There are some sports sides that are always just good. Year in, year out, they continue to win while we, as opposition fans, just sit around waiting endlessly for Rome to fall. The Patriots come to mind.
While sport is a meritocracy and the best teams tend to win, we also expect some level of parity. While not every team has a 1/30 chance to win the NBA championship any given year, we expect each team to win once every thirty years and therefore spend an equal amount at the bottom.
For the San Antonio Spurs, claims of impending failure were louder than ever leading into this season. Emperor Popovich and his Spursian Kingdom would finally crumble, the doubters said. The stage appeared set to prove them right.
Predictions of decline
The reasons for the doomsday scenario painted by the naysayers were clear. Superstar Kawhi Leonard was ruled out of the start of the season with a mysterious leg injury. Leonard joined veteran point guard Tony Parker, such a key cog in San Antonio's past success, on the sidelines. Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol were aging and supposed to turn into non-factors. And the Spurs lost considerable depth with the departures of Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon.
There were also odd fits that seemingly jeopardized San Antonio's established system. LaMarcus Aldridge’s woes were public. He left Portland in 2015 as Damian Lillard’s star rose in search of a team that would back him. Little did he know, Leonard was en route to elite status. Those feelings have reared their head on the court in the last couple of seasons as Aldridge has appeared unhappy in a secondary or small-ball center role.
Rudy Gay is another odd fit. His ability isn’t in doubt, but his mindset has been. He’s been passed off as a scorer who just cared about his own numbers in the past, and an inconsistent defender. As a result, questions loomed whether he was selfless enough to fit the Spurs' system. Dejounte Murray, meanwhile, supposedly didn't have the experience to step up at the point in Parker's absence.
There were enough doubts to justify claims of decline. Yet, as they typically do, the Spurs have responded with aplomb.
Solid start silences the critics
The Spurs have started 3-0, quickly dispelling those doubts. A win against a shorthanded Bulls was bookended by two close victories against sides contending for top-four seedings, the Raptors and Timberwolves.
As always, when someone needs to step up in a Spurs uniform, they do. One of those has been Aldridge, who is averaging 24.3 points and 9.3 rebounds a game. Speaking before the season, Gregg Popovich said the Spurs had made peace with Aldridge's personality. Pop put Aldridge’s confidence woes down to his own poor handling of him and said he would loosen the leash. The effects of this new approach are clear: Aldridge is thriving.
Dejounte Murray is another to have stepped up. Against the Raptors, he became only the second guard in Spurs history to get 15 points and 15 rebounds in the same game. He is averaging 13.3 points, 4.7 assists and 9.7 rebounds per 26.7 minutes this season. Suddenly, Murray looks like the Spurs' point guard of the future.
Meanwhile, Rudy Gay appears a changed man. Already showing a willingness to come off the bench and play only 22 minutes, Gay’s silky scoring has been a valuable weapon for the Spurs, and he’s doing it more efficiently than ever before by shooting 53.3% from the floor. Considering he’s still recovering from a torn Achilles that cost him the back end of last season, he can only get better.
Efficient, effective basketball
The Spurs aren’t going to be bad this year, or the next one, or the one after that. They’ll probably win at least 55 games a season for many years to come, so plan accordingly. Even without Leonard, the Spurs are a hard beat.
The hallmark of the Spurs is that they come out and win the vast majority of games that they should win. In a league featuring several above-average teams who can take a win off you on any night, the Spurs simply don’t give away those games.
They’re the ultimate case study of system versus stars. Who wins more, a team with stars or a star team? In Pop’s world, his star team looks to be one of the toughest in the league, and that’s before he gets his biggest star back.
How does the Spurs' season pan out? Comment below!