Death. Taxes. Spurs.
In a league where teams rise and fall like waves, reaching beautiful peaks that seem like they might last forever only to come crashing down in an instant – the Spurs have been the model of consistent excellence. For 21 straight years, they have made the playoffs. For 18 straight years, they submitted 50 or more wins (even in the lockout-shortened 2011-2012, they squeaked out 50 wins as if they were gunning specifically to prevent an asterisk from entering their record book). In 14 of those seasons, they won at least 55 games.
One streak finally came to an end in the 2017-2018 season. Mired in the drama of Kawhi Leonard’s absence and desperately missing their star, Popovich’s squad submitted its worst season since ‘Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace’ streaked across movie screens, a 47-win campaign punctuated by a 5 game first-round playoff exit. It was their first exit from the playoffs without getting at least two wins since 2009. They had their moments, but it never felt like the Spurs even had a chance to make it an interesting series.
Only a year before, they had gone up big against the same Warriors squad in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. They looked like they might shock the world. But Kawhi Leonard was injured during the game, the Warriors stormed back to win the game and (handily) win the series, basketball fans were left with one of the greatest what-ifs in recent memory, and Spurs fans saw the last of Leonard playing for their team in a meaningful game.
On July 18th, 2018, the Spurs agreed to send Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a 2019 first-round pick protected 1-20. Their franchise player, the silent wonder whom many considered to be a top-3 star in the league, pushed his way out of San Antonio. Green, a fixture of their team for years and a key cog of their last championship team in 2014, was shipped out, too. In came DeRozan, unquestionably a star, but one with significant holes in his game, and Poeltl, a young, dirty-work bench player.
Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas is projecting the Spurs to win 43.5 games and miss the playoffs. Experts at ESPN are settling on 44 wins and a ninth-place finish. With the Western Conference looking deadlier than it ever has, many pundits feel that the Spurs dynasty is finally creeping to a halt.
It’s not the first time they’ve been counted out. The Spurs earned the top seed in the 2010-2011 season, but bowed out to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. Writers across the spectrum eulogized the Spurs dynasty. HOOP Magazine wrote, “It was a great 12-year run for the Spurs. *tips cap,” while Matt Moore, then of CBS Sports, wrote, “Everything’s got an end.”
“The Beautiful Game”
The ever-poised, ever-adaptable Spurs had different ideas. Greg Popovich realized that the way the team had been winning – a tough, grind-it-out approach with gritty defense and deliberate offense – would not work anymore. Post-scoring savant Tim Duncan was 35, and the high-octane offenses of the mid-2000s had given way to isolation-centered scoring and hyperactive defense.
In defiance of the trend, the Spurs started placing an emphasis on quick passing and shooting. They went from having the 14th quickest-pace in 2011 to the 7th in 2012, and then the 6th in 2013 (a bigger jump than the previous year, which was reflective of the league slowing down rather than the Spurs radically changing). Instead of trying to ride their stars harder like the rest of the league was doing, they started playing them less, sparing their legs and focusing more on off-ball movement to generate offense. They invented the “Beautiful Game”, or at least brought it into the American sphere. Suddenly, the slow and gritty Spurs were all about destroying teams with speed and flurries of threes.
In 2014, the height of this phase and the year they won the championship, they led the league in passes made per game (and it wasn’t particularly close), assists, and hockey assists, per the league’s stats database. They also had the tenth highest adjusted assist-to-pass percentage in the league, a measure of the percentage of passes a team makes that actually lead to a score. They weren’t just moving the ball rapidly – they were effective and efficient with that ball movement, and with everything they did.
Then came the time to adapt yet again. In the 2014-2015 season, the Spurs had their lowest win percentage since the 2009-2010 season and bowed out to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. They were still elite – 55 wins (which was somehow only enough to get the sixth seed in that crazy year). But again, Popovich and his staff saw that the same old way of doing business was not going to work. While the rest of the league was striving to emulate the “Beautiful Game”, San Antonio went away from it, slowing from 10th in pace in 2014, to 17th in 2015, to 24th in 2016.
