All-Star point guard Tony Parker directed the NBA's most efficient offense last season. (Greg Nelson/SI)
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT ANALYZES THE SPURS
This is still a deep team built around talent and character. That depth will serve them well during the regular season again. Last year they had a bunch of players all average around 20 minutes a game, with contributions coming from everywhere. They should be in position to do that again this season.
I think Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are the best trio in the NBA. Parker and Ginobili are probably the two best playmakers on the same team. They can create so much offense. The Spurs are much more offensive-oriented than they used to be. They are looking for every opportunity to score in transition and get quick-hitters in the half court, whereas in years past they milked the shot clock. With Parker and Ginobili breaking down defenses, capable shooters spaced out for catch-and-shoot opportunities and Duncan remaining a very adequate post player, they are really hard to defend.
Two years ago, I thought there was no way that Duncan [who is 36 years old] would be playing right now. But he does a great job of keeping himself in shape and coach Gregg Popovich handles him so well. Popovich was smart: He took Duncan out of the post more in the regular season last year and put him in more pick-and-rolls, which saved his legs. Then, at the end of the game, Duncan would go into the post, and he'd have the energy for it.
Popovich has taken to resting Duncan sometimes on the back end of back-to-back games, or he will take him out pretty early in the fourth quarter if the game is a blowout. It's all about managing the regular season with an eye toward the postseason, which is why you see Duncan's playing about 28 minutes per game in the last two regular seasons but then staying out there longer in playoff games. With their depth, the Spurs feel good about their chances of winning a lot of regular-season games even when Duncan is playing limited minutes by his old standards.
Parker was really good last season as a scorer and passer in leading the best offensive team in the league. No one is better at getting into the paint than Parker. Defenses always have to collapse, and he has become so good at finishing or making the right pass. He really is looking to pass first, but he creates so many opportunities in the paint that he gets a lot of his points there. Parker has never really developed a three-point shot, but he will make you pay for going under the screen by hitting mid-range jumpers. Popovich has been hard on Parker, but you can tell that tough love has really paid off.
Ginobili was also terrific in the regular season last year, though he missed about half of it with injuries. The ball was in his hands a lot to create offense -- another thing that took a lot of the burden off Duncan -- and he was shooting it really well from the perimeter and still finishing around the basket. He is their best all-around player. I don't think he has dropped off at all [at age 35]. Monitoring Ginobili's minutes is always a priority for Popovich, too.
Popovich can get away with limiting the minutes of his three top guys because the Spurs have developed a good group behind them. Kawhi Leonard is another example of how the Spurs do such a great job of identifying players. He was their best defensive forward from Day 1 as a rookie last season after they gave up George Hill to get him [in a draft-night trade with the Pacers]. He started making perimeter shots as the year progressed. That gave them yet another guy who could space the floor and take advantage of their ball movement -- they are loaded with capable three-point shooters with players like Ginobili, Danny Green, Gary Neal and Matt Bonner. I don't think Leonard will ever be an elite shooter, but he looked so much more comfortable with his shot late in the season.
Leonard has a great attitude and plays hard on every play. He is long with big hands -- a little undersized but a great athlete who rebounds really well, runs the floor and finishes. It will be interesting to watch how he develops because he's already made some nice strides.
Pop is a master psychologist: He put Stephen Jackson in spots where he could succeed after the Spurs got him in a midseason trade [with the Warriors]. When he came into the game, Pop would run a set for him and get him in the flow right away. That would keep his attention. Once he started to drift, Pop took him out. In the past, Jackson would be yakking at the coach. With Pop, he says nothing. He knows that if he says something to Pop, he could be gone the next day.
I liked the Jackson pickup for them. I think he will finish his career there. Anywhere else, he has a shelf life of two years before he has to go because he creates problems. Truth is, he is a really good guy off the court but on the court a switch turns on and he becomes so adversarial.
Boris Diaw is another guy they got in the middle of the season [after the Bobcats bought out his contract in March]. Diaw was overweight in Charlotte and had no interest in playing there, but not surprisingly he fit in well with San Antonio. He is one of the best passing big men in the league, he is sneaky quick getting to the rim off the dribble and he can make shots. Diaw is better than anyone else they have at the 4-spot.
I'm not sold on Tiago Splitter as a guy who can become a big-minutes starter, though he's a good backup. He's big and physical, but he's a position rebounder as opposed to someone who really goes after them. He doesn't have any shooting range, but he can score inside.
I don't think they have the legs to compete in the playoffs against the top teams. In one game, they can beat anyone. In a best-of-seven, the top teams in the West are going to beat them. With Duncan, even if they limit him in the regular season to keep him as fresh as possible, you can't have him on the floor for 38 minutes a game in a seven-game series. The same goes for Ginobili. They just can't recover like they used to, and some of their opponents, like the Thunder, will have young stars who can play big minutes over and over during the course of a seven-game series.
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