by: Matt Colucci
As you all know, the San Antonio Spurs are and have been one of the best teams in the NBA for the last decade. They’ve recorded at least 50 wins or more in each of the last 13 seasons, including the shortened 66-game season last year, when they posted a league-best 50-16 record. They currently have the best record in the NBA this year at 48-15, and are on their way to their third consecutive number one seed in the west.
However, there remains the everlasting hindrance in San Antonio. Their age. The Spurs are once again one of the oldest teams in the league with an average age of 27.9 years old.
The centerpiece of their organization, Tim Duncan, turns 37 in April and Manu Ginobili turns 36 in July. Both Duncan and Ginobili have seen substantial cuts in playing time over the past couple years. While Ginobili’s minutes have never been astonishingly high due to the fact that Gregg Popovich has mostly used him as a 6th man, he has only seen an average of 23 minutes a game over the past two seasons. Duncan, over the last three years, has seen his playing time drop to around 28 or 29 minutes a game, compared to the 35 minutes that he’s averaged throughout his career. While both players are still competing at an incredibly high level for their age, you have to wonder when their energy will burn out.
Two years ago, after finishing 61-21 and locking down the 1 seed, the Spurs lost to the Grizzlies in the first round 4-2. Last year they lost in the conference finals to the Thunder 4-2 after finishing first in the west again. Will this vicious pattern of dominating the regular season and failing to succeed in the playoffs continue? It seems likely. Tony Parker is out four weeks with a left ankle sprain, and that leaves the inexperienced Cory Joseph to take his place at the point. Joseph is unfamiliar with the Spurs offense, and hasn’t seen any real action up until last week.
If the Spurs hope to secure their third consecutive Western Conference crown and make it back to the Finals, a few things will have to happen.
1) Pop cannot stray from his game-plan of limiting Duncan and Ginobili’s minutes. Just because Parker is out, Duncan and Ginobili shouldn’t have to play more minutes. Rest their bodies!
2) Force the young guns to step up! Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, and Danny Green need to show that they are capable of scoring the basketball. Leonard’s jumper has improved greatly over the span of one season, he just needs to assert himself more in order to take pressure off of Duncan to score so much. Danny Green is another player that needs to get more involved. He’s already having his best season, averaging double digits for the first time. If he can score 15 a game in Parker’s absence, Ginobili will be under less pressure as well as Duncan. And lastly, if Gary Neal can limit his turnovers and share control of the offense with Joseph, it will help acclimate Joseph to the NBA game and relieve him of some of his burden.
3) In the first round of the playoffs the past couple years, Popovich loaded Duncan and Ginobili up with minutes that they rarely saw the entire regular season. This change not only slowed down their game-play, but it tired the two veterans out much more quickly. If Pop limits their first round minutes to fewer than 30 a piece, San Antonio should be able to slip by without overworking their veterans.
Should Tony Parker recover fully in time for playoffs, I actually believe that his injury could work out nicely for the Spurs. It will force the young players to step up, and it will provide them with key experience in critical games, which could help late in the postseason when the veterans are tired. I know everything thinks that the Spurs are too old to last throughout the playoffs, and that no one can beat the Miami Heat, but I think Gregg Popovich and company have one last playoff run to put on display, and by the end of this season, I think Tim Duncan will be able to fill up an entire hand with NBA rings.