The Houston Rockets traded for Chris Paul. Not long after, the Oklahoma City Thunder grabbed Paul George, only to pair him with Carmelo Anthony before training camp started. The Western Conference up and down seemed to load up in an arms race to fight for second behind the Golden State Warriors. If the Warriors broke the league, everybody wanted to position themselves to be runner-up. The silver medal in the West has never meant this much before, but that’s the landscape of the current NBA.
What did the San Antonio Spurs do? They added Rudy Gay and gave Patty Mills and Pau Gasol a bunch of money.
That doesn’t sound as impressive as what other teams did. It doesn’t sound like an arms race, especially when you consider Gay is coming off a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in January. But the Spurs are also coming off another ho-hum 61-win season and the best challenge of the Warriors we saw all season. Golden State still probably would have won the Western Conference Finals, but the Spurs dominated them in Game 1 until Kawhi Leonard was hurt by a reckless Zaza Pachulia play.
The Spurs’ machine did what it does. It executed and chugged along while the flashier and more spectacular players went through ups and downs all season long. If you had a good night, the Spurs probably had a better night. If your team didn’t have it, the Spurs probably made it a laugher by the third quarter. Despite the West loading up this season, it wouldn’t shock anybody if the Spurs ended up as the 2-seed next April. They are just that good and fundamental — and destructive — on any given night in the NBA. They make so few mistakes and capitalize on almost everything. That’s what a Gregg Popovich team looks like.
A Popovich team doesn’t just win; it plays a brand of basketball that basketball nerds fawn over. These aren’t your Tim Duncan-Bruce Bowen-Fabricio Oberto grind-it-out Spurs of a decade ago. Popovich embraced 3-point shooting and picked aspects from Mike D’Antoni’s offense that he loved. He implemented so many different things to share the rock and play a beautiful brand of basketball. There is both good and bad, humorous and boring, with the Spurs. Mostly, it’s great basketball you should be soaking in as long as Popovich is coaching them up.
Here are three things to watch for this season.
Manu Ginobili’s passing forever
We don’t know how much longer Manu Ginobili will play in the NBA. It feels like the basketball world has been writing his NBA swan song for some time. After the loss to Miami in 2013, a lot of people wondered if that was going to be it for Manu. When the Spurs answered in 2014 by running the Heat out of the Finals, it seemed like the perfect end to Ginobili’s NBA career. Three years later, Ginobili surprised a lot of people in the NBA by returning for his 16th NBA season and 23rd season in professional basketball.
This should be the last season for Manu? I think? It would be crazy if he just kept coming back, but it feels like his professional obituary has been written poetically time and time again. Let’s pretend he does finally hang it all up after the 2017-18 season. We will have seen one of the most incredible international players of all time. But he doesn’t really need that “international” qualifier, does he? He’s just a special player in general, who managed to help his country capitalize when Team USA didn’t take the Olympics seriously enough.
Ginobili — international or not — is also one of the most special passers we’ve ever seen in this game. You can get lost for hours on YouTube watching his highlights. He isn’t just a passer. He could give your favorite player buckets on any given possession. Ginobili used to even make Kobe Bryant marvel at how unique and lethal Manu’s game was on the court. If Ginobili had a selfish persona, he could’ve dropped 25 points per game in his prime and led a team into the playoffs. Instead, he wanted to be a part of something greater. While his entire game deserves praise, just take the next few minutes to focus on his passing:
You’ll see some of the same passes happen in this next video, but no true basketball fan should be able to get a personal fill of Ginobili highlights. It’s one of the best basketball geekery rabbit holes to fall in:
Just in case this is it for Manu, watch the Spurs and marvel at the way he bends reality with his passing.
Kyle Anderson in slow motion
Many marvel at Russell Westbrook and John Wall looking like human blurs in the open court. It’s incomprehensible how these players go full speed and never break stride as they confuse defenders in the open floor. But not everybody is as fast or athletic as these guys. Some players have to find crafty ways to score in transition because their speed doesn’t match up.
Kyle Anderson has been nicknamed “Slo-Mo” because he doesn’t exactly resemble the Roadrunner when he’s running. He has long, slow strides that at times look as comfortable as Willie McGee’s batting stance (look it up, millennials). Anderson rates very poorly on Synergy Sports for transition opportunities. He didn’t have a ton of opportunities. He had just 36 transition possessions last season, netting 30 points in them. That is extremely inefficient. 303 players had at least 35 transition possessions last season. Anderson ranked 281st in points per possession.
As you can see in the video, it looks funny and slow when it goes well. It also looks funny and slow when he screws up:
However, you should be careful how you talk about Anderson on the internet. Tweet about him doing anything slowly and you’re likely to get a playful but devastating clap back from him:
Anderson on the break won’t happen often, but you don’t want to miss it when it does.
Kawhi Leonard taking stuff from grown men
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Kawhi Leonard on a basketball court. He is the NBA’s reckoning on any given possession. I’m not sure anybody has the total skill set he has on both ends of the floor. Every year he has needed to do something to improve, he’s done it. This guy can’t shoot coming out of college; he turns into a good shooter right away. He needs to play-make or be an even better scorer next; he does it. Leonard needs to be a star on both ends of the floor; he accomplishes that too.
While we could watch a lot of dunks or 3-pointers or whatever, a fun thing to do is just watch him steal the ball from NBA players. It’s ridiculous how easy he makes it look. NBA players have never been so skilled with the basketball … and he makes them look like children when they dribble next to him. Make any mistake with a dribble or a pass and Kawhi rips it from one of the 448 best players in the world … or Trey Burke … with ease:
But that’s not all. The Klaw being able to get steals in passing lanes or lapses in focus during dribbles isn’t the peak of this thievery. Last season, Leonard seemed to do something more than he ever had. He started ripping the ball out of grown men’s hands … as though it was a normal thing to do.
Take a look at him playing bully ball on defense and treating everybody like he’s Deebo running the block:
These are grown professional athletes and they look helpless against his hands. He gets those paws on the ball — not even someone as strong as LeBron James can retain possession. So many players utilize bully ball on offense, but Kawhi does it on defense.
Embrace the Spurs for Manu. Embrace the Spurs for Slo-Mo. Watch the Spurs because of Kawhi’s larceny. Just stop sleeping on them as entertainment.
More NBA Coverage
- Grading San Antonio’s offseason
- Kawhi Leonard is the Spurs system
- 2017-18 NBA Power Rankings | Training camp edition