San Antonio Spurs' NBA Championship Hopes Still Rest On Tim Duncan's Shoulders

The San Antonio Spurs have the NBA's best record despite a clear decline in Tim Duncan's production. Once the playoffs roll around, though, Duncan will need to pick it up if the Spurs are to win the NBA title.

During the Spurs' recent one-point win over the Los Angeles Lakers, the question of whether the Spurs can beat the Lakers in a seven-game series in the NBA playoffs was inevitably raised. TNT commentator Reggie Miller responded in typically ridiculous fashion, saying that the Spurs will only win if Tim Duncan averages "20 points and 13 or 14 rebounds," even though Duncan has done that just once in the playoffs since 2003. The Spurs can beat anyone even if Duncan isn't at that level. 

But as the Spurs continue to race away from the rest of the league (they're 42-8 as of this writing), I can't help but think that Duncan has more to prove than anyone on the entire team. His legacy is secure, but he also hasn't won a title since 2007 and looked his age, especially on defense, in last year's four-game playoff loss to the Phoenix Suns. This year, he's played a more limited role than ever before, as the Spurs have remodeled themselves into a small-ball juggernaut that spreads the floor and shoots tons of threes. The Spurs have received the best of both worlds; better regular-season success, combined with more rest for their future Hall of Famer. Eventually, though, I think they'll need their Hall of Famer to shoulder a bigger load, especially once the playoffs roll around.

It's not like Duncan has declined significantly; he just isn't playing or shooting as much. His PER is his lowest of his career, as is his true shooting percentage and usage rate, but he's still putting up a 21.3 PER with intelligent, if not elite defense, at the center position. Almost every team in the league would accept that kind of production from their center. He just is doing it in only 29 minutes a game.

While Duncan has taken a backseat, the Spurs have thrived. After two more wins, including a buzzer-beating one Lakers on Thursday, they lead the West by seven games over the Dallas Mavericks. They've risen from one of the slower teams in the league to one in the middle of the pack, mostly because teams shoot really quickly against their defense.  Richard Jefferson has bounced back from an awful year to be a huge asset, Tony Parker is back to being himself after being slowed by injury last season and Manu Ginobili is tremendous and healthy. Scrap heap acquisition Gary Neal has teamed with George Hill to stabilize the bench unit, and Matt Bonner has been a great stretch power forward as well. It seems odd to argue that the Spurs will need Duncan to pick it up when they've been so dominant with him playing like this.

But the Spurs' amazing success seems a bit flimsy to me on some level. For one thing, they've received an incredible run of health. None of their starters has missed a game all season, and their top nine players in minutes per game have missed just 26 games all year (16 for Bonner, six for Hill, four for Antonio McDyess). That's far less than almost every other major contender:

  • Boston: 80 (63 among starters)
  • Miami: 95 (18 among starters)
  • LA Lakers: 41 (25 among starters)
  • Dallas: 45 (37 among starters)
  • Chicago: 66 (45 among starters)
Some of those teams have players that won't be back regardless (Udonis Haslem, Caron Butler), but for the most part, those teams will likely be at full strength in the playoffs, where they will be much more difficult to take out. 

Also, there's something about the Spurs that seems a bit gimmicky. Maybe that's the wrong word, because it demeans what they have been able to accomplish this season. But for all this talk about how the Spurs have "adapted," I think the real reason they play the way they do is because coach Gregg Popovich is trying to mask some key holes.* The Spurs have some big questions on the interior alongside Duncan, ones that have been avoided thanks to Popovich's new style of play that emphasizes his speedy guards. DeJuan Blair has been inconsistent after a promising rookie year, and Tiago Splitter has been a disappointment after coming over with such accolades. Those two were supposed to provide Duncan with more support than they have, and if it weren't for the brilliance of Popovich, whether it's his approach, his spectacular play calls (documented many times by Sebastian Pruiti) or his demands for perfect execution offensively, the Spurs would have problems. San Antonio also doesn't have an elite wing stopper, which will force Ginobili or Parker onto the top perimeter threats in key playoff moments. It's working for now, because Ginobili is more refreshed than in past years, but I worry it won't work come June. 

*As a sidenote, it would be a travesty if Popovich doesn't win Coach of the Year this season. Forget the typical candidates that merely preside over teams that are better than anyone expected. How can you not give the award to a guy that altered his team's style, managed minutes perfectly and led them to the top of the league despite getting less from his top player than ever before?

By telling Parker to speed down the court on any rebound, no matter whether he has an advantage or not, Popovich is forcing the terms of engagement onto other teams. This means they don't need to work their butt off in the halfcourt all the time. He's also built a defensive system that, for some reason, forces teams to shoot quickly, which again allows the Spurs to conserve energy. But in the playoffs, teams will be more disciplined in both areas, and I'm not sure the Spurs tactics can work.

When that happens, the Spurs will need Duncan to turn back the clock a bit. I hate to invoke a tired NBA cliche, but the game really does slow down in the playoffs. Take last year, for example. The average number of possessions per game in the regular season, was 95.1, according to Hoopdata. The average number of possessions per game in the playoffs? 91.8. That's a pretty significant drop. It's roughly equivalent to having every game played at the plodding pace Portland plays at instead of the speedy pace of Oklahoma City. 

Many of the easy shots teams get in transition or even in half-court sets evaporate come playoff time. When that happens, you need players who can manufacture points. San Antonio has guards who can do that, but they need the balance that Duncan provides on the inside. He needs to post up more and get those tough buckets that are needed so badly in the playoffs. He also needs to step up and defend the pick and roll much better than he did last season, when the Suns made him look old and slow in their four-game sweep. If that doesn't happen, the Spurs aren't winning the title.

Duncan's legacy as a winner is cemented no matter what happens in the playoffs, but he still has a lot to prove. His teammates have stepped up to shoulder some of the load he once carried. His coach has managed his minutes beautifully and altered his team's style to mask his regular-season deficiencies. Soon, though, it'll be time for Duncan to hold up his end of the bargain. The Spurs' hopes of winning one more title come May and June depend on it. 


Stan Van Gundy Face of the Week

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I know, I know: Stan is calling a play. But given that LeBron James dropped 51 on his team, and given that his team is kind of a mess right now, the thumbs down seems appropriate.

Other Screenshots of the Week

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It's one thing to get dunked on, Jon Brockman. It's another to compound the problem by pulling on the jersey of the man who dunked on you.

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Here's Gilbert Arenas getting served with child support documents during halftime of Thursday's Magic-Heat game. The joke speaks for itself.

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Joe Smith is so anonymous that the TV cameras rarely actually show him doing anything. To take advantage of TNT actually pointing their camera towards him, Smith decided to make that face.

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Do not disturb the Garnett. He needs time to visualize his next punk move.

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I hate to pick on Al Thornton, because he's hardly the only one on the team who does this, but the Wizards spend so much time staring at the jumbotron during games. 

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Eduardo Najera hit a three in Kevin Garnett's face to seal a Bobcats win over the Celtics on Monday, fulfilling the Prophecy of Eduardo, at least according to this fan.

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I don't know what's more typical of Blazers fans: that they would hold a sexually suggestive sign towards one of their role players, or that they would invent a ridiculous pun that they ended up messing up anyway.

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