The Last Ride of the Spurs Dynasty

Elias Stein

Everyone with the Spurs understands how special this group of players is, but no one is totally ready to open up about the historical significance of this postseason run. The Spurs, true to form, are on message — whether you’re asking on the record, over beers, or chilling in the corner of some gym.

“We’ve been in this situation several times before in our run together,” says R.C. Buford, the team’s GM. “None of us look beyond where we are right now.”

So we’ll say it for them: The Spurs should be the biggest story of the postseason as long as they’re kicking. There are other meaty issues: the Warriors’ quest to cap their historically dominant regular season; LeBron James, redeeming Cleveland and dunking Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving into the playoff baptismal pool; Derrick Rose’s desperate search for his MVP zip; the trumped-up battle over Chris Paul’s “legacy”; the Hawks, once the NBA’s most vanilla organization, soldiering through tabloid headlines and the possibility that police brutality ended Thabo Sefolosha’s season; and the Wizards’ and Raptors’ dual quest to play a passable professional basketball game.

But nothing tops what could be the last stand of the Spurs as we know them. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are 381 and 37, respectively, and both could retire — even though each is clearly capable of playing at a high level beyond this season. Six other rotation players are free agents, including Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, perhaps the best two-way starting wing combination in the league. The Spurs are down 1-0, with Game 2 on the road against the strongest first-round opponent they’ve faced in the Tim Duncan era.

The Spurs could easily win this series,2 repeat as champions, and re-sign their aging stars to one- or two-year contracts. This could all be much ado about nothing. The franchise hasn’t faced this level of top-to-bottom uncertainty since Duncan dined with the Magic in 2000, and it’s hard to quash the feeling of preemptive nostalgia as you watch Duncan drain bank shots and nail every rotation while Ginobili dances steps he literally invented. Appreciate it all, because this really could be the last springtime run for one of the greatest core groups in the history of team sports.

The Clippers will pose a serious threat as long as they defend with the ferocity they showed in blowing away San Antonio in Game 1. The Clippers fly around in a hyperaggressive defensive scheme, and the Spurs, after 12 Finals games against the Heat, are well versed in passing over and around frenzy. That has been the fear for the Clippers — that San Antonio is just too good at coaxing that first rotation out, and then whipping the ball around the floor, one step ahead of a scrambling defense, until they find an open 3-pointer or a shot at the rim. Other teams have to adjust for the Clippers’ system. The Spurs offense is built for it.

While they improved as the season went on, the Clippers finished 15th in points allowed per possession and followed the same trajectory last season before looking helpless against Golden State and Oklahoma City in the playoffs. But they showed up, big time, on defense in Game 1. The Spurs missed a bunch of open shots and free throws, but some of those open shots weren’t as good in reality as they look in the SportVU data now. The Clips cut San Antonio off at that path more times than not.

San Antonio’s bread and butter against L.A. is simple: Run a side pick-and-roll that draws a trap, and ping the ball ahead of the Clippers’ frantic rotations behind that trap. The pick-and-roll itself isn’t an endgame. It’s just a tasty piece of bait designed to lure two Clippers onto one Spur.

The Clippers were up to the challenge more often in Game 1 than in perhaps any meaningful game between these two rosters at full strength. Watch all five Clippers shift around the floor, in perfect synchronization, to snuff out two straight pick-and-rolls:

Downgrade from Tony Parker to Cory Joseph, a shaky outside shooter, and Chris Paul can plop himself into the lane even earlier:

The Spurs are nominally intact from last season, but they aren’t quite the same, and they’re feeling a trickle-down effect at multiple positions. Joseph has had a nice season, but he isn’t in Patty Mills’s league as a shooter, and he hurts the Spurs’ spacing when he’s off the ball during Ginobili pick-and-rolls.

And poor Aron Baynes. Poor, poor Aron Baynes. We can take solace in the fact that he lived a full life. He’s just not as good, at anything, as Tiago Splitter. He’s not as quick reading the floor on defense, and was late on several rotations — including on those that led to his eventual death at the hands of Blake Griffin. He can’t fight Griffin’s post game quite as well.

