As the end of the NBA regular season approaches, could the Spurs make a surprising push to the NBA Finals?
While everyone and their mother is predicting Warriors-Cavs III, the San Antonio Spurs (50-13) are again among the elite teams in the NBA. Impressively, the team has clinched a playoff berth for the 20th time in as many years, and this year’s iteration looks poised to possibly be as successful as any in the past.
The Western Conference is once again top-heavy with talented teams, including the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, and even the Utah Jazz, but the Spurs have been in this situation before. With Kevin Durant most likely sidelined until the playoffs and the Splash Brothers in mini-shooting slumps, the Spurs can make a push to take over the one seed in the West. Don’t look now, but the Spurs are just one and a half games behind Golden State in the standings, and there is a legitimate chance that San Antonio can overtake them.
While Golden State and Cleveland are the recognized “super teams” in the league, the Spurs also boast a star-studded core, including Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Pau Gasol. Beside these All-Stars, career-long Spurs Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili provide Coach Popovich a nice measure of roster consistency from previous championship runs.
No disrespect to oft-neglected MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard, but the Spurs are successful because they are not a ‘one-man’ team. With injuries to Durant and the Cavaliers’ recently signed backup Andrew Bogut (just seconds into his debut with the team, now likely to be cut), the Spurs may be one of the deepest teams in the league.
Photo: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Depth may be their calling card, but to single out one particular player for a moment, Kawhi Leonard deserves serious consideration for this year’s MVP award. He leads his team in points per game (26.3) and steals (1.9), while collecting 0.7 blocks, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per contest. What makes his scoring even more impressive is that when you consider that he is widely regarded as the best perimeter defender in the NBA (with two Defensive Player of the Year awards already in his trophy case).
With Durant, LeBron, Westbrook, and James Harden emerging as MVP candidates, Kawhi sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, perhaps because the Spurs are such a “team-first” squad. Unlike these other teams, the Spurs could still be competitive without their MVP candidate. It seems his chances for the award are the casualty of San Antonio’s identity: the team before the individual.
But while the Spurs’ team-first mentality may hurt Leonard’s MVP candidacy, this is also what gives them their greatest chance to win the NBA title.
San Antonio has a great chance to win it all because they match up well against the league’s juggernauts, especially Golden State and Cleveland, and play so antithetical to their styles. As one might expect from a Gregg Popovich-coached team, the Spurs have continued their winning ways by playing fundamental team basketball, with an emphasis on defense. They are deliberate in their style, perhaps best evidenced in their 25th-ranked offensive pace, and their second-ranked opponents’ scoring total.
The platitude “defense wins championships” has almost always rung true in the NBA, so San Antonio’s defensive identity should serve them well in the playoffs. Especially when considering the Warriors, the Spurs’ staunch defense of the three-point line (ranking third in three-point defense behind only Golden State and Boston) would prove invaluable against the long-range shooting of Curry and Company. (For what it’s worth, the Spurs held Golden State to 21.2% shooting from deep in their first matchup of the season).
While Kevin Durant had been on a rampage for the Warriors this season, averaging 25.3 points per game on an already-stacked team, his health is a true X-factor for the team moving forward. Kawhi Leonard’s exemplary defense on a rusty Durant could be enough to tip the scales in San Antonio’s favor. Expect Curry to have a big series with Tony Parker defending him, but the Spurs’ team defense should be able to overcome the lapses of any one particular player. If they were to defeat their Western rivals, most expect that they would go on to face the Cavaliers in the Finals.
San Antonio matches up similarly well with the Cleveland Cavaliers, again due to their defense. Although surprising for a LeBron-led team, the Cavs are primarily an offensive team in 2016-17, while ranking 20th in the NBA in defensive efficiency.
An added bonus for the Spurs, Cleveland has undergone numerous roster changes and suffered injuries recently, which could prove problematic when considering their team chemistry. Despite their additions at the trade deadline, it is still apparent that Cleveland will only go as far as LeBron (and to a lesser extent Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love) will take them.
A Cavs-Spurs Finals would be an intriguing matchup because they are both deep, star-studded squads that excel in different aspects of the game. The Spurs’ impenetrable defense and efficient offense (sixth in offensive efficiency) versus the Finals win-or-bust determination of Cleveland would make for an interesting matchup in the 2017 Finals.
Even though they are not a favorite to win the Finals (San Antonio currently sits with 8/1 odds in Vegas, third behind Golden State and Cleveland), the Spurs make a compelling choice for a Finals dark horse pick. While Golden State has dominated the conversation all year, San Antonio has compiled a consistently stellar 2016-17 campaign, and they are capable of “going into another gear” come playoff time.
As the Warriors and Cavaliers make adjustments to maximize their rosters’ efficiency, the Spurs know their identity and have their eyes set on a Finals appearance. For those fans who pine for league parity, root for the Spurs to upset Golden State in the playoffs.
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