Though the league had moved towards speed and threes, the Spurs steamrolled their way to 67 wins and the second-best record in the NBA with a league-best defensive rating (again, it wasn’t particularly close) and a barrage of mid-rangers, the shot that the NBA had blacklisted as inefficient and obsolete. Even with their glacial pace, they took the third most two-pointers in the NBA, converting with the best efficiency of teams in the top ten in two-point attempts. They were 26th in three-point attempts (though they sported the second-best three-point efficiency in the league) at a time when everyone else was trending in the opposite direction. Yet their offense, however archaic, was the third best in the league. Kawhi Leonard was learning how to thrive as an offensive star, LaMarcus Aldridge was firing up turnaround mid-rangers that made stat-geeks lose their minds, but somehow this big, slow brand of basketball was excelling.
At several points in this dynasty, it looked like they should have been headed for a rebuild. Another team in their shoes would have. But when the Spurs look like they’re about to get surpassed by the rest of the league, they just keep adapting, keep coming at you, and keep winning. It’s just what the Spurs do.
End of an Era?
More important than their tactical shifts was their approach. Players came and went, but it somehow never mattered. Their approach remained the same. Throughout the decades, they have always been one of the most consistent teams in the league on a night-to-night basis. They don’t lose games they shouldn’t against bad teams, because they approach every game the same way. They are sharp and precise.
The whole organization, top to bottom, is considered to be excellent. Everything they put into their organization – their front office staff and their excellent long-term vision, their thorough coaching staff that aims to perfect the process instead of being content with results, their best-in-the-business medical staff. It all matters. Their G-League team runs the same system that they do so the young guys can learn the plays and principles early on and hit the ground running in the pros. There’s a reason ex-Spurs are labelled as ex-Spurs as if they are graduates of some prestigious school.
They are the Spurs. This is what they do.
So while many of the analysts are once again projecting that the Spurs will drop off, some are giving more pause. Haven’t we seen this before? Every time we count them out, don’t they prove us wrong?
There are real reasons to think this time is different. Aldridge unsuccessfully asked to be traded in 2017; Leonard successfully got himself traded away; Tony Parker, one of San Antonio’s veteran leaders, left for a non-playoff team after a decade and a half in a Spurs uniform. There were players-only meetings and disquieting media interactions, usually the stuff of lesser franchises.
They quite simply have less firepower than other teams. When Aldridge was out last season, 37-year-old Pau Gasol was often their go-to scorer. Manu Ginobili is 41. Rudy Gay is 32 and struggled significantly with injuries last season, and was never all that efficient to begin with.
Losing Kawhi Leonard hurts a lot. The Spurs relied on him heavily when he was healthy the last few years, and he successfully carried their offense. In 2016-2017, with a 30.6% usage rate (99th percentile), Kawhi had 122.8 points per shot attempt (96th percentile), an absurd figure considering his usage rate. As I wrote about here, Leonard is elite in nearly every offensive category. In 2016-2017, among players averaging at least one possession per game of this shot type and who played in at least 60 games, he was sixth in pick and roll points per possession, ninth in spot-up points per possession, and seventh in transition points per possession. While not a playmaker, it is no stretch to call Kawhi Leonard the most versatile scorer in the NBA.