Baynes is a nimbler offensive player than some might realize, but he’s not as athletic as Splitter, and not as adept at making quick decisions with the ball. Every fraction of a second counts when you’re playing this fast; downgrades on the margins add up.

Even some of San Antonio’s open looks required a ton of legwork:

Look at everything going on here: how early Griffin is to strangle that initial Parker-Duncan pick-and-roll; how J.J. Redick butts into Boris Diaw’s path to the rim while DeAndre Jordan, guarding Duncan at first, reads the switch with Griffin and rushes back to Diaw; and how Matt Barnes at least runs Marco Belinelli off the first 3-point shot.

Jordan and Griffin used to habitually blow those in-the-moment reads. Griffin would leap out on a pick-and-roll and recover back to his original guy — not realizing Jordan had switched over to that player. They would ram into each other now and then. Their communication has rarely been better than it was in Game 1. Watch them neuter one Parker-Diaw pick-and-roll on the left side, recover to their original marks, and then switch on the fly during a second pick-and-roll involving both San Antonio bigs:

The Clips were just as good doubling Leonard on the rare chances he got to post up someone other than Barnes — a place the Spurs should look for points whenever Leonard is on the floor against the Jamal Crawford–Redick combination.

That’s a help-and-recover clinic, complete with a subtle bit of brilliance from Redick and Jordan on the back end. Redick runs Belinelli off the line, and as Belinelli drives toward Jordan’s massive arms, Redick senses that Jordan has that threat covered and slides into Belinelli’s passing lane to Baynes — shutting off the easiest choice.

The Clips couldn’t pull this off every time. It’s exhausting, and the core six Clippers have to carry a disastrously unqualified bench like a goddamned grand piano on their backs. Make one rotation at half-speed, as Griffin does here in recovering toward Baynes, and the Spurs will roast you:

And again: The Spurs went just 13-of-33 on uncontested shots, per SportVU data. But the Clippers were good enough to shift the possession-by-possession odds in their favor, and they’ve rarely managed that against the Spurs’ beautiful machine. There is a long way to go, and both coaches will make a ton of adjustments — starting with the Spurs’ coverage of Paul, who just eviscerated Parker. The Spurs could switch on Paul pick-and-rolls a bit more often, something they’ve done in prior matchups, or stick one of Green or Leonard on Paul almost from the opening tip.

The Clippers were prepared for that, and had some plays specifically designed to help Paul evade Leonard’s octopus arms.3 Redick isn’t a fun hiding place for Parker, since anyone guarding Redick has to run around a lot, and Barnes might be able to hurt Parker a bit in the post.

San Antonio could try going small whenever Jordan or Griffin is out of the game, and the Spurs will clean up their transition defense after the Clips caught them napping a few times in Game 1. Diaw should be primed after the Clippers (smartly) ignored him as a spot-up threat, daring Diaw to beat them from the outside. We haven’t seen the last of Hack-a-Jordan, and Popovich didn’t really optimize it in Game 1.4

All of that stuff matters. But as long as the Clippers defense can make San Antonio fall back on fourth and fifth options, the Clips have a real chance to send the champs packing early.

♦♦♦

Regardless of when San Antonio’s postseason run ends, the Spurs know they are facing the most tumultuous offseason in franchise history. They held off on a max-level extension for Leonard in the fall to hoard cap room, even knowing Leonard would have more leverage than the typical restricted free agent. We often talk of restricted free agents as passive spectators in their negotiations: “What kind of deal will the Spurs give Leonard?”

But where Leonard plays, and for how much, is largely up to him. The Spurs will offer him the full five-year maximum-level contract. Other teams will offer competing max contracts, and if Leonard tells them he’d prefer a Chandler Parsons–style two-year maximum deal with a third-year player option, those teams will offer that.5 He could refuse all such deals, sign the Spurs’ one-year qualifying offer, and enter free agency unfettered in 2016 — right when the cap balloons from $67 million to a projected $90 million, with maximum contracts rising in tandem. Hell, he could do that, sign a one-year max deal, and then enter free agency again in 2017, when the cap could jump by another $20 million.

