Everyone's been focused on the Warriors' best-ever start. Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs have damn near kept pace. We consider the Spurs in this week's FLANNS + ZILLZ. Check out our previous conversations, too.
ZILLER: The Warriors had the best start in NBA, remain on pace to shatter the wins record and ... are still only three games ahead of the Spurs for No. 1 in the West. While Golden State remains the favorite to win everything, given a spate of injuries, this narrow gap has to be concerning for the Warriors, right?
FLANNERY: I don't get the sense that many things "concern" Golden State all that much, but they have to be aware of what's creeping up behind them. I've already started to see a few pieces -- like this one, for example -- about how the Spurs have gained ground, or that Kawhi Leonard should be the MVP over Steph (the answer is no, by the way) and so on and so forth. No doubt the Warriors will be using all of that as motivation.
Concerned? Nah. But I'd be very interested in getting home-court advantage were I the Warriors because it's become very apparent that there is very little separation between these two teams. Home court could be the difference in a playoff series, and I get the sense that San Antonio understands that very well considering what happened last season. We all know this: A Spurs team on a mission is a dangerous Spurs team.
ZILLER: I'm really intrigued by the idea that the epic series with L.A. last season changed the franchise's opinion on the importance of the regular season. And by the franchise, I mean Gregg Popovich. That was a textbook example of home-court advantage being the difference between moving on and going home.
The more simple explanation is that the Spurs are far less reliant on the types of players -- old dudes -- who need regular rest. Relying more on a killer defense, the old Tony Parker pick and roll and some individual efforts from Kawhi (a clear No. 2 in the MVP race) and LaMarcus Aldridge has just been way more potent than the remnants of the 2012-14 ballet San Antonio had going last year. The team is just straight up better.
Kawhi, man. I never saw him reaching this level.
FLANNERY: Not only the Clipper series, but they also waited a long time to kick into gear, and it cost them on the final day of the season when they lost to New Orleans. We know Pop's not going to wear guys down, but they have been rolling teams through the first few months.
You're right about their frontline depth, and that bench! I enjoy watching their reserve units play more than their starters and their starters are fantastic. They had a three- or four-possession passing sequence against Houston over the weekend that was completely absurd, and they do that all the time.
You mentioned Kawhi and I don't think anyone thought he'd be this good. I guess he'll start to regress to the mean from behind the arc, but we're closing in on the mid-point of the season and he's still almost 50 percent. And he's only 24 years old. Mercy. Where does he rank for you: I have him with Curry, LeBron, Durant and Westbrook in my top-five.
ZILLER: Whoa, have you become a bigger Westbrook dude than me? I didn't think that was legal.
To me, Kawhi has been the league's second-best player this year. I'd put him right in the second tier of capital-S NBA Superstars altogether, behind the Curry, LeBron and Durant collection, but in the Westbrook, Harden, Davis and (gulp) Paul George group. By the way, four of the eight guys in those two tiers are small forwards.
I don't know that Kawhi will tail off. Defenses are already throwing attention at him. He's maintaining a very good shot selection -- he's not out there taking Curryesque bombs. If you double him, other Spurs will pick you apart like you're a roast turkey at a velociraptor's wedding reception. He's in the best position to thrive and he's clearly made himself an elite shooter. I'm convinced this is something like the new room.
The bench mob is killer. I'd been skeptical of the Spurs primarily because they lost so much supporting cast: Tiago Splitter, Cory Joseph, Marco Bellineli, even Aron Baynes. None of that has mattered. The front five is ferociously good, Manu Ginobili is still good for some adrenaline run, David West and Boris Diaw could be starters in many cities and Patty Mills might be as good a backup point guard as we've seen in a good bit of time. Then of course, there is Boban. I'm actually super intrigued by Jonathan Simmons as a guy who gives S.A. a different look in spots. The team is just totally loaded!
FLANNERY: Have you looked at some of their lineup numbers? They're insane and what's great about their depth is they can multiple combinations of players and offer so many varied looks. They can play big. They can play small. They can play normal and they can play really, really big. I'm curious to see how all that size will sort itself out in the playoffs.
So, let's talk about LaMarcus Aldridge. There hasn't been a lot to say because his progression has been fairly predictable. I'm sure they're still figuring things out, but Aldridge's transition hasn't been nearly the issue some suspected it would become. Are you surprised that it's been this seamless?
ZILLER: I am surprised because I expected Pop to fit LMA into the system that gave San Antonio so much success in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Silly me. Pop has instead reinvented the Spurs' attack again, dropping them into a more old-school halfcourt style. It's worked wonderfully! The lesson here is that Pop will ALWAYS put his players to their collective best use.
The beauty of Aldridge is that he is really a top-level offense unto himself. Many people forget that under Nate McMillan, Aldridge and Brandon Roy had one of the most efficient offenses ever in 2009 despite playing slow and without a metric ton of ball movement. In this sense he's a classic Dirk: a dominant presence from 20 feet and in.
FLANNERY: The other guy we never talk about is Tim Duncan. This may be the first season in his 19-year career that he averages fewer than double-digit points. You know how much we've heard about this? Nothing. We've spent a lot of time talking about Kobe's farewell, KG's advisory role and Dirk's revival, but Duncan just keeps rolling right along because he doesn't need to score to be great. He's efficient, he rebounds, he passes and he's still one of the best positional defenders in the league. I know he won't play forever, but I don't see any reason why he can't keep going for a few more years beyond this one, barring some sort of calamity.
ZILLER: We don't talk about Tim Duncan because he just keeps grinding along as the best player of his generation, maybe the best big man ever and an easy top-10 all-time player. Like you said, his scoring has dipped below 10 per game, and production-wise he's definitely winding down his incredible career. By the basic box score stats, he's a serviceable big man most teams wouldn't want to start.
But that's just a piece of the picture. Adjusted plus-minus numbers indicate he's been one of the most impactful defenders -- perhaps the most impactful -- in the entire NBA this season. ESPN's Real Plus-Minus has him as the only player in the NBA above +6 points per 100 possessions on defense, and only one of two above +5. He's in the mix for first team All-Defense honors; he might actually be the favorite right now. He'll turn 40 during the first round of the playoffs. Just mind-boggling how he's been able to hold his presence together as his body wears down.
FLANNERY: So we both think the Spurs are incredible. Bottom line: Spurs or Warriors? Who ya got?
ZILLER: Don't make me choose! I picked the Thunder to come out of the West before the season, and I think OKC can give S.A. trouble in the second round. But I've got to retrench to the Warriors. They are 32-2 despite being all nicked up and not having their regular coach available! There's just so much there. So, Warriors. You?
FLANNERY: [looks around, lowers voice to a whisper] ... Spurs.
ZILLER: I'm telling the Warriors! Just some more motivation for the team no one believes in.
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