In some ways, it was both shocking and unsurprising that Gregg Popovich coached the most dominant regular-season team of his career in 2015-16.
The eye-opener came from the fact that over 101,000 regular-season minutes were played by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili before starting their historic ride last season. Their average age of 36.7 made it seem unrealistic that three key players in the skeleton stages of a career could contend with rising youth.
Fulfilling and exceeding expectations, though, were the two new faces of the San Antonio Spurs. Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge were pressured to relieve most of the load off the backs of the Hall of Fame trio, as well as reinvigorating the starting lineup with fresher legs, easier scoring capabilities and more responsibility.
San Antonio’s complete and diverse rotation lifted them to a System Rating Score (takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule) of +10.28, the seventh-highest since the NBA formed in 1946. It was Popovich’s eighth season reaching an SRS level above seven:
Star denotes championship season for Spurs (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014)
Leonard’s ascension into superstardom was projected, but Aldridge’s fit into Popovich’s offensive ideologies — which are both simple in theory and complex through execution — was the heavy unknown. He was coming off a career-high usage rating during his last season in Portland, and that was with a dynamic, ball-dominant point guard sharing the stage. Popovich admitted to having a few ounces of fear that they could incorporate a post-heavy, shoot-first player into a punctilious offense, but the Spurs made it work and finished with the third-best offense in the regular season.
While their two imperative offensive players are returning, several cornerstone pieces exited the franchise this summer.
Duncan rode off into the sunset with his retirement. Boris Diaw was dealt to the Utah Jazz in a trade that cleared cap space. Another bench component, David West, decided not to pursue another contract with the Spurs after realizing they were still notches below Golden State’s title chances.
Duncan’s departure is the No. 1 cause for concern. Even at 40 years old, his value to the defensive end was taken for granted by the casual viewer because he wasn’t flashy. Even without the extra fluff, Duncan finished his last season with a Box Plus-Minus rating of +4.1, including an absurd DBPM of 5.0 that was the second-best mark of his career.
Losing Diaw to the Jazz hurts in a very different way. His distributing and court vision have improved with age, even if his feet and athleticism started to fail him last year. Diaw was consistently a step behind and really appeared like a 33-year-old for majority of the season, but it didn’t stop him from being their best passing big (along with Duncan). If you converted the entire Spurs’ roster to passes per 36 minutes, Diaw would’ve ranked third behind only Tony Parker and Patty Mills — the team’s primary point guards.
San Antonio had to salary dump Diaw in order to land Pau Gasol, who turned 36 this summer, in free agency. Gasol is set to take on a big role after his two seasons with the Bulls ended with a mixed bag of results that featured a ton of production but not a ton of impact.
The defensive gurus of the game can shout over and over about how Gasol’s pick-and-roll reaction time is embarrassingly low at this juncture. They wouldn’t be wrong.
Defensively is where most of the alarming sentiments lie with Gasol. He has earned a negative reputation as a defender since his days as a Laker came to an end. The reasoning has always been about his lack of mobility and struggles guarding pick-and-roll.
When it comes down to the facts, and not the long-term image that’s been painted into people’s heads, Gasol was actually acceptable defensively under Fred Hoiberg last season. Sure, there were a handful of games that turned viewers off because he was outmatched, but he fared particularly well in some of the defensive analytics:
It’s true — guards, penetrators and big men thought they could test Gasol at the rim with ease, and they were comfortable with it. Last season, he defended 767 field goals at the rim, which ended up as the second-highest amount in the league. Only Hassan Whiteside was tested more. Gasol only allowed a 46.3 percent success rate on those attempts, stacking up nicely with Whiteside’s 46.9 percent.
With Gasol in place, the Spurs will experience more guard penetration and rim-attacking than ever before. Teams will try to take advantage of Duncan being at home in his flannel shirt and jeans, instead of roaming the paint.
Last year, San Antonio gave up one of the lowest amounts of restricted area field goals in the league. Most of the Spurs’ defense was predicated on forcing tough shots from five-to-nine feet (one of the hardest areas to score from due to defensive pressure) and forcing a ton of contested mid-rangers. If Popovich is truly a wizard, he can get Gasol to help follow that philosophy, working with Aldridge to keep most of their opponents’ offense away from the rim.
One thing that’s always significant about Gasol is how his length can make up for his slow lateral movements:
Even outside of the screen-roll, Gasol was still above average in what I like to call “playing safety” in basketball — patrolling the paint and still keeping a sharp eye on his man while playing help defense. If the opposing team has a center that Gasol doesn’t have to worry about stretching to the three-point line, then he’s able to lay off and collapse on guards when they drive:
On the other side of the floor, Gasol should be an upgrade over Duncan thanks to his still dangerous combination of shooting and passing. However, his back to the basket game has declined. Gasol shot just 83-of-205 on his post-up field goal attempts (40.5 percent). When you learn it was 54th out of 64 players that “used” at least 100 post-ups last season, you’ll probably utter some NSFW expletives. When you learn that it was one spot behind Kobe Bryant’s 40.6 percent efficiency on post-ups, you’ll throw your reading device at the wall.
San Antonio pushed to get Gasol for years, though, and Popovich likely feels that he can squeeze every last ounce of motivation and championship zest out of the Spaniard.
The lineup with Parker, Danny Green, Leonard, Aldridge and Gasol should be a plus-minus behemoth, depending on if Green snaps out of his daunting shooting slump from last year. As his three-point attempt rate stayed about the same, his efficiency from long-range dipped 8.6 percent.
What’s going to keep them as a three seed or higher is their defensive growth along the perimeter. Green is only 29, while Leonard is somehow 25 and not even at his peak on either side of the floor.
Where Leonard and Green both excel is restricting the amount of three-pointers hoisted by the Spurs’ opponents. They’re two of the best at forcing perimeter scorers off the line, making them put the ball on the floor and convincing them to take tougher contested twos. Not only did San Antonio allow the fewest made above-the-break threes last season, but their opponents only shot 33.5 percent on those looks. Even without Duncan and Diaw in the rotation, their perimeter defense likely won’t take a detrimental hit unless one of Leonard or Green goes down with an injury.
On the other hand, Popovich’s bench units are one potential trouble spot, especially considering Ginobili isn’t the same scoring punch in what should be his final year. Between Ginobili, Mills, Kyle Anderson, Jonathon Simmons, newcomer Dewayne Dedmon and veteran David Lee, the bench isn’t too appealing for a championship contender…especially in the West. The regression from 67-15 to roughly 56-26 is not only fair, but also justifiable without “Mr. Fundamental” there as the team’s on-court coach.
The Spurs will almost certainly take a step back in their regular-season play. Expecting them to replace Duncan, Diaw and West with only Gasol and Dedmon and still keeping a similar level of historically great defense isn’t realistic. The same type of chemistry isn’t transferred over, which was half the battle of creating such a potent and sound defense.
When April arrives, however, there’s only one team in the league that’s unafraid of seeing the silver and black. They’re in Oakland and likely wouldn’t have to see San Antonio until the conference finals.
Regardless if it’s a popular belief that the Clippers finally make the jump to No. 2 in the West, you can bet your mortgage on one thing: They don’t want to repeat the same taxing battle in a series against Leonard and the Spurs, even though they scraped by two years ago.