Editor's note: With the new NBA season around the corner, we preview the top five teams contending for the 2017-18 title in this series The Contenders. We start off the countdown with the San Antonio Spurs at fifth place.
Time changes everything, but the Spurs, as always, remain a force to reckon with.
Rewind back to 1997, 20 years ago. It was a time before all of us had mobile phones, before Yash Chopra released Dil To Pagal Hai, before the Y2K scare, in a time when people were listening to ‘Barbie Girl’ and Michael Jordan was still playing for the Chicago Bulls. The 1996-97 NBA season was the last time that the San Antonio Spurs had a losing record. In the summer of '97, they presented head coach Gregg Popovich with the No 1 pick of the NBA Draft, Tim Duncan. And the NBA hasn’t been the same ever since.
In these 20 years, the NBA’s centrifugal force has been passed over from Jordan to Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to the nitty-gritty Pistons to Boston and LA to LeBron James in Miami, James in Cleveland, and now to the unstoppable company of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and the Golden State Warriors. But the Spurs have been the league’s one constant. They have gone 20 years without missing the playoffs, made six Finals appearances, and won five championships. Even after Duncan’s retirement in 2016, the Spurs continued to look strong in the new iteration, marshalled by the brilliant Popovich and led by integral pieces like Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Tony Parker.
In the midst of the most chaotic NBA offseason fans have ever witnessed, the Spurs remained a model of meditative calm. So far, there have been no major moves to shake up their roster, and this continuity is usually the way that San Antonio prefers it. They finished with the NBA’s second-best regular season record last season and will be near the top of the West again this year. But will they be able to challenge for a sixth franchise title with new emerging contenders around the league?
The story last year
The Spurs barely hiccupped in the regular season without Duncan in the lineup for the first time in 19 years. Led by the brilliant two-way dominance of Leonard — who emerged as both a Defensive Player of the Year and an MVP candidate — San Antonio finished with the second-best record in the NBA (61-21) in the season, including the league’s best defensive rating. After a nice playoff run, they were swept by the better (and luckier) Golden State Warriors 4-0 in the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs’ season will be defined by Leonard’s ankle injury following a reckless close-in by Warriors’ center Zaza Pachulia. Without him, the Spurs simply didn’t have enough to stop the eventual champions march to the Finals.
The Spurs biggest move was signing swingman Rudy Gay from the Sacramento Kings. But Gay sustained an Achilles tendon injury in January and could struggle to get back to his best. They lost rising swingman Jonathan Simmons and veteran big David Lee in free agency.
Leonard, Aldridge, Parker, Pau Gasol, Patty Mills, Gay, and the ever-green Manu Ginobili.
They will win a title if…
Leonard takes an even bigger leap into greatness. After years of approaching a philosophy where the Spurs succeeded as a sum of their parts, the team has now shifted their offensive philosophy to favour the brilliance of one transcendent player: Leonard. Leonard (26), who averaged a career-best 25.5 ppg last season while making both the All NBA and All Defensive First Teams is one of the five best players in the league and in the prime of his career. It will truly take a superhuman effort from Leonard to (almost) single-handedly out-perform the star-studded super-teams in each conference, but he has a sound coaching philosophy and team defence to support his charge.
Cause for concern
Leonard’s playoff injury exposed the Spurs’ troubles with depth. It is easy to survive in Coach Pop’s philosophy in the regular season, but against better-prepared and more-talented playoff opponents, the Spurs will need more options to step up. Despite having All Star potential, the much-maligned Aldridge has never been able to find his rhythm for the Spurs on either end of the floor, and this season may not be any different. The team is also weak in the NBA’s integral point guard position, where neither Parker, Mills, or Dejounte Murray are good enough to compete against the Currys, Westbrooks, or Kyries of the world.
Because of Pop, Leonard, and continuity, expect the Spurs to win somewhere between 55-60 games and notch some important statement wins over other contenders. But eventually, the wheels will fall off in the playoffs and the Spurs will probably be knocked before the Conference Finals.
Updated Date: Oct 17, 2017 11:42 AM