Spurs must evolve to repeat in '14-15
The work of an NBA champion is finished for only a matter of weeks. A grueling season rolls into a long playoff run which fades into an extended celebration. In due time, the parades and the parties give way to the pressure to repeat. Some rest is in order, but soon enough even those victorious must prepare for another cycle, only one much more difficult this time around. This is the grind of winning back-to-back titles. Beyond the inherent difficulty of winning it all in two separate seasons is a certain attrition – a burden brought by one season quietly folding into the next as the rest of the basketball world takes aim at the defending champs.
The Spurs, then, have their work cut out for them. Returning the same roster that dominated the NBA Finals is a start, as it sets up San Antonio to reprise its world-beating ball movement and stout team defense. That alone won't likely be enough. Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan -- who came up short in their efforts to repeat after all four of their previous titles -- know as well as anyone that a defending champion needs to evolve. The attention of those in and around the league is naturally drawn to what's new. Some mind should be paid, though, to the Spurs' banner-blazoned efforts to advance the familiar.
The trick is in finding ways to improve upon a team that, stylistically speaking, works at a frequency so close to the ideal. Popovich could no doubt rattle off countless errors in the way the Spurs execute -- many of which can be addressed. Yet fundamentally, San Antonio has every reason to continue in its same, basic form. The system won't be overhauled, both for the sake of continuity and if-it-ain't-broke prudence. Within it, though, must come some manner of change.
Kawhi Leonard, as the Spur with the most latent capability, is an obvious avenue. Year four of Leonard's career will assuredly put him at his highest usage yet. He'll be trusted to do more and be thrust into a variety of situations demanding creativity with the ball. Yet San Antonio also walks a line with Leonard, who for all his talent doesn't boast the skill set of a conventional star. Part of what makes the Spurs so difficult to guard is that so many of their possessions develop organically. There are designs in terms of player positioning and movement, yet the ball seeks out the open man in reactive fashion. For this reason it's tricky to shoehorn too many possessions to a single player out of the offense's natural turn. Leonard could be used more to initiate offense or act as an intermediary as plays develop. San Antonio's very structure, though, isn't exactly conducive to a true Leonard breakout.
More likely is a subtle extension of Leonard's role -- as much as is allowed by his still-developing handle and limited playmaking ability while keeping within the flow of the offense. Such growth would come in the service of two goals: the aforementioned pursuit of a second straight championship and the coming reality in which Duncan and Manu Ginobili fade toward retirement. The latter is an even more pressing reason for team-wide evolution. For years the Spurs have been defined according to what Duncan and Ginobili could provide. Those days are almost certainly nearing their end, with those two stars now at 38 and 37 years old, respectively. Both have staved off catastrophic decline for too long to foretell when they might be finished, but the hour is late enough that all eyes come to Leonard. If there is a way forward on the Spurs' current roster, it begins with the 23-year-old Finals MVP. For the moment he's a cog in Popovich's machine -- a prominent, proficient cog, but a cog all the same. Soon enough, however, Leonard could be standout talent on a roster that wilts, slowly but surely, from the top.
The Spurs are hardly new to the balance involved in maintaining aging players, as this very process has played out in slow motion since Duncan dipped from the height of his powers. First Popovich empowered Tony Parker, who in seasons prior had been more of a caretaker point guard. Then he embraced the value of maximized floor spacing, drawing on the mid-2000s Suns and a variety of European teams as inspiration. In the years since Popovich has gradually shaped his approach as is necessary, in response to both the particulars of San Antonio's roster and more general competitive needs. Now, even after his latest conquest, Pop bears the burden to progress.
That's especially true given that the Spurs' 2014 playoff run was, at various points, more vulnerable than it seemed. Dallas took San Antonio to seven games in the first around and was but a cold spell away from putting the Spurs on the ropes. Oklahoma City, as is so easily forgotten, was the better team for much of the Western Conference Finals when healthy. In those minutes that Serge Ibaka -- who missed Games 1 and 2 with a calf injury -- actually played in that series, the Thunder outscored the Spurs by four points per 100 possessions. San Antonio was able to seal its trip to the Finals with a 26-point game from Boris Diaw and a clutch overtime showing from Duncan, all of which successfully camouflaged the fact that the Spurs were within minutes of an anything-could-happen Game 7.
The Spurs could be felled by the wrong matchup and nearly were in the playoffs despite playing some of their very best basketball. Winning a title doesn't make San Antonio immune to similar dangers in its effort to repeat. Oklahoma City isn't going anywhere. The L.A. Clippers are increasingly formidable. The rest of the Western Conference playoff pool is lined with teams (Golden State, Dallas, Houston, Memphis) that could turn a series against the Spurs into a dead heat under just the right circumstances. There's work still to be done: Play actions to be crystallized, development to be teased out and roles to be modified.
This level of success requires constant negotiation. Leonard is only one piece in play. Popovich has the luxury of tinkering with the responsibilities of Danny Green, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter and (once healthy) Patty Mills to varying degrees, as all are capable of broadening or honing their skills to some greater effect. He can adjust the ways Duncan, Parker and Ginobili -- all versatile in their own way -- are used. The playbook can be widened or focused as a given situation demands, as can the rotation. Last year's team reached equilibrium and, with it, a championship. Now the very same group must find a new stability on slightly different terms.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.