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The Contenders: San Antonio Spurs

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The latest iteration of the San Antonio Spurs is highlighted by a new but equally quiet superstar. A leader the Spurs are, now, ready to embrace completely.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

This is Part Two of a five-part series featuring the five most likely contenders for the NBA Championship. In case you missed it, Part One covered the Cleveland Cavaliers evolution in pursuit of a repeat. Check back the next three Saturday mornings for Parts Three through Five.

Last season, the San Antonio Spurs lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Recent history indicates that the leap from early playoff exit to championship contender is very difficult and almost always requires a major free agent acquisition. See: The 2004 Pistons adding Rasheed Wallace, the 2009 Celtics adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, the 2011 Heat adding LeBron James, or the 2015 Cavs adding LeBron James.

Teams that lose in the second round are often, at best, toiling in mediocrity the following season. Look no further than the three other teams who lost in the second round last season— The Blazers, Hawks, and Heat. Entering the season, it seemed possible that the days of Spurs title contention might be over, at least temporarily. Rather than adding a star in the offseason, the Spurs lost a dynamic piece on and off the floor in Tim Duncan. Losing him to retirement fostered a thought that the Spurs may no longer be “the Spurs” and maybe a team destined for this lower tier of a playoff team without real championship aspirations, a la the Blazers-Hawks-Heat. This thought prove, of course, to be a mirage. The Spurs are on pace for 63 wins and possibly the best record in the NBA while the Blazers are on pace for 37 wins, the Hawks 45, and the Heat 41.

What Happened to the Spurs?

Why are the Spurs still so good? This question has been answered in San Antonio through self-examination. Re-tooling for the next generation came from recognizing why exactly they lost to the Thunder.

In looking back at that series, it is rather clear that San Antonio lost their quintessential Spurs-ian offensive identity— A team that inflicted mental damage on opponents as they sent defenders heads spiraling in futile pursuit of a ball zipping around the perimeter. The Spurs were the team that featured the fewest isolation plays in the NBA that season and punished opponents in every aspect of team basketball. Plays like this:

For some reason, in the Thunder series, the Spurs took an about face on this strategy and almost began to target isolations. Part of the blame in this may fall on LaMarcus Aldridge for being too good in game one of that series. Behind Aldridge’s 38 points, the Spurs blinded the Thunder winning 124-92. That game featured a plethora of mid-post isolations for Aldridge, and lent credence to the idea that the Thunder may not be in the class of the Spurs.

So the Spurs stuck to their guns, the Aldridge gun— Aldridge had 18-plus field goal attempts in all six games of that series. However, as teams often do in the playoffs, the Thunder adapted and eventually slowed Aldridge. In the final four games, Aldridge struggled immensely as the Spurs continually dumped it to him in the post. After making 18 of 23 shots in game one, Aldridge converted only 31 of 78 field goal attempts in the final four games. The difficulty level of his shot attempts, like this shot on Serge Ibaka, was simply unsustainable.

Kawhi Leonard also saw his Usage Rate (the percentage of team plays used by a player while on the floor) surge from his regular season rate of 25.8 percent to as high as the mid-30s in that series. The normally efficient Leonard began forcing contested mid-range shots. In the three straight losses to end the series, Leonard shot 28 of 63 from the field. The Thunder treated him as an isolation-first player, ICE-ing the pick and roll with Ibaka and Andre Roberson.

The Spurs had the seventh-best regular season record in NBA history last season, making the Thunder series an even more painful pill to swallow. A season that once looked to be Duncan’s perfect sunset had an unhappy ending. Fortunately for Spurs fans, the final pages of the Duncan Diaries is simply the end of a chapter. The sequel features a new, but equally subtle, protagonist.

NBA: Houston Rockets at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

After losing to the Thunder (and losing Duncan) it was clear that a new iteration was necessary for the San Antonio dynasty to continue. Why we ever questioned the Spurs is beyond me, they have been re-tooling for decades. Three times to be exact.

Phase One: The formation of the Twin Towers. Duncan alongside David Robinson presented a high-low counter to a league with an abundance of dominant big men. Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Patrick Ewing, Rasheed Wallace, and Chris Webber to name a few. 1999 NBA Champions.

Phase Two: The Euro-influence. An egalitarian approach to slowing the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns and a league increasing it’s pace. With Robinson now retired, the Spurs needed a new second pillar to lean on. They found stability in a Frenchmen and an Argentinian who bought in completely to Gregg Popovich’s system. 2003, 2005, and 2007 NBA Champions.

Phase Three: Elite Ball Movers. At the end of Duncan’s career, the league belonged to LeBron James and therefore the Spurs installed a requisite pivot. Their three stars were still good, but not at the level of their previous incarnations. San Antonio had to find a way to counter the speed and size of James and his teams. They found the only thing that moves faster than LeBron, passing. Five players with elite court vision and a passion to use it. The Spurs still belonged to their big name stars, but it was players like Boris Diaw and Danny Green that slightly tilted the scales. 2014 NBA Champions.


Creating a Superstar

Earlier I wrote, “recent history indicates that the leap from early playoff exit to championship contender almost always requires a major free agent acquisition.” But there is actually a very recent example of this not being the case. An example of a player already very good, who becomes the best player in the league from one year to the next. There’s this guy Stephen Curry.

Much like the Spurs last season, the 2013-14 Golden State Warriors lost in the first round of the playoffs. That season, Curry was good— led his team to 51 wins, made his first all-star team, and was voted to the All-NBA Second Team. This unexpected progression from mid-lottery pick to All-Star was much more than what many had expected Curry’s ceiling could be. As we all know, this turned out to be nowhere near his apex.

