Are We Nearing the End of the San Antonio Spurs’ Dynasty?
It might be the single-greatest team statistic in all of professional sports. And yet, we rarely talk about the context of how much is loaded within the particular piece of trivia. Even after digestion, the fact is hard to fully digest.
That’s the number of times the San Antonio Spurs have missed the playoffs since their ABA inception in 1967. Fifty seasons, 45 playoff appearances.
This is not meant to be a history lesson, mind you, but the impact of such an accomplishment needs some scene-setting. The Spurs only made the Conference Finals four times before winning the NBA Title in 1999, so postseason success up to that point was fleeting. Even in the 1980s, the Spurs made the playoffs twice without a winning record. Classifying them as “dominant” throughout history would be off base. But no professional franchise in major American sports has pieced together such aggregative success across five decades. That alone is worth celebrating.
The true dynastic elements of the culture that has made them one of professional sport’s most enviable organizations didn’t exist until R.C. Buford, Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and David Robinson laid that framework in the late 1990s. Over the past 20 seasons, the stability inside the front office and on the sidelines has been wholly remarkable, while the torch gets passed on the court. Robinson handed it to Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have helped hold it high, and now Kawhi Leonard is taking that flame and running with it.
Something about the current iteration feels different, though. The old guard, for all their timeless and shatterproof winning ways, are either gone or finally on the decline. The new guard, built around a fresh face of the franchise, is a strange hodgepodge of ring-chasing veterans, youngsters with few known qualities and the supporting cast from a championship run now four years in the rearview mirror.
Important disclaimer: This piece is not declaring that the Spurs and their dynasty are dead, or even dying. To say they are in danger of missing the playoffs hyperbolizes concern. Core pieces return from a 60-win squad that saw its season end in large part due to injuries. San Antonio remains a high-end team—one that will keep building upon its incredible list of postseason appearances. Insinuating otherwise is a misrepresentation of this conversation.
But let’s be real: The Spurs are currently not the top dog in the West and must evolve once more to topple their competitors. No argument is going to be made that Buford and Popovich cannot right the ship and surpass the Warriors, nor that they absolutely won’t.
It just…it feels different.
Both internally and externally, the gap between what the Spurs have (including their culture) and what other competitors boast is shrinking. Pop absolutely deserves the benefit of the doubt in every situation. He has thrived amid transition before and earned faith from even the blindest of followers. The latest reinvention, though, doesn’t look it’ll come as readily—if it comes at all.
LaMarcus Aldridge: The New Kevin Love
The Spurs have remade themselves time and time again. After the 2007 title, they faded into the passenger’s seat out West behind the Kobe Bryant-driven Los Angeles Lakers. Even after that Western Conference three-peat subsided, it took the Spurs an additional three years to get back to the Finals. They are notorious for their dominance coming in short bursts, for a season or two, and then taking a minor step back before being ready to reclaim the top spot. The 2013 and 2014 Finals were the only time the Spurs made back-to-back appearances on the biggest stage.
Even after that thumping of the Heat in 2013, it felt like there was only so much left in the tank for their trio of building blocks in Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. The need for a more all-encompassing makeover existed, which led to the LaMarcus Aldridge pursuit just one year after winning a title.
Two full seasons into the Aldridge era, his presence on the Spurs’ roster remains divisive. Despite his scoring acumen and 10 straight seasons with at least 17 points per game, some of the loyalists in their fanbase want him gone.
Aldridge’s defensive reputation isn’t the most favorable, to put it kindly. He’s solid defending back-to-the-basket bigs, and that’s about it. Still, his past insistence on not wanting to play the 5 has pigeonholed his value and helped lead him to San Antonio, one of the few teams willing to play him that way. Now we are seeing some of the consequences. Last year, for the first time in his career, Aldridge had a negative on-court plus/minus per 100 possessions. Translation: The Spurs were, statistically, better without him.
In the same way Kevin Love has been a target in Cleveland over the last few seasons, Aldridge is becoming one in San Antonio. Big men who cannot defend mobile 4s and offer little rim-protection at the 5 are a dying breed. Versatility is the name of the game, and these are versatility-killers. We’ve heard speculation for years from impatient Cavaliers fans about how they need to move on from Love due to his awkward fit and poor defense. And, admittedly, his defense leaves a lot to be desired.
Still, Cleveland has made three straight NBA Finals even with Love’s turnstile stopping power. And the Spurs have posted league-best defensive ratings through each of Aldridge’s first two seasons. Teams can still win with this type of player, and for every weakness they cover up, they can leverage an advantage elsewhere.
The issue now is this: Why have a vulnerability when you don’t have to?
