The 2011-12 San Antonio Spurs, while they were ultimately unable to win a championship, go down in history as a memorable bunch. On three separate occasions, they posted double-digit winning streaks – including the franchise record 20-game run that extended into the postseason. Although the Oklahoma City Thunder ended San Antonio's torrid push to win the franchise's fifth title, the Spurs come away from the season having learned a number of lessons.
First of all, no matter how well a team is playing, the favorites to win the championship are always the teams with the best players. It's no coincidence that LeBron James and Kevin Durant, the two most unstoppable forces in the basketball world today, are battling in the 2012 Finals. Teamwork, creativity, chemistry and cohesion are all fantastic traits; unfortunately for today's Spurs, dominant players at the top of their craft still reign supreme.
Of the last 32 champions, 27 of those teams featured one of following first ballot Hall of Famers playing at a dominant level: Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In other words, after this year's Finals, 84.8 percent of the past 33 championship teams will have featured an all-time great at or near his prime.
The other five championship teams in the last 33 year also share a specific attribute: they were dominant defensive teams. The 1979 Sonics and the 2008 Celtics were the best defensive teams in their respective leagues, while the three championship Pistons squads (1989, 1990 and 2004) were the third, second and first best on defense, chronologically.
Thus, the second lesson is that unless you have a transcendent superstar, history tells us your team needs a top three defense to have a legitimate chance to win a championship. For these Spurs, that probably became painfully obvious when the Thunder seemingly scored on every possession in fourth quarters that didn't feature some sort of mistake by Russell Westbrook.
The 2012 Spurs were a fantastic offensive team with a defense that could generously be described as above average. And while Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili were great at points in time during the regular season and the playoffs, none of the three are at the high level of the aforementioned legends. The Spurs weren't just trying to win a championship, they were attempting to shatter the mold that has held true for more than three decades.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
A transcendent superstar in peak form isn't galloping into town to the rescue the Spurs anytime soon. There's no prime version of Tim Duncan, David Robinson or George Gervin coming through that door. For at least this summer, there's no draft pick or salary cap space to even dream of such a miracle.
Without the all-time great, history says to concentrate all efforts on becoming an elite defensive team. Last summer, that's the path I thought the Spurs should take. But after watching the 2012 Spurs, I've actually changed my mind.
Even though there is no precedence in the last 33 seasons, I believe the Spurs need to continue down their current path. I believe the Spurs need to try to win it all with an offense-first approach.
Personnel-wise, the Spurs simply don't have any other choice. Parker might have been a top ten defensive point guard in the NBA but he's far from the type of defender you can build around. Father Time has been harsh to Ginobili's D. During the championship years, he was very good at team-defense and at least average individually. Unfortunately, Ginobili is now average at team-defense and usually subpar individually.
The largest change, however, is Duncan's defense. First of all, his defensive ability has eroded over the years. At 36, he's still capable at defending the low block and challenging shots at the rim. But when it comes to aspects that require mobility -- such as defending pick-and-rolls or switching out on the perimeter -- Duncan is below average.
Additionally, the current rules in the NBA and the influx of lethal perimeter scorers blessed with otherworldly athleticism make it very difficult to build an elite defense around a center who isn't exceptionally quick. Duncan is a lot of things but no one would describe his quickness as exceptional. In today's NBA, great defenses are built by complementing star perimeter defenders with bigmen who can seamlessly switch onto smaller players when needed. The Spurs, with Duncan in the middle, can't do that. Add Ginobili's declining defense to the fact that Parker doesn't have the size or strength to improve much past his current level at that end and we arrive an unfortunate truth: there's no pathway to make this Spurs team a great defensive unit.
If the Spurs won't have the transcendent superstar or the elite defense to attempt to win a championship via a traditional route, the Spurs are left with the chore of paving their own road. That road must consist of the best offense in the NBA combined with a defense that, at the very least, is decidedly above average.
CAN IT BE DONE?
After San Antonio's demise, a lot of absolute terms were used when describing their downfall. Teams that rely on offense can't win championships, they said. You can't hitch your wagon to a small, playmaking point guards and expect to be taken to the promised land, they said. They said the core was too old, the role players were bound to fail and the style of play wouldn't hold up during the rigors of the NBA playoffs.
To that I say they were right. Those reasons are all justifiable by the evidence of history. However, I just don't think those declarations are necessarily absolute. Sooner or later, there will come a time when a team shatters the mold on the way to a championship. For proof, just look at the 2012 Spurs. Add a few Ifs to the equation (If multiple role players didn't shrivel under pressure; If Parker caught on fire from the perimeter; If a replacement ref wasn't needed in Game 6 of the WCF; If Duncan and/or Ginobili were able to turn back the clock for two weeks; If the opposition missed a few outside shots) and can anyone absolutely declare that the Spurs had no chance at all to win the championship this season? I don't believe so. Though it was always an uphill battle, a championship was within the realm of possibilities.
Going into next season, the Spurs will once again begin the campaign as a longshot to win a championship. They will need to mesh perfectly, avoid wear, steer clear of injuries, have the playoff matchups break impeccably in their favor, see a couple other contenders fall off the rail and hope to peak at the right time. Or, to put it more simply, have what happened this year happen again next year, with the added difficultly of Duncan and Ginobili potentially falling off a cliff at any second due to their age.
As it stands, even saying the Spurs have a 5 percent chance of winning the 2013 championship is optimistic. Their true odds are probably somewhere between 1 and 3 percent.
REBUILDING IS NOT AN OPTION
Despite the dim outlook, rebuilding right now makes no sense (well, unless Duncan shocks the sporting world and decides to retire). In the NBA, there are only a handful of teams each season that have a chance to win the championship. Right now, the Spurs are in that conversation -- and that isn't something to be thrown away. One day San Antonio will have to take the first step toward a long and painful rebuild. Thankfully, that time has not arrived.
Sentimental and business reasons aside (which there are many), basketball remains the biggest reason why the Spurs need to keep trucking. Many teams, particularly small market teams, would love to switch places with the Spurs right now. A legitimate, though slim, shot a championship with a clean salary cap outlook for the eventual rebuilding project? That's nothing to be upset about.
HOW TO REFUEL
As previously stated, the Spurs need to try to win with offense. With that in mind, I believe that all moves made during this offseason should be decided by offensive fit. For the Spurs to be the best offensive team in the league, they can't afford to have any weak links. It's true that hypothetically an athletic, shotblocking bigman would be a fit defensively, as would a perimeter stopper. However, unless the hypothetical player is also able to play on the offensive end at a high level, it'd be the wrong move.
Defensively, I think the Spurs should rely on growth and tweaks. Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green (if re-signed) and Tiago Splitter should be much better defensively in their second full year in the rotation. Finding a backup point guard better than Gary Neal would be difficult not to accomplish. Plus, even veterans like Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw (again, if re-signed) will be better on that end following a training camp.
I don't believe that wholesale changes are needed at this point. Instead, the Spurs should build off of this season's success and hope beyond hope that they can become the exception to who usually rules the NBA.