The following year, Curry set Twitter, Vine (RIP), and the whole NBA on fire. But to truly diagnose why Curry became the back-to-back league Most Valuable Player comes from an analysis of the way Golden State used him. The Warriors infrastructure changed, Marc Jackson was fired, Steve Kerr was hired, and the Warriors became The Steph Curry Show.

By 2015-16, Curry’s three-point field goal attempts per 36 minutes jumped from a league-high 7.8 in 2013-14 to an unheard of 11.8. Curry was making over five threes per game at a rate of 45.4 percent. Kerr believed there was another way to land a superstar— creating his own.

Phase Four: King Kawhi Spurs a New Reign

I’m sure Kerr stole many pages from the Gregg Popovich Book of Coaching after being hired by the Warriors, but this season Pop appears to have reciprocated. The Spurs have created their own superstar. Phase Four of the Spurs re-tool starts and finishes with Kawhi Leonard.

Front-court dominance is no longer an option in San Antonio, nor as effective in the NBA these days. Parker and Ginobili are no longer the players they were in the mid-2000s. And the 2017 Spurs roster has a different makeup than that of the 2014 champs. So the 2017 Spurs are, now, exactly what they regret having been in their loss to the Thunder last season— a team that features Kawhi Leonard.

The difference of this year’s Spurs team lies in Aldridge settling into the role of a valuable pawn while Leonard has become the Queen of the Spurs proverbial chessboard. Leonard’s vast skillset is highlighted in, but not limited to, three specific areas— The post, the pick and roll, and isolation.

Leonard in the Post Up

With Duncan now gone, the Spurs needed to fill a big body void. In part this was filled by Pau Gasol, but Gasol is not the player he once was and certainly is not used in the same way. In his Lakers heyday, Gasol was shooting 43.4 percent of his shots from the restricted area. That number has been nearly cut in half (22.3 percent) as his average shot distance has risen from 5.8 feet in 2009-10 to 12.0 feet with the Spurs, according to basketballreference.com.

That is Gasol’s role and he is filling admirably with the Spurs, but it has left a void in the post next to Aldridge. The Spurs have implemented the novel concept of just having their best player try it out. And it has worked. Leonard has shown the ability to operate as a very traditional post player simply relying on jump hooks.

But his post game is not limited to the traditional dump it to the post style, Leonard often seeks out the post up in an effort to utilize his fading midrange jump shot.

Leonard in the Pick and Roll

This season the Spurs score out of the pick and roll 43.3 percent of the time, good for third best in the NBA. The Toronto Raptors and the Los Angeles Clippers are the only team scoring more efficiently in this area. The difference between those two teams and the Spurs is the presence of All-NBA caliber point guards Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul.

As Tony Parker is no longer that caliber of player, the Spurs have heaped this duty upon Leonard using him as the ball handler in 30.6 percent of the Spurs pick and rolls. For comparison, Lowry has been the ball handler in 30.3 percent of Raptors pick and rolls and Paul 26.8 percent for the Clippers. (Numbers slightly deflated by injuries to both Lowry and Paul.)

Needless to say, having a player with the physical capabilities of Leonard weaponizes this play type for the Spurs in a way the Raptors and Clippers can not. Unlike many other forwards who are often head down to the basket after receiving a pick, Leonard implements excellent patience in the pick and roll, truly operating as a point forward.

Defenses must pack the lane in an effort to help a Leonard pick and roll. Forcing the gravity of the defense to him allows Leonard to free up a plethora of midrange looks for his skilled teammates. In a league that has all but sworn off the midrange, the Spurs have not. Rather, they have embraced it and are on pace to shoot 1.41 times the amount 15-19 footers they did in the 2014-15 season.

Leonard in Isolation

Much of the Spurs uptick in the midrange has come from this area being Leonard’s bread and butter. The midrange jump shot is often maligned for it’s inefficiency across the league. Often understood as a bad shot, especially off the dribble. What often makes these shot types difficult is the rush in which they are attempted and the duress it often receives from the defender. In Leonard’s case, much like the pick and roll, he is patient in his pursuit of the midrange. His sheer size and athleticism allows him to rise up over the contest with ease.

Leonard is such a dynamic one-on-one weapon because no shot is out of his repertoire. The improvement of his three-point shot has made him nearly unguardable in isolation. Leonard is shooting 41.4 percent from three over the last two seasons. Here, Moe Harkless is notably scared by the threat of a Leonard three, closing out too soon and too aggressively. If Leonard gets a step on a defender in isolation it is checkmate.

Finding a New Normal in San Antonio

With Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili shells of themselves and Duncan on his last leg (literally,) relying on production from the Big Three of old would have also been a futile effort against the Thunder last postseason. And therefore, in many ways it was intuitive to have force-fed Leonard and Aldridge last postseason. The issue was, the Spurs were not yet committed to this style and running it exclusively in the playoffs was ineffective.

Things have changed. The Spurs now know their best selves, and that best self is headed by a quiet and corn-rowed assassin. Aldridge’s usage has dropped and Leonard’s has taken a massive jump. After tallying the 43rd highest Usage Rate in the NBA during 2015-16, Leonard is now 7th in Usage Rate in 2016-17. Only surpassed by ball-dominant guards (Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Isaiah Thomas, and Demar DeRozan) and big men on terrible teams (DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis).

To be a great team in the NBA you need a MVP-caliber superstar. If that superstar is not available in free agency, the great coaches create their own. This is exactly what Gregg Popovich and his Phase Four San Antonio Spurs have done in their pursuit of title contention in 2017.