A sense of finality accompanied the San Antonio Spurs' second-round playoff exit at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was not the typical, unsettling dose of closure felt by any NBA team that goes home without a title.
It was something greater, much more permanent.
"He asked if I wanted to play," Tim Duncan recalled of his interaction with head coach Gregg Popovich before the fourth quarter of Game 6, per the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald. "I said I always want to play."
The 40-year-old Duncan logged a postseason-high 34 minutes in a game that, despite a spirited fourth-quarter surge, effectively ended by halftime, perhaps forewarning what happened two months later. The man-myth affectionately known as The Big Fundamental retired in July, a full 19 years of service to his name, simultaneously without shock or warning.
It's well-known that San Antonio never once featured a winning percentage below .610 during those 19 seasons while never missing the playoffs. However, the last season the Spurs played without Duncan (1996-97), they recorded a franchise-record 62 losses, according to Bleacher Report Insights.
And now, after spending the last half-decade extending Duncan's window, the Spurs must prove their own shelf life can persist without him (on the court, at least). Familiar faces abound, with some new ones sprinkled in. Roles will change, and the importance of Kawhi Leonard's ripening MVP candidacy will amplify.
Still, the Spurs will lean on the same offensive and defensive principles that earned them a franchise-best 67 wins last season. Duncan is history, an entire era gone with him, but the same decades-old championship expectations remain.
Biggest Offseason Move
Losing Duncan is more than an emotional sting for the Spurs. Though much of his value was eroded by age and the rise of small ball, he always served a strong defensive purpose.
Of every player to contest at least 400 shots at the rim last season, only 10 limited opponents to a lower field-goal percentage than Duncan. And while he finished 187th in minutes played, he ranked sixth in total points saved on the defensive end, according to NBAMath.com.
Fortunately for the Spurs, one of the five players in front of Duncan is now on their side: Pau Gasol. He has never been Duncan's equal on defense but offers an air of stylistic familiarity—a long, shifty tower fully capable of functioning as the last line of defense in close quarters.
San Antonio has also long seemed like the ideal home for Gasol's offensive arsenal. His pick-and-pops continue to bankrupt defenses, and he's virtually unguardable when his range stretches outside 16 feet, with a flair for theatrical passing typified by point guards.
Transitioning from Duncan to Gasol is at best a lateral move at this point, and that's fine. Gasol, 36, is the first player to ever collect 16 points, four assists and two blocks per game after his 33rd birthday. He bridges the gap between him and Duncan's superior efficiency with higher volume.
It's the collateral damage of his arrival that fosters concern. The Spurs jettisoned Boris Diaw to make room for Gasol's two-year, $31.7 million deal. LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spaniard will struggle, if not outright fail, to replicate Duncan's defensive value; they have no chance of reproducing Diaw's multiplatform coverage.
That duty falls to Kyle Anderson and Leonard, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year. And even then, the Spurs, by investing in Gasol's twilight, are re-emphasizing their offensive roots at the expense of last year's league-leading defensive model.
Three of the Spurs' 10 most used players from last season are out of the picture, so there will be changes to the rotation, albeit nothing too wholesale. Danny Green, Tony Parker, Aldridge and Leonard all return to the starting five. The Spurs outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with them on the floor, a net rating that would have ranked third in the league.
But most of their 1,034 minutes together were spent alongside Duncan. Their defensive grip loosened whenever he sat, with the differential dropping to a plus-5.1, according to NBAwowy.com. Gasol's entry into the starting lineup will determine how much San Antonio ultimately misses its retired defensive anchor.
More substantial changes will be evident throughout the second unit, where the Spurs are thinner than the group from last season that ranked first in offensive and defensive efficiency, per HoopsStats.com:
|San Antonio Spurs' Projected 2016-17 Rotation|
|Tony Parker||Danny Green||Kawhi Leonard||LaMarcus Aldridge||Pau Gasol|
|Patty Mills||Manu Ginobili||Kyle Anderson||David Lee||Dewayne Dedmon|
|Jonathon Simmons||Livio Jean-Charles||Davis Bertans|
|Source: Basketball Insiders (guaranteed contracts only)|
Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills again headline the second-stringers, while Jonathon Simmons and Anderson should be penciled in for larger roles. With Dewayne Dedmon and David Lee as de facto replacements for Boban Marjanovic and David West, the Spurs will either go small in the second unit or look to rookies Davis Bertans and Livio Jean-Charles for some level of frontcourt relief.
