Analytics

What’s next for the Spurs?

The Spurs became just the 12th team in NBA history to win 67 games during the regular season, and their net rating (adjusted to schedule difficulty) ranked 7th all-time – and among the Top 10 teams there are seven NBA champions, this season’s Warriors and Spurs, and the 1971-72 Bucks who lost another team on the list. San Antonio set a franchise record for wins, signed LaMarcus Aldridge during the summer to extend their contender status to beyond the Tim Duncan-era. Kawhi Leonard grew into an MVP candidate and the Spurs tied the 1985-86 Celtics for the best home record ever.

Few franchises have ever had a year like the Spurs did this season, and their accomplishment deserve praise despite falling to the Thunder in the second round. A 19-year run of 50 wins (or on pace to in lockout seasons) culminating in the best regular season in franchise history is a testament to years of building a winning culture, development and the greatness of Duncan. By now, every single national TV broadcast of a Spurs game always features some variation of the words: “No one talks about the Spurs”, which actually means that we do talk about them, but their run of success – that is still going strong – may never be replicated in American sports leagues and will never be praised enough.

For the season, San Antonio ranked third in offensive efficiency, scoring 108.4 points per 100 possessions. On defense, the Spurs allowed just 96.6 points, ranking as the second best team over the past 11 seasons (minus the lockout year, when scoring was down significantly across the league) only behind the 2007-08 Celtics. Gregg Popovich transformed the team from a ball moving, spread offense system to a post-up behemoth, and the Spurs pivoted into the new style with incredible effectiveness. Much of the concepts stayed the same, from getting into the offense quickly to the “good to great shot” philosophy, but with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker aging the team couldn’t succeed playing the way they had in the last few years. Danny Green and Leonard formed the best defensive wing combo, Parker became a scrappier defender than before, Aldridge improved tremendously in-season on both ends and at age 39, Duncan continued to be one of the most impactful defenders during much of the regular season – ranking second in Defensive Real Plus-Minus.

In the Spurs’ second-round matchup against the Thunder, however, some of the roster weaknesses and limitations imposed by their style of play led to their downfall and a six-game exit from the playoffs. The Spurs have always struggled to counter Thunder’s athleticism, and often they have found faster and younger teams to be overwhelming. Just this year, the Spurs had blowout losses against the Cavaliers, Warriors, Thunder and Clippers, the four biggest title threats in addition to themselves.

The Spurs struggling against the top-tier teams in the league during the regular season is nothing new, and in the year of their most recent title run the Spurs were swept 4-0 by the Rockets in the regular season. The biggest difference between that title team and this season’s was that they were able to pass, drive and move the ball out of any problem, leading to one of the greatest Finals performances ever, where it looked like the Spurs had broken basketball, and figured out an optimal way to play that couldn’t be matched. This year, San Antonio just didn’t have the same kind of upside, a place they could go to that would create unsolvable problems.

The Thunder essentially pulled the Spurs’ and Popovich’s pants down, exposing the weaknesses that were there all along. In the regular season, the Warriors showed a chink in the Spurs armor, managing to destroy the their offense with their switches and one-on-one excellence. The Spurs scored just 94.8 points per 100 possessions in the four games the two teams played against each other – a mark that would have ranked the team as the worst offense in the league, way below the lowly Sixers. The Spurs ranked 28th in free throw attempts per game, and despite shooting the three-pointer with great efficiency, the Spurs ranked 25th in attempts at 18.5 per game.

One of the reasons the Thunder are incredibly tough to beat in the playoffs (when healthy) is because they have such a high upward variance with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Four times out of seven, the easy points from getting to the line and the explosive scoring the two provide is likely to reach a point that is tough to match for any team. The Spurs lacked that upward variance from three-pointers since they only took 17.3 per game (for comparison, the Cavs have shot 36.3 per game in the playoffs) and lost the free throw battle to the Thunder by a by a mile. A disturbing 49.4 percent of the Spurs shots came from non-restricted area paint shots and mid-range jumpers, which is a huge mountain to climb when it comes to running an efficient offense to beat a team like the Thunder.

As the series progressed, Billy Donovan adjusted to what the Spurs were doing on offense very nicely, and some of the strategic changes from Game 1 onward made a huge difference in the series. The most obvious adjustment, and the one with the biggest impact, was how the Thunder handled Leonard and, in particular, Aldridge down on the block. Donovan quickly figured out that the key to stopping Aldridge was stopping him from going middle, forcing a turnaround shot or drive to the baseline. In Game 6, you would often see Serge Ibaka leaning heavily on Aldridge’s left shoulder to stop him from turning to the lane.

After stopping moves to the middle, the next step for the Thunder defense was to help out in a useful way from the baseline, and Steven Adams in particular did a wonderful job stepping over without allowing an easy pass to the his man to the middle. From the weakside, a defender would come to help out to box out as well, which works well with a great guard rebounder like Westbrook or a big wing like Durant, and the Spurs weren’t able to make the Thunder pay for overloading the strong side. The Spurs lack of three-point shooting really hurt them against the Thunder scheme.

Often, the impact of adjustments is overrated and the best way to make an adjustments is just to play better or to make a few shots. One of the areas the Thunder really improved their focus in was their pick-and-roll defense, where they made great decisions on who to go under the pick against. All the Thunder bigs had a horrible time recovering to Aldridge in Game 1, but throughout the series they got better at getting back to him to contest the shot while also blowing up Parker’s attempts to get to the basket.

