Friday, May 13, 2016

What's next for the Spurs?

The OKC Thunder have been a foil for the Spurs for several years now, despite only getting the better of them prior to 2016 back in 2012 when they came back from being down 2-0 to win four straight and advance to the NBA Finals.

Since then the Thunder have languished, trading Harden away and then struggling for years to find role players that could allow them to maximize the tremendous advantage of having two of the league's top players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

But despite those struggles, the Thunder have always caused problems for the Spurs with their athleticism and defense and in this series they had the better bench as well. Surprisingly, Dion Waiters, Enes Kanter, and Andre Roberson got the best of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan.

It was already very clear from a minutes breakdown that the old "big three" of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili were no longer a major part of the formula. However, this series revealed that they are not only no longer main cogs but they are also no longer strong enough role players to anchor a championship team.

Here's a minutes breakdown of the 2015/16 Spurs with WP48 numbers courtesy of box score geeks:
*WP48 seeks to measure how many wins a player produces for his team per 48 minutes of play. It's basically a way of measuring which stats determine victories and which players produce those stats. Anything over .100 is good, over .150 is a top player.

Let's assume that Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili retire this offseason. Quite frankly, even if they don't it hardly matters because neither seem capable of playing at a high level any longer. They both played well in limited minutes during the season but both were largely ineffective against the Thunder and at 40 and 38 years old respectively, it seems unlikely that their effectiveness will do anything but go down.

So what's next for the Spurs?

The Kawhi-Aldridge foundation

The Spurs most productive players and top two is very clear moving forward. Kawhi is on contract through 2020 and Aldridge is locked up through 2019.

What they're getting from these two is quite a lot to build a team around. Defensively, LMA doesn't offer a ton of rim protection but he's very good at making rotations on the perimeter which is arguably becoming every bit as essential for modern NBA big men. Kawhi is one of the very best perimeter defenders in the game and can defend opposing wings and lead guards at an extremely high level.

LMA doesn't offer exceptional rebounding for a big man (not terrible either) but Kawhi is a well above average rebounder and a menace on the offensive glass.

Overall these two offer a good deal offensively as well. LMA is a brilliant partner for any ball handler on high screens thanks to his potency on long mid-range jumpers and he's also effective in the post. Kawhi has grown into a really strong driver working off Iso's or with screens. Both are also effective off the ball because LMA is a great shooter and Kawhi is brilliant both in the catch and shoot game (44.3% from 3 this year) and as an offensive rebounder.

So the Spurs are in good shape moving forward as they look to continue to rebuild their team around a new nucleus and slowly lay Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan down to rest. With these two guys as the core they're assured of having easy paths to building a strong defensive identity as a team that's exceptional defending the high screen/perimeter attacks of the modern NBA and an offensive identity as a team that can create space with high screens and shooting.

What's the missing component?

From glancing at the stats above, or observing their failure against OKC last night, there are two glaring holes for the Spurs to fill in order to be a championship team again.

The first is the lack of really strong guard play, which was the hallmark of the Spurs 2nd run of brilliance after Duncan's decline from "annual MVP power forward" to "really good center who plays controlled minutes."

Neither Kawhi nor LMA are natural lead guards or facilitators, although they can both make life easy for one, and although Kawhi has gotten much better at leading the offense his 2.8 assists per game speak to a player who's not a natural point-player.

Tony Parker will probably be around next year, as will Patty Mills, but Mills is a bit player that's often played off Manu on the 2nd unit while Parker is 33 years old.

The other hole, beyond that of a 1st team lead guard/facilitator, is on the 2nd unit. For years and years the Spurs' secret weapon was the fact that they could bring Manu off the bench to lead their 2nd unit and guarantee that the Spurs were able to get good shots when Parker and Duncan were on the bench getting rest.

It's hard to overstate how valuable this was but you can get a glimpse of what things look like without it from the fact that when the Spurs pulled their starters in the first quarter last night for some rest they basically lost the game within a span of a five minutes or so.

The Spurs will be spending about 20 million apiece on Kawhi/LMA for the next three years which still leaves a decent amount of cap room for adding additional pieces. They could add another max player or they could spread the money around more on role players.

How can the Spurs fill out their future roster?

The argument for signing a max player in the offseason would be that the Spurs could build a new "big three" nucleus, find a point-player to facilitate the offense, and then rely on their system and success picking up useful pieces from the 2nd round or FA scrap heap to fill out the rest of the roster.

The only problem is the question of whether the Spurs could successfully convince a big money free agent to come to San Antonio. Yes they were able to sign Aldridge, but we're talking about a guy who left Twitter after a bad game. His distaste for the media spotlight and eagerness to play on a team-focused roster under Duncan and Pop's guidance in a smaller market is fairly unique.

The big talk had been that the Spurs were going to make a big play for Kevin Durant but I see two problems with that idea. The first is that Durant is yet another off the ball type player. There's no one better at getting their own shot in the league and a frontcourt of Kawhi-Durant-LMA would be horrifying for the rest of the league.

But who's setting the table for them? Are there enough shots to go around for each of them? A better fit would be a player that can excel running off LMA screens and getting these guys the ball in their sweet spots. Maybe you can find one of those for cheap after maxing KD, God knows it wouldn't be too hard a role with those three on the floor, but it's not a easy fit.

Perhaps the bigger problem is that it's hard to believe Durant would sign with the Spurs over signing with Miami, Washington, Golden State, or the current favorites: Oklahoma City.

If I were the Spurs GM I'd be looking at Mike Conley, who's 28 years old but is a really strong point guard that might do amazing things playing off LMA and Kawhi rather than in the confined spaces he's found playing off ZBo and Gasol in Memphis.

The argument for snatching up role players is that the Spurs already have a strong nucleus with Kawhi and LMA and might be able to find the other big piece either with the draft or by signing an overlooked player that would fit the system like a glove.

Because Kawhi can defend any position 1-4 the Spurs could play a facilitating passer like Kyle Anderson (if he proves worthy) in lieu of a point guard and use a big lineup like what the Warriors did when Curry was out. There's so much flexibility here in how the Spurs want to build the roster moving forward.

The only limiting factor is that they want to keep winning big, which makes it hard to draft and develop, and LMA is already 30 years old so they don't have the biggest window here with the current foundation.

I'm sure they'll be fine, but it's still pretty strange to be looking at the Spurs future and not see Parker, Duncan, or Ginobili playing major roles. If they pull this off, they'll cement their status as the best-run organization in pro sports.

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