(Note: We are expanding our original content at Basketball Intelligence. Starting today, we will be including a weekly feature from our rotation of outstanding NBA analysts.
Today’s feature is from Eli Horowitz, assistant men’s basketball coach at Caltech & NBA/WNBA analyst):
Barring injury, the Warriors should repeat as NBA champions in 2017-2018. But after an enthralling offseason that saw the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder add future hall of famers in an effort to compete with the Warriors, it’s easy to forget how close the Spurs were to going up 1-0 in the Western Conference Finals, with a chance to put pressure on Golden State. Unlike other teams in the West that added superstars, the Spurs’ offseason was ridiculed as they overpaid Pau Gasol, added injury-prone Rudy Gay and lost Jonathon Simmons, who played a significant role in the playoffs last year. Put it all together, and many feel like the Thunder and Rockets moved ahead of San Antonio with their respective additions of Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and several good role players. Although criticism off the offseason has some merit, you can’t win games in the summer. The Spurs won 67 games in 2015-2016 and 61 games in 2016-2017, and may be even better equipped to defend the Warriors this year:
Size across the roster
When people talk about size, they mistakenly think about big men clanking post-ups and an inefficient style of play in the modern NBA. But the Spurs have size throughout their roster, starting in the backcourt. Dejounte Murray is a 6-foot-5 point guard with the length to disrupt opposing lead guards and some wings:
He was unafraid in the playoffs last year, and should breakout in year two as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich trusts him more. His shooting mechanics leave a lot to be desired, but his ability to penetrate and finish at difficult angles should offset the loss of Simmons.
The Spurs have the best defensive wing combo in the league in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Both can guard positions one through four, and their ability to take turns on opposing stars is a rarity in the NBA. Rudy Gay presents a third long perimeter defender, albeit nowhere near Leonard or Green, who could shine at the four. Add LaMarcus Aldridge, who is a huge body at the four, and who is still big at the five against the Warriors lineup of death, and the Spurs have big bodies that make it difficult for opponents to move through their offense.
Losing Dewayne Dedmon is notable. But Pau Gasol was key to stopping the Rockets in last year’s playoffs. He’s a liability out in space, but the Spurs have the perimeter defense to fight over, under and through screens and allow the Gasol to hang out by the basket. You know Popovich will somehow turn Joffrey Lauvergne into a competent defender as well, much like he did with David Lee last season.
If the Warriors have shown any weakness it’s to long, athletic teams that can also pound the offensive glass. The Oklahoma City Thunder went up 3-1 playing this style two postseasons ago and the Spurs have shown it to work themselves, until Leonard’s injury in last year’s semifinals. It’s annoying to go up against players who can both pressure up on the ball and have the length and quickness to stay with the play and prevent straight line drives to the rim. It’s probably not enough, but the Spurs positional size will force the Warriors go to plan C.
Versatility at the four
Rudy Gay will be the biggest experiment nobody is talking about this NBA season. There’s too many flashy storylines elsewhere, too many All-Stars who switched teams that will get first billing. But Rudy Gay unleashes a potential lineup of Murray-Green-Leonard-Gay-Aldridge that will be as good as it gets against the Warriors. Aldridge’s defense has been solid for the Spurs, and he can hang with Draymond Green, knowing their are four long defenders who can help at the rim. We’ll see if Murray can stick with Steph Curry, but that would allow Green, Leonard and Gay to rotate on Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. If Murray isn’t ready, Patty Mills will at least scrap on defense and is an offensive upgrade. Better yet, let Murray hang on Iguodala and let Green or Leonard challenge Steph.
If the Spurs want to get really crazy, Gay can even play the five at times:
This would allow the Spurs to play both Mills and Murray, or give Davis Bertans more minutes. Bertans was surprisingly stout defending in the paint last year. Stick him on Iguodala or even Green and he might just hold up. If the Warriors counter by posting him up, that’s a win for San Antonio as it halts the continuous movement of the Warriors and gives the Spurs a break.
The Thunder and Rockets have defensive lineups that might be even more potent, but they sacrifice offense. Carmelo Anthony will struggle on any Warrior defensively, and Andre Roberson is an offensive liability. The Rockets best offensive and defensive lineups are vastly different. The Spurs might be the team with the best defensive lineup that sacrifices the least offense.
Between the draft, free agency, summer league and an onslaught of trades, the NBA world has spent the last five months talking about players. But coaching still matters, especially in the playoffs. After watching the Rockets embarrass his team in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals last year, Popovich pushed all the right buttons to adjust on James Harden. They went over and zoned up pick and rolls to force midrange jumpers. They event went under some screens and personalized their pick and roll coverage depending on who was involved. It was complex, and completely gassed the Rockets, who lost the next four out of five.
Popovich has now had three years to learn the Warriors. He’s had small victories along the way even while balancing the late stage careers of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. His schemes alone won’t be enough to stop Golden State, but he’s a lot closer to figuring it out than his colleagues.
It wasn’t a stellar summer for San Antonio, but the addition of Gay, the sophomore campaigns of Murray and Bertans, a refocused Aldridge and the continued evolution of Leonard are more than enough to keep the Spurs in the mix. They don’t have the sheer talent of Houston or Oklahoma City, but they might have the best defensive lineups to throw at the Warriors.