Signing one-year deals would take balls; very few stars coming off rookie deals, and no one at Leonard’s level, have ever signed the qualifying offer. Leonard could soften the risk by buying a huge insurance policy, but insuring against every type of scenario — from run-of-the-mill injuries to permanent disability — is expensive enough to dissuade young players who haven’t cashed their first megadeals, according to several NBA agents. Some guys over the next two summers will go the one-year route, but Leonard is not the best bet to do it — especially after a half-season of weird injuries.

The Spurs understood that the new cap environment would present Leonard with unprecedented options, and they’re confident he’ll stay for the long haul. Leonard has also said that he’d like to remain a Spur for life, though no one should ever take those kinds of public proclamations as gospel.

“I don’t know that I’m worried about [the cap],” Buford says. “It is what it is. We’ll deal with the guidelines. I hope that Kawhi is with us for a long time, and I know that’s no secret to Kawhi or his family.”

The Spurs accepted that risk because waiting to bump up Leonard’s salary gives them the chance to dangle max cap space in front of Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge this summer. Neither is a good bet to leave his current team, but sources around the league have been saying for weeks that the Spurs might get a hearing with Aldridge — and that was before the Oregonian reported that at least one Blazers player thinks there is only a 50-50 chance that Aldridge stays in Portland.6

The Spurs could open up about $22 million in cap room, but to do it, they’d have to renounce every outgoing free agent other than Leonard — including Green. Green is perhaps the most divisive free agent of the summer in league circles. Lots of execs would scoff at giving him a deal in the $10 million range; the phrase “product of the Spurs system” is thrown around a lot. It’s an accidental bonus of San Antonio’s selfless motion offense: People have never seen some Spurs exist outside that paradise, and that knowledge gap might depress those players’ value in free agency. The freaking Spurs win both ways.

But Green is no longer just a system player who mooches wide-open 3s. He takes hard 3s, with defenders right in his jersey, and he takes them from all areas of the floor. He has mastered little pump-fake/sidestep combinations that come in handy when defenders rush out at him.

Danny 4

Green can’t cover ground as fast as Leonard or Tony Allen, but he has built himself into an elite defender who can hound multiple positions. He’s always well balanced, he’s long, and he just gets the game — how opposing plays unfold, when and where to shift around the floor, and how to use his size to bother smaller players who can out-quick him. He happens to be one of the most fearsome transition defenders alive. Some “3-and-D” guys barely meet half of the 3-and-D equation. Green is legit.

It’s popular to suggest he can’t dribble, but that’s not really true. Green can do just enough to keep the offense moving when he catches it against a rotating defense:

Danny 5

He just can’t do much more than that, and at 27, he’s unlikely to add off-the-bounce oomph. He’s not explosive enough to get to the rim, and he has to settle for awkward midrange shots that often miss badly:

Danny 1

Danny 2

He’s not a great passer, and he can’t get deep enough inside defenses to open up the most productive passes; Green has dished just 2.5 assists per 36 minutes, the lowest figure among the seven Spurs players who have logged at least 1,400 minutes this season.

There might be some truth to the notion that Green is a “system” player. He’d be lost without teammates to create shots for him. He’s lucky that everyone on his team is a willing passer, and that with Leonard around, he never absolutely has to defend the best opposing perimeter player.

But any functional system should produce good jumpers; Green could spot up for open 3s in Detroit around Reggie Jackson–Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls, or in Charlotte around Al Jefferson post-ups. If you pay Green $10 million per season to score 18 points per game and dribble a lot, you’ll be disappointed. If you value his skills properly, you’ll be content. I’d pay him $10 million per season now, especially with the cap set to jump into the $100 million–plus range in two years. Ten percent of the cap for Danny Green? Sign me up.

