks quicker and more agile than he did a year ago. After appearing in only three games in last year’s playoffs, Tiago Splitter is now an experienced and healthy NBA center that can defend and score. Is he Tyson Chandler? No. But he’s consistent and knows where to be and what to do – something that seemed impossible last season. Without McDyess (who retired), the Spurs have relied more on Blair. Essentially, Blair is the same player with a little more offensive polish. Perhaps most important of all were the additions of Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson. Both offer a huge upgrade to the Spurs frontcourt as both can score and defend the four. Yes, people love to make fat chokes about Diaw, but his size will help the Spurs in the playoffs. Jackson’s toughness will also go a long way in helping a Spurs team that couldn’t match Memphis’ physicality a year ago. Is San Antonio’s improved frontcourt now superior to the Grizzlies? No, but they’ve given themselves a fighting chance.
Second, the Grizzlies are a different team. Without Gay last year, the Grizzlies were forced to ride Gasol and Randolph. This worked out perfectly for Memphis and couldn’t have been worse for the Spurs. If they were to meet again, I’m sure Memphis would hope to employ the same strategy. But that’s wishful thinking.
Rudy Gay is an NBA star. He won’t passively submit to an entire series of dumping the ball down low and waiting for a kick-out that may or may not come. He’s a scorer. He’s going to take his fair share of shots and exploit opportunities when he sees fit. Unfortunately for Memphis, those shots and opportunities will come at the expense of Gasol and Randolph – Memphis’ two greatest assets against the Spurs.
Adding a player doesn’t automatically improve a team. A basketball team is a group of drums beating in one rhythm. Add a new drum, and that rhythm changes. I would even argue the addition of Rudy Gay improves the Spurs chances because it takes some of those frontcourt touches and gives them to Gay. (Don’t believe me? Here’s an example: The Lakers would undoubtedly have a better record this season if Kobe Bryant deferred to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol on a more consistent basis. It doesn’t happen though. Bryant is a superstar and he’s gonna take his shots. While Rudy Gay isn’t a superstar, he’s still a star, and he’s going to take his shots, too.)
In addition to the frontcourt changes, let’s also not forget that Zack Randolph is not 100% after a January knee injury and probably won’t be again until the fall. Conversely, Manu Ginobili won’t have a fractured arm this time around (fingers crossed) and Tony Parker is playing the best basketball of his career. Furthermore, the Spurs added much-needed defense to their rotation in Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. Simply put, the Spurs won’t be bullied as they were a year ago.
Argument: The Oklahoma City Thunder’s threesome will be too much for the Spurs.
Rebuttal: The Spurs are 2-1 against the Thunder this season. One of those victories came in Oklahoma City. In both victories, the Spurs grabbed a 20 point lead late in the 3rd quarter. Oh yeah, Manu Ginobili played zero minutes in those victories. San Antonio’s success against the NBA’s darlings is no fluke. In fact, the Spurs have had success against similar teams in the past.
Obviously, the Thunder is a more balanced team than the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns, but the offensive firepower is similar. Gregg Popovich was never shy about his strategy against those Suns teams; let Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire get theirs and force the rest of the team to beat us. Pop takes a similar approach to the Thunder. He knows he can’t stop Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but he can make them jump shooters. In their victories in February and March, the Spurs collapsed the lane and forced Durant and Westbrook to kick, pull up, or take contested shots. That strategy has clearly worked as the Thunder has struggled to solve the Spurs.
Also, let’s stop with the “OKC is a great defensive team and that’s why they’ll beat the Spurs” campaign. Kendrick Perkins is a great defender but overrated otherwise. He’s also a liability on the floor in closing minutes, so let’s ease up on how the Thunder can shut down the Spurs. The two teams are nearly identical in defensive statistics. OKC simply gets more love because they block shots and are plastered all over Sportscenter. Besides, if either team has the defensive weapons to limit the other, it’s the Spurs. Stephen Jackson, Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Greene are all capable perimeter defenders while the Thunder boast only James Harden and has absolutely no one to check Tony Parker (33.5 pts., 8 ast., 50% shooting in two victories).
Argument: The Clippers, like the Thunder, Grizzlies, and Lakers, have an All-Star perimeter player and two productive bigs that will be tough for the Spurs to stop.
Rebuttal: Seriously, who’s driving the “Clippers are a good team” train? Can someone please remove him from his post? The Clippers are Chris Paul and. that. is. all. Blake Griffin’s basketball IQ doesn’t extend beyond dunking and throwing forearms into Pau Gasol’s head. The Clippers are a joke (no offense, Chris Paul).
Argument: Rotations become shorter in the playoffs. The Spurs depth won’t translate to playoff success.
Rebuttal: This one makes the most sense. Still, it’s flawed. Come playoff time, Parker and Ginobili will probably log anywhere between 38-42 minutes depending on the opponent and score. Tim Duncan will probably fall somewhere between 35-38. That means fewer minutes for the Blair/Diaw/Jackson/Splitter crew depending on the opponent. Outside of their bigs, though, San Antonio’s depth is a huge asset. Leonard and Green can both defend and knock down threes. Leonard is also excellent at getting to the rim and exploiting defensive breakdowns. Gary Neal and Patrick Mills are scoring machines off the bench. Both can adequately run the point to spell Parker. Will their minutes decline in the postseason? Mills’ will for sure and Neal’s will too but only slightly. Neal has proven himself in the playoffs before and his offensive production will be needed, especially late in games.
Now compare that depth with the Thunder, Lakers, and Grizzlies. The Thunder has Derek Fisher, Nick Collison, and Daequan Cook coming of the bench (I didn’t count Harden because he’s like Ginobili – comes off the bench but plays starter’s minutes.) The Lakers have Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Josh McRoberts, and Troy Murphy. Uhh, nice? The Grizzlies have talent coming off the bench in O.J. Mayo, the surprising Quincy Pondexter, and the resurgent yet defensively disabled Marreese Speights. Still, not one of those benches surpasses San Antonio’s Neal, Jackson, Bonner, and Splitter. Yes, the Spurs bench is the least heralded of the four but it’s also the most productive and reliable.
Argument: The Lakers frontcourt combined with Kobe Bryant is too much for the Spurs to handle.
Rebuttal: Since the two teams haven’t played yet this season it’s hard to argue one way or the other. However, with three matchups in the next two weeks, we’ll know how the Spurs match up with Los Angeles soon enough. (But not Wednesday night because Kobe is reportedly out.) Regardless, I’m prone to believe the Spurs have enough perimeter depth to terrorize Kobe and force him to defer to Bynum and Gasol. Something he’s struggled to do consistently in the past.
Oh, and one more thing; the Spurs have the best coach in the NBA.