2015-16 San Antonio Spurs preview
Last Season: 55-27, No. 2 in the Southwest Division (tied), No. 4 in the Western Conference (tied). First round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games.
Returnees: Kyle Anderson, Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, Tony Parker, Reggie Williams
Key Additions: LaMarcus Aldridge, Rasual Butler, Jimmer Fredette, Ray McCallum, David West
Subtractions: Jeff Ayres, Aron Baynes, Marco Belinelli, Cory Joseph, Tiago Splitter
SBN Affiliate: Pounding the Rock
As every Portland Trail Blazers fan knows, the biggest offseason news for the San Antonio Spurs was their signing of LaMarcus Aldridge to a maximum contract. The last time the Spurs acquired an established all-star during the offseason? Dennis Rodman in 1993. For a team that has spent 20 years dominating the NBA through roster continuity, incremental change, and internal development, signing Aldridge was a huge departure from the norm.
The Spurs were motivated to make a major roster change by a rare first round defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers in last season's playoffs. They loss came in heart-breaking fashion when Clippers point guard Chris Paul clinched game seven on a circus-layup with less than one second to go.
The loss and series-long inability to corral Paul highlighted the Spurs' age and showed that "drastic" measures would be needed if they hoped to continue competing with the younger elite teams of the western conference.
Aldridge will be expected to give the Spurs a shot in the arm primarily by taking an already elite offense into the stratosphere in 2015-16. Last season the Spurs were in the top 10 in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, assists, points per game, and offensive rating. They score points with phenomenal spacing, ball movement, and off-ball player movement that often creates multiple open shots on the same possession. It's a system that would have brought a tear to Jack Ramsay's eye and is designed specifically to exploit the defensive tendencies of typical post-rule change NBA teams.
Aldridge's mid-range game should create even more spacing nightmares for Spurs opponents and may help the Spurs improve their poor offensive rebounding by drawing an opposing big man out of the paint.
Joining Aldridge to form the best starting front court in the NBA will be the indefatigable Tim Duncan and 24-year-old defensive phenom Kawhi Leonard. Everyone knows the scouting report on Duncan - the 39-year-old is the greatest power forward in NBA history. By combining length with superb low post moves and veteran savvy he has continually staved off retirement, while maintaining nearly exact per-36 averages. On defense he still captains the team and can be destructively disrupting in the right matchups.
Leonard, on the other hand, is a young and super-athletic forward who is slowly developing into an elite perimeter defender in the NBA.
He has also begun to shoulder more of the offensive load, increasing his scoring average from 12.8 to 16.5 points per game last season. In 2014 Leonard accomplished the rare feat of winning a Finals MVP before making his first All-Star game. The Spurs signed Leonard to a maximum extension this summer and plan for him to become the cornerstone of the franchise, along with Aldridge, once Duncan retires.
On the back of Leonard and Duncan's defensive prowess, the Spurs were an elite defensive team last season. They finished in the top 10 in eFG% defense, defensive rebounding, opponents' points per game, and defensive rating. Despite their success last season, defense will be the biggest question mark for the Spurs this year. To clear the cap space to sign Aldridge the Spurs were forced to trade Tiago Splitter, their best rim protector. San Antonio's greatest challenge this season may be finding creative ways for Duncan and Aldridge to protect the paint in the absence of a true center.
In addition, an already old team only increased in age and will eventually decline defensively. The question is whether or not that inevitable decline will come this year. Most notably, point guard Tony Parker was hampered by injuries last season and regularly had to be "hidden" on the defensive end of court.
The Spurs will start Danny Green alongside Parker in the backcourt. Green is the prototypical 3&D specialist. He is an integral part of the Spurs' spacing on offense, having shot 41.5 percent or better from three in four seasons in San Antonio, and is also an elite perimeter defender.
The Spurs will round out their rotation with reserves Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw,, and David West. Ginobili has been head coach Gregg Popovich's "super sub" for several seasons and has often been called upon to lead the offense when Parker is hurt or resting. West signed with the team this offseason for the veteran minimum, passing on a larger contract offer from Indiana, and has a mid-range game suited to backing up Aldridge at power forward. Diaw is a smooth-passing big man who makes the Spurs' offense exceptionally dynamic, but often has trouble defensively. Mills plays backup point guard and shoots the three well.
The Spurs finished with 55 wins last season and had the third best average margin of victory in the league. Their offseason moves only strengthened a team with an already elite offense and defense. Adding Aldridge all but guaranteed they will compete for the championship again this year, barring catastrophic injuries.
That being said, if one is looking for weaknesses, some analysts have questioned whether or not Aldridge will be able to gel with the Spurs system. As mentioned previously, the team will likely have to rely on Aldridge as a rim protector at least occasionally, and despite his protestations he may have to spend significant minutes at the center position. Similarly, Aldridge will likely have to play off the ball more than he ever did in Portland, pass more frequently, and generally accept a slightly lessened role if the Spurs hope to maintain their offensive framework.
But if there is a coach capable of integrating Aldridge and covering the roster's defensive shortcomings it is Popovich. The Spurs head coach has repeatedly adapted the team's style to exploit the rules of the league from the slow and plodding defense of the early 2000s, to the passing-based offensive dominance of recent seasons. He is adept at maximizing the talent of his players and has gotten solid performances out of headcases like Stephen Jackson and unmotivated enigmas like Diaw. Indeed Aldridge, West, Duncan, Leonard and Green have all taken pay cuts to play for the Spurs and Popovich. The high level of buy-in from the players should help Popovich optimize the collective talent of his roster, even if the preferred roles of individual players have to be subsumed.
Depth might also be a weakness for the Spurs this season, despite having an elite top nine players. In previous seasons Popovich has heavily managed the minutes of the majority of the roster; only Leonard averaged more than 30 minutes per game last season. But, in addition to Splitter, the Spurs also parted ways with rotation players Aron Baynes, Cory Joseph, and Marco Belinelli this summer, significantly shortening the team's bench. Consequently, Popovich may have to choose between limiting minutes for key players and home court advantage in the playoffs.
Key schedule dates
For Blazers fans, the key Spurs game will be Aldridge's ESPN-televised return to Portland on Nov. 11. The Spurs also face the Blazers in San Antonio Nov. 16 and March 17.
The Spurs will be fixtures on national TV, appearing on ESPN/ABC and TNT 21 times this season. They play in the toughest division in the NBA; the 16 games against Southwest Division rivals will be hotly contested and every game could have playoff seeding implications at the end of the season.
The Spurs will go on their annual "rodeo road trip" for eight games from Feb. 9-27.
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