The success of the San Antonio Spurs has become an annual occurrence, an expected phenomenon that has led to the team's recognition as consistent contenders.
Despite this consistency, however, the team's 2014 playoff run has plenty of question marks. While age and health will be defining factors, it is often the play of a single difference-maker that tips the balance.
Behind Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, the team's trademark depth will be essential in the team's title contention. However, just as there has been a standout X-factor in every championship squad in recent memory, the Spurs will need strong play from their X-factor in order to maximize their potential.
To say that San Antonio has a "deep" backcourt would be a massive understatement.
Deep implies that a team has talent beyond their starting core. The Spurs' backcourt features that level of depth, and then some.
Though Tony Parker leads the charge, the numerous talents behind him have earned their fair share of praise, and nearly every non-star in the backcourt has the potential to be an under-the-radar deciding force.
Cory Joseph falls at the bottom of the list, and while his defensive impact could certainly shake things up if the team ever faces a talented point guard, his skill is drowned out by the team's other gifted players. On another squad, he may better fit the bill, but his non-guaranteed playing time makes it rather unreasonable to label him as a postseason game changer.
The true impact players are Danny Green, Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili. The quartet has been monumental in the team's success thus far, and their varied skills could ensure future prosperity.
Green, a volatile offensive player, can change a game's outcome from beyond the arc. When he's on, he's lethal. When he isn't, he's a liability. That inconsistency alone makes him a primary candidate for the X-factor title. Throw in his unparalleled impact on the defensive end as well as his importance as a starter, and Green could very well alter San Antonio's postseason fate.
Both Belinelli and Mills share a similar skill set and role within the team. As volume scorers—both have demonstrated a shooting aptitude from three-point range as well as a strong driving attack—and capable distributors, both players possess the ability to control a game's tempo.
Additionally, their role as reserves increases their game-swaying abilities. As bench sparks, they often lead a second unit when the starters need a break. A strong night can help solidify a strong lead, while a weak performance can place a heavy burden on the team's stars who can only take the team so far.
As evidenced by the bench's weak performance in the Spurs' postseason opener, a lack of support from Belinelli and Mills can disrupt the team's ability to maintain a constant upper hand over the opposition. Even with Tim Duncan's heroics, the squad almost lost the game after the second unit was comparatively ineffective.
Ginobili, like the previous two candidates, has carved his role as a second-unit spark plug. However, his career has mixed the inconsistency that Green has shown with the role and repertoire of Mills and Belinelli.
The potential Hall of Famer is certainly on the decline, although his renaissance has given fans a reason to be hopeful. Despite a horrid postseason campaign that many argue cost the Spurs the 2013 title, Ginobili has demonstrated an aptitude in nearly every facet of the game, and a resurgence could truly put the team over the top.
He can orchestrate and score, at times better than Parker. However, his flair can evaporate on the fly leaving the team with a turnover-prone guard who seemingly cannot score.
The team's frontcourt options, other than Duncan, are rather limited. Only Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter can contribute reliable minutes on a nightly basis.
Splitter, a defensive player, has long exhibited an offensive inconsistency that mirrors the troubles of Green. On some nights, he serves as Duncan's equal—forming a dangerous inside attack that is nearly impossible to stop.
Other nights, though, he emerges a soft big man, missing easy baskets and demonstrating an overall ineptitude.
When he plays well, the team's chances for success skyrocket. As seen in his masterful defense against Dirk Nowitzki in the opening round's first game or in his counter to Zach Randolph in last year's Western Conference Finals, Splitter can single-handedly take the opponent's best player out of the game.
Or, his aforementioned offensive troubles could lead to mass criticism.
Unfortunately, you never know which Splitter you're going to get, and that alone makes him a leading candidate to be the team's X-factor.
Diaw, on the other hand, has been a consistent and dependable option.
However, this trait, in tandem with the team's current frontcourt situation, makes him an integral component and potential game changer.
Duncan is aging. While superstar play has been customary thus far, there is no guarantee that his body holds up. Consequently, his playing time is often monitored closely, thrusting Diaw into the spotlight.
Throw in Splitter's potential to collapse—2013 NBA Finals style—and Diaw could very well determine the success of the team's play in the post.
This potentially expanded role increases his importance to the squad and would make him even more crucial to the success of the Spurs should the situation demand a lot from his end.
In case you haven't yet noticed, the Spurs have a lot of potential X-factors.
In some senses, that's a good thing. If every player has the ability to turn the game around, there is a strong chance that someone does on a nightly basis.
Even so, despite the widespread possibilities, a single name rises above the rest.
Manu Ginobili has long been perceived as the ultimate X-factor, and his role should remain the same during the team's 2014 title run.
He possesses all of the necessary traits to be a decision-maker:
- His versatile repertoire ensures that he has widespread influence
- His history as an inconsistent player guarantees that his play could impact the team numerous ways
- His role in the Big Three and as the Spurs' sixth man places him in a prominent position to make a difference
- He has shown, in the past, both the ability to lead the team to prosperity (2005 playoffs) or failure (2013 NBA Finals)
Quite frankly, he has the ability to affect the team on all cylinders in both a positive and negative manner.
The team has relied on him as a backbone, and his resurgence during the 2013-14 regular season showed that he still has the flair that made him famous in the first place.
But if he does crumble under pressure, the Spurs could be in for a long postseason.
Over the course of the next few weeks—and potentially months—Ginobili will do a lot of bad, and he'll do a lot of good.
Spurs fans will have to cross their fingers, though, and hope that the latter outweighs the former.
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