Many look at the Spurs and see a team with the NBA’s best on-ball defender in resident superstar Kawhi Leonard. What he can do on that end of the court changes the game…but he can only do it against one player at a time. Others, like Draymond Green, fly around the court, switch matchups and hop to the ball in emergency situations knowing they have solid defenders behind them.
Playing Aldridge, or another 4-man incapable of switching with Leonard, limits the amount of tricks Pop can keep up his sleeve. He tried switching against the Rockets this past season, aiming to make James Harden hunt for mismatches and settle for jumpers instead of getting to the rim. Though that approach seemed to work, the result of the game wasn’t ideal:
This strategy looks okay with their current group, but it could be even better with a more mobile power forward in Aldridge’s place. The residual effects matter. Houston would likely run more 1-5 pick-and-roll opportunities in an attempt to get Clint Capela’s man to switch onto Harden. That ball screen becomes predictable and gives the Spurs more opportunities to blitz the screen or change their coverages to put the Rockets on their toes.
Aldridge’s contract features a player option worth $22.3 million for the 2018-19 season, and his decision isn’t an easy one. The Spurs reportedly shopped him prior to the draft but found no takers. The lack of interest could coax Aldridge into picking up his option if he doesn’t put together a fantastic campaign. Or it could signal the need to opt out and get one last payday before entering his absolute twilight.
The Spurs have committed to keeping Aldridge fairly content by playing him with other big men, unwilling to push him out of that comfort zone. He spent only 31 percent of his minutes at center last season, according to Basketball Reference, down from 46 percent the previous year. Aldridge’s unwillingness (or inability) to get far out of his comfort zone brings the Spurs to a crossroads. They’ve shopped him without success. Now both sides must try to make it work.
Perhaps a greater understanding of their history, coupled with Popovich’s success using two big men, can illuminate some of the dangers in bailing on Aldridge now or how the organization plans to actually make it work.
Adjusting to Small-Ball Mania
Popovich isn’t a go-with-the-flow type of coach. The success of him and those in his orbit revolves around their ability to innovate within the minutiae—keeping together the same core principles of how to play the game while constantly tweaking details to get best results. His teams share the ball, play exquisite defense, stay with their men, occasionally ice ball screens and look to play inside-out. The investment in Aldridge while the Duncan era came to a close was Pop’s way of ensuring the latter continued.
All of the Spurs’ best teams featured two big men, which blurred the lines between who actually played center and power forward. That in itself is among the innovative niceties Pop has brought to the table: There doesn’t have to be one clear-cut player in each position; they just have to both defend the interior, score on the blocks and rebound.
The entire Spurs system was built around that premise. Whether David Robinson and Duncan’s Twin Tower tandem was better offensively or defensively is still up for debate, but their style fit the times. Both were fantastic individual stoppers and anchors on the court, and the walk-it-up, pound-it-in approach on the other end bulldozed opponents. During the 1999 title run, both players combined to average 37.5 points, 21.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 4.9 blocks.
But the NBA continued to modernize. The Admiral sailed off into retirement, and the growth of Parker and Ginobili as ball-handlers and elite creators necessitated more face-up offense. Robinson played a minor role in the pecking order, but seven seasons of Twin Tower magic meant Pop could forge continuity inside his sets. With multiple ball-handlers and screeners—and nice glue guys like Bruce Bowen and Stephen Jackson—the mid-2000s Spurs were perfectly engineered for the times: elite defensive presences in the interior, more shooting and penetrators at the guard spots and an offense that naturally flowed from post-ups to pick-and-rolls.
It was during this time the staples of the Popovich playbook were cemented. All the loop actions with baseline screens for guards cutting through the lane. Tons of cross-down action that got either a post-up or a shot off a down screen.
The common trend: two big men—a pair of posts that serve as screeners and inside threats, working in unison to free guards for open looks and bury their man for deep position.
Whether it was born from necessity based on Pop’s defensive-minded insistence or truly the way he believed offense should be played, the result was the same. By the time the Spurs returned to the Finals against the Miami Heat in 2013 and 2014, ball movement and post touches were second nature. So much of that magic is rightly attributed to the teacher in Popovich, but recreating that magic with different personnel is a challenge for the future.
Offense over the past three or four seasons has started to morph on a league-wide (and basketball-wide) scale. Thanks to AAU habits and an obsession with the three-point line, the best bigs are skilled away from the basket, unlocking new opportunities and unchartered waters for clipboard-carriers. Teams with dual skyscrapers can struggle to defend those perimeter-oriented offenses and oftentimes find themselves on the losing side of a numbers battle: give up a three, then pound the ball inside for a two.
Popovich and the Spurs, always a bit hesitant to embrace chucking threes at the expense of high-quality shots around the hoop, are bucking league trends and still finding success. Their defense is finally being challenged—an area where coaches have less control and personnel is vital.
