The San Antonio Spurs have achieved the top record in the Western Conference for two years running now, yet have come short of the Finals in either year. Could it therefore be questionable that they chose to reinvent themselves instead of rebuild?
Just before the All-Star break, Matthew Tynan wrote an excellent three-part series on the Spurs' reinvention after being swept by the Phoenix Suns in the 2010 playoffs (here's Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). These detail the Spurs going away from their old, patented "four-down" (Duncan in the post), walk-it-up-the-floor model, as the Suns' offense simply overwhelmed the Spurs, while it became more apparent that Tim Duncan would never return to his 20/10 self as he aged. So, Gregg Popovich decided to change the team's offensive scheme - a pick and roll based attack would allow Manu Ginobili, then Tony Parker, to create opportunities at the rim or from behind the arc, even if it meant sacrificing defensive focus.
The Spurs won 61 games in the 2010-11 season after a 35-6 start, yet were upset by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round as their uptempo, high-octane game was flustered by the Grizzlies' length on the perimeter (Richard Jefferson was the only wing above 6'6" on the 2010-11 squad) and their size in the frontcourt. The Spurs looked headed towards another mediocre season during the lockout with a 12-9 start and a 0-5 road start, worsened by an injury to Manu Ginobili. Then came the 38-7 finish, the first seed again, and 20 straight wins from a 107-97 beating of the Grizzlies to a 120-111 win over the Thunder in the second game of the Western Conference finals. Then the Spurs lost four straight, including Game 5 at home courtesy of James Harden.
So, the Spurs are on pace to finish atop the Western Conference again, but all of the above doesn't necessarily ensure another deep playoff run. Here are a few things to put into the debit column when calculating the amount optimism you have about the Spurs getting ring number five this year.
Tony Parker is not going to have a growth spurt soon
For all of his vaunted play - leading to consideration in the MVP race - Tony Parker still has two fatal flaws: He's not a 3 point shooter (although wisely enough he doesn't take a lot of them), and he still stands just 6'2". He may be a great player, but the Wee Frenchman is still, well -- wee. Teams have exploited this by switching longer swingmen onto the Spurs' leading scorer and assist man (see: Thabo Sefolosha, Klay Thompson to name a few players). Their length essentially cuts off Parker's passing lanes and reduces his ability to create for others while running the Spurs' offense. It's akin to Phil Jackson's recognition that Parker was the weak link of the Spurs earlier in his career, as Duncan would be solid while Ginobili would be an unpredictable wild card. Today, Parker can keep defenses honest with his greatly improved jumper, but by preventing him from getting his teammates involved, the Spurs' mighty offensive attack can be stopped by cutting off the head of the snake.
This isn't the Spurs' league any more
Sometimes, I hearken back to the mid 2000s: the days when Kobe Bryant toiled away on mediocre Laker teams despite setting records in scoring; when Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, and Dirk Nowitzki led their respective teams to top 3 seeds, and the East was simply the Pistons, Heat, and everyone else. We don't live in that era anymore.
As the 2000s decade wound down the Celtics returned to prominence by trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, the Lakers did likewise by stealing Pau Gasol from Memphis, and the Sonics-turned-Thunder built a young core through tanking for top 5 picks and in being the right place at the right time (2nd overall pick in 2007). Meanwhile, as Shaquille O'Neal ate his way out of Pat Riley's favor, the Heat planned to free up cap space for the summer of 2010, when a cool cat named LeBron James was to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. Naturally, the Heat managed to entice him, and paired him with franchise star Dwyane Wade and star big man Chris Bosh to counter the Celtics' big 3 (or big 4, as Rajon Rondo finally emerged into an All-Star point). This star-studded squad won 58 games and got to the Finals despite a 9-8 start, and although the Nowitzki-led Mavs finally got vengeance for 2006, you had the feeling that the Heat weren't done yet. Meanwhile, the Thunder won 50 games in 2010, taking the eventual champion Lakers to 6 games in the first round, then won 55 games and got all the way to the Western Conference Finals that year, then made it to the Finals last season, all while Kevin Durant won scoring title after scoring title after scoring title.
LeBron-Durant is the new Magic-Bird...
Or so David Stern wants you to think. While the lame-duck commissioner is credited for bringing back the popularity of the league after the lull of the 70s, he can't be credited for two once-a-generation players being drafted by two rival franchises with a long history. Nor can he be credited for Michael Jordan deciding to embrace the sport of basketball (though he CAN be credited for changing the rules of the league to accommodate kids who wanted to Be Like Mike). So what happens when a 6'8" physical specimen with great court vision, and a 6'9" scorer who can but the ball in the bucket at will from all parts of the court - and efficiently (i.e. 50/40/90 efficiency) too, come into the league within a few seasons of each other?
They instantly become favorites to get to the Finals every year, that's what. Sure, their supporting casts are not similarly constructed as that of Magic's or Bird's (LeBron doesn't always play the point, and Durant, instead of playing off of a low-post HOF'er, is paired with a mercurial scoring guard). Naturally, these guys get favorable calls (LeBron is averaging a career low in FTAs, but he regularly gets the benefit of the doubt on possible traveling calls. Now Durant just gets free throws, something Bird wasn't really great at over his career).
So, should the Spurs have rebuilt?
After the 2010 debacle, the Spurs were at a crossroads. Tim Duncan was 34 and hobbling on one leg. Tony Parker had a great 2009 but was plagued by injuries in 2010, to the point where he came off the bench in the last part of the season. Manu Ginobili was never healthy in the two seasons prior, limited to 44 games in 2009. Their attempted experiment in adding a fourth wheel in Richard Jefferson never really panned out, and he was about to opt out of his contract anyway.
Then even during the past few seasons, the Spurs had multiple opportunities to signal a rebuild. There were (unsubstantiated) rumors that Parker was being shopped for a top 5 pick during the 2011 draft (instead, George Hill was traded for Kawhi Leonard). Tim Duncan's contract expired at the end of the 2012 season, and the team could have had decided not to offer him a contract. After all, the Spurs had fallen short of the big prize every season despite having a strong record, right?
And they did not rebuild. Parker, it seems, was never seriously shopped on the market. Duncan was re-signed to a smaller contract the previous offseason, with a very crucial no-trade clause attached (meaning that Timmeh would be a Spur for Life; imagine if he had gone the way of Ewing in Seattle and Orlando, or Olajuwon in Toronto). Jefferson was re-signed to a smaller, yet longer contract, and flipped into Stephen Jackson. The Spurs finally found length on the wing with Danny Green picked up from the Cavaliers' trash pile and Kawhi Leonard traded for on draft day. Tiago Splitter was brought over from the Spanish league to provide big man depth and size (and eventually the starting position).
Only time will tell if Pop is vindicated
PATFO did not break up the Big 3, in the end. Danny Ainge once stated that he would not commit what he considered the biggest shortcoming of the Celtics' front office back in the 80s: keeping the core of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish together until Bird was forced to retire due to back problems. However, he might not be following his own words - he did re-sign Kevin Garnett to a short deal with a no-trade clause after all, and asked too high a price for Paul Pierce at the trade deadline.
Only time will tell whether the front office's decision to stay the course and rebuild the team's supporting cast around the Big 3 will be vindicated. Will there be a parade down at the Riverwalk in June? Will anything short of that validate the path PATFO took?