Over the last few weeks, the BBALLBREAKDOWN team have been taking looks at five important questions each NBA team will be facing going into the upcoming offseason, continuing here with the San Antonio Spurs.
The question, the only question, that’s mattered concerning the San Antonio Spurs started popping up in earnest roughly five years ago.
“Is this it, Tim?”
Whispers of the Spurs demise had bubbled to the surface a few years prior, with the team aging and every year increasingly a grind. But every year, another 50-win season and metronomic 20/10 All-NBA performance from Tim Duncan kept the whispers at bay.
It wasn’t until a demoralizing playoff defeat at the hands of the 2010 Phoenix Suns, the last of the great Steve Nash-led Seven Seconds Or Less teams, that the question found audible voices. The Suns picked on Duncan with an endless barrage of pick-and-rolls, exposing the decaying mobility his statistical markers belied; making Duncan look old for perhaps the first time in his career.
Finally, reporters started openly broaching the subject, seeking a timetable for the end of his career. During the Spurs media day in the season following their loss to the Suns, a slimmer and rejuvenated Duncan offered his only concrete words on the matter.
“Till the wheels fall off.”
Since then, Duncan has found firmer footing, fighting off Father Time and even carrying his team to another championship along the way. Now, after getting knocked out of the first round by the Los Angeles Clippers, with no years remaining on his contract, and a championship hunger at least partially satiated, the question looms large for the Spurs once more.
This summer is potentially the most intriguing in franchise history. The Spurs could run it back with virtually the same roster, counting on internal development and a longer stretch of rest to regain their edge. Or, they could reload around an almost entirely different roster. Everything is in play, and for once not every question revolve around Duncan; for the first time, there is hope for a roster beyond him. How the Spurs answer a few key questions this summer could shape where they go once Duncan does hang them up.
1. Who’s Coming Back?
The Spurs have long valued continuity and corporate knowledge, which is why the roster has gone mostly unchanged for three seasons now, give or take a Gary Neal for Marco Belinelli lateral move. With only Kyle Anderson, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Tony Parker and Tiago Splitter under contract headed into this summer, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told the media in his exit interview that the roster composition is likely to be considerably different.
“We want to try to start — not exactly over again — but these last four seasons have been a grind and we put the team together with that in mind,” Popovich told the media during his exit interview. “That this year we’d have all the free agents so we can decide what we want to do moving forward, as far as the makeup of the team.”
Kawhi Leonard is a restricted free agent and is expected to sign a five-year max contract. Forgoing a contract extension last fall to stay locked in at a $7.2 million cap hold allows the front office some financial flexibility to build around him, using their Bird Rights to re-sign him over the salary cap once the rest of their off-season plans fall into place.
It’s hard to imagine Duncan retiring after playing at such a high level last year and his stated desire to go until the wheels fall off. Based on his performance in the playoffs, the Spurs could hand him a blank check and whatever figure he wrote down within the parameters of the salary cap would be a fair bargain. This being Duncan, though, he will probably set the parameters of a deal and hold off until the Spurs can talk to other free agents, making his own sacrifices in step with the quality of their off-season haul.
Manu Ginobili’s return is less likely. The Spurs reiterated their desire to bring Ginobili back, though he’ll probably have less say over his pay after slipping from the ranks of really good to average in the span of one year. Still, Ginobili’s playmaking remains a valuable skill as the linchpin tying together a second unit that lacks shot creators. His departure — and he spent parts of last season openly admitting the grind wearing on him — might set off a chain reaction in personnel moves along the Spurs bench beyond letting go of free agents.
Cory Joseph is a restricted free agent, but probably played himself into a more prominent role than third point guard behind Parker and Mills that he’d have in San Antonio. Belinelli, Aron Baynes, Jeff Ayres, Matt Bonner and Reggie Williams are all on-court ancillary pieces readily jettisoned if need be.
Danny Green remains the wild card in the Spurs’ plans. Green had a poor shooting performance in the playoffs and is prone to shooting droughts from time-to-time. And although he showed some improvements attacking closeouts off the dribble, he’s just dangerous enough to hurt both teams and struggled to create for himself in any capacity. Still, he’s due a significant pay raise.
Lengthy “Three-and-D” wings are more important than ever in today’s NBA, and Green has been one of the more reliable players in that role. His defensive versatility and ability to move off the ball should translate well to any system that doesn’t ask him to create, and he’s just young enough that a rebuilding team with cap space (think Philadelphia 76ers) could offer him an expensive, frontloaded deal that would press the Spurs into a difficult decision.
Still, Green and Leonard, arguably the best defensive wing tandem in the NBA, can absolutely wreck opposing offenses and should be looked at as a foundation for what the Spurs do moving forward post-Duncan.
The Spurs pursuit of a big name free agent might risk Green’s return, and a replacement on the cheap would take time to groom. There are also other avenues of freeing up cap space if need be. Of the players currently under contract, only Parker’s is concerning and immovable; both due to age and his standing with the franchise.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”Spurs” title=”More San Antonio Spurs articles” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
2. What Can The Spurs Expect From Tony Parker?
Thirty-three years old is a dangerous age for slight point guards that rely on quickness to get to the rim, and Parker is clearly on the decline, losing his standing as one of the premier point guards in the NBA last year. His 14.4 points and 4.9 assists per game were his worst since his third year in the NBA, and his Player Efficiency Rating of 15.9 was his worst since the 2009-10 season, when Parker struggled with plantar fasciitis.
The decline isn’t necessarily always evident in his skill set or burst, but rather in his ability to stay healthy enough to access them consistently. With both legs under him, Parker still proved capable of getting into the middle of a defense and finishing with the best of them, averaging 18.2 points and 5.3 assists while shooting 55.5% through 15 games in March. But nagging injuries reared their head again in the playoffs, and his inability to get lift on his pull-up jumper hampered everything else.
