Death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs winning seem to be three of life’s surest certainties. Currently positioned as the sixth seed in the stacked Western Conference, the Spurs are sitting at 53 wins and are just a game and a half behind the Houston Rockets and the Memphis Grizzlies for the Southwest Division lead and the second seed in the West. By now, making the playoffs and piling up wins is a formality: This is the 17th 50-plus-win season in the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich Era.
For years, fans of the other 29 teams have been waiting for the Spurs’ inevitable decline, and year after year they are left disappointed. This year should be no different as San Antonio is in an amazing position to make a run at its third consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
Any conversation about the San Antonio Spurs’ consistency and unparalleled success over the past 18 years must begin and end with Tim Duncan. As he approaches his 39th birthday, Duncan still averages nearly 14 points and nine rebounds per game, all while playing five-and-a-half minutes fewer than his career average. He is third among all NBA power forwards with 8.8 win shares, meaning his contributions directly account for nearly nine of his team’s 53 wins, and has the seventh best defensive plus-minus in the league.
Is Duncan past his prime? From a statistical stand point, absolutely, but there should not be any doubt that he is still able to make significant contributions on a nightly basis.
Essentially the same can be said about both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — their statistics are not as impressive as they used to be, but the wins just keep piling up.
What makes the Spurs one of the most impressive teams in basketball is their diversity and selflessness. If James Harden or Russell Westbrook has an off night, the Rockets or Thunder, respectively, will almost always lose. As a result, Harden has to play 37 minutes a game, because he is by and large the only major force behind Houston’s success this season.
By contrast, the Spurs have just one player who plays more than 30 minutes a game: Kawhi Leonard at 31.6, tied for 52nd most in the NBA. Regardless of whom they play in the first round, San Antonio is almost guaranteed to be the most rested team in the West, so even if the Spurs never have the best player on the court, they will have the most effective group of five.
Compared to their two most prominent challengers in the West, Houston and Golden State, San Antonio’s style of play is going to be a major asset. Houston attempts over 33 three-pointers per game but shoots less than 35 percent from beyond the arc. If threes aren’t falling, Houston is not winning.
Similarly, James Harden has become infamous for throwing his body into defenders and drawing foul calls and free throw attempts. If the referees hold their whistles or if Houston, a poor free throw shooting team at 72 percent, fails to make free throws, Houston is poised for an early exit; their model is not sustainable for a grinding seven-game series.
To counter the seemingly unstoppable force that is the Golden State offense, the Spurs have Leonard. Leonard, who earned the title of 2014 NBA Finals MVP by stifling LeBron James, racked up seven steals in a blowout of Golden State last Sunday. When Leonard is on the floor, the Spurs allow just 96.8 points per 100 possessions, which would be the best mark in the NBA by a full point.
Though no team should expect to fully lock down sharpshooters Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, the Spurs are the only team that can beat Golden State, and Kawhi Leonard is the biggest threat to a Warriors’ championship this season. Golden State rookie Head Coach and former Spurs point guard Steve Kerr knows that; he called Leonard the best player on the floor after Sunday’s game, and other coaches widely acknowledge that Leonard has the unique ability to take over a game with his defensive ability.
Leonard suffocates players near the three-point line and is one of the best in the league at discouraging those shots. Taking away the three from Harden and Curry deals a mighty blow to the style of play that the Spurs’ top foes have relied on all season.
So, like the sun rising or the seasonal blooming of the cherry blossoms here in Washington, expect the Spurs to make a deep run into the playoffs and challenge Golden State for a berth in the NBA Finals.
Michael Ippolito is a sophomore in the College. THE WATER COOLER appears every Friday.
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