Everyone likes to say that you can find functional wing players anywhere, but you can’t find a lot of wings who play All-NBA-level defense, crack 40 percent from deep every year, and continue to do both in the hothouse of the playoffs — where guys with glaring holes in their games suddenly can’t even get on the floor. (Just ask the 2011-12 version of Danny Green.)

It would be classic Spurs to replace Green now, just as they dealt away George Hill when Hill became expensive. Green should be done taking discounts for the cause. But there are nights — and this sounds crazy, but I swear it’s true — when the Green/Leonard combination feels almost like the foundation of the Spurs. Leonard is the star, as he was when the two combined for 44 points in the Spurs’ shellacking of Golden State earlier this month, but their singular powers combine into something greater — an NBA wing Voltron. All that shooting and defense at positions (especially in Green’s case) where talent is scarce — you don’t trifle with that.

“Danny and Kawhi have played well together,” Buford says, “and the results that they have been a part of speak for themselves.”

Any smart team would punt Green to nab a Gasol/Aldridge type, and then try to replace 85 percent of Green’s game — and 100 percent of his dribbling skills — at a fraction of the price. But you might feel the pain of that 15 percent loss.

The Spurs, of course, are well positioned to retool, even though Parker is showing his age. Leonard is a star, Splitter is a solid two-way player, and they’re so flexible, they could keep Green’s cap hold on the books7 this summer and still have almost $15 million in room — not enough for a max deal, but plenty of ammunition. They could re-sign both and have a bonanza of space for the starry free-agent classes of 2016 and 2017. The Spurs aren’t traditionally a free-agency destination, but everyone admires them, and someone is going to take their money at some point. It helps that Texas is among the jurisdictions with a friendlier tax regime — an advantage that draws more and more bellyaching from teams that don’t have it.

They’re ready for anything — including for Duncan, Ginobili, and everyone else to return next season for one last run. But just in case this is it, give these guys some extra attention over the next few weeks. Soak it all in, because nothing lasts forever — not even the Spurs.

Random Notes From Other Series8

Boston-Cleveland

• A great offense has an answer for everything. Like a lot of Cleveland opponents, Boston largely neutralized LeBron–Kevin Love pick-and-rolls by switching — inviting LeBron to drive against Brandon Bass, or Love to post up Jae Crowder/Evan Turner. That’s all well and good, but Cleveland just moves on to a LeBron–Timofey Mozgov pick-and-roll — the one the Cavs prefer anyway, since Love can clear the lane by spotting up around it.

Switching that one leaves a slower center, someone like Tyler Zeller, on LeBron. That’s no good. It’s tempting to think Boston should aim its defense at switching LeBron-Mozgov or LeBron–Tristan Thompson pick-and-rolls — put Bass on Cleveland’s centers and the slower big guy on Love. But then Cleveland could just pivot back to LeBron-Love, or, simpler yet, a pick-and-roll involving Kyrie Irving and a Boston point guard defender too little to realistically switch onto a big. An Irving-LeBron pick-and-roll works fine, too.

That’s especially the case if Boston is playing Isaiah Thomas on Irving. But wait! Maybe Boston could play a smaller lineup, with three like-size wing players (i.e., not Thomas), Crowder at power forward, and Bass at center. They could switch everything! But alas, Boston needs Thomas’s offense — the Celtics died without him in Game 1 — and Zeller is the only Boston big who offers even a hint of rim protection.

The Cavs have a response for every choice. The Pelicans are facing the same issue against Golden State. Crowder does need to play even more, and possibly start. He’s the only Boston wing who can put up a fight against LeBron in the post.

Atlanta-Brooklyn

• These two teams play the game at different speeds, to the point that it sometimes looks as if they are playing different sports. Brooklyn fans complained about the lack of shots for Brook Lopez, and while the Nets could have looked to him a bit more, they did try a lot of the Lopez–Deron Williams side pick-and-rolls that have been their go-to play for the last two months.

