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Team Building Lessons from the Conference Finals

What the Spurs can learn from the NBA’s best

NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA Conference Finals were oh so close to being historic. The Nuggets handled their business against the Lakers, despite the best efforts of LeBron James in game four. In the East, the Celtics got heroics from their role players and nearly pulled off the first ever comeback from a 3-0 deficit but were blown out in game 7 on their home court.

In classic NBA playoff fashion, the superstars shined the brightest. Nikola Jokic has established himself in NBA history with his first Finals appearance. Jimmy Butler’s underdog legend grows ever larger with his first Eastern Conference Finals MVP and second NBA Finals appearance. Jayson Tatum and James both had respectable series despite their teams failing to move on.

But it was what happened outside of the superstars that Spurs fans should look at when they think about the future of the Silver and Black. San Antonio is tasked with building a roster around their first overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, who will surely be Victor Wembanyama. What worked in the conference finals can be viewed as lessons for what may work for the Spurs as they look to build around their 7-foot-5 “alien.” Here are a few team building trends that could help San Antonio as they begin to build a playoff roster.

Floor Spacing and Shooting Matters

In the modern NBA, this might seem like a bit of a “duh” statement, but just to hammer the point home even more and further prove how important three-point shooting was in the conference finals: the team that shot the higher percentage from deep was 9-2 (those two losses were the Heat in game six, and the Lakers in game four.)

Miami has been the biggest benefactor of this in the playoffs. The term “shooting variance” has been thrown around a lot with this team, and for good reason. They shot just 34.4% from three in the regular season, making them the fourth worst three-point shooting team in the NBA. In the playoffs? They are hitting 39% of their threes and are the best shooting team. Number two: the Denver Nuggets.

Both of these teams are versatile in how they create three point looks. They have strong movement shooters like Duncan Robinson, Max Strus and Michael Porter Jr., as well as iso shooters like Jamal Murray and Gabe Vincent. Their forwards and bigs can knock down shots as well, with Jokic, Kevin Love and Caleb Martin giving their teams players who can play inside while knocking down perimeter shots.

The Spurs were the fifth worst three-point shooting team in the NBA last year, but there is reason for optimism. Devin Vassell playing a full season will give them an isolation scorer who can create his own shot from three. Zach Collins came on strong as a shooter late in the season. Doug McDermott, Devonte’ Graham and Julian Champagnie are guys that can hit threes off of screens. Then of course, there is Wembanyama, who has a smooth jumper for his size despite not hitting a high percentage of threes in France. Despite those players, they still need the level of shooting across the board to improve if they want to space the floor as well as the league’s best.

Lineup Versatility

One of the main reason Boston was able to come back in games four through six, and why the Heat stomped them in game seven, was the ability to switch screens and stifle drives. To stop Butler, Boston would throw two at the ball with their big wings, or let Robert Williams and Al Horford play big against his hard drives to the basket. Martin and Strus did an admirable job handling switches when they were hunted by Boston’s screens.

You can only do this if you have players who can guard multiple positions and still have the skill level to not disrupt your own offense. Take Denver for example. Aaron Gordon is such a versatile defender, who can bang with LeBron in the post or guard someone like Austin Reaves on the perimeter. He’s become one of the most impactful players in the postseason. Someone like Jarred Vanderbilt couldn’t see the floor because despite his defensive ability, he wasn’t a threat on offseason.

Spurs fans should be excited by this development, because it’s the exact team they are now building. Wembanyama is a defensive nightmare for opposing teams. He’s a dominant shot blocker, and because of his length can hold his own on switches. Sochan is basically a swiss army knife defensively, and wings like Vassell, Keita Bates-Diop and Malaki Branham have similar switchy upside. A lot has been made about how all of the wings on the roster will fit together, but if anything, this gives Gregg Popovich more tools to tinker with and build lineups that can matchup against a variety of teams.

The “Three and D” guard

Derrick White was a hero for his buzzer-beating put back in game 6, but he was damn effective outside of that moment. He might have been Boston’s second most important player in the conference finals. His skillset of a fearless, three-point shooting, defensive guard was indispensable in the Celtics’ comeback.

Miami had a guard of this caliber on their own roster in Gabe Vincent. Denver has Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. These physical guards who can space the floor also help with defensive versatility, as they can compete with bigger wings on switches. Most of all, having a guard who can space off of the ball while the wings go to work and be the point of attack on the other end is endlessly valuable. It’s part of what has made the Heat’s lineups work since Kyle Lowry has embraced a bench role.

This is a key piece San Antonio still needs to find. Blake Wesley in theory has the potential to become a super version of this player. Players of this caliber typically don’t have the speed, size and burst that Wesley possesses, rather overcoming that lack of athleticism with grit and skill. Wesley still needs to mature as a ball handler and decision maker, but he showed promise as a catch-and shoot-player, hitting 39% of those looks. At the end of the season he flexed some real on-ball defensive chops. If he can develop into a Vincent/KCP/White type of guard, the Spurs will likely have a key rotation player on their hands.