Before the shortened NBA season tipped off, you could probably count the number of teams who realistically had a chance of winning the NBA title on one hand. Consequently, the San Antonio Spurs probably weren’t one of those teams. Franchises like the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Chicago Bulls seemed to be the favorites heading into the season. This likely had more to do with the Spurs perceived “wear and tear”, as opposed to their proven track record under head coach Greg Popovich. It’s hard to believe that a team fresh off a 61 win season just a year ago would have so many doubters. More than likely, those doubters probably highlighted the age of the Spurs main three (as well as growing injury concerns) as their determining factor in how the Spurs would finish in 2011-12.
The sentiment among those close to the league was pretty common; this would be the year where the Spurs finally took a step back. After all, the Spurs nucleus wasn’t getting any younger. Tim Duncan (age 35), Manu Ginobili (34), and Tony Parker (29) have all battled some type of significant injury the last couple of seasons. Furthermore, since the 2000 season, the Spurs post season success has required the trio to log heavy minutes in meaningful playoff affairs. Since 2000, Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker have appeared in a total of 436 post season games. Each has averaged over 30 minutes per game during those playoff games (39.5-Duncan, 36.3-Parker, 31.4 Ginobili). Bottom line, the Spurs would need to start relying on new faces, as well as their reliable 3, to continue playing at the ultra high level everyone has grown accustom during the Popovich era.
Although much of the Spurs success this season has still revolved around Duncan, Parker, and to a lesser extent Ginobili, Popovich has called upon his younger players to help continue the Spurs winning ways. DeJuan Blair, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, and Tiago Splitter each have less than three full years experience in the league (Leonard is a rookie). However, each has earned significant minutes within Popovich’s rotation this season. Neal has developed into one the Spurs most trusted scoring options off the bench. He has scored in double figures in 22 games this season. Blair, who has started every game this season, is averaging career high in minutes (21.5) and points per game (9.6). Green has evolved in the Spurs system since joining the team last season. He has appeared in every game this season (started 24), and has scored double figures in 6 of the Spurs last 9 games (8.7 season average). Splitter has provided much needed front court depth for the Spurs (has scored in double figures 25 times). Aside from his polished international skills, his biggest asset to the Spurs may be his ability to spell Tim Duncan for extended minutes during a game. At just 20 years old, Leonard appears to be destined for greatness in the league. He is an extremely athletic wing player who already possesses a defensive mentality while on the court. His offensive efficiency has been an added bonus for the Spurs this season (shot at least 50% from the floor in 22 of the Spurs games this season).
With the recent additions of Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw, the Spurs now boast arguably the most depth in the league. They currently have nine players averaging at least 20 minutes per game, as well nine points per contest (Duncan, Ginobili, Parker, Neal, Leonard, Jackson, Blair, Green, Splitter). During the Spurs current nine game winning streak they are outscoring their opponents by an average of 12.2 points per game, all while shooting 48.4% from the field. In all but one of those wins (Hornets), the Spurs have had at least 5 five players score in double figures. In their last 10 games, the Spurs are out-rebounding their opponents by nearly eight boards per game (46.2-Spurs vs. 38.5-Opponents). The Spurs currently have the best record in the league versus teams with at least .500 or more winning percentage (21-9).
So here we are, more than three quarters into the NBA season and the Spurs are once again one of the elite teams within the league. I would be lying if I told you that I expected Popovich to have the Spurs challenging for an NBA title this season. However, as the Spurs try to win their 10th consecutive game tonight, they look every bit the part of a title contender. Do yourself a favor and count the teams that have a realistic chance of winning the NBA title this season. If the Spurs aren’t on that shortlist, you haven’t been paying attention.
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