The San Antonio Spurs are a perennial playoff team and erased all doubt about their postseason chances in 2015-16 with an excellent offseason. San Antonio now arguably has the most talented starting lineup in franchise history, and head coach Gregg Popovich will work hard to make the best of it.
Let’s preview the Spurs’ 2015-16 season, starting with a recap of last year and the offseason, and then highlight a key player and ultimately predict the team’s end-of-season result.
What Happened Last Season
The Spurs’ title defense got off to a slow start in 2014-15, as the team struggled with injuries to Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills and Tiago Splitter throughout most of the first half of the season.
The San Antonio Express-News‘ Dan McCarney summed up the team’s rough December 2014 with the following tweet:
Spurs go 8-10, playing a team-record tying 18 games, losing more than any month since 99, with five OTs, one away from NBA record for month.
— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneyNBA) January 1, 2015
The low point of the season was February 25, after the Spurs lost 111-95 to the Portland Trail Blazers. Their record was still a decent 34-23, but they had lost four in a row, were the seventh seed in the Western Conference and would have to work hard to hold off the Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans to keep their playoff spot.
However, San Antonio ended its regular season with a scorching 21 wins in 25 games. 19 of the 21 victories were by double digits and none of the losses were by more than seven points. Everyone was getting healthy, the chemistry was being reestablished and Kawhi Leonard was asserting himself as a superstar, netting himself the Defensive Player of the Year award in the process:
However, a loss to the Pelicans on the final night of the season was costly in the tight Western Conference, dropping the Spurs from the No. 2 seed to the No. 6 position and a first-round date with the Los Angeles Clippers sans home-court advantage.
Despite being the lower seed, San Antonio was considered the favorite by most because of its superior depth and brains on the sideline, led by none other than head coach Gregg Popovich.
The series went seven games and was an instant classic. Games 2, 5, 6 and 7 all came down to the wire and featured numerous lead changes. Chris Paul’s floater with a second left in the deciding tilt ended up advancing the Clippers to Round 2:
However, it was a variety of factors that ended up dooming the Spurs: chief among them were the injury-affected performances of Tony Parker and Tiago Splitter.
Parker had played below his standards all season, but reached a new low in the playoffs. Not only did he boast a pathetic shooting slash of 36.3/0.0/58.8 with only 3.6 assists per game, but his 113 defensive rating was the worst on the team. Playing opposite CP3, that sort of production won’t fly.
Splitter contributed only 3.4 points per game on a 37.5/31.6 shooting slash (he didn’t attempt any threes) and did little to prevent Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan from leaving their fingerprints all over the series.
The Spurs received a lift from their bench in the form of Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli, something Los Angeles struggled to get, but the Clippers’ superior star power ended up winning out.
Tim Duncan and Games 1-through-4 Leonard were the only Spurs starters to play near their potential.
What Happened This Summer
Key Additions: LaMarcus Aldridge (free-agent signee), David West, (free-agent signee), Ray McCallum (trade with Sacramento Kings), Boban Marjanovic (signed from Serbian league), Jonathon Simmons (signed from Austin Spurs), Rasual Butler (free-agent signee), Jimmer Fredette (free-agent signee)
Key Subtractions: Tiago Splitter (traded to Atlanta Hawks), Cory Joseph (free agent, signed with Toronto Raptors), Marco Belinelli (free agent, signed with Sacramento Kings), Aron Baynes (free agent, signed with Detroit Pistons), Jeff Ayres (free agent, not currently signed anywhere)
The Spurs’ roster situation heading into this offseason seemed quite precarious.
They were going after prized big men Aldridge and Marc Gasol, but San Antonio had never been known to sign big-name free agents and the chances of getting one were slim.
Duncan and Ginobili stayed tight-lipped for a while about whether they’d be back for another season, and starting shooting guard Green was a 3-and-D expert who would be tempted by the beaucoup bucks awaiting him on the open market.
Leonard, a restricted free agent, was basically a lock to return on a max deal, but there were still a bunch of other free agents who were no guarantees to stay, including Marco Belinelli, Cory Joseph and Aron Baynes.