And now he’s gone. With him goes Danny Green, San Antonio’s 3-and-D rock. Green’s impact had diminished in recent years as the Spurs shifted away from the Beautiful Game system that maximized his talents (and under the radar, his 3-point shooting has really dipped, from 42% or higher from 2012-2015 to a still good but less eye-popping 38% in 2017 and 36% in 2018) , but he has still been a valuable piece for them. The Spurs had a 2.6 net rating with Green on the court, and their most used lineup – Dejounte Murray, Patty Mills, Green, Kyle Anderson, and Aldridge – was 1.6 points per 100 possessions better with Green on the court than without him. *
There are cracks in the chemistry. They have less firepower. They’re old as hell. While they have done well playing “archaic” basketball, there are very real concerns that there’s a limit to how effective a team can be when it’s relying on its star in the high post this frequently. San Antonio got away with it because Aldridge’s turnover percentage out of post-ups is the best in the league for players averaging at least four per game, but it’s still not a path towards elite offense. Teams are emphasizing the long-range game for a reason. The Spurs dropped from 7th in offensive rating in 2016-2017 to 17th last year, ostensibly because they were without their hyper-efficient superstar who is now north of the border and has been replaced by a guy who is less efficient in almost every single facet.
Signs of Improvement in a post-Kawhi World
There are real reasons to be optimistic. As Bryan Kalbrosky wrote for HoopsHype, Jakob Poeltl was actually incredibly efficient for the Toronto Raptors last season, seemingly without much real dip across play-types. He is a strong candidate to excel on both sides of the floor. Dejounte Murray has been working with legendary shooting coach Chip Engelland, one of the gurus who helped bring along Kawhi Leonard’s shot. He already has an All-Defensive Second Team selection on his resume in just his second year in the league. Rookie Lonnie Walker is an athletic freak. Bryn Forbes and Davis Bertans are quality young system players. Marco Belinelli is streaky, but the threat of his jumper will help. An offense centered around DeMar DeRozan midrangers and LaMarcus Aldridge fadeaways doesn’t sound all that enticing, but you can talk yourself into the idea of it working.
And the defense…well, who knows. They were the fourth best defense in the league last year even though Leonard, who some have called the best perimeter defender in the game since Scottie Pippen, played only nine games. Even when the offense faltered, the defense was somehow elite. Thank Popovich’s coaching; analysts predicted that San Antonio would really struggle on defense because Parker and Gasol were so limited defensively, but the scheme worked in spite of the personnel. It also helped that Aldridge took a major step forward as a team defender while most guys his age trend in the other direction, and that Rudy Gay has shown new effort. Truthfully, it’s never about the effort for the Spurs; they’re always trying, always showing an attacking mindset on the defensive end. But the defensive personnel on this team is still highly suspect, and the old guys are getting older. Losing Danny Green and Kyle Anderson (who is painfully slow but highly intelligent on the defensive end) and adding DeRozan, at his best a mediocre defender, hurts a lot in theory. The offseason addition of Marco Belinelli doesn’t help on this end either.
But it’s still impossible to shake this feeling that, somehow, they’ll make it work. They’re the Spurs. They get the most out of their talent, and there’s no question that they have more talent to work with than they did last year. This is the team that transitioned from the Duncan era to a Tony Parker-focused offense, to the “Beautiful Game”, to the Kawhi Leonard show, all without one single transition year. That’s insane. Does Popovich, perhaps the greatest coach of all time, have one more adaptation in him, one last vision for a Spurs team that can challenge in the West? Or will we see the book close on perhaps the most impressive streak of greatness in the modern era of sports? The road to success this time around might be their toughest yet, given the state of the Western Conference and how fraught with challenges their own roster is. A true return to the standard they set for themselves seems almost impossible.
And yet, you’re reminded that this is no ordinary franchise, and that they’ve done the impossible before.
It’s the Spurs.
It’s what they do.
Written by Joe DeFerrari
*In case you’re interested: analyzing Green by looking at four-man lineups with and without him on the floor with this and this tool left a murky picture of his impact, like that kind of analysis usually does. The Murray-Green-Anderson-Aldridge-Gasol lineup got absolutely torched with Green in it, a 148 minute sample size, and absolutely torched opponents with anybody else in that fifth spot but Green, a 147 minute sample size. But take Murray out and insert Patty Mills at point guard? That lineup is significantly better with Green on the floor than off. The only consistent takeaway from this exercise was that, in each lineup Green was a part of that had significant floor time, the team played with a considerably faster pace with Green off the floor and somebody else in his place.