Adjusting does not demand total conformity, a pivotal distinction to make. Popovich doesn’t need to conform in order for the Spurs to retake their throne out West. Rather, he needs to figure out an answer for the small-ball, up-tempo fads permeating the rest of the league.
Solving the aforementioned Aldridge issue may be part of the fix, but the issues exist on a more profound level; ditching or remodeling one player is not some panacea. And even amid this league-wide transformation, in which more teams focus their attacks on drawing big men away from the rim, San Antonio finished first in points allowed per 100 possessions.
Right now the Spurs roster is old—especially on the front line. Pau Gasol is 37. Aldridge is 32. Parker is 35 and recovering from a torn left quadriceps tendon. Ginobili is 40. The addition of Rudy Gay, a long-thought-to-be small-ball 4, could unlock new opportunities for the team. But he just turned 31 and is working his way back from an Achilles injury.
Aging core members and a shifting roster will force more small-ball minutes. No doubt done by design, Pop and Buford know this is what it’ll take to keep up with the pack. But with those tweaks come some uncertainty. The Spurs’ offense may look a lot different without its traditional two-post lineups. The defense may involve more switching and less of a devotion to keeping the ball out of the middle, knowing a big man lurks to cut off the baseline drives, too.
We’re trafficking strictly in maybes here, because we just don’t know for sure.
What Small-Ball San Antonio Might Look Like
A detail that often goes overlooked during the small-ball revolution: Just because players on the court are getting smaller doesn’t mean the post-up will devolve into extinction. Plenty of guys who traditionally play on the wings remain adept at scoring down low. Throw them in a smaller lineup, with a similarly-sized defender now at their position, and that interior threat will persist.
This likely means the Spurs won’t have to butcher too much about their offensive approach. The ball can still go inside-out, with both blocks occupied and the added wrinkle of effective pick-and-pops. Key sets can be inverted with screeners and rollers changing spots based on mismatches they want to exploit. And, more than likely, it means trying to leverage those post advantages more frequently as the team has some long, lean bullies that can do damage down low.
The team swung big this summer for someone to fill that role in Rudy Gay, a smooth and fluid post scorer who has used isolations as a functional crutch in recent years. Gay has a silky five-foot turnaround jumper, a strong base and cagey length to get his shot off against smaller defenders. Most impressively, he’s an undervalued passer, despite his reputation as an iso-hunter and the negative stereotypes attached to such players. When his back is to the basket or he’s facing a double-team, he has the savvy to shift the defense with his eyes to create passing lanes:
Gay is versatility personified from the tweener 3 and 4 spot. He can score inside and out, share the ball, face-up, back his way toward the basket and initiate pick-and-rolls as both a handler and a screener. He’s finally ready for more time at the 4, as his rebounding rate has increased gradually throughout his career. Some are hoping to see him in a Boris Diaw-esque role within San Antonio’s offense.
The Spurs already run some sets that would benefit from a bit more spacing and another shooter on the court to flow into them. One such action, their High-Post X, could see the ball go to the hands of their center and have swirling motion around him:
Even dusting off an old faithful action—their Shuffle-Stagger motion—could draw enough mismatches down low. This action works because it takes a big man, places him on the perimeter and then drops him into the post off a screen. If we suspend conventional roles and imagine taking a wing with a post mismatch and place him in that spot to drop down for an isolation, this structure should translate to small-ball combinations:
Tinkering with Xs and Os is only part of the story, because the game is not solely about the Xs and Os, but the “Jimmy’s and Joe’s.” What’s the point of tweaking the offense if the players on the court won’t benefit from them?
Personnel pivots are the biggest adjustments. Guys like Davis Bertans, a true stretch-4, and Gay are easy places to start. Kawhi’s bully-wing status could net him expanded minutes here, and even Kyle Anderson’s length makes him a candidate for such a role.
The steps toward that gained versatility rest on San Antonio’s player development, along with a variety of other factors. Bertans needs to take a huge step forward, especially on the defensive end. He’s a long, lean shooting big who struggles to move in open spaces, offering only the slightest of tactical upgrades to Aldridge. Gay is coming off a tough Achilles injury, and his availability early in the season, let alone a crucial training camp, remain unknown.
Anderson, on the other hand, presents a fascinating dilemma. Though it’s difficult to believe, the former UCLA forward will be 24 before the season tips off and is currently extension-eligible. Career averages of 3.7 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists in extremely limited minutes haven’t helped him exhume his career from the depths of the bench. Now, following Jonathon Simmons’ departure and a potential stylistic renovation, he may have a path to substantive playing time.
Even before last season Popovich was keen on the idea of expanding his role.