Still, even a diminished Parker held value for the Spurs. No one else on the roster has the same command of the offense, using the pick-and-roll to bleed into the primary actions rather than acting as the primary action itself to great success once the Spurs started figuring out how to shift the offense to suit Leonard’s strengths.
Fortunately, there is more to Parker’s game than just speed. He’s a crafty guard with a tight handle and quality pull-up jumper capable of reading all pick-and-roll coverages. The Spurs will have to compensate for Parker on defense a little more, and the great nights won’t be as consistent, but the ability to act as the catalyst for a high-powered motion offense is still there even if he’s no longer its biggest threat.
If there are only so many elite Parker games left in the tank, the onus will be on Popovich to ration them for the playoffs. Fortunately, the Spurs have a good track record in this regard.
3. Is Kawhi Leonard Ready?
This past season was quietly a transition year for the Spurs, who — whether through age-related decline or fatigue — struggled to recapture the beautiful game they displayed in winning the 2014 NBA championship.
With Parker in and out of the lineup and often ineffectual when present, Ginobili declining, and a roster-wide drop in three-point shooting percentages, the Spurs slowly shifted away from their pick-and-roll heavy attack in order to incorporate more post-ups and isolations for Leonard. It wasn’t always a smooth transition, for Leonard or the Spurs. But after a slow start hampered by injuries and an inconsistent Spurs team, Leonard began to consistently resemble the player who won Finals MVP, averaging 19.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.7 steals per game in March.
It’s easy to see that Popovich’s predictions of Leonard becoming the face of the franchise have come true, but it’s harder to place what kind of franchise star Leonard will be. In the modern NBA it’s not enough for superstars to be dominant scorers. They have to be able to provide a plethora of resources from one spot on the court. Versatility, flexibility, adaptability; these are the traits that define today’s basketball.
As the centerpiece to the Spurs moving forward, Leonard is capable of locking down an opponent’s best scorer, or shutting down entire sections of the court roving as a free safety. His ability to outrebound his position, defend four positions, space the floor, generate fast break points, provide some one-on-one scoring, or work off the ball allow Popovich and Buford endless possibilities in roster and lineup constructions.
The question is whether he has enough firepower to anchor an offense as the main cog. And it’s going to take some reconfiguring of the Spurs’ offense. In generating looks for himself or other, Leonard likes to work from many of the same spots Duncan did in his MVP days. He’s proven capable of getting to his midrange jumper at will, and he’s able to punish smaller defenders in the low post. And though his shot creation repertoire is limited relative to that of other franchise players, his ability to quickly process information into an economical skill set is only exceeded by Duncan on the Spurs.
A big step forward for Leonard on that end was learning how to play athletic:
Watching a player with Leonard’s physical gifts work on the defensive end and in transition, it sounds odd to say that he had to learn how to play athletic in the half court, but that’s exactly what needed to happen. Although both attributes are certainly in the positive ledger, Leonard isn’t the most explosive athlete and doesn’t possess the greatest first step…
All the footwork and shot mechanics rehearsed every pregame were apparent as he made his move during games, but it all lacked a certain amount of conviction. Too many possessions stalled out at the first sign of resistance.
At some point in the season, however, something clicked for Leonard. Not only did he begin to realize how much stronger he was than most of his opponents, but he gained confidence on how to leverage that strength, his length, and balance on offense to the same devastating effect he utilizes them on defense.
The next step will be learning how to produce consistently as the focal point of the defense. Leonard shot over 50 percent in each of the first four games of the playoffs, scoring 18, 23, 32, and 26 respectively, before his shooting numbers and points dropped in the last three under extra defensive scrutiny.
Of course, where Leonard takes his still malleable game will be depend, to some extent, on what kind of free agent or free agents the Spurs can attract this summer or next.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”Five-Questions” title=”More Five Questions articles” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
4. Can The Spurs Attract A Marquee Free Agent?
The biggest need the Spurs have is a second star still capable of carrying a heavy workload in prolonged stretches. San Antonio has deployed the most team-centric, whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts basketball in the NBA over the past four seasons, but theirs is a system that still relies heavily on stars. They simply use them in different ways to the rest of the NBA.
Duncan anchors the defense and is capable of providing some scoring punch when need be, but using him as an offensive focal point at this stage in his career is a strategy with diminishing returns. Parker can still serve as a catalyst to get the offense rolling, but it might be time to start rationing minutes and expectations.
The biggest names mentioned on the Spurs wish list have been big men LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol. There was chatter around the time the Portland Trail Blazers were eliminated from the playoffs that Adridge might be headed on his way out, and a return home to Texas makes a lot of sense. His shooting ability would clear some of the spacing issues the Spurs had last year when Leonard, Duncan and Splitter were all working near the paint, and he’d pair well with whatever frontline rotation the Spurs remains after this summer. Of course, there will be plenty of competition for his services from Houston and Dallas.
It’s hard to fathom Gasol leaving Memphis, where he has deep ties with the organization, teammate, and city, but the Spurs international culture and style would make for a perfect fit. Gasol’s defense, ability to read the floor on both ends, pass and contribute some scoring from the block is the closest facsimile of the current version of Duncan, with the benefit of more shooting range and younger legs, making Gasol a perfect partner and eventual replacement for the future Hall of Famer.
Of course, if the Spurs strikeout, they could pursue second-tier free agents on three-year deals, opting to make a better go at marquee free agents after the last member of the Big Three era retires. Which begs the last question:
5. Is This It, Tim?
“Till the wheels fall off.”