San Antonio Spurs: '12-13 Forecast
Originally Published: October 9, 2012
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com Hollinger Profiles: San Antonio Spurs - ESPN Video - ESPN
It seems a bit odd to talk about a "window" closing when a team has had the best record in the conference two years running, ran off a 20-game winning streak last spring, and stands 48-11 in its past 59 games, including the playoffs. (If you're scoring at home, that's a 67-win pace.)
So consider this your annual reminder not to disregard the Spurs, even though you will until March rolls around and you realize they're in first place again. Despite recent setbacks, the Spurs are really, really good, and they aren't going anywhere in the immediate future.
Nonetheless, they do face some existential questions when looking further out. San Antonio's empire is built on three stars -- Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan -- who are now 30, 35 and 36, respectively. Ginobili's contract expires after the season, and a lot of the cheap help the Spurs found to support this group (Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair) also will hit the market next summer.
HOLLINGER'S PLAYER PROFILES
Check out Hollinger's player scouting reports and '12-13 stat projections for the Spurs' roster. Player Profiles Insider
Fortunately, the Spurs are the best-run team in sports and have always been one step ahead of the game. They showed it twice last season, with a pair of moves likely to pry their window open just a little bit longer. The first sent George Hill to Indiana for the rights to Kawhi Leonard, shaving several million off their cap the next three years by resetting the clock on a rookie contract. Moreover, it gave the Spurs a shot at a legitimate star to fill in the gaps as their veteran trio ages -- Leonard showed signs of being Shawn Marion 2.0 as a rookie.
The second removed the one legitimate liability from their books, sending a first-round pick and Richard Jefferson to Golden State for Stephen Jackson at the trade deadline. Effectively, they removed an $11 million cap liability in 2013-14 for the cost of the 30th pick in the draft, in a range where the draft pick has often sold for $3 million. The mind still boggles that they snookered the Warriors so badly.
As a result, the Spurs' books going forward are as clean as anyone's. That's probably more valuable with respect to the luxury tax than it is with signing free agents, given the near-certainty of Ginobili re-signing and San Antonio's low profile as a free-agent destination. But given the age of the roster, it's worth noting that the Spurs have kept their options open and can bust out the dynamite pretty much any time they choose.
The Spurs also continue to invest in overseas prospects and have several players stashed overseas (keep an eye, especially, on Latvian forward Davis Bertans). This year they culled French wing Nando de Colo from that group to help them.
Instead, the issue here is less about "windows" and more about the particulars of the playoffs: The Spurs continue to crush in the regular season, but have lost postseason series with home-court advantage three times in four years. As the Spurs have shifted from a "dominant superstar" model behind Duncan to an "ensemble cast" model, the odds have tilted against them in the postseason. The reasons will be familiar to my long-term readers: A strong bench is less of an advantage in the playoffs, where the best players can stay on the court for 40 or even 45 minutes a game.
The young ones, can, anyway. Even against Oklahoma City, Duncan averaged just 34 minutes and Ginobili only 30. The star trio of Duncan-Ginobili-Parker was +27 for the series, but the Thunder outscored them by 54 points when at least one sat out. In particular, Duncan and Ginobili played only 124 minutes together -- less than half the series, and barely half the 228 minutes that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were paired.
Meanwhile, Durant averaged 43 minutes in that series, including the entirety of Game 6. In short, the difference wasn't one of quality but of quantity -- the younger Thunder could play their best players longer. It's not clear how the Spurs can overcome that, and not just against Oklahoma City; the Lakers may present a similar problem.
Popovich-Ginobili Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty ImagesGregg Popovich will count on Manu Ginobili, but will he be able to play enough playoff minutes?
The Spurs were a modest 12-9 in late January, with Ginobili sidelined, and seemingly headed toward a middling playoff seed.
Then they went nuts. The Spurs went 38-7 over the final 45 games, including a couple of late-season games they were more or less trying to tank. They won 20 straight games at one point, including 10 playoff games, before suddenly careening off a cliff by losing four straight to the Thunder in the conference finals.
Parker had a big year at the point, Ginobili played extremely well when he returned, and Duncan looked as active and mobile as he'd been in years. But again, the underlying story was the skill of the Spurs' front office in filling in the pieces. Scrap-heap find Danny Green emerged as a reliable 3-point weapon and became a starter on the wing, Leonard was one of the league's best rookies, Boris Diaw played extremely well after Charlotte left him on the Spurs' doorstep, and Splitter quietly put up some fairly prolific numbers as the backup center.
HOLLINGER'S '11-12 STATS
W-L: 50-16 (Pythagorean W-L: 51-15)
Offensive Efficiency: 108.5 (1st)
Defensive Efficiency: 100.6 (11th)
Pace Factor: 95.1 (8th)
Highest PER: Manu Ginobili (24.18)
There were disappointments if you looked hard enough -- first-round pick Cory Joseph didn't do much, 2011 first-rounder James Anderson failed to develop, backup point guard T.J. Ford had to retire because of spinal issues, and small forward Richard Jefferson struggled before the trade. But the Spurs still had the league's deepest rotation by the end of the year.
