Why San Antonio Spurs Should Already Be Planning 2015 NBA Finals Run

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Why San Antonio Spurs Should Already Be Planning 2015 NBA Finals Run
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Here's an uncontroversial proposition for general manager R.C. Buford and the San Antonio Spurs' powers that be after demolishing the Miami Heat in five games during the 2014 NBA Finals:

Keep a good thing going.

The Spurs made the Heat look like the "old" team in these NBA Finals, and that's saying something. For years San Antonio has been mocked and dismissed as too old to contend. Though criticisms of that nature waned this season as the Spurs continued dispelling them, doubts remained until the very end.

By now those doubts should go the way of the dinosaur—and no, that's not a joke about the Spurs' age.

Yes, Tim Duncan is 38 years old. Manu Ginobili isn't far behind him at 36.

But San Antonio increasingly relies on a young and developing foundation, one that's allowed Duncan and Ginobili to settle in as role players rather than guys who have to score 20 points every night. In that capacity, there's no reason the current core has reached its expiration date.

To the contrary, there's at least one more good year of basketball for this group—perhaps even more after that once the roster reloads in the wake of Duncan's eventual retirement.

So now is no time to blow things up. Consider the pieces already in place and the extent to which they should remain successful in the near future.

 

Tony Parker

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San Antonio's point guard has shown no signs of slowing down even as his burden to lead the team in scoring every night has slightly declined. The 32-year-old averaged 16.7 points and 5.7 assists this season despite playing just 29.4 minutes per game—the lowest minutes average since his rookie season.

Those minutes shouldn't be confused with what Parker's capable of playing. He proved as much with an increased workload during the postseason. This is just how head coach Gregg Popovich does things, and it's in part responsible for Parker's continued effectiveness. The last thing this club needs is for its floor general to enter the playoffs with bumps, bruises and fatigue.

After Game 4 of the NBA Finals, The Miami Herald's Jacob Feldman described the difference Parker makes to San Antonio's system: 

Time and again, Parker got things going for his team in a 107-86 win at AmericanAirlines Arena, consistently making the initial drives and the first passes that set the Silver and Black machine in motion. His forays into the Miami paint contorted the defense, luring defenders in and forcing them to once again make the choices they are still struggling with four games into a series that San Antonio now leads 3-1.

Of course, Parker does more than initiate offense. He also finishes. He does it inside. He does it from the mid-range. He even hit some timely three-pointers throughout the postseason. And in the Spurs' championship-clinching Game 5 victory, he kept pressing after a cold start and inevitably wound up dropping a cool 16 points.

The Spurs are better prepared to compensate for Parker's occasional off-game, but he's still indispensable. So the first step to contending again in 2015 is keeping Parker around. He has one more season worth $12.5 million remaining on his contract, so we can count on at least one more season of the Frenchman running things in San Antonio.

After that, chances are the organization will try to keep him around for at least another three or four years. The big question will be how much he's looking to make. A slight pay-cut would certainly help general manager R.C. Buford surround Parker with premier talent via free agency.

For the moment, though, all that matters is that Parker can still play. The Spurs can cross other bridges when they come.

 

Duncan and Ginobili

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Duncan and Ginobili are the biggest question marks going forward. According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, Duncan has until June 24 to opt out of the final season of his contract. Stein reports that, "Sources say the Spurs, to this point, are quietly operating under the assumption that Duncan and Popovich will indeed be back next season." 

That's more or less consistent with what we've heard from Duncan thus far. He's made no promises either way, but he certainly doesn't sound like a guy who's ready to call it quits.

Though Duncan's production isn't what it was during his prime—he averaged a modest 16.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game during the playoffs—much of that has to do with the Spurs' stylistic changes over the years. The NBA is no longer a big man's league, and Popovich has adjusted his game plan accordingly.

That's meant fewer touches for Duncan.

Nevertheless, the Big Fundamental still plays a pivotal role for this team, namely as the anchor of its defense. Duncan continues to rebound and block shots at a high rate, giving the Spurs a little bit of insurance when their perimeter defense breaks down.

