No matter what happens the rest of the way, the San Antonio Spurs have already won.
That’s already evident, right?
In vanquishing the Houston Rockets in six games in the semi-finals the Spurs have officially improved upon last season’s results. And the one before that. They did so despite the retirement of Tim Duncan, merely the best player in franchise history.
That simply does not happen in the NBA.
When Michael Jordan retired the first time, in 1993, to pursue his dream of playing baseball, the Chicago Bulls went from three-time defending champions to losers in the second round. When he retired the second time, in 1998, they blew the whole franchise up.
Larry Bird? Same deal. Boston lost in seven games to Cleveland in the Eastern semis in his final season (1991-92) and went down 3-1 in round one to ‘Zo, “Grandmama” and those cuddly Charlotte Hornets the next.
The Lakers missed the playoffs the first year Shaquille O’Neal left. Losing LeBron James turned Cleveland into a smoking ruin. More so. It wasn’t quite as dire when he left Miami four years later, but the Heat did miss the postseason their first year without him, too.
The Philadelphia 76ers without Charles Barkley? They were terrible, Kenny. The Houston Rockets without “Dream?” They went from winning 45 games to 28. The New York Knicks without Patrick Ewing? They went from the conference finals to out in the first round against Toronto. (So much for “The Ewing Theory.”)
Milwaukee never recovered from losing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and without his contributions, even at 41 years old, the Lakers went from losing in the Finals to Detroit in 1989 to losing in the semis in five games to Tom Chambers and Kevin Johnson.
The Warriors went 17-63 the year they traded away Wilt Chamberlain, the Sixers went from seven playoff wins to one after he left and the Lakers went from a Finals loss to the Celtics in his final season to a first-round exit in five games to Kareem’s Bucks the next year.
Finally, there’s Kobe Bryant. The Lakers sure were lousy without him this season. In his last years, they were lousy with him too, but still.
My point, obviously, is that Duncan is the most overrated star in NBA history. No, wait, that’s not it. No, my point is that whenever a legend leaves, their teams always take a step back, even if it’s only for a year, to digest being without the face of their franchise. Some recover relatively quickly. Others never do. What the Spurs have done these past three seasons, going from three playoff wins to six to now eight and counting, is unprecedented. Duncan’s gone, the rest of their “Big Three” are just about ready to follow suit, and the Spurs have taken the bell-curve that we associate with dynasties and defenestrated it like Boris Diaw’s leftover espresso.
It’s fine to be greedy and want more. The objective is to win a championship and there are no participation trophies here. But the Spurs have already surpassed all realistic expectations for what they should’ve been able to achieve this season and there is nothing they can do the rest of the way that can tarnish that. They’ve got the best all-around player on the planet in his prime, it looks like R.C. Buford nailed the Dejounte Murray pick, and the skies continue to look clear for the franchise for years to come.
They just whupped the Rockets by 40 points to advance to the conference finals without Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker, man. It’d be petty to complain about anything after that.
That being said, let’s talk about the upcoming series against the hell-spawn that are the Golden State Warriors, who are only 10-to-1 favorites to beat the Spurs and advance to the Finals.
On paper it does not look good. The Dubs will have either four of the best five players in the series or merely three of the best four, depending on how we’re feeling about LaMarcus Aldridge these days. They are healthy, head coach aside. They are Megatron; Weaknesses: None.
The conventional wisdom is that playing the Rockets was the perfect practice opponent to prepare for the Warriors because both teams feature ultra-efficient offenses that shoot a bunch of threes. Manu Ginobili didn't completely dismiss it in a postgame interview (perhaps he just wanted to be polite). I respectfully disagree.
First, the Rockets mostly played defense like a bunch of mannequins, to the degree that by the end of the series Danny Green was feeling comfortable taking a comatose James Harden off the dribble. The Warriors, on the other hand, are like a pack of starving, snarling hyenas when they're engaged defensively. Draymond Green is a terrifying combo of Leonard on the perimeter and Rudy Gobert in the post. Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala have arms that go from here to some paragraph about Donald Trump you’ll read two weeks from now. Klay Thompson is a quality defender, even if adjusted plus-minus is not his biggest fan in that end. Even Zaza Pachulia makes you earn it. The Warriors switch and rotate for each other like madmen, they close out and recover with frightening quickness and they get their hands on more balls than the manager of a pool hall. They’d be one of the best teams in the league even if they were mediocre offensively.
They are not mediocre offensively. They’re also nothing like the Rockets, who rely a 6’5 hipster to create for everyone else. The Warriors offense isn’t a one-man show like Houston or Oklahoma City. It’s a pinball machine come to life. The ball is constantly whizzing from Green to Stephen Curry to Durant to Thompson and there is no one to sag off of, no place to stash a defensive liability.
In the playoffs last year teams could rely on Harrison Barnes to choke on wide open corner looks, they didn’t have to worry about Andrew Bogut doing anything on offense and they could crowd Curry, who was limited by a knee injury. This season they’ve got Durant —who’s basically unguardable-- they can throw 13-foot lobs to JaVale McGee and Curry is back to his MVP self, able to get to the rim and finish whenever he wants. If all that wasn’t enough, even a guy like Ian Clark can hurt you off the bench and David West can rough people up at both ends.
The closest comp to how the Warriors play aren’t the Rockets but rather the Celtics, except Boston’s not nearly as talented. Golden State is more like the 2014 Spurs on steroids. Basically they’re a NBA2K team with every slider set to “99,” and they will be the toughest playoff opponent a Popovich-coached team have ever faced. And the Spurs have played some people over the years, you know.
Is it possible to beat them? Sure, anything’s possible. Injuries can and do happen, and they’re the great leveler. Maybe the Spurs can win four coin-flips (odds: 1/16) and lose three blowouts, a la the 1960 World Series. It goes without saying that Leonard will have to be healthy and at his best, but hopefully he was paying attention to the broadcast of Game 6 and noticed San Antonio’s ball movement without him. That’s how the Spurs can best make hay against the Dubs. The decisions will have to be quick and precise, whether it’s passing, cutting, driving or shooting. The Warriors make you dribble into crowds, they get out into transition where they’re hot death, and Green baits bigs into thinking you’ve got an advantage against him when they don’t.
Despite the success they had against Houston I’m still pretty skeptical that bigs like Pau Gasol or David Lee have a place in this series, though I’d be okay with Gasol as Aldridge’s backup. I’m of the opinion that the Spurs will have to play small practically full-time, with Leonard at the four and Jonathon Simmons starting at the wing. The Spurs will need all their smalls to play above their heads, from Simmons to Green to Patty Mills to Manu Ginobili to Dejounte Murray and probably even Kyle Anderson. They’ve got to pull off the “Miracle on Ice” against the Russians, only they’ve got to do it four times out of seven.
The one thing the Spurs have going for them, and it’s an unfortunate circumstance nobody wanted, is that it appears that Steve Kerr will continue to be out for the Warriors, unable to coach his team due to his ongoing health issues. Interim coach Mike Brown is someone Pop knows well and can take advantage of. He can get in Brown’s head over the course of a series, especially if the Spurs find a way to win one of the first two games. As we saw against the Rockets, series have a way of evolving. Coaches make adjustments, players pick up on tendencies and leaks that look unstoppable early on get plugged up after a week.
Do I think the Spurs will pull off the mother of all playoff upsets? I do not. But they will make the Warriors work for this. They’re going to ask some questions of them. They’ll make them sweat a bit. And if the Warriors show any vulnerability at all, the Pop will make sure the Spurs take advantage of it.
And if not, no biggie. They’re playing with the casino’s chips anyway.