Atlanta just smothered them. The Hawks are undersize, but they are a tribute to what you can do on defense with speed, effort, and communication. They swarmed the strong side of the ball, jutting into every reasonable passing lane, and when Williams swung it to an open man on the weak side, the Hawks hustled all the way over in time. I mean, how are you supposed to even enter the ball to Lopez here?

Or squeeze anything out of this Joe Johnson post-up — a play the Nets did get rolling in the fourth quarter?

It would help if Thad Young would spot up around the 3-point arc, but he’s a below-average shooter from there, and he thrives diving for garbage around the basket.

And look at Dennis Schröder’s balls-to-the-wall closeout — one of his across-the-court flying Hawk cuts that appeared to unnerve Brooklyn:

The Hawks play airtight defense when they are locked in, though they have obvious problems on the glass with behemoths like Lopez.

• Interesting discussion topic: Atlanta got the ball back with 2:02 left in regulation, up 93-87. Korver jacked a wide-open 3-pointer just nine seconds into the shot clock. It missed. Some people might suggest a team nursing a lead should bleed the clock for something better.

I thought back to the Chicago’s road win at Golden State in late January, when the Warriors also got the ball back with 2:02 left, up by five points. Stephen Curry launched a wide-open pull-up 3 exactly nine seconds into the shot clock — and missed. I chatted with Steve Kerr the next day about the shot. I loved it, but I wondered if Kerr thought it had been rushed. He also loved it. “If that goes in,” he told me, “that’s game time.”

That’s the thing about a quick, open 3-pointer in that situation: the reward is so high, it outweighs the very mild downside of leaving about 10 seconds of useful shot clock time. The discussion changes closer to the buzzer, but I loved that Korver shot — an attempt at a real, throat-slitting dagger.

• Brooklyn made it close, but the Hawks opened more cracks in Brooklyn’s defense than the Nets managed on the other side. Atlanta barely missed a bunch of windows with errant passes (mostly from Jeff Teague and Schröder) or slower-than-usual decisions. Stuff was there, and it will be there again. If the Hawks take advantage more often, they should win Game 2 easily — provided Paul Millsap and Al Horford are (mostly) healthy.

• Brooklyn needs to think about starting Alan Anderson. Markel Brown can’t shoot, and Bojan Bogdanovic isn’t quick enough to track all of Kyle Korver’s change-of-direction cuts.

• They should also consider dropping back on most pick-and-rolls instead of having their big men hedge out super-hard:

That strategy makes sense at the point of attack. Millsap is a dangerous shooter, and Thad Young has the wheels to leap out like this and scurry back to him. But playing this way also triggers a bunch of rotations behind Young, and Brooklyn’s other players just aren’t fast enough to make them ahead of Atlanta’s killer passing. Drop back and make the Hawks nail some long jumpers before engaging scramble mode.

Dallas-Houston

• Dwight Howard looked incredible.

• The Mavs had some success running Rajon Rondo–Dirk Nowitzki pick-and-rolls, which might be the best way to use both players if they are going to be on the floor together. Defenders have to hug Dirk, which at least gives Rondo a chance to dart into the lane and cause some havoc:

Giving the ball to Rondo also means that his defender can’t just ignore him to help everywhere else — doubling Nowitzki post-ups9 or rotating to Nowitzki on pick-and-pops. But when Rondo has it, Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons don’t. Neither of those guys can guard James Harden, but Rondo can at least give it an honest go. Al-Farouq Aminu has the long arms for the Harden job, but you can’t play him and Rondo together, and Dallas has rarely even played Aminu with Parsons and Ellis outside of small lineups — meaning something like Devin Harris–Ellis-Aminu-Dirk–Tyson Chandler has gotten very little run.

That specific lineup played only 15 minutes in the regular season, but it made a first-quarter appearance in Game 1 before Chandler picked up his second foul. If Harris can play, Rick Carlisle may go back to it — or use versions with J.J. Barea (for Harris) and Parsons (for Ellis).

