For the past two seasons, the San Antonio Spurs have been close to getting that elusive fifth championship.
But in the ever-evolving NBA, the Spurs need to constantly improvise and improve just to stay in the race.
San Antonio demonstrated that ability last season, when they were the most efficient offensive team in the NBA, after being known mostly for its defense for the past decade. San Antonio was second in scoring, behind only the Denver Nuggets, averaging over 103 points per game. They were also first in field-goal percentage (47.8 percent) and three-point percentage (39.3 percent).
Now, in order to stay relevant, the Spurs will need to evolve again.
After making the playoffs for 15 straight years and posting the Western Conference's best record the past two years, it seems pretty clear San Antonio will have what it takes to qualify for the postseason.
The real conundrum is figuring out how to win a championship once they get there. This past season it became obvious the Spurs will need to go through the Oklahoma City Thunder in future playoffs to do that.
As we've seen throughout the history of the NBA, defense becomes increasingly important in the postseason. That's where the Spurs need to make their biggest strides if they want to take out Oklahoma City.
That's not to say San Antonio's defense isn't good. In fact, it's not so much an improvement in team defense that needs to be made. It's an improvement in individual defense that will get them there. More specifically, San Antonio needs a solid wing defender to help slow down Kevin Durant.
Luckily for San Antonio, they already have a player on the roster who fits this bill: Kawhi Leonard
Of course, Leonard isn't quite ready to assume such defensive responsibilities, but he's got the skills to develop into the type of elite defender that could give Durant problems.
Here's what Bradford Doolittle from Basketball Prospectus and ESPN recently wrote about San Antonio's need for Leonard to develop into an elite wing defender:
Durant is a lightning bolt that has electrified the league from basketball's Olympus, a freakish scourge who isn't going anywhere anytime soon. How can a player that long be that skilled, that athletic and that driven? Nevertheless, any team that is going to overcome the Thunder will have to find someone who can throw Durant off his rhythm in key situations.
San Antonio's best chance is for Leonard to develop his already-impressive defensive skill set. One of his primary tasks for this offseason should be to study every move that Durant makes and formulate a counter for it. It's a near-impossible task, but you have to try. Leonard could be to Durant what Bruce Bowen once was to Kobe Bryant.
As Doolittle points out, it's a "near-impossible task." But Durant and the Thunder are here to stay. The Spurs will need to go through them to get another NBA title.
The Spurs looked to have the answers to Durant in the first two games of their conference finals series with the Thunder this past postseason. But in the last four games of the series, Durant became increasingly dominant.
Now San Antonio needs to counter that, and Kawhi Leonard provides the best chance.
It's not just Durant whom Leonard can affect with his defense. He could help slow down LeBron James, if they meet the Heat in the NBA Finals, or the aforementioned Kobe Bryant, if San Antonio encounters the Lakers in the postseason.
Leonard's got the skill set. Plus, he's on the USA Men's Select Team, so he'll have a chance to play against Durant, Bryant and James in practice.
It will take a lot of hard work from Leonard and the Spurs. But after the Spurs reinvented themselves last season, they'll just have to go out and do it again.
Besides, what other options do they have?
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