Just as Duncan is more of a role player these days, Ginobili has settled into a slightly reduced role. He's long been a sixth man, but he's played fewer than 24 minutes per contest in each of the last three seasons. 

Again, the idea is to preserve him for the games that count the most—and it's working. As guys like Danny Green and Marco Belinelli have proved they are capable and deserving of increased roles, it's become easier to minimize the 82-game season's impact on Ginobili without sacrificing games in the process.

It's a formula that worked this time around. It'll work next season, too.

 

Kawhi Leonard

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To date, we've really only seen flashes of what Leonard can accomplish. The 22-year-old dropped 29 points in Game 3 of the Finals, another 20 (and 14 rebounds) in Game 4 and after a superb performance in Game 5, he took home the 2014 NBA Finals MVP award.

Leonard's stifling defense managed to make an impact on the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Before that, he helped prevent Kevin Durant from single-handedly taking over the Western Conference Finals.

Popovich has long maintained that Leonard would eventually become the face of the franchise, and that transition could really take effect any day now. At the moment, it's the Spurs' ensemble approach that makes them so great. To whatever extent that remains the case, we may never see Leonard produce to his full potential. 

San Antonio isn't the place to go for guys looking to maximize their numbers.

All the same, the Spurs will continue to need more from Leonard—especially when Parker begins taking a step back.

It wouldn't be at all surprising to see Leonard finish as one of the Spurs' two leading scorers next season. He settled in as a third and fourth option for most of the 2013-14 campaign, but he's supplanted Duncan and Ginobili at times during the postseason.

The real key for Leonard going forward is assertiveness. The more aggressively he looks for his offense, the better the Spurs are. Given his youth and the demanding system in which he plays, we should be fairly surprised by the small forward's rapid development.

Just don't be surprised if he takes another big step a season from now.

 

Supporting Cast

Assuming Duncan and Ginobili return for another run, the next biggest question is who will comprise the ever-vital role players that make San Antonio click.

Tiago Splitter is under contract through 2017, the longest deal of any Spur currently under contract. Unless the center is dealt via trade this summer, he'll return as an integral component of San Antonio's rotation next season. It's not entirely clear what role he'll play given his demotion to the bench during the latter stages of the playoffs, but he's proved to be a valuable asset in whatever capacity Popovich uses him.

Danny Green is under contract for another season, and anything's possible after that. The 26-year-old's stock has grown considerably thanks to two postseasons worth of excellent play. That emergence could mean he's in store for a raise when 2015 rolls around. Green is set to make just over $4 million next season.

Though less vital, Marco Belinelli is also under contract for another season, ensuring some needed depth on the wing.

The two most immediate questions are Boris Diaw and Patty Mills, both free agents at season's end.

Diaw is 32 and has played an important role down the stretch of the postseason. His versatility and ability to make plays gives the Spurs another passer on the floor at any given time. He also spaces the floor as an efficient (though not prolific) three-point shooter. And though his defense is generally underrated, Diaw can match up against players at a number of positions.

Losing Diaw would hurt. There's no doubt about that. It's unclear how many more years he'll remain a valuable contributor, but San Antonio should probably consider giving him a two-year deal to keep him around for the immediate future.

Mills is a trickier situation. After averaging over 10 points per contest this season, the Aussie could be in high demand. He could also be due a big raise after making about $1.1 million for 2013-14. Given their long-term cap flexibility, the Spurs could theoretically make a pretty hefty investment in Mills.

The only problem is the organization won't want to overspend on a point guard who's likely to remain a reserve player for the next few years. More to the point, there's no telling whether Mills will want to remain in that role in the event another team's willing to give him a starting job.

Parting with Mills won't be easy, but it could be inevitable. Though players of his ilk aren't a dime a dozen, the good news is San Antonio has never had much trouble turning up capable role players.

If Mills isn't one of them, replacements should emerge in fairly short order.

They always have.

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