The Case for San Antonio Spurs as 2014 NBA Title Favorites

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The Case for San Antonio Spurs as 2014 NBA Title Favorites
Eric Gay

Winning 17 games in a row is impressive stuff, even for the San Antonio Spurs and their long-standing tendency to impress. Head coach Gregg Popovich's squad hasn't always been at its best this season, but that appears to have changed just in time for another deep playoff run.

The Spurs pushed their streak to 17 with a home win against the shorthanded New Orleans Pelicans blowing out another team in a stretch that's been typified by lopsided victories. 

It goes without saying that no amount of regular-season success can guarantee similarly ripe fortunes in the postseason. Even the first-seeded Spurs remain vulnerable to funks, injuries and stiff competition. Nothing's over yet.

All the same, a number of this season's trends suggest that San Antonio is as well positioned as it's ever been to win a title. 

San Antonio emerged from its annual Rodeo Road Trip with the kind of renewed focus we've come to expect from Popovich's teams. The subsequent surge in the standings to a three-and-a-half-game lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West gives the club a chance to rest its key contributors in the season's waning days.

The Spurs' streak has also set a positive tone for a team that was no doubt reeling from a historically disappointing letdown in the 2013 NBA Finals. Good vibes will help going into the playoffs, even for an even-keeled unit known for avoiding emotional highs and lows. Even stoics would get a little low after what happened against the Heat last June.

San Antonio needed this streak, especially after struggling against the NBA's better teams early in the season. That kind of pattern doesn't generate playoff-caliber confidence, but absolute domination just might. 

Of course confidence doesn't win titles, but it's that much harder to win them without it. The differences between teams like the Miami Heat and the Golden State Warriors has less to do with talent than it does intangibles.

The Spurs have long mastered those intangibles, including having a psychological edge when it matters.

 

Been There, Done That

No currently assembled contender has more postseason experience than the Spurs. That experience has frequently been construed as "old age" by onlookers, but last season's run said a lot about San Antonio's longevity.

More important than the miles on these tires is the fact that this is largely the same unit that advanced to the NBA Finals a season ago. Excepting the offseason's functional exchange of Gary Neal for Marco Belinelli, we should expect more of the same from these Spurs—namely because they're pretty much the same.

This isn't just an argument founded in production. It has more to do with the unrivaled chemistry that characterizes San Antonio and its system-based brand of ball. They've proven that those who stay together tend to play very well together. 

The exceptional feel each Spur has for his teammates pays substantial dividends on both ends of the floor. The motion offense is fueled by timely and accurate passing, a level of execution that's made San Antonio first league-wide in assists. That ball movement keeps defenders guessing and ensures the Spurs a diverse range of scoring threats.

On the defensive end, San Antonio has been similarly in sync. The Spurs rank fourth in points allowed (impressive given their generally quick tempo) and tied for fourth in opponents' field-goal percentage. Rotations are quick and size in the paint is well utilized.

This may not be the same defensive unit that shut teams down during the franchise's first championship run, but those days in the NBA are long gone. The days of the Spurs playing together with seamless connectivity, however, appear here to stay.

 

The Depth Factor

It's hard to even remember a team as balanced as these Spurs. They play basketball in a different way, eschewing all forms of hero ball and even the NBA recent trend of featuring "Big Three" star trios. Sure, San Antonio has its own Big Three of sorts, but they no longer stand out in the same way.

Long gone are the days of Tim Duncan dominating the ball from the post. Even Tony Parker's role as San Antonio's principal scorer and top minutes-getter are challenged on any given night.

These are strange times, indeed. The Spurs often break games open when the second unit enters. Whether it's Belinelli, Patty Mills or the ever-reliable Ginobili, San Antonio can almost always count on some timely three-pointers from its bench to stretch a lead. That balance has translated into different players being the leading scorer on different nights; the Spurs roll out a bevy of threats with which the opposition must contend.

By all accounts, this unit is significantly more polished than the one that came up short against Miami. Matthew Tynan (from 48 Minutes of Hell) breaks down the superior numbers:

Not only is the Spurs bench the best the NBA, it’s the highest-scoring set of reserves San Antonio has ever had. Its league-leading 45.3 points per game is the franchise’s highest average since it joined the NBA in 1976, and it’s putting up these numbers with relative ease: Spurs reserves are shooting 48.7 percent from the floor, which is also the best mark in the NBA, and one of only five benches shooting better than 45 percent for the season. And the allocation of minutes is pretty remarkable as well.

Much of the improvement has happened internally. Mills is making the most of minutes formerly assigned to the scoring-challenged Cory Joseph. Belinelli is offering a more consistent presence (especially off the ball) than did Neal. Interior guys like Boris Diaw, Aron Baynes and Jeff Ayers are playing their niche roles to perfection.

It's the perfect storm in a league where everyone else looks to be feeling the toils of a long season. The Spurs are fresh for a reason.

 

The Competition

To threats to San Antonio's title ambitions tower above all the rest: LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The NBA's two most unstoppable wing presences won't be any less unstoppable against the Spurs.

But the Spurs do have a couple of things in their favor: Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. While neither has superstar status, both are exceptionally good defenders on the perimeter. They will be asked to make a modest impact, slowing down elite opposition just enough for the Spurs to get ahead.

That's doable.

It's not guaranteed to work, but it's doable. That's all any team can hope for. But most teams—save perhaps the Indiana Pacers—don't have a tandem of stoppers to trade off taking assignments against the other team's best scorer. The Spurs boast that kind of presence in addition to featuring a successful team defense that rotates well and gets back in transition.

San Antonio may also benefit from a few things that are entirely outside of its control. While the Spurs have been streaking, their ostensible Eastern Conference opposition (Miami and Indiana) have been slipping. Whether their hangovers carry into the playoffs remains unknown, but there's enough of a concern that one might imagine improbably protracted first- and second-round series for the East's prohibitive favorites.

Those series might just go long enough to further drain San Antonio's Eastern competition, depleting rotations that aren't as deep as Popovich's, testing confidence that isn't as high.

Then there's the matter of the West being a postseason bloodbath-in-waiting. That will take its toll on San Antonio as well, but you have to like this team's ability to execute against mortal teams—that is, the ones without James and Durant. That's where the Spurs' experience and system come into play, where their momentum should give them a leg up.

And for the moment, San Antonio also looks to be the healthiest of the Western Conference contenders. Russell Westbrook has battled some knee problems and Dwight Howard is nursing an ankle. The Los Angeles Clippers have dealt all season long with a series of injuries to Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick and now Danny Granger—to say nothing of Blake Griffin's newfound back spasms.

The most problematic of those injuries could certainly clear themselves up in time for the playoffs, but it wouldn't be surprising to see at least one those scenarios take a turn for the worst case. Meanwhile, the Spurs look healthy as ever after a season in which Popovich was conservative and held guys out for even the most minor of bumps and bruises.

As always, a successful title run requires some luck. The Spurs may be due some of that as well. 

It certainly ran out the last time around.

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