Expect to see the Mills-Simmons-Ginobili-Anderson-Lee quintet whenever Popovich runs an all-bench lineup. They are the most experienced combination available and should make up for their lack of defensive upside with plenty of offensive creativity.
Reasons for Confidence
If you're the Spurs, you feel confident about next season because you're the Spurs—you traffic in figuring things out and unending dominance. There's a reason most won't get too wrapped up in all that was lost during the offseason. That reason's name is Kawhi Leonard, full-fledged MVP candidate and a 25-year-old beacon of optimism, stability and superstardom.
Stephen Curry turned MVP voting into a futile exercise for players not named Stephen Curry last season, but Leonard finished a distantly impressive second, edging out LeBron James and trouncing perennial candidates Kevin Durant and Chris Paul.
His candidacy will only strengthen now that he's old enough to rent a car—and also because he's evolved into the consummate franchise player. He doesn't have a pair of "This Used to Be Dwight Howard's" awards for nothing, and his offensive value has reached featured-scorer status. As Zachary Diluzio wrote for RealGM:
Leonard is a phenomenally efficient offensive player, placing in the 73rd percentile or above in every major offensive role:
Ball Handler: 1.02 PPP, 95th percentile
Isolation: .99 PPP, 84th percentile
Post Up: 1.02 PPP, 89th percentile
Transition: 1.21 PPP, 73rd percentile
Off Screen: 1.15 PPP, 87th percentile
Reasons for Concern
Surviving on defense is a real concern for these Spurs.
Aldridge is suddenly being thrust into a prominent role without any safety nets. Duncan and West—two of San Antonio's four most effective defenders last season, per NBAMath.com—are gone. Not even Diaw or Marjanovic is there to back him up.
His interior partners consist of Dedmon, Gasol and Lee. That should be enough to experiment freely with Leonard playing the 4, a small-ball approach that yielded minimal returns in minor bursts last season:
In the 177 minutes they saw together without any other power forwards or centers, the Spurs allowed what would have been an Association-worst 111.3 points per 100 possessions with Leonard and Aldridge, according to NBAwowy.com.
Subbing in Anderson for Leonard didn't help matters in a smaller sample size. Plus, there's no version of the Spurs that's better off without Leonard in the game.
Maybe the Aldridge-Gasol frontcourt will pan out. Perhaps Anderson and Leonard will end up thriving defensively as small-ball 4s beside one of the other two bigs without leaving Mills or Parker to waste away on the perimeter. Dedmon, 27, might prove to be a roving rim protector worthy of surprise minutes.
Any of this could happen. That these questions exist at all, though, is a real problem.
Player to Watch
Anderson has two pairs of shoes to fill as he enters his third year. The Spurs will depend on him to supplant much of Diaw's end-to-end versatility while also expecting him to treat any defensive warts created by the mass exodus of frontcourt contributors.
Improving his jumper is now a must. Anderson has to be an average shooter for San Antonio to capitalize on his minutes at power forward. His three-point rate jumped by 5.1 points and more of his looks came outside 10 feet as a sophomore.
Anderson's defensive adaptability will take care of the rest. His length allows him to shoot gaps on spot-up snipers, and he was solid as a stand-in rim protector. He also saved more points than Aldridge, per NBAMath.com, despite logging 1,016 fewer minutes and guarding mostly wings.
San Antonio needs another body that can shimmy between multiple assignments and take over a variety of responsibilities on offense and defense. And only one other qualified non-center has ever matched Anderson's defensive rebounding (19.4), assist (13), steal (2.4) and block percentages (1.7) through his sophomore season: Charles Barkley.
It's time for the Spurs to take off the training wheels.
The Spurs have founded a legacy upon meeting, then exceeding, expectations. And they aren't about to stop now.
Yes, Duncan is gone. This could be Ginobili's swan song. The team is once more trying to balance rebuilding and starting anew with contending. Its depth is uncharacteristically in question. A top-five defense can no longer be assumed. One or more unproven commodities—Anderson, Dedmon, Simmons—will have to play a big-time role.
All this uncertainty, and still San Antonio's title window is open.
Hope springs eternal when you have a top-seven superstar like Leonard. The starting lineup is almost unchanged and dominant-looking, even if Gasol and an aging Parker hinder the defense. Ginobili is the youngest 39-year-old you'll watch blow by you off the dribble.
These Spurs, though facing more unknowns than in years past, are going to be just fine.
- Final Record: 59-23
- Division Standing: 1st
- Playoff Berth: Yes
- B/R League-wide Power Rankings Prediction: 3rd
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.