The Spurs have carved out a unique reputation for themselves. Because of their history the last two decades, we have come to expect greatness from them — and then when they produce it, we’re somewhat surprised.
While comparing and contrasting some of the Spurs’ statistics, I stumbled on one that should qualify as amazing:
When using 36-minute projections, Tim Duncan is the 12th leading scorer on the team. Yes, that is correct. Eleven Spurs have averaged more points per 36 minutes than Duncan, the franchise, the player most responsible for five championships since 1999.
Now, there is a qualifier. Newcomer Kevin Martin has played in only three games and is ahead of Duncan in 36-minute projections. But who would have thought the Spurs could get 8.5 points a game out of Duncan yet be on a pace to win 70 games? After dismissing the Clippers 108-87 Tuesday, the Spurs are 57-10 and a lock to break their all-time season record of 63-19, which they set in 2005-06.
Age, obviously, is a factor. Duncan will turn 40 on April 25 and while he has always been an integral part of the offense, he has not led the team in scoring since the 2009-10 season.
But there has always been more to Duncan than stats. Even now, he continues to anchor the San Antonio defense, which is No. 1 in the NBA in points allowed per game (92.2), margin of victory (12.4) and defensive field goal percentage (.432).
If there is anything close to resembling a shocker, it is that Duncan has admitted to San Antonio reporters that he has not completely adjusted to parts of the transition.
“My (playing) time varies, what I’m asked to do varies,” Duncan said. “Even at this point, I’m still trying to get comfortable with that.”
The irony is that Duncan is trying to adjust to a situation he helped create. Duncan was part of the Spurs group that recruited LaMarcus Aldridge last summer after Aldridge had completed his contract in Portland and become a free agent. Duncan, who had accepted a reduced salary the previous three years to provide cap room for the Spurs, took another cut to slightly more than $5 million so Aldridge could be given a four-year, $84 million contract.
Aldridge spent the first part of the season trying to fit in to the Spurs’ scheme, but his comfort level increased in January when Duncan began a stretch of missing nine games in a 10-game span.
“[Aldridge] realized he had to do some things and there wasn’t anybody else to defer to as far as bigs are concerned,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “That probably had a little bit to do with it, but it’s also been a process where he has become more comfortable in the offense.”
The Spurs have a way of making players – good ones and great ones – become comfortable. That starts on the court with Duncan and continues with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. They have long been the essence of what superstars should be – players who make everyone around them better.
The Big Three made Kawhi Leonard comfortable, and his development continues to be spectacular. In his third year, he was named Most Valuable Player in the NBA Finals. For the last two years, he has been the leading scorer on the team and last year, he was the Defensive Player of the Year.
“San Antonio has a great way of changing their responsibilities in a quiet but pretty impressive way,” Sacramento coach George Karl told the San Antonio Express-News. “Duncan doesn’t get the touches he’s gotten in the past. It’s gradually becoming Leonard’s team, and maybe Aldridge’s.”
But it is not just the gifted player who has benefited from Duncan & Co. Players like Danny Green, Patty Mills and Tiago Splitter have flourished. And because of the success and stability the Spurs have had, players want to be there.
David West took a pay cut from $12 million with Indiana, which he opted out of, to sign for $1.5 million with the Spurs. Andre Miller and Martin got buyouts in Minnesota and immediately signed with San Antonio.
One of the major themes that has developed in the NBA this season is how great the Spurs have been, only to have been overshadowed by the transcendent season the Warriors have had. The Spurs still trail the 60-6 Warriors by 3.5 games. But the two teams still have three games to play – the first one on Saturday in San Antonio and then two games in the final four days of the season.
When you examine how the Spurs have managed to stay close to the Dubs all season, it becomes pretty amazing. Consider:
— Duncan, Ginobili and Parker are all averaging career lows in minutes played.
— Leonard is the unquestioned franchise player.
— Despite an adjustment that was awkward at times, Aldridge was voted to the All-Star team by Western Conference coaches.
— West not only accepted a $10.5 million pay cut, but after 10 consecutive years as a starter, he also accepts a role that allows him only 17.5 minutes of playing time per game.
— The role players – Green, Mills, Boris Diaw and second-year forward Kyle Anderson – perform efficiently.
— A guy like Matt Bonner, who is in his 10th year in San Antonio and has always been a crowd favorite, has played a career-low 5.9 minutes a game but still has hit 55.3 percent of his 3-point attempts (12-of-23).
— A 26-year-old rookie named Jonathan Simmons, who not long ago was playing for a team called the Sugarland Express, has been so impressive that Popovich plays him 14 minutes a night.
— And 7-foot-3 rookie Boban Marianovic – the new crowd favorite – is second on the team in 36-minute projections, averaging 22.1 points. He plays only 7.8 minutes a game, however, so his real average is 4.8 points. He’s played more than 20 minutes in a game only once, but he has scored in double figures nine times. He won’t see the floor much during the playoffs, but, again, he will be part of the next transition for the Spurs.
The Spurs have done everything they can to stay close to the Warriors, but they know Golden State is the defending champion. The Warriors have been so dominant that a second consecutive title has seemed almost inevitable, as Sheridan wrote earlier today. It will take a great team to beat them. If that happens, and that team is the Spurs, I wonder how surprised we will all be.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.
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