The San Antonio Spurs boast a historic collection of talent.
In all likelihood, there are three future Hall of Famers on the roster (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) and another stalking the AT&T Center sidelines (head coach Gregg Popovich). Kawhi Leonard has the tools to become a perennial All-Star, and if he misses that mark, he's already an elite defensive presence.
Yet, if there's a stain on their resume, a weakness for a franchise that recent history (see: 15 consecutive 50-win seasons) says doesn't have such a thing, it's the lack of top-shelf star power.
Or, top-shelf star power in its prime, rather.
Duncan, who will turn 38 before the month is over, has done as good a job as anyone in his fight with Father Time, but it's a battle he can't win. You appreciate the effort (15.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists), but you accept reality—this isn't 20-point, 10-rebound Timmy anymore.
Ginobili, the 36-year-old swingman, has resuscitated himself after getting cooked like a Cornish game hen in the 2013 NBA Finals. Still, he was a wild card even if his best days. That fluctuation still exists, but the peaks don't climb as high as they used to (nine games with 19-plus points).
Parker, the team's lone All-Star representative this season, stands out as the de facto superstar. He leads the team in scoring (16.9 points), assists (5.9) and offensive win shares (3.8), via Basketball-Reference.com. He's the offensive catalyst to get the machine running, but he can struggle during the rare system outages.
Obviously, those breakdowns come few and far between. Before Thursday's 106-94 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, this team had ridden the time-tested system on a historically dominant 19-game winning streak:
The @Spurs +16.8 point differential average is the 2nd highest ever for a streak of 19+games (Bucks, 20-gm run in '70-71; +18.0) (via ELIAS)— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) April 3, 2014
But even the strongest chains snap every now and then.
As rare as missteps are in the Alamo City, they're also somewhat predictable. If a team as long and athletic as the Thunder (granted, there aren't many in existence) pops up on the schedule, Pop's assembly line tends to grind to a halt.
The Thunder have a roster heavy on freakishly long players and those with the athleticism or the drive to play bigger than they actually are. They can close off driving lanes, shrink passing windows and stall a system that, when fully functioning, seems like it should run regardless of the opposition:
Fieldhouse emptying at breakneck pace after final horn. Spurs 103, Pacers 77. Spurs hit 12 of 21 4Q shots.— Steve Aschburner (@AschNBA) April 1, 2014
With OKC, though, it's different.
San Antonio's offense doesn't stall like most NBA teams. The ball never stops moving. No one tries to play hero.
But the Spurs run out of places to probe. They make the extra pass, then another and another after that, but not a single one finds a void.
An offensive juggernaut against the rest of the league simply runs out of steam versus Oklahoma City.
|Vs. Oklahoma City||96.8||44.2||37.3||21.8||14.5|
Everything decreases: scoring, shooting success, assist percentage. The only things that stay the same are turnovers, true poison pills against a team with the Thunder's top speed.
"Too many turnovers led to too many points, and that's the ballgame," Danny Green said of Thursday's loss, via Cliff Brunt of The Associated Press. "
The Spurs were giving up just 15 fast-break points during their 19-game winning streak. The Thunder more than doubled that number (35), via ESPN Stats & Information.
Again, not every team can go from zero to 60 as quickly as the Thunder. But the ones that can may all be standing in the way of San Antonio's bid for its fifth title in franchise history.
The Spurs are so precise in their executions; they almost stumble into exposing weaknesses. A lot of defenses don't have either the discipline, the determination or the velocity (or any combination of the three) to keep pace with San Antonio's crisp passing and timely cuts.
With a roster fortified with versatile offensive threats, the Spurs can out-execute opponents in any number of ways.
But there's only so much the system can do. Even a coaching mind as sharp as Popovich's can't solve every problem.
"Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I’ve got nothing for you. What do you want me to do?'" the coach said, via Jeff McDonald of San Antonio Express-News. ... "There’s nothing else I can do for them."
The NBA didn't gain its superstars league label by accident. Transcendent talents have a way of rising to the occasion, making something out of nothing.
Leonard and Co. have defended Kevin Durant as well as anyone, but the soon-to-be scoring champ is still averaging better than 26 points a game against the Spurs this season. San Antonio crafted a masterful strategy for containing LeBron James in the 2013 NBA Finals, but the King still put up 31.8 points and 6.8 assists over the last six games of the series.
Big-time players make big-time plays.
The Spurs have several people the hoops world recognizes as big-time players, but how many of them will show up consistently in the playoffs? If they need a win-or-go-home basket, who even takes the shot?
Duncan scores within the flow of the offense now. Parker's lack of explosion makes him an easier cover for an athletic backcourt. Ginobili has the confidence to take big-shots, but taking them is only half the battle. Leonard is either overshadowed by his teammates or protected by their presence—either way he'd be a curious choice as a closer.
The system obviously works. Those four championship banners confirm as much.
But the system's always flourished with a superstar leading the way (Duncan for the first three titles, Parker in the fourth). Who fills that role now?
That question can't go unanswered come playoff time. That historic talent needs to look a little more talented and a little less historic.