The San Antonio Spurs played near flawless basketball while securing the best record in the NBA. Gregg Popovich's club ranked among the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency. However, a closer examination reveals three weaknesses that the Spurs’ opponents can exploit in the playoffs.
Lack of Athleticism
The Spurs are a throwback to decades past, when the game was played below the rim and excellence was based on execution. They rely on precision passing, player movement and intelligence to beat you, rather than the athleticism of a few elite players.
That formula has led to 15 consecutive 50-win seasons and four championships. It has also left them vulnerable against super-athletic teams.
Kawhi Leonard is the rotation player with above-average athleticism and length for his position. Relying on Leonard to shut down the opposing team’s top wing scorer, Pop designed a defensive system to compensate for the Spurs’ lack of athleticism at the other spots on the floor.
It is on the offensive end that San Antonio has faltered against more athletic teams, particularly their potential Western Conference Finals foe, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Serge Ibaka is a human springboard, guards Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb have outrageous wingspans (7'0'' and 6'11'', respectively, via ESPN.com) and Thabo Sefolosha has the quickness and size (6'7'') to defend several positions.
The Thunder have used that length and athleticism to disrupt the Spurs’ offensive timing, and San Antonio does not have the athletes to make them pay for their overaggressive defense.
After losing the first two games to San Antonio in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, the Thunder tightened the screws defensively and won four straight. They swept the season series this year, 4-0, while holding the Spurs to just 44.2 percent shooting (compared to 48.7 for the season).
The Golden State Warriors are another team that can pose problems for the Spurs with their athletic wings, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes. And the Miami Heat demonstrated in the 2013 NBA Finals that their swarming defense can throw San Antonio off-kilter, especially when Dwyane Wade is healthy.
The analytics revolution has taught us that layups, foul shots and three-point attempts are the most efficient shots. Like other elite defensive teams, the Spurs encourage their opponents to launch mid-range jumpers.
That approach works a majority of the time, though it can be problematic against teams with excellent mid-range shooters.
Ibaka, Durant, Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge, all of whom the Spurs may face in the playoffs, are among the top eight in mid-range shots made this season, via NBA.com. They are particularly difficult covers for the Spurs, whose slow-footed big men prefer to linger in the paint and are often late to contest shooters.
Aldridge's Portland Trail Blazers took two out of three games from the Spurs this season due in large part to their ability to connect from outside the paint. The Portland forward led the league with 379 mid-range jumpers made, via NBA.com. As seen below, 69 percent of his shots came from the area between the paint and the arc, via NBA.com (subscription required).
Aldridge likes to post up on the left block or face up from just about anywhere on the court and has a dynamic pick-and-pop partner in Damian Lillard. As seen below, his hit rate is above the league average in several mid-range zones, via NBA.com (subscription required). He nailed over 50 percent of his shots in all three of the Blazers/Spurs matchups.
Portland guards Mo Williams (42.3 percent), Nicolas Batum (41.8 percent) and Wesley Matthews (41.0 percent) all have a nice touch from mid-range, via NBA.com. Lillard is an elite mid-range shooter (44.5 percent) and ranks eighth in the league with 5.9 points off of pull-ups per game (any jump shot outside 10 feet where a player took one or more dribbles before shooting), via NBA.com.
The Golden State Warriors' mid-range shooting and off-the-dribble threes pushed the Spurs to six games in the playoffs last year and would pose trouble for Pop's team once again. Stephen Curry leads the league with 11 points per game off of pull-up shots, via NBA.com. He is eighth in mid-range jumpers made (199) and has the third-highest shooting percentage (48.7) on such shots (minimum of 200 attempts), via NBA.com. Fellow “Splash Brother” Klay Thompson ranks 21st in mid-range field goals made with 160.
We have been talking about Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan’s age since they won their last championship in 2007. Yet, while they continue to rack up regular-season wins, it is impossible to ignore that Father Time began to catch up with them last season.
Duncan, who turns 38 on April 25, was exhausted by the end of the 2013 NBA Finals. Ginobili hobbled into the 2013 playoffs with a hamstring injury and looked washed up in the finals. He bounced back nicely this season but missed a few weeks early in 2014 with another hamstring injury and turns 37 in July. Parker battled through a hamstring problem of his own in the NBA Finals and has a lot of mileage on his legs for somebody who is about to be 32.
Pop monitored all three veterans' minutes in an effort to keep them fresh for the postseason. According to Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com, the Spurs are the first team since the NBA-ABA merger to not have one player average 30 minutes per game.
The Spurs will be the first team since the ABA-NBA merger not to have a single player average 30 minutes per game.— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) April 15, 2014
By shuffling in fresh bodies and foregoing offensive rebounds, the Spurs succeeded while playing at a relatively quick pace. They ranked 12th in pace with 97.0 possessions used per game, via ESPN.com, and still surrendered the 11th fewest transition points (12.8 per game), via teamrankings.com.
However, San Antonio's "Big Three" will see a significant uptick in minutes during the playoffs. Last year Parker's playing time increased from 32.9 minutes per game in the regular season to 36.4 in the postseason. Ginobili's minutes jumped from 22.8 to 26.7, and Duncan's climbed from 30.1 to 35.0.
The Spurs' star players may no longer be able to hold up through four playoff series under any circumstances. Teams can increase the stress on Duncan, Parker and Ginobili’s bodies by pushing the tempo.