5 Ways for San Antonio Spurs to Be Even Better Next Season
Coming off one of the most lopsided series in NBA Finals history, the San Antonio Spurs appear to be in fine working condition going into the 2014-15 season. Though Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are nearing the ends of the their runs, the supporting cast has become one of the league's best.
So long as Spurs general manager R.C. Buford can keep this group together—re-signing free agents Patty Mills and Boris Diaw—it will be a force with which to contend.
And yet, there's always room for improvement.
The rest of the NBA will be hard at work consolidating talent and refining game plans. Weary as the Spurs may be after another deep postseason run, there will be no rest. Even as the rest of the league looks to keep pace with San Antonio, the reigning champs will have their own to-do list in hopes of winning back-to-back titles for the first time in franchise history.
It's already time to take a look at some of the items that should be on that list.
Run Plays for Kawhi Leonard
Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard turned plenty of heads during the Spurs' most recent title run.
Now it's time for him to turn his game into a featured centerpiece of San Antonio's offense. He's not all that far away from doing just that. In fact, the biggest adjustment may not be Leonard's to make.
The real change will be head coach Gregg Popovich's to make. His game plan all but excludes isolation-based offense, and that's generally a good thing. It's San Antonio's constant motion that makes them such a hydra-like scoring threat.
But there's little doubt the ball has to find its way into Leonard's hands more often. He's an efficient scorer who can shoot from all over the floor. He can finish at the rim or mix it up from mid-range, as well. The Spurs really don't have a choice in the matter. If they want to reach another level offensively, they have to cultivate their ability to lean on Leonard for stretches at a time.
Leonard will do his part. He's a workhorse. His ball-handling could improve, and his decision-making and playmaking will grow as he continues to accrue experience.
Now it's time for San Antonio to make the most of an emerging star, and Leonard knows it (per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt): "The next step is learning how to carry a team and carry the full load scoring-wise. I know people are going to put the main focus on stopping me, so I need to learn how to make my teammates better by passing and creating opportunities for them."
Leonard averaged 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds this season. He upped his scoring to 17.8 points per contest during the Finals, scoring at least 20 points in three straight games for the first time in his young career.
It's the adjustment that helped fuel San Antonio to three dominant victories over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
In Game 3, head coach Gregg Popovich inserted Boris Diaw into the starting lineup, bringing starting big man Tiago Splitter off the bench instead. The Spurs made a similar adjustment in the conference finals, opting to give Matt Bonner some starting minutes.
What would it mean for Splitter? Well, it sort of feels wrong to pay a guy in excess of $8 million a season when he neither starts full time nor operates as a true sixth man. Nevertheless, Splitter will find his minutes either way, thanks in large part to Popovich's insistence on limiting his veterans' minutes.
With Tim Duncan sure to play fewer than 30 minutes per contest, Splitter will have his chances.
The bottom line for San Antonio is this: Offense is what's winning them big games, and slow starts can get in the way of that. Few teams rely so heavily on ball movement and floor spacing, so the need for players who can facilitate that system makes a good bit of sense.
An important first step is re-signing unrestricted free agent Boris Diaw. He infuses considerable versatility into San Antonio's smaller lineup thanks to his ability to pass, shoot and defend multiple positions. Should Diaw land elsewhere, look for the Spurs to integrate stretch 4 Austin Daye into the lineup more frequently.
The 6'11" Daye is actually pretty long, so his incorporation wouldn't necessarily constitute a smaller lineup, but his shooting ability would certainly help space the floor.
The other option is to give Kawhi Leonard some minutes as the de facto "power forward," much as the Brooklyn Nets moved Paul Pierce to the 4 spot last season. Leonard is a strong defender and exceptional rebounder, so he could handle the role just about as well as any small forward in the league—save for, of course, LeBron James.
More Patty Mills
Getting more out of Patty Mills will first require the Spurs to re-sign him.
The organization may have some competition, according to The New York Post's Marc Berman:
The Knicks will look to use their mini mid-level exception to obtain a free-agent starting point guard, and one may have emerged out of the Finals massacre of Miami in Spurs backup Patty Mills.
According to a source, Mills would be intrigued by the idea of playing in New York and increasing his role from Tony Parker’s backup to a more marquee role.
After making just $1,133,950 this season, re-signing Mills should be a much pricier task. But it's also a worthwhile one. The 25-year-old averaged 10.2 points in just 18.9 minutes per game this season and turned even more heads during the postseason, dropping 17 points in the decisive Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
It was also during the postseason that we saw Mills play some minutes alongside starting point guard Tony Parker. That was a rarity during the regular season, and it didn't exactly take off during the playoffs. But we saw enough of the lineup to know Popovich feels at least somewhat comfortable with it.
That development may be key, because otherwise it's hard to see how Mills will ever play more than 20 minutes per game.
Even with Tony Parker's minutes limited during the regular season, it's still hard to find consistent playing time behind him. So why not find some time playing with him?
One way or another, San Antonio needs to make more of Mills. He's a dangerous shooter with the quickness to get in the lane offensively and pester ball-handlers defensively. He also has a knack for getting in the passing lane and causing turnovers.
Put simply, Mills is a blur. Outside of Parker himself, no other Spur is more able to create his own shot. And the scary thing about Mills is that he can create his own three-point shot, too.
The Miami Heat now know that as well as anyone. They just figured it out a little after the fact.
Improve Danny Green's Offense
Danny Green has already come a long way.
He struggled to find an NBA home in his first two seasons, and now he's left his mark on San Antonio's title run (along with the near-title run in 2013). The 26-year-old has emerged as one of the most lethal spot-up shooters in the league, and his range is virtually limitless.
That much had already been established by this time, last year.
Subsequently, Green has improved his in-between game and even developed a nifty floater. The Spurs need more of that evolution this summer.
Two priorities stand out.
Green needs to become a better finisher, and he needs a better handle. His three-point accuracy forces defenders to run him off the three-point line, but when they're successful in doing so, Green needs a go-to Plan B. He needs to get to the basket, either drawing fouls or finishing at the rim.
Limited athleticism may put a ceiling on Green's ability to thrive in that respect, but he should take notes from Manu Ginobili. The Argentinian has made a career out of penetration with craftiness rather than sheer speed and explosiveness. Green may have to do the same.
The Spurs can certainly survive with Green's one-dimensionality, but this is about taking that next step. If Green can further diversify his offensive game, San Antonio's starting lineup could boast an even more multifaceted attack.
Trade Up in the Draft
For a minute there, Kawhi Leonard belonged to the Indiana Pacers. The Spurs changed all that by trading George Hill to the Pacers in exchange for Leonard, ultimately paving the way for the franchise-wide resurgence that netted a title this season.
Could lightning strike twice if the Spurs made another deal to move up in the draft this summer?
If possible, San Antonio should do exactly that. This is a deep draft, and the Spurs need to start thinking about the future. As currently constituted, this team may make another deep playoff push, but it's not like a premier rookie would slow that effort down.
The big obstacle would be parting ways with a valuable asset without disrupting the good thing San Antonio has going for it.
You could move Danny Green, but it would be painful to lose his long-range accuracy and defensive pedigree. You could trade Tiago Splitter, but you'd have to find a team willing to take on the remaining three years of his contract. The Spurs probably wouldn't get much in return for role players like Marco Belinelli or Cory Joseph.
Moving up in the draft is anything but automatic, however it's an option general manager R.C. Buford has to explore. It worked once, and it could work again.
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