After what has felt like a century, the 2019-2020 NBA campaign is finally coming to an end. With the start of next season still in flux, the Spurs have plenty of time to reflect on how they can right the ship and start another long postseason streak.
Now that the Warriors super team has disbanded and LeBron James is playing for the Lakers, the keys to building a winner are no longer “add Kevin Durant to an all-time great team” or “duh, just play in the East and have James on your side.” As evidenced by the conference finalists this year, each team is uniquely built and was able to find success through different avenues.
The only constant all four teams shared was a foundation of franchise player(s). San Antonio is still looking for this piece, but there are still plenty of lessons that the Spurs can learn from the Nuggets, Celtics, Heat and Lakers.
Nuggets: The center position isn’t dead
I know, I know. Nikola Jokic is more of a point guard stuck in a 7-foot sumo wrestler’s body than a traditional center. However, you don’t need to find a big man with transcendent court vision in order to obtain value from the position.
Even without great passing skills, centers can still be useful in other ways. For example, a big who has the ability to hit open threes will be able to open up the lane for his team and allow easier drives to the basket. This is essentially why Houston traded away Clint Capela, but can you imagine if they had a center who’s able to shoot from long range and provide decent interior defense? Not only would the Rockets have been more versatile, but P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington also wouldn’t have seen their lives flash before their eyes every time a 7-foot behemoth attempted to run through them.
Athletic centers who possess high basketball IQ can unlock dangerous offensive plays as well. These bigs are able to create some offense from the perimeter by setting screens and initiating dribble handoffs, which can create mismatches down low or result in alley-oops. Denver’s own Mason Plumlee received multiple lobs from Jamal Murray during their series against the Lakers because he has these attributes.
As you can see, there are multiple ways in which the Spurs can obtain value using the center position outside of finding an elite passing big. It just depends on what the team believes they need in order to be the most successful.
Celtics: Switchable wings
There’s no doubt that switchable wings are the hottest commodity in the modern NBA. It’s not a coincidence that a large amount of elite players fits into this mold, and the Celtics have an abundance of them on the roster.
Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart all belong in this archetype, which is why it’s so hard to find a weak link in Boston’s defense. Outside of Kemba Walker, there isn’t another player who can be targeted for easy baskets since all of those players can guard every position except for centers.
Offensively, they’re all able to create their own shot and knock down threes. With Tatum and Brown still in their early 20s, both players are still improving by leaps and bounds. For example, Tatum’s passing has taken a massive jump, and defenses are now forced to pick their poison every time he drives to the basket; they can either send help and leave a shooter open or risk having his lone defender foul him on his way to the rim.
There’s a reason why versatile wings are the most valuable types of players in the league, as they’re able to leave the biggest impact on the game both on offense and defense.
Heat: Off-ball movement and shooting
Don’t lie, no one expected the Heat to be in the finals. I honestly could’ve titled this section as “The Wizardry of Erik Spoelstra,” but the reality is that the players still need to execute the coach’s gameplan.
Miami’s depth and shooting have been beaten to death, but their offense is truly driven by their off-ball movement. Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro run around like Steph Curry on the offensive end to either get an open three or be used as a decoy to free up their teammates. Miami always has four shooters on the court at any given time to surround Bam Adebayo, and even Jimmy Butler has improved from long distance since he’s currently shooting 34% from beyond the arc. This is still below the league average, but it’s a far cry from the 24% he shot in the regular season.
Adebayo is now a threat from the mid-range as well, so there’s hardly a single Miami player who the opposing team can slack off of. More importantly, he’s arguably turned into the second-best passing big in the game behind Jokic, which is why so many of the Heat’s offensive possessions start with him operating from the elbow. Adebayo has the ability to roll to the rim, pop into the midrange and find cutters at the basket for easy layups. If we factor in his defense, it’s not crazy to say that he might already be Miami’s best player.
Impressively, many of the Heat’s best players were either undrafted or drafted outside of the lottery. Hopefully, the Spurs scouting department can rediscover some of their former magic and start discovering hidden gems as well.
Lakers: Roll the dice on veteran experience
I’ll be honest, the Lakers were the toughest team for me to write about. I was tempted to just say “Sign James and Trade For Anthony Davis,” but that would’ve been too much of a cop-out, even for me. Instead, I decided to focus on some of LA’s supporting cast.
For most of the season, the biggest concern about the Lakers was their perceived lack of depth. That’s still true to some extent, as the drop off between their second to third-best player is most drastic than any other team that made the conference finals. However, these playoffs have seen many of LA’s veteran players step up big in key situations, which includes Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, Markieff Morris, and most recently, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Rondo has been the Lakers’ third-best player for most of these playoffs, as he’s provided the team with another playmaker when James is on the bench and has been disruptive on the defensive end as well. Howard, on the other hand, has played with a chip on his shoulder for much of the season and has proven that he can still be an important contributor on a contending team. Meanwhile, Morris and Caldwell-Pope both provided the team with secondary scoring in games 3 and 4 of the finals, although the storyline has still been dominated by the superstars.
In the future, teams might be more willing to sign veteran players who are looking to prove themselves after seeing the Lakers’ success this season. This might not be too relevant to the Spurs right now, but it’s still something to keep in mind once the team becomes a contender again.
Ultimately, these four teams have taught us that there are many ways of building a contender once a franchise player is in place. The most important thing is to build around the strengths of said player, whether that’s surrounding a passing big with shooters, or overloading on switchable wings, or, you know, just get LeBron James.
The Spurs are still looking for their next transcendent player, but once they do, the team will have options to build around him.