The Spurs didn’t get their typical advantage from their bench in the series. David West really struggled to make good decisions and move the ball, and I’ve actually never like how the Spurs offense has looked with him on the court. When the Pacers met the LeBron James-led Heat in the playoffs a couple of years in a row, West struggled to make plays from the key area (where Miami’s trapping scheme would always force the ball). Had he been a bit better, the Pacers might’ve won one of those series. West just isn’t the type of intuitive playmaker the Spurs offense needs. Boris Diaw has always been great on switches, but has slowed down significantly this year and his impact along with it. Kyle Anderson had a rough go trying to keep Durant in front of him. Popovich’s frustrations with the bench were on display as Kevin Martin and Boban Marjanovic were unearthed to play early in the second quarter of Game 6.

Had a few calls gone differently the series might have gone to seven games, the Spurs may have even won. The margin for error at the top is next to nothing and every detail is important. Even so, the longer the series went on the bigger the Spurs’ struggles and the Thunder’s advantage became. Oklahoma City advanced because the Spurs offense absolutely died in this series, there was no spacing, and give every Donovan and the Thunder players credit. Adams deserves a special mention for being awesome.

Spurs desperately trying, and failing, to find driving lanes

WHAT’S NEXT?

The Spurs’ offseason could go a couple of different ways. With two great pieces in Leonard and Aldridge, they will compete in the playoffs for the foreseeable future, but an injection of talent, shooting and athleticism would be welcome. There is a chance San Antonio could operate with significant room as the salary cap rises to above $90 million this summer. Question marks are Duncan and Ginobili’s status. Their contracts can be wiped off the books should one or both retire. Diaw is under a good deal at $7 million, but if the right free agent can be persuaded join the Spurs, Diaw could be cut or traded. Additionally, West has a player option and Marjanovic will enter restricted free agency.

After suffering through some minor injuries midway through the year, Duncan really struggled to end the season and in the playoffs. With zero lift, Adams, Westbrook and other were able to get a ton of rebounds from Duncan by essentially jumping over him, and Duncan’s lack of jumping strength torpedoed his scoring at the rim. Even if the Spurs made it out of the second round, Duncan had no shot of staying on the floor against the speed and spread floor of the Warriors in the Conference Finals. On the other hand, Duncan is still a really effective defender – an unmatched genius in the pick-and-roll and on weakside helps – against the right opponent. On a Tuesday night in mid-January against the Bucks, Duncan can still be the most effective defender on the court.

Ginobili just posted one of the best seasons ever by a player in his late 30’s, and his per-36 minute averages of 17.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.1 steals on very good efficiency was a non-negligible part of the Spurs’ success. With Duncan and Ginobili both under contract for good money and still producing, it would be hard to imagine either retiring. The Spurs are very good, and seeing each of them as a part of that success next year is the hope of every basketball fan.

The albatross around San Antonio’s neck going forward is Parker. Parker still has two more full seasons on his contract at around $15 million per. While that is just average starter money, Parker is far from being average. The litmus test for Parker’s effectiveness is if he can turn the corner on pick-and-rolls and get to the basket. That ability has completely disappeared from Parker, especially against prepared defenses, and without a reliable three-point shot, Parker has no place in the offense. The past two years, Parker has actually shot 42 percent on three-pointers. The problem is that he’s taken just over one attempt per game and a large majority of them come from the corners. Leonard has taken over much of the ball-handling duties for the Spurs, and now would be the perfect time for Parker to get to a place where he can shoot threes from all over the court and with a decent volume. Parker has a pretty slow release on his three-pointer, and quickening that up and making Parker more comfortable taking shots from beyond the arc would be a savior for the San Antonio, forcing defenses to respect his shot and being afraid to help off Parker.

Luckily, the Spurs may have better options than Parker. Mike Conley has recently been linked to the Spurs in rumors, and with the direction the Grizzlies have taken, Conley may need to get out of Memphis to have a chance at competing in the playoffs going forward. Conley would be a coup for the Spurs, strengthening them at their weakest position. Conley’s ability to work both on and off the ball is a great fit next to Aldridge and Leonard, and his defense would be a significant upgrade too. Durant to the Spurs has been rumored as well, but considering what has transpired since that would seem to be a dead end.

While all teams zig, there’s some opportunity to be exploited by zagging and going the other way. The Spurs had success playing big all year, but the offensive problems against the Thunder highlighted the need to go small more often. With Duncan, West, Aldridge, Marjanovic and Diaw, the Spurs didn’t pursue any small-ball lineups all season, which came back to bite them in the ass at the end. It’s hard to say what the Spurs philosophy is going forward, but this is an innovative team that has surely mapped out multiple possible strategies to pursue for the short- and long-term future.

Aldridge be 31 by the time next season starts. He’s been great at switching assignments so far, but as Aldridge ages the best move for him will likely be to start moving towards center despite his previous aversion to do so. With Leonard, the Spurs have one of the best small-ball power forward options in the league, and getting competent shooters and wings could be a priority for the Spurs in the next two or three summers of free agency. The Spurs won’t have much cap space to spend this summer, depending on whether or not one of the big free agents pans out, and the team will be limited to a couple exceptions in the $3-5 million range.

The Spurs have been the best team at uncovering gems by player development and from other leagues across the world. The Spurs have the 29th pick in this year’s draft and if they’re able to add a valuable contributor on the cheap, it would mean a great deal. One the wing, the best (potentially cheap) options this summer are Jared Dudley, Luol Deng and Courtney Lee – provided one of them would be willing to take a pay cut to chase a ring. The Spurs need someone to fit their culture, and won’t be going after the Josh Smith’s and Lance Stephenson’s of the world.

No matter what, in one form or another, the Spurs will be really good next year. We know they’ll contend for one of the top spots in the Western Conference, and be a threat to any team on every night. The question is whether or not they can reload with one more long-term piece and fidget around the edges to be a serious title threat. It’s certainly a challenge, but one we know the Spurs will face head on.

Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found atNylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.

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