The San Antonio Spurs are peaking right now, playing at a level that portends their fifth championship. They’ve blasted the Portland Trail Blazers in the first three games of the Western Conference Semifinals and will be looking at that as another step on the way to a title.
If accomplished, it will be one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of the league because it will be something completely unique. I can’t think of another team that has won a championship, turned its identity upside down and won with an alter ego featuring the same key characters.
It’s easy to look at this and just think that, with the Spurs having had an annual 50-win ritual, this is just the same team doing what it’s done before.
But, when you look at the team’s current postseason run, you have to recognize this isn’t your slightly older brother’s Spurs.
In many ways, this rendition of the Spurs is more like a group looking to win its first title than it is one that is trying to win its fourth (in the cases of Ginobili and Parker) or fifth (in the case of Duncan).
A Change of Pace
The Spurs’ rendition of a Big Three has won three titles together, but it did so playing a completely different kind of basketball. Way back in the mid-aughts, the Spurs were viewed as the most boring team in the league.
Who cares if it’s boring if it works, though, right? They were winning championships by playing slow, deliberate basketball.
But then that style stopped working for them after 2007, and in the summer of 2010, Gregg Popovich reinvented the offense.
Look how the Spurs have evolved in terms of pace, offense and defense, beginning with their first title with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.
As you can see, the Spurs have escalated their pace considerably. They have shifted from being a deliberate, defensive-oriented team to a quicker, offensively efficient one.
Note further that while their defense initially took a hit when they changed their style of play, over the last couple of years, it’s returned to an elite level.
I used a six-year moving-average trendline here to illustrate that, while the pace and the offense continue to improve, the defense is also coming back down. The Spurs are quicker, but they’re also once again one of the best defenses in the league. That’s important because defense still wins championships.
The Spurs just needed to develop a great defense in the fast-paced offense.
Here is how the Spurs ranked in each area, to give the numbers more perspective.
You can tell how much the Spurs changed their style of play by that steep slope in the green trendline. Also note the intersection of the trendlines between offense and defensive ranks, indicating that offense now takes priority in the AT&T Center.
Why This Matters
So why is all of this important? Because when we look at the Spurs and their current style of play, we have to recognize they haven’t won a title yet playing this way. What we should be looking for is what we would be looking at with any team on the rise—improvement.
This is particularly important because the Spurs have changed their offense to emphasize creativity with the use of screens to create shots for a cornucopia of three-point shooters such as Danny Green, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills.
Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan have become two of the best screen setters in the business. Many of those screens free up three-point shooters or liberate Parker to dart willy-nilly about the court.
Parker, one of the fastest players in the league with the ball, constantly runs around those multiple screen sets to create shots for himself or others.
The Spurs also share the ball. They were the fourth-best team in terms of assist percentage this year, with 62.1 percent of their field goals coming from assists.
Their passing resulted in quality shooting scoring chances, too. They had a .537 effective field-goal percentage as a team, good for second.
Last year, Mike Prada of SB Nation did an excellent job of breaking down the Spurs’ motion offense, and I won’t duplicate his work here, but the gist of what he says is this:
The San Antonio Spurs’ offense -- you know, the one that makes basketball purists gush -- really isn’t as complicated as it looks. San Antonio has three standard Motion alignments, and from there, everything else flows.
Prada explains those three standard alignments are “Motion Weak,” “Motion Loop” and “Motion Strong.” If you want the details, I highly recommend the article. My point in bringing it up here is that most of the offense is reacting to what the defense does.
Proper reactions get ingrained over time and with repetition. As the years go by, the reactions grow automatic, and the offense gets more efficient.
This is apparent to the eye test. The Spurs just don’t make mistakes. Their motion away from the ball is fluid, instinctive and perfect.
It’s no one individual standing out from the team. Tony Parker is playing great, don’t get me wrong. You just don’t get the sense the team is depending on him or being carried by him. Rather, it’s making things easy for him.
Watch how many of his points in Game 3 came off perfectly set screens:
Last year, the Spurs’ offensive rating of 108.7 was close to what it was in the regular season. This year, they’re scoring 113.2 points per 100 possessions, a five-point boost over the regular season.
Furthermore, they’ve changed not only the way they play, but also the majority of the cast. The Spurs aren’t as old as you might think they are. According to RealGM, they are only the fifth-oldest team, with an average age of 28.5.
Other than their three stars, the only player who was on the team when the Spurs won the championship in 2007 is Matt Bonner, who played all of 25 minutes in those playoffs and has chalked up an uninspiring 36 this postseason.
The key contributors, including Kawhi Leonard, Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw and Splitter have been added to the team since the Spurs’ last championship run.
First or Fifth Title?
This team, in terms of both style and composition, is more like one seeking its first title than its fifth. And it is doing everything that you want to see from a club seeking its first ring.
When looking at an aging team, the primary concern is the health and rest of the players. For the Spurs, there are only three players where age is an issue: Duncan, Ginobili and Parker. All are well-rested and healthy.
With a team looking to win its first championship, you’re looking for improvement from year to year. The Spurs have followed the type of postseason map you’d expect from a team building toward a first title since it revamped its identity.
The Spurs were upset in the opening round in 2011. They got to the Western Conference Finals in 2012. They made it to the NBA Finals in 2013, literally coming as close as humanly possible to winning without actually doing so.
To take that next step, you just want to see them being better, particularly in the playoffs. With this year’s Spurs, that’s what you’re seeing. They are peaking at the most crucial time.
They’ve won their last four games by at least 15 points, tying for the second-longest such streak in history. They’ve outscored the Portland Trail Blazers by an average of 18.7 points, the third-most dominant performance so far in the history of the conference semis.
Particularly the Thunder—who have the league’s MVP, Kevin Durant, and who swept the Spurs this year and ousted them in 2012—present a real danger. If any team is going to stop San Antonio, it’s the Thunder. I think the Spurs are just too good and too deep, though, and win that potential series in seven.
Meanwhile, the Miami Heat, who beat the Spurs in last year’s Finals, aren’t quite as good as they were last year. And the difference between the two teams was a hundredth of a second.
San Antonio looks for all the world like a team destined to win its first fifth banner.