Since the dawn of the new millennium, the San Antonio Spurs have been perpetual contenders in the Western Conference, winning three titles since 2000. This year the Spurs once again find themselves near the top of the field and one of the favorites to represent the West in the 2012 NBA Finals.
As impressive as San Antonio’s longevity has been, it is far from an infallible team, as last year’s first-round upset to the upstart Memphis Grizzlies proved. While everyone needs to perform well if San Antonio wants one last title, there are five players whose play is of specific importance.
Arguably the greatest power forward of all time, Duncan is in the twilight of his career and is looking at possibly his last shot to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Though Duncan is older, he’s still an integral part of San Antonio’s success on both ends of the floor. Duncan having noticeably improved numbers is not impossible considering his stats have actually ticked up a marginal amount compared to last year.
The Spurs will need every ounce of energy and effort Duncan has if they want to avoid another first-round exit at the hands of a team with a younger and more athletic frontcourt.
The enigmatic, brooding and talented “Captain Jack” is arguably the biggest wild card the Spurs have as well as the variable that makes it very tough to prognosticate San Antonio’s 2012 postseason success.
The Spurs pulled off a savvy trade that is so frustratingly typical and brilliant for fans of other teams in acquiring Jackson.
Though Jackson’s reputation precedes him, the Spurs were able to land a proven scorer who played well and behaved during his first stint in San Antonio. They were also able to jettison Richard Jefferson’s cap-clogging contract for the relatively cheap price of a late first-round pick.
Sure, Jackson has a history of behavioral issues. He also has a history of scoring virtually at will and playing well enough for the Spurs to play a big part in bringing a title to San Antonio. If the Spurs make a deep playoff run and/or win the title one last time, Jackson will no doubt be a key factor in that.
This has as much or more to do with Duncan than it does with Splitter.
Splitter came into the league at a relatively old age as he was drafted in 2007 but did not join San Antonio until last year.
His minutes have increased from just over 12 a game to just under 20, his shooting percentage is among the league leaders at 60 percent and he has doubled his points-per-game average from 4.6 to 9.2 this year.
Though Splitter can’t be seen as a raw, young player with oodles of potential, he’s shown the potential for continued improvement. More reliance upon Splitter equates to less focus on Duncan when they play together and more time for Duncan to rest; a factor that will prove to be more important than ever by the time the playoffs roll around.
Another maddeningly smart move by San Antonio was to trade up with the Indiana Pacers to grab talented swingman Kawhi Leonard from San Diego State. One of the Spurs' patented earlier shrewd moves in turning George Hill from virtual unknown to very talented guard gave San Antonio the ammo to trade up for Leonard.
Leonard brings youth and athleticism to a predominantly veteran team. His length helps make him a very good, yet still improving defender, and his respectable shooting numbers (50 percent from the field, 38 percent three-point shooter, 75 percent on free throws) demonstrate why he logs the most average minutes per game among all the San Antonio bench players.
Leonard is yet another valuable asset the Spurs have stockpiled for a bargain price. It will certainly be interesting to see if the addition of Leonard can help make up for the collective steps lost by this veteran team.
While it’s true that all the aforementioned players will be needed for a successful playoff run, none is more important to the Spurs than Manu Ginobili; more specifically, Ginobili’s health.
The last few seasons have been rough for Ginobili injury-wise. It appears that he may be slowly getting healthy again, and his minutes are being strictly monitored and limited by head coach Greg Popovich to prevent further injuries or setbacks.
Manu is an electric scorer and appears to at least still have his shooting touch, going 8-of-12 from the field and 3-of-4 from three-point range in Wednesday’s game against Sacramento. Manu’s ability to play like the Manu of old could be the determining factor in this team making another early playoff exit or capturing a fifth NBA title.