Watch out for the San Antonio Spurs
If you haven't noticed, Tim Duncan and Co. are winning again
By John Hollinger
Don't tell anybody, but the San Antonio Spurs are 18-9 and in second place in the Western Conference.
San Antonio isn't playing on national TV tonight, and it's possible it won't have a single All-Star chosen when the reserves are announced during the telecast. Yet it's playing about as well as any team in the league right now, riding a six-game win streak in which five of the victims are .500 or better.
I realize it's uncouth to mention the Spurs before May except perhaps as a tangent to a story about the L.A. teams ("The Lakers now trail San Antonio in the standings by …") but San Antonio is No. 2 in the current daily power rankings and projects to be the second seed in the West based on today's edition of my playoff odds. Through 27 games, the Spurs have essentially the same scoring margin as Oklahoma City, and they just thumped the Thunder for good measure.
Keep this on the down-low, but San Antonio is doing this without its best player. Manu Ginobili has played only five of the Spurs' 27 games and is on target to return Saturday. When he does, he'll be replacing the minutes of Gary Neal and James Anderson, who have struggled to keep their PER in double digits so far this season.
And feel free to keep referring to them as the boring, plain-as-vanilla Spurs, even as San Antonio's drive-kick-space attack produces one of the league's most dynamic and exciting offenses, ranking third in the NBA in assists and 3-pointers … again, with the team's best creator watching in street clothes.
OK, OK, we get it Hollinger -- the Spurs are flying under the radar again. No team has mastered the art of hiding in plain sight quite like this one. Every year, it seems, we basically ignore San Antonio until sometime around mid-May when, largely thanks to the fact most of the teams on the push list have been eliminated and the Spurs are one of the few remaining, we are left with no choice but to contemplate their existence, at least briefly.
But the more you examine their success, this season the more amazing it becomes. When Chad Ford and I did our Future Power Rankings this week, we ranked San Antonio's management a close second behind Oklahoma City's. Taking a closer look at what the Spurs have accomplished thus far, I'm not sure we made the right call.
The overwhelming accomplishment the Spurs have pulled off is this: They have one of the league's best benches despite having had virtually no resources with which to procure players for the 15 years since drafting Tim Duncan. The Spurs have not had one draft choice in the first 20 picks in that time. Not a one.
Yet only two teams have seven players with a PER greater than 14 and at least 500 minutes played. One of them is Philadelphia, which San Antonio beat Wednesday night, and the other is the Spurs. That number of players should go up to eight when Ginobili accumulates enough minutes (in fairness to the Sixers, theirs might jump to nine once Spencer Hawes and Nikola Vucevic pass the same threshold).
The way San Antonio built its team makes sober reading for operators of other franchises, who have lamented their lack of money, cap space, draft picks or all three in their quest to build a winner. While winning the Duncan lottery obviously helped, San Antonio also has forgone any other high-profile talent acquisitions because it won so much when Duncan arrived.
Yet, a decade and a half later, the Spurs are still pushing for the top spot in the West, and they're doing it mostly on the strength of a second unit that often gets more than 100 minutes of playing time in a single game. Last night against Philly for instance, those guys played 96, and the final tally was 40 points, 19 rebounds, 9 assists and 1 turnover. It effectively won the game for the Spurs on a night when two starters didn't make a basket.
To review, since drafting Duncan, the Spurs have made the following acquisitions, all of which were done with late draft picks or limited financial assets:
• Drafted Ginobili with the No. 57 pick in 1999. They brought him over a few years later and have kept re-signing him ever since, and, by carefully managing his workload, have kept him hugely productive into his mid-30s.
• Drafted Tony Parker with the 28th pick in 2001. He is a Finals MVP and a three-time All-Star who might add a fourth selection to his résumé this evening.
• Signed Matt Bonner from Toronto in 2006 and re-upped him for three years and $10 million two years ago. He is shooting 42.5 percent on 3s and has a true shooting percentage in the 60s for the third time in four seasons.
• Drafted Tiago Splitter 28th in 2007. He has become the league's best backup center, averaging 18 points and 10 boards per 40 minutes while shooting 62.3 percent from the floor, including 15 points in 17 minutes in Philly on Wednesday night.
• Picked up Danny Green off the scrap heap after he was cut twice -- including by the Spurs a year earlier. He has become a reliable weapon off the bench, making open 3s and defending while rebounding shockingly well (more than six per 40 minutes) for a 6-6 wing player.
• Signed Neal for peanuts out of the Las Vegas Summer League last season. He has tailed off a bit this season, but he still is a 40 percent 3-point shooter for his NBA career and provided a crucial 18-6-5 line to help beat the Sixers on Wednesday night.
• Drafted DeJuan Blair in the second round in 2009 with the 37th pick after several other teams red-flagged him because of knee problems. Blair's knees might get him eventually, but he already has dramatically outproduced the typical near-zero return on a second-rounder. He's shooting better than 50 percent for a third straight season, and his PER has never been below the league average.
• Acquired Kawhi Leonard in a draft-day trade for George Hill, a player they originally nabbed with the 26th pick in 2008. In his rookie season, Leonard has an absurd rebound rate for a small forward (better than one every five minutes) and adds solid defense.
• Traded for Richard Jefferson. Hey, nobody's perfect. But even Jefferson has paid some dividends -- San Antonio traded a pile of flotsam to get him and hasn't been under the cap since, so he hasn't cost anything and has shot 44 percent on 3s each of the past two seasons. Additionally, the Spurs are still in position to exercise their amnesty rights on him after the season and open up a raft of cap space (oh, have I not mentioned they can keep all these players and still be roughly $10 million under the cap this summer?) This is, quite simply, brilliance. And it doesn't include three other players -- Ian Mahinmi, Beno Udrih and Luis Scola -- San Antonio grabbed with late picks in that time who have become productive players for other teams.
Yet I would argue that the acquisitions are only a small part of the equation.
Had the likes of Parker, Blair, Hill, Green and Ginobili been drafted by other teams, would they be having this much success? I'm not so sure. Because the other key to San Antonio's success is that it develops and improves the players it has.
Go back and look at the histories of these Spurs players. With the exception of Neal, none went gangbusters immediately upon arrival. Ginobili came off the bench his first season despite having starred in Europe, and Splitter had a similar history overseas but hardly played at all in his first season. Green had been cut by San Antonio once; Hill saw limited duty as a rookie; and Jefferson's first season in San Antonio was a major disappointment.
What they all have in common is steady improvement, not just in their stats but in figuring out their roles and how they fit into the larger picture. This franchise doesn't just throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks; there's a plan here, and the success in player development is the most outstanding example of it.
Fortunately for the Spurs, only 11 people will read this story, so they can go on quietly accumulating victories as they prefer while everyone exclaims over the glamour teams on each coast. But when May comes around and they're one of the last teams standing, don't say you weren't warned.