NBA Handicapping: Are Spurs Best Team in the League?
by Trevor Whenham - 5/25/2012
The Spurs have been as good as a team can be in these playoffs. They have eight wins, they have rarely even been threatened, and they don’t look like they have even tapped what they are capable of yet. They face a very good team in Oklahoma City in the Western Final, and Miami looms in the finals, but it’s not hard to imagine this team adding their fifth franchise championship. In fact, Bovada has them at 17/10 to win it all — just a hair behind favored Miami at 8/5. I expect the Spurs to win it all. Why? Here are five good reasons:
The Spurs aren’t the most talented team remaining — though they aren’t far behind the crowd. Where they have a huge edge, though, is in experience. Not only has the core of this team played together for a long time, but they have won three titles together.
Coach Gregg Popovich has been at the helm of the team since 1996 as well. There is nothing that this team can face in these playoffs that they haven’t faced before, and that they don’t know precisely how to handle. They know what it takes to win, and how good it feels when they do win.
The rest of the teams just can’t say the same thing — at least not to the same extent. Dwyane Wade is the only key player with a title for the Heat, and that was a lifetime ago. The Thunder are very young and are learning as they go. The Celtics have their title, but not nearly the experience that the Spurs have.
Experience like this would always be an edge, but given the calm, reserved approach the team approaches the game with it is a particular advantage for them.
For the last year or two Duncan has been a mere shadow of his former self. In these playoffs, though, he has been different. He’s hungrier, he’s playing more physically, and he’s using the strengths he has — size, positioning, versatility — to school opponents and remind them that they have no answer for him.
It seemed that Duncan had contented himself with a supporting role on the team, but with his play here it is clear he is back in charge. There is a palpable impact on the rest of the team from this attitude and play as well. It seems as if Duncan knows how small his remaining window is, and that he’ll never have another look like this. I can’t shake the feeling that if Duncan does win it all the championship game will be the last time we see him in the NBA.
If the Spurs have had a flaw in recent years, it is depth. They can clearly go six deep, but going much beyond that without a drop-off has been a challenge. Now a team that hasn’t faced a big need for change has shown an impressive ability to re-invent itself.
In the last two championship runs the Big 3 of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli contributed 62 percent of the team’s scoring. So far this year they have tallied just 46 percent of the points. That hasn’t meant that the team has struggled, though — they are the only playoff team averaging over 100 points per game, and they are shooting and scoring at least as well as they ever have.
The credit for that belongs on many shoulders. Stephen Jackson was a nearly perfect trade deadline acquisition. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have been excellent young additions. Boris Diaw fills his role well. Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal are excellent backups for key roles.
The core players for the remaining teams typically average well over 35 minutes per game, but the Spurs don’t have to. That will continue to pay dividends going forward.
I don’t generally believe in momentum in the NBA — or at least I don’t give it a lot of credit. In some situations, though, you can’t ignore it, and this is clearly one of those cases.
The team has won 18 straight games. They faced a layoff after their opening sweep and yet they looked like they hadn’t missed a beat in the second round. They are winning anywhere — nine of the 18 wins have come on the road. Before the current streak started they had lost two straight, but that was preceded by 11 more wins in a row. It essentially isn’t possible for a team to be any more dialed in or confident than this squad is right now.
The most compelling proof of their dominance is their performance against the spread. Despite their obvious strength the team has covered six of eight playoff spreads, and is 15-2-1 ATS over the course of their winning streak.
There is a risk that teams can get rusty when they face a long layoff. For the Spurs, though, it can be seen more as an asset. They handled their last layoff well, and they have had plenty of experience with them in the past. They aren’t the youngest team in the league, so the extra time can only be seen as an asset on the health front, too.
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