While everyone else has been drooling over the superstar quintet in Golden State or Russell Westbrook’s triple double parade or the pairing of Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins in New Orleans, people are forgetting about the San Antonio Spurs again. I don’t know if it’s just because they’ve been so good for so long and we’ve just grown used to it or if it’s because they don’t have that one outspoken guy who is great for soundbites in post-game press conferences.
Whatever the case, the Spurs are good. Really good. They currently sit just 1.5 games away from the number one seed in the Western Conference and it’s not just because the Warriors have hit a slump since Kevin Durant went down. If you are a basketball purist like myself, you have to love watching the Spurs. They play as unselfishly as anyone, their team chemistry is off the charts, and they play hounding defense. They won’t flaunt their success or incite any trash talking. They’re calm and they play the game the right way. It’s not necessarily that people don’t like San Antonio, it’s just that they’re so low-key that they sneak up on you seemingly every season and in today’s NBA, that’s pretty remarkable.
One of the hallmarks of the Spurs with literally everything they do is consistency. Last night they became the only team in NBA history to win 50 or more games for 18 consecutive seasons. They’re always one of the top two seeds in the West and it’s made even more impressive by the fact that the game has evolved so much over the last decade and the Spurs have kept pace every step of the way. Even with losing Tim Duncan to retirement this last summer, they haven’t missed a beat and are knocking on the door of home court advantage throughout the postseason.
There are so many dynamics that have led to the success San Antonio has had. The first one that probably comes to mind, and rightfully so, is Gregg Popovich. Widely renowned is one of, if not the best coach in basketball, Popovich is a mastermind when it comes to getting the most out of his aging players. Manu Ginóbili is now 39 years old and Tony Parker is 34 and yet they are both still more than capable of performing at a high level on a nightly basis. Of course both of them are past their prime at this point but that’s the beauty of Popovich’s system. The Spurs don’t need players that can consistently get them 20-25 points every night. Rather, they all play their own role and are more than comfortable doing it.
The other kind of strange thing about Popovich’s team that has been known for years and years now is the inordinate amount of foreign players on his roster. This season alone, San Antonio boasts six international players but three seasons ago, they broke their own NBA record with 10 players on their roster born outside of the United States. Scouting players overseas is a little different than scouting domestic players that we see at the top division one schools we all know and recognize. It’s more difficult just from the simple fact that the competition overseas for the most part just isn’t as good as it is here in the United States. It’s the reason why certified NBA scrub Jimmer Fredette can score 71 points in a Chinese league like he did earlier this year. And yet, not only have the Spurs recruited players outside the country, those players have turned out to be huge contributors in the world’s highest level of basketball competition. Tony Parker, Manu Ginóbili, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol, and Steve Kerr all played for the Spurs at some point in their careers, were born outside the continental United States, and will all likely be enshrined in the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame one day. It’s a true testament to the skill and attention to detail by both Popovich and the Spurs scouting department.
The other big reason Popovich and the Spurs have been exceptional recently is due to the emergence of two-way superstar Kawhi Leonard. With the exception of maybe LeBron James and Kevin Durant, Leonard is probably the best two-way player in basketball. He’s almost undoubtedly the best defender and is a lock every year for the all-defensive team. And other than Russell Westbrook, Leonard is my favorite player to watch. He’s the physical embodiment of Spurs basketball. Comes in, plays both ends of the floor at an elite level and doesn’t get too high or too low emotionally (or show literally any emotion at all).
The defensive intangibles and instincts have always been there for Kawhi but his development as a scorer has been out of this world since he came into the league. This season, he’s averaging around 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists per game which is a great season in and of itself but when you factor in how fantastic he is at the defensive end of the floor and how he consistently shuts down the opposition’s best player every night, it’s no wonder why some have him in the MVP discussion. Take a look at this sequence at the end of a recent game against Houston where Leonard hits the go-ahead three on one end and then seals the game with a great block on James Harden a mere seven seconds later:
Now I don’t think Leonard will be taking home the MVP trophy this year just because what Westbrook has been doing is so special and unprecedented but that shouldn’t take away from the season Kawhi has had so far. I do, however, believe he will win his third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award when all is said and done.
Leonard and fellow star big man LaMarcus Aldridge handle the majority of the scoring load for San Antonio but neither of them seem to care much about getting their shots every night. There have been so many other role players that have been a big part in helping the Spurs get to the point they’re at right now. Center Dewayne Dedmon didn’t get much playing time in his years in Orlando but has been a really effective glass cleaner off the bench this season. Forward David Lee has been a major letdown ever since he signed that big contract with the Warriors all those years ago but this year he has transcended my expectations and has been a good way for the Spurs to stretch the floor with his shooting. And Pau Gasol fits in perfectly with this Spurs team because of his touch around the basket and his willingness and skill as a passer out of the post.
Who knows what the Warriors will be until Durant comes back. They’re currently in the midst of a long roadtrip and by the end of it will have played seven of their last eight games on the road. It also doesn’t help that they dropped a home game last night against Boston while being held to their lowest point total of the season. In the meantime though, San Antonio has been running without a hitch and are closing in on that top seed in the West. However, Popovich has been known to rest players down the stretch of the season, as he did last night against Sacramento and Warriors coach Steve Kerr said that the number one seed would be nice to have but also said that he won’t run his players ragged to get it. Whoever gets that top seed, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with come playoff time.
Andrew Kurzeja is a senior writer and contributor for the Asterisk Effect. Questions and comments can be submitted to the author at andrewkurzeja5@