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Wednesday, 18 October 2017 17:33

San Antonio Spurs vs. Boston Celtics: 2017-18 NBA Season Preview

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San Antonio Spurs vs. Boston Celtics: 2017-18 NBA Season Preview |Powered by CLNS Media

2016-17 Round-up: The Spurs finished 61-21 last season, an astounding 40 games above .500, and good for the second best record in the NBA. After beating Memphis 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs, they went on to beat Houston in 6 games as well, before being swept by the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals in their first appearance in the semifinals since they won it all in 2014. The major storyline for that series with Golden State was highlighted by an ankle injury sustained late in Game 1 that caused Kawhi Leonard to miss the duration of the series. The controversial foul by Zaza Pachulia was ruled just a common foul at the time, but the NBA has since made a rule change that encourages stricter enforcement on late closeouts as exemplified in that play. It is worth noting that the Spurs held a 20+ point lead for much of Game 1 prior to Kawhi’s injury, but could not hold on to win that game or any other without their star forward. They would lose the other three games by over ten points each, including a 136-100 blowout loss in Game 2.


San Antonio’s offense was just average last year, as their 105.3 ppg ranked 14th out of 30 NBA teams. It was their defense that propelled them to a 60 win season. At 98.1 points allowed per game, the Spurs allowed fewer points than everyone except the Utah Jazz (who proceeded to lose their best player in the offseason), helped in large by finishing 2nd blocks, 11th in steals, and racking up the 7th least fouls in the league. This disciplined, fundamental defense we’ve come accustomed to expect from Gregg Popovich’s team should carry over just fine to the 2017-18 season, as the Spurs retained each of the top 8 guys in their rotation. Despite their average scoring marks in pure volume, they still managed to be one of the most efficient teams in the NBA offensively, with a 39.1% team 3 point shooting clip good for 1st in the NBA, and a 46.5% field goal percentage good for 7th. The keys to the offense were undoubtedly excellent ball movement and maintaining their very deliberate pace of play, as the team finished with the 7th least field goal attempts, and 6th least 3 point attempts.


Offseason Grade: B

Much like the New England Patriots, the Spurs tend to make some seemingly peculiar moves every offseason, both in terms of free agency signings, a lack thereof, and in the draft. This offseason, Popovich managed to retain long time Spur and future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobli who appeared to have been leaning towards retiring, and even though he may not contribute the kind of minutes he has in the past he will certainly bring tremendous value in the playoffs. Their next, and really only major move during free agency was signing former Kings forward Rudy Gay to a 2 year, $14 million deal otherwise known as the mid-level exception. This is a tremendous value for a team in serious need of a scoring punch off the bench, especially if Kawhi’s quad injury causes him to miss any length of time.


The Spurs, again much like the Pats, have always been known to scoop up unwanted players late in the draft (and often international) and develop them into quality rotation pieces (i.e. Tony Parker, Ginobli, Patty Mills, etc.). Last year, the two breakout players were Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathan Simmons, both of whom were up for contract at the end of the season and decided to cash in while their stock was high. It’s understandable why the Spurs wouldn’t want to pay up for still relatively unproven talents (both scored less than 10 ppg), but would likely to develop into excellent players in their system. Nonetheless, Popovich let both of them walk and their offseason grade takes a hit as a result. Given that their top 8 guys in the rotation remain, the Spurs are still in excellent shape, and with two experienced rookies coming in through the draft in Derrick White (Sr. PG out of Colorado) and Jaron Blossomgame (Sr. PF out of Clemson) there is still potential for additional breakouts this year.


Training Camp Questions: The main question really lies with the health of All-Pro small forward Kawhi Leonard. A quadricep injury has kept Leonard out for the entirety of training camp, and Popovich has already stated he will miss the season opener against Minnesota on Wednesday. The team has clearly stated they won’t rush back Kawhi from the injury for any reason, but he is expected to return within the first two weeks of the season. With his starter’s minutes up for grabs, Kyle Anderson has been named interim starter at the 3 in his stead, with Rudy Gay likely to scoop up some additional minutes as well. His impact on the team will be very interesting to watch as well, as he has not been on a playoff team since the 2011-12 season with the Grizzlies, including the last four seasons in Sacramento, which he referred to as “basketball hell”. Clearly, Gay is looking for a total change of the environment in which he plays basketball. There really isn’t a bigger contrast in those terms than between Sacramento and San Antonio for obvious reasons. It would appear that he’s ready to sacrifice money (left $10+ million on the table in Sacramento) and numbers (the Spurs are known to spread touches around quite a bit) in order to play on a winning team as he enters the waning part of his career.


Next Move They Make: There has been talk all offseason about potentially moving Lamarcus Aldridge following his less than stellar performance as the lone star on the team following the injury to Kawhi. However, with the recent news that the team has decided to extend him for 3 additional seasons, that idea is pretty much out the window. The issue still remains though, and for a team competing with the likes of Golden State and the increasingly stacked Western Conference, the Spurs have an overwhelming lack of star power after Kawhi Leonard. The team needs to make a move for youth now before they lose the veteran presence that will soon retire (Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli on last legs). There is an incredible opportunity to surround one of the best young forwards in the game with more young players he can grow with as he enters his prime. The most ideal return would be a collection of young players Popovich has his eye on around the league. However, the more likely scenario is they stand put and win 60 games regardless of who’s on the roster.


How They Beat The Celtics: The Spurs won both games against the Celtics last year, although they each went down to the wire. On November 25th the Spurs came back late to beat the Celtics 109-103, and on December 14th they led nearly the entire game and went on to win 108-101. The Spurs are an unusual matchup for most teams, but specifically here for Boston. San Antonio runs a slow paced offense with a squadron of players that stretch the floor, from guards to bigs. Their defense effectively prevents the opponent from doing just that. The Spurs shot 10% better from 3 point range in the first game against the C’s, and 11% better from the field in the second. Surprisingly, the Spurs only recorded 13 more rebounds than the miserably short Celtics, and actually were outscored by 14 points in the paint each game. San Antonio essentially funnelled the Celtics offense into the paint (where a shot counts for 2 points instead of 3 if you will). Since the Spurs really don’t change much I expect much of the same from them this year, albeit against a far more talented Celtics team this year as opposed to last.


Trending: Given that nearly every other Western Conference playoff team went out and made major improvements this offseason, the Spurs have no choice but to drop off at least to some extent in their expectations for this season. Rudy Gay and Dejounte Murray are exciting players to watch this year, but they simply cannot compare to the level of excitement that Paul George and Carmelo Anthony will bring to Oklahoma City. And with Chris Paul joining James Harden in Houston, along with the massive overhaul that took place in Minnesota, there are now several other Western Conference teams that will seriously compete for the 2 seed following what will most likely be Golden State at number 1. Of course the Spurs will always be a force in the NBA, but their seeding in the playoffs will play a huge factor in their postseason success.


Final Record/Standings: 57-25, 3rd in Western Conference


The Spurs are certainly capable of reaching 60 wins again, and I almost hate myself for doubting them, but with the drastically increased competition in the Western Conference, along with injuries to Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard to start the season, I can see them losing a few close games that drop them out of the 2 seed. My guess would be that Houston or OKC will have the best chance to leap them in the standings and earn themselves home court advantage in the second round. As long as Kawhi Leonard is healthy the Spurs will be in good shape, but they will need some younger players to step up and their older players to hold it together for a potentially lengthy postseason run.