If Duncan and Ginobili retired and the up-in-the-air free agents signed elsewhere, San Antonio would be left with Leonard, Parker, Splitter and a bunch of new, lesser-known players to fill out its roster. That team would’ve struggled to make the playoffs.
But everything quickly started to fall in place.
Leonard agreed to a contract at midnight July 1, and Green left (presumably) more than $10 million on the table in free agency to return to San Antonio. The Spurs traded away Splitter to clear cap space and ramped up their efforts to lure Aldridge to the Alamo City.
A few days later, they succeeded, bringing in the All-Star power forward on a four-year, $81 million deal.
Ginobili and Duncan decided to come back on discounts, and then San Antonio got a bonus move when West declined a $12 million player option with the Indiana Pacers to join the Spurs on a veteran’s minimum contract.
Joseph, Baynes and Belinelli did all choose to pursue more lucrative contracts with other teams, somewhat compromising San Antonio’s depth (along with the trade of Splitter), but the offseason was still a smashing success.
Key Player: David West
How Parker responds from a poor season will be key, as will the integration of Aldridge into the team’s offensive and defensive systems.
But the projected second unit (Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Kyle Anderson, Boris Diaw and West) has two major weaknesses, and West will be the one depended on heavily to make the best of the situation.
First off, there’s no center.
Before you mention Marjanovic, I’m excluding him from the discussion until he proves he can adjust to the NBA. He’s looked downright awful in the preseason so far, coughing the ball up at the slightest defensive resistance and not using his tremendous size to his advantage.
So the competition is basically down to Diaw and West, for now.
Diaw is only 6’8″ and played approximately two percent of his minutes at the 5 last season. I assume West, at 6’9″ with his 7’4.25″ wingspan, will be pushed to that position, although he himself only played 14 percent of his minutes there in 2014-15.
Not only will this be a position change for West, it’s a complete role change. Between Tyson Chandler, Emeka Okafor and Roy Hibbert, he’s probably become used to playing next to a big man who relished protecting the rim. West will now have to handle the opposing team’s 5, a player who likely doesn’t stray too far from the paint and prides himself on finishing strong at the hoop.
West’s opponent field goal percentage at the rim was a mediocre 52.8 last year, but that was predominantly against power forwards. He’s not a shot-blocker, so going straight up near the hoop to disrupt shots will be a key for him.
The second major weakness is somewhat related, but there’s an athleticism/defense problem in the reserve unit.
Again, West’s rim protection will be key, but I think San Antonio will just have to accept that its second unit’s identity will come from excellent ball movement and shooting on the offensive end.
If West keeps knocking those mid-range jumpers at an elite rate (50.2 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line last season), he’ll prevent opposing 5s from camping out near the hoop and open up the lane for basket cuts.
West performing well on both ends is vital to the operations of San Antonio’s second unit.
Let’s first look at how I think Popovich might distribute his minutes this season. You’ll notice I picked the Spurs to sign Rasual Butler as the 15th man ahead of the other players invited to training camp:
San Antonio should be a dominant offensive team in 2015-16, especially if the aging Parker tones down his high-usage ways to give Aldridge and Leonard the lion’s share of reps.
LaMarcus isn’t quite as good on defense as the departed Splitter, but we’re talking about the addition of a 23.4 points-per-game scorer and All-Star for the past four seasons here. He’s money from mid-range and that means clearer driving lanes for San Antonio’s slashers.
Leonard, with his unassuming nature, has taken a back seat offensively in the past, but those days appear to be over. In 95 preseason minutes, he’s taken 53 shots, scored 71 points and (gasp!) even complained about several calls to the officials.
Duncan is still a reliable option with his back to the basket and Green will get hot if you key in on the rest of the lineup. If Parker can get back to at least being a credible, efficient threat, the lineup will be deadly.
On the bench, you have several great passers who are also smart players. As mentioned earlier, the group might struggle defensively, but they’ll whip the ball around and get open shots aplently.
San Antonio’s ceiling is just as high as any other team in the league, but my concerns about Parker’s health, the second unit defense and the top-heavy nature of the West are the main reasons I have the Spurs falling short in the penultimate playoff series in 2016.
Prediction: 57-25 record, No. 3 in the Western Conference, lose in Western Conference Finals