By Tolulope Oladele
In the 2000’s, the San Antonio Spurs had a dominant run in the league, winning three NBA championships—four if you go back as far as 1999. The Spurs motto during this era was “defense wins championships,” an approach that proved to be very effective when they suffocated the New Jersey Nets in 2003, shut down the Detroit Pistons in 2005, and stifled LeBron James in 2007. But now that the “father of time” is setting in on the Spurs’ “Big Three” of Tim Duncan (age 35), Manu Ginobili (34), and Tony Parker (29), the Spurs need to refine offensively to stay competitive for one last title run.
“We spend more time working on offense these days, because our defense won’t be as good as it used be in the past,” head coach Gregg Popovich said.
“You have to score a lot more points now,” Tim Duncan said. “I don’t think it’s the league of old where you can score in the 80’s and defend your butt off and still win championships.”
Popovich’s tweaked offensive philosophy has the Spurs scoring points like never before. This year, they’re averaging 101.4 points per game (3rd in the league) and last year they averaged 103.7 points per game (6th in the league). During the 2007-2008 NBA season—their last championship season—the Spurs only averaged 95.4 points per game, good for 28th in the league.
The Spurs credit their newly constructed high-octane offense to shifting their offense from post-ups to corner threes. This strategy has registered more points for the Spurs for two reasons. Firstly, the corner three only measures 22 feet from the center of the rim compared to 23 feet, 9 inches from the wings or the top of the key. Taking more of these corner threes has the Spurs shooting a league-leading 39% from three-point land as a team this season.
Secondly, taking more corner threes creates space—an essential aspect of any successful offense. This added floor space will allow Ginobili and Parker to penetrate to the basket and also free up space for Duncan to go to work in the post when the team needs a quick bucket.
Despite their more efficient offense, the real reason that the Spurs are contenders again this year is their depth and the supporting cast backing the “Big Three.” During February’s trade deadline, the Spurs made multiple impact moves by acquiring Stephen Jackson via trade, as well as signing Boris Diaw and Patty Mills.
Jackson, who won a NBA title with the Spurs back in 2003, is familiar with the Spurs’ system—both offensively and defensively. He will provide a much-needed scoring prowess off the bench while also adding postseason experience when the Spurs punch their ticket to the playoffs.
Mills is a capable and serviceable backup point guard who can provide underrated paint scoring. Still, Boris Diaw is the “low maintenance” type of guy the Spurs always want in their locker room. It’s also an added bonus that the French man is versatile enough to play practically every position—at least for stretches.
As for youth, the Spurs have real gems in Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard. Splitter, who the Spurs drafted in the first round in 2007, was stashed down in Brazil to hone his skills until he was signed to an NBA contract in 2010. Splitter’s rookie season was a tad disappointing, but he has shown great confidence so far this season and seems poised to become the Tim Duncan of the future for the Spurs.
In the 2011 draft, the Spurs choose Leonard as their first-round pick, which will eventually prove to be the “steal” of the draft. Popovich believes Leonard can provide Bruce Bowen versatility—on the defensive end—for the Spurs. Leonard’s size and length makes him versatile and his willingness to take up this role showed in a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in which he held two-time scoring champ Kevin Durant to 22 points on 19 shots in a 107-96 win.
The Spurs lead the Southwest division with a comfortable 45-16 record, getting the job done at home, where they are 25-5. They are also riding a five-game win streak, which means there is absolutely nothing to stop them in their title aspirations.
“We’ve had the same goal for 15 years: To be the best team we can possibly be come playoff time,” Popovich said. “We’ve never ever talked about what our record should be, whether we are going to win a championship, or not. Never. It’s never come up in any practice or game for 15 years. We just try to get better every day, and whatever happens, happens.”
And come June, there is a legitimate chance of the Spurs hoisting up the NBA championship trophy once again.