Despite fan enthusiasm for the Okahoma City Thunder, the Indiana Pacers, and any residual belief in the Miami Heat, the best team in the NBA is, once again, the San Antonio Spurs. For whatever reason, basketball’s intelligentsia decided to underrate San Antonio following their heartbreaking loss in the 2013 NBA Finals. The rationale was that Manu Ginobili was finished, and Tim Duncan had run out of time to be a difference maker, capable of leading his team to a title.
Considering San Antonio’s remarkable run this season, it is almost certain that they will have the firepower to make a serious run at another title in the Duncan era. At the writing of this article, San Antonio is in the middle of an 18-game winning streak, with few signs of slowing down. Yet the Spurs’ success has not come in the way that many expected going into this season. Following his remarkable success in the NBA Finals last season, many predicted that Kawhi Leonard would join Paul George as the next generation of young superstar wings. Yet while Leonard has continued to improve, particularly on the defensive side of the ball where he is already excellent, he has certainly not become a superstar, and is still not one of the two best players on the team.
Instead, the team keeps winning in the same ways it always has. Manu Ginobili, whom many expected to lose more than a step or two, has continued his steady excellence. While he has continued with limited minutes, he is also posting the third highest field goal percentage of his career, illustrating that Ginobili is not going anywhere. Interestingly, Duncan has seemed to have declined slightly since last year. While his rebounding totals are identical those from 2013, his scoring total, efficiency, and minutes total are down since last season. Oddly, even Tony Parker has appeared to have declined somewhat since last season. His assist numbers and field goal percentage are both down, even if it is coupled with the second best three point shooting season of his career. Basically, a limited version of what many feared about the Spurs has occurred: the core of the team has taken a nosedive over the past year, yet the same old Spurs appear poised to once again win over 60 games.
The continuation of San Antonio has actually been continued by some of the more obscure members of the supporting cast. Greg Popovich has long struggled to find a viable option to run the basketball team while Tony Parker was taking much needed rest. He was forced to play Ginobili as the de-facto backup point guard, a relationship that was shaky at best, but occasionally disastrous. Ginobili is a wizard on the court, who in his prime could take incredible risks and make remarkable passes look easy, but today’s Ginobili is no longer able to be such a creative playmaker. This season, longtime towel waver and cheerleader from the bench, Patty Mills, has found himself on the court, proving to be a remarkably competent backup point guard. Mills has always been an excellent three-point shooter, but this season he has managed to dramatically decrease his turnover rate, a wart that essentially kept Mills from playing meaningful minutes for the Spurs.
The other valuable supporting contributor is a Spurs newcomer, Marco Belinelli, who nonetheless seemed like an obviously good match with the San Antonio open offensive system. Belinelli has toiled for his whole career in offensive systems that struggle to produce the open looks that Belinelli thrives on, even playing for the notoriously offensively weak Chicago Bulls. The acquisition of Belinelli has seen the Italian sharpshooter post what is clearly the greatest season of his career. Belinelli has shot 45% from three this year, making 1.6 threes per game.
San Antonio is just as good as it was last year and has reached this goal for reasons nobody could have expected. Kawhi Leonard has not become a superstar; San Antonio has not acquired any new megastars. Instead, the old fixtures still work, and the new pieces are making a real difference.