The big difference in San Antonio is that they've shifted to being a pure offensive team. The Spurs led the NBA in offensive efficiency, and in several shooing categories as well. San Antonio wasn't a good offensive rebounding team and drew fouls less often than the average team, but man, could these guys shoot. San Antonio was third in two-point shooting and led the league in 3-point shooting at 39.3 percent. It also never gave the ball away, posting the league's second-lowest turnover rate at just 14.2 percent of possessions.
Defensively, however, the Spurs were just average, and this was their undoing against the Thunder. San Antonio played a low-risk style that didn't foul or force turnovers and produced very low assist totals from its opponents, but the Spurs didn't have a genuine stopper on the wing (Leonard and Green are auditioning for the role) and Duncan was the only rim-protector.
Best Defensive Rebound Rate, 2011-12
San Antonio 76.0
League average 73.0
Although the result was average, there were a lot of extremes. Only the Lakers fouled less often than San Antonio, and only four teams forced turnovers more infrequently. Meanwhile, the Spurs were the league's best defensive rebounding team, grabbing 76.0 percent of opponent misses, and were the hardest team to get an assist against -- only 52.1 percent of opponent baskets came from an assist. Basically, they made you score one-on-one, they wouldn't foul you, they wouldn't pressure you, and if you missed they would get the rebound.
It all worked swimmingly until the Thunder came along, and if the Spurs had an elite wing defender one can see how this approach would have really paid dividends. While the Spurs didn't beat themselves, it just wasn't that hard to get a decent look against this team.
Tim DuncanAP Photo/Eric GayBoris Diaw and Tim Duncan re-signed, ensuring the Spurs veteran experience up front.
San Antonio kept the same group together, which was really the only viable strategy in its situation. We may see one more tweak around the edges, as DeJuan Blair may be traded for a future asset given that he's fallen in the frontcourt depth chart. Check out these moves:
Drafted Marcus Denmon: Can you say "Eurostash"? The Spurs got Denmon to agree to play in Europe after taking him 59th. He's a good shooter and rebounder, but he's an undersized 2 and his athleticism is a question mark. For now he'll join the Spurs' extensive European farm team, but he broke his foot and will be out several weeks for his European club.
Re-signed Tim Duncan for three years, $37.5 million: In the least surprising free-agency move of the summer, Duncan will stick around for at least two more years. Only $3.5 million of the third season is guaranteed, giving the two sides an out if Duncan wants to retire then. Also, Duncan has a no-trade clause in this deal, as if there were any possibility of the Spurs trading him.
Re-signed Danny Green for three years, $11 million: Fortunately for the Spurs, Green counted as an "early-Bird" free agent; otherwise they would have had to choose between Green and Diaw. As it was, they kept Green on a fair deal given his restricted status and locked up another productive piece inexpensively.
Re-signed Boris Diaw for two years, $9 million: Diaw's deal has a player option in the second season, which I'm not a big fan of on two-year deals: If he plays well, he's gone, and if he plays poorly they're stuck with him. Nonetheless, it allowed San Antonio to keep him by using its midlevel exception, and he functioned quite well in this system. No reasonable person should expect him to match his performance from late in the regular season, but his two-way play has value as long as he stays in reasonable shape.
Let James Anderson go, signed Nando de Colo for two years, $2.9 million: The Spurs dipped into their biannual exception to ink 2008 draftee de Colo, a wiry wing who can handle the ball and create but has some suspect shooting numbers for his size. He likely won't be a regular part of the rotation but instead will serve as a fifth wing and play when injuries hit.
Signed Derrick Brown, one year, minimum: This one slipped under the wire just before training camp; it's a non-guaranteed deal, but Brown played well for Charlotte last season and could help the Spurs. The tricky part is that he isn't a spot-up shooter and is a bit of a tweener, so there may not be an ideal role for him here.
SpursAP Photo/Eric GayWill the Spurs have reason to celebrate in the spring? Health as always will be the key.
Rumors of this team's demise continue to be greatly exaggerated. In the regular season in particular, it's hard to see how the Spurs will fall behind the pack much, if at all, given their three stars (and perhaps a fourth emerging one in Leonard) and how incredibly deep they are -- San Antonio's 13th man, Patty Mills, would be a rotation player on a lot of teams. Meanwhile, six Spurs -- Duncan, Ginobili, Parker, Leonard, Blair and Splitter -- all project to have a PER of 18 or better.
Combine that with what we already know -- that the front office isn't going to screw up, that coach Gregg Popovich manages his players' wear and tear as well as anyone, and that they had the West's best record with Ginobili playing half a season in 2011-12 -- and it becomes hard to pick anybody to finish ahead of this gang.
In the regular season, anyway.
It seems a lot of the similar problems face the Spurs when it comes to a playoff matchup against the Thunder or the Lakers, and that may prove their undoing. I'm much more comfortable picking them to have the conference's top seed than I am picking them to win it come June. But for the regular season? Sheesh. They've had the best regular-season record in the conference for two years running, and I'm banking on a three-peat.
Prediction: 60-22, 1st in Southwest Division, 1st in Western Conference