“I need to play him more,” he said, per the San Antonio Express-News‘ Jabari Young. “He’s gotten to that level where he’s become confident. His teammates have been confident in him. His shot has gotten better. It’s on me to figure out where to put him.”
This idea never evolved into much more. Anderson was usurped by Simmons and forced to find minutes as a filler and seldom-used backup to Leonard. He’s performed soundly in those few opportunities, taking care of the basketball beyond anything else, and this may be his opportunity to step forward in San Antonio.
Beyond what the Spurs currently have, though, Buford is unlikely to bring in another piece that augments their small-ball frenzy before the season. They don’t have the assets for a blockbuster trade, and the need for a point guard while Parker recovers from injury trumps all. Flexibility is starting to wane, and the Spurs will have to navigate some tricky waters if they’re going to acquire help from elsewhere.
Loyalty Has a Price
Eyes around the world popped out of their respective sockets when it was announced 37-year-old Pau Gasol signed a three-year, $48 million contract to re-up with San Antonio. The third year may only have a partial guarantee, but the cost is the same: steep money for a guy playing into his 40s. Even stranger, the contract he was on last year held a player option (which he declined) that would’ve paid Gasol $16.2 million for the next year. Essentially the Spurs, as an organization, just locked up Pau for longer at the same price.
Salary-cap ramifications to that decision abound, and they extend far beyond this summer. Gasol turning down his player option gave the Spurs room to make a splash on the free-agent market, with the assumption being they could finagle a few dollars away from him and use them elsewhere. That lack of money partially prevented the Spurs from offering something competitive to Orlando’s three-year, $20 million deal.
Negotiations with Simmons were complicated from the beginning, with the Spurs even once hoping for a reported sign-and-trade with the Phoenix Suns that would’ve netted Tyson Chandler. San Antonio backed out of the deal and ended up renouncing Simmons as a restricted free agent. Having added cap space instead of $16 million of Gasol was no guarantee to keep him, but it could have helped.
Pau is coming off an impressive season, too. He shot north of 50 percent from downtown and posted strong rebounding and passing metrics. But problems—age, defense and now the money invested in him—compound the issues tethered to Aldridge’s presence. Who is going to be on the court late in a game against the Golden State Warriors? And where do you slot them on defense?
Adding Gay with the mid-level exception doesn’t clean up the mess. That MLE, and its salary, would be available independent of the Gasol signing with the Spurs operating as a capped-out squad. And after locking up Patty Mills early in free agency on a team-friendly contract, they seemed primed to make an additional move. They didn’t.
Now, regardless of what tweaks to their playing style and rotation are made, the Spurs have over $40 million tied up between Aldridge and Gasol over the next two seasons. By the time their contracts come off the books, Parker and Ginobili will likely be long gone. Mills will be 31. Danny Green will be 32 (and possibly gone). And Kawhi Leonard will heading into what’s likely a super-max extension. Where is additional versatility supposed to come from?
Next summer’s cap situation isn’t awful, but it isn’t incredibly bright either. Assuming Aldridge, Green, Gay and Joffrey Lauvergne all exercise their player options (a big if for Green and Gay), the Spurs could get more than $30 million under the cap. But this doesn’t account for raises that could be due to restricted free agents Anderson and Bertans or the potential returns of Green and Parker. The latter’s price tag specifically would not be too hefty, but it cuts into the team’s breathing room the same way Gasol’s did this summer. The more Parker takes, the less they have to improve other spots. The price of loyalty for the Spurs, a practice in which they’ve long engaged, may be taking its toll now that a superpower has emerged next to them. And again: This all presumes across-the-board opt-outs, plus Ginobili’s retirement—shaky anticipation at best. San Antonio could just as easily have no cap space.
This is not a condemnation of Gasol, nor of Buford or anyone in the organization for paying a player what he might be worth in a vacuum. But the Spurs aren’t filled with spring chickens, and the clock is ticking against them more than any team in the league. Without the money and flexibility to make up for that, we may see this roster remain static at a time when it needs to shift-shape in pursuit of the Warriors.
For better or for worse, San Antonio’s measuring stick now resides in Oracle Arena. It needs to beat Golden State, and do so in a reliable window defined by the primes of players it has on its roster. Giving Parker, Ginobili and Gasol another chance to get a ring is what matters most. And, looking at this summer, we cannot say the Spurs have leveraged themselves into a better situation than last season.
In lieu of that certainty, we’ll watch anxiously as Pop tries prove us wrong and make those subtle changes to his roster. We’ll hope for one last run of great basketball from an unbelievably stable franchise. We’ll look to see how this team of offense-first big men and over-the-hill cast members constructs yet another top-ranked defense.
None of this matters, though, if the Spurs don’t reach the NBA Finals—which, as of now, is one scenario we just can’t bet on.
Follow Adam on Twitter @Spinella14.