[Editor’s Note: The piece below was written prior to the San Antonio Spurs’ victory over the Charlotte Hornets on 11/23/2016.]
It’s old news to Spurs fans that there’s a different look and feel to the Silver & Black this season. In case you haven’t been counting, it has been 135 days since Tim Duncan announced he was retiring from the game of basketball. It was an event that we all knew would happen eventually, but as the years passed and ‘Old Man Riverwalk’ continued to be the rock of one of the greatest American sports franchises, the inevitability of the whole thing sort of slipped to the back of our minds. Instead, we marveled at the longevity, the dedication, and the dominance that Duncan had allowed us to enjoy over a 19-year career. It seemed like it would never end.
No matter what your feelings on the way the world has progressed in 2016, there’s a litany of reasons why someone would call foul if they had travelled forward in time from January 1st. Without living through it as we all have, it’s hard to believe what has occurred in less than one calendar year. Nobody (except this guy) could have predicted any of this, from the Cubs and Cavaliers winning championships, to Brexit, to Donald Trump becoming the leader of the free world. We put a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter and we circumnavigated the Earth in a solar-powered aircraft. Global CO2 levels exceeded 400ppm during the time of year normally associated with minimal levels, and we lost icons like David Bowie, Prince, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, Gene Wilder, Pat Summitt, Arnold Palmer and Leonard Cohen.
Duncan retiring? 2016 sure seems like it was destined to be the year.
Nearly a month into San Antonio’s first NBA foray without Timmy this century, we now have a solid sample size of how this roster will fair without the Big Fundamental manning the middle. Thus, it is with great pleasure that I bring to you the first edition of “Finding Trends” for the 2016-17 season.
TREND: Same-same… but different… But still same
The easiest way to begin comparing the Spurs with teams of the recent past is by breaking down the roster construction. Gone of course is Duncan, along with fan-favorites Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner. The short-lived presence of Boban Marjanovic was a disappointment to many (although not to Boban’s wallet) and Spurs fans were only given a small taste of David West, Andre Miller and Kevin Martin, who have also all moved on or retired. All of those players were lengthy veterans with the exception of Marjanovic, and San Antonio did replace some of that age with youth. The signings of Dewayne Dedmon, Nicolas Laprovittola, and Bryn Forbes all infuse the roster with some young legs. That, along with bringing over Davis Bertans (who the Spurs owned the rights to from the Kawhi Leonard trade) and drafting Dejounte Murray, adds five new players to the team that were all born between 1989 and 1996. But the veteran leadership wasn’t completely ignored in free agency. Big additions were also made in the signings of Pau Gasol (Six time All-Star, two time NBA Champion and former Rookie of the Year) and David Lee (Two time All-Star and NBA Champion with Golden State).
There was plenty of talent added in an attempt to plug the holes left by so many big names vacating their roster spots, but the question on many basketball fan’s minds was how would this new look Spurs team actually perform when the season rolled around. To everyone’s delight, an opening night thrashing of the Warriors (on the road no less) sent shockwaves around the NBA and set the stage for a fairly dominant first month. An easy comparison is to go back to last year’s slate, one that saw San Antonio set a franchise record in wins with 67, and see how the new roster is stacking up record-wise with last year’s team.
After 14 games this season, the Spurs are sitting at 11-3, good for third place in the Western Conference just behind the previously mentioned Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers. Last season, San Antonio was also sitting at 11-3 through 14 games. So did the team achieve the most ‘Spursiest’ thing of all time and actually not miss a beat after losing one of the greatest players to ever play basketball? Well, not exactly.
One of the staples of the Duncan era was the premier defense that San Antonio boasted for the majority of his career (shhh, we don’t talk about 2008-2011). The defensive rating for the Spurs is down this season. I mean, really down. San Antonio owns a defensive rating of 101.5 Points Per 100 Possessions through the first 14 games. The relative defensive ineptitude shown by the Spurs thus far is a major reason why they have already dropped three home games before the calendar has turned to December. For the record, they had lost one game at home during the regular season between March 12, 2015 and November 1, 2016.
The outcome so far has been the same, but the reasons for San Antonio’s success are coming from different places and for different reasons. One of the most glaring reasons (and this has been a theme when examining Spurs success over the past few years) has been the continued development of Leonard. For a guy who just turned 25, his work ethic has not been the one of a normal player who already has two Defensive Player of the Year awards, an NBA Finals MVP trophy, an NBA Championship, an All-Star appearance, an All NBA First Team nod and a three time All NBA Defensive team member. Then again, Leonard isn’t your average NBA player. He’s made another significant jump this offseason, and is now third in the league for small forwards in time of possession, behind only LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo who both spend significant time at point guard.
The way he’s being used now is how most MVP candidates progress through a season, not just as a shooter and slasher, and certainly not as a system player. Leonard IS the offense. And now that Duncan is gone, he IS the defense. San Antonio is now Kawhi’s team and how far they go will be determined on how far he takes them. The surrounding cast of characters (not to belittle the influence of LaMarcus Aldridge, as he can still take over a game offensively) have all made impacts in one way or another so far this season, and if we can count on history repeating itself (it’s 2016 so let’s not be so sure), we can assume that San Antonio is nowhere close to as dangerous now as they will be in March, April and beyond.
Gasol has begun to find his role on the team over the last two weeks, and Danny Green (who reportedly had Lasik eye surgery over the summer) made his debut just a few games ago after a quad injury delayed the beginning of his season. Tony Parker has been dealing with soreness and Manu Ginobili has played sparingly. David Lee has been extremely productive in limited minutes (if you weren’t familiar with him prior to his stay in San Antonio, this is his MO) and Dedmon (although currently injured) is exciting to watch on both ends. Murray, Bertans and Forbes will be back and forth between San Antonio and Austin all year, and other youngsters Kyle Anderson and Jonathon Simmons have both been up and down. Patty Mills has been solid, and Aldridge has been quietly efficient.
Going back even further with records through 14 games, we see an 11-3 start last year, then 10-4, 13-1, and another 11-3. It’s fair to say that the Spurs of this season will do many things that some of their past teams have done. They will likely make the playoffs, likely win 50 games, and they’ll probably have a chance to compete for a title. The road map to those certainties will take a few different twists and turns. As a fan of the NBA, I’m really excited to see how this team develops, and what moves Coach Pop has up his sleeve to shape this team over the rest of the season.
So if you find yourself talking basketball at the table this Thanksgiving, there’s an easy way to describe the early returns (maybe not the best turn of phrase presently) on this Spurs team. Just ask David Skylark.