You see where this is going. This is a tough matchup for the Mavs in lots of places, including on the glass, and the Mavs have injury issues to boot. Never underestimate a Dirk/Carlisle team, but I’m worried for Dallas in Game 2.

• Parsons is always important, but doubly so in this series, since Harden will spend a lot of time guarding him. No player has carried a heavier burden this season than Harden, especially since he decided to start trying again on defense. He will feel it on some nights, and any Houston opponent has to make him work on defense.

• Terrence Jones can create off the bounce against Nowitzki, even without the aid of a screen. I’d go to that more in Game 2.

Portland-Memphis

• Good ol’ Grizz, the Memphis bear mascot, gave us the Mascot Moment of the Year.

• Zach Randolph didn’t shoot well in Game 1, but neither did LaMarcus Aldridge, and Randolph’s ability to play Aldridge to a standstill is a big reason Memphis always gives Portland issues.

• Mike Conley looked explosive, both going at full speed and changing directions in tight spaces. That’s encouraging. Jeff Green’s defense was also as sound as it has been in weeks.

• Damian Lillard played out of control, forcing shots10 when easier passes were available, but he got into the lane at will on pick-and-rolls with Aldridge — plays on which Z-Bo tends to jump out far from the paint:

Lillard zoomed around those Randolph hedges and into the teeth of the Grizz defense. The results weren’t great, but the process was good. This is always a tricky balance for Aldridge, and for any other elite-shooting big man. The Blazers might be more valuable spotting up around pick-and-rolls involving their big-man teammates and dragging their defender away from the fray. It’s harder for Aldridge to roll to the rim when he’s the screen setter, since Robin Lopez’s defender will be lurking nearby. And Aldridge needs his usual diet of post-ups.

But Portland can do damage with Aldridge as the screener, and the Blazers can juice up the spacing around him by pairing Aldridge with Meyers Leonard — as they did in garbage time on Sunday. Leonard probably can’t survive an extended run against the Memphis beasts, but Terry Stotts should slot Leonard in or go small whenever Randolph or Marc Gasol is on the bench.

• Memphis can go small, too, but if Portland counters by going back to big lineups — as it did Sunday — Jeff Green should find someone other than Aldridge to guard.

• Lillard’s defense on Conley and Beno “MVP” Udrih was bad. Both guys almost faked Lillard to the floor by leaning toward a pick, getting him to lurch that way, and then driving the other direction.

Toronto-Washington

• This game was horrible, and I’d rather not speak of these teams until after Game 2.

• Stop running Bradley Beal pick-and-rolls with John Wall standing in the corner.

• Patrick Patterson has to rebound better.

• James Johnson should at least play in small-ball lineups when the Wiz go with Paul Pierce at power forward — a quirk for which the Raptors looked totally unprepared, even though Pierce announced before the series that it was coming.

• When anyone but Kyle Lowry, and perhaps Terrence Ross, is guarding Wall, the Wiz should just get out of the way and let Wall go one-on-one instead of having a big man screen for him. The extra bodies clutter up Wall’s driving lanes.

• Drew Gooden is not a stretch power forward, and the Raptors should not treat him as such.

• Drake needs to be at Game 2.

• Masai Ujiri should swear in public before every Toronto playoff series. This needs to become a tradition on the level of the Undertaker winning at WrestleMania — something Ujiri does out of obligation to the crazy T-Dot fans. The Drakes ownership can afford to secretly pay Ujiri’s fines for him. Brooklyn and Paul Pierce are easy targets; Pierce teed Ujiri up. It would be more fun to watch Ujiri search for ways to rip into completely inoffensive teams and cities. “FUCK CHARLOTTE, RIGHT? WHO LIKES BANKS, ANYWAY?? MY BANK IS ALWAYS CLOSED ON WEEKENDS! THE ROCKING CHAIRS AT THE AIRPORT ARE REPRESENTATIVE OF A LAZY CULTURE!”

Filed Under: 2015 NBA Playoffs, Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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