Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Is San Antonio's Dynasty Done?

In 1996-97, the San Antonio Spurs went 20-62, which was bad enough to land them the 1st overall pick--which they used to take Tim Duncan. Since then, they have won 50 or more games every season with the exception of the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season--in which they won the NBA Finals. This season, they finished the regular season a Western-Conference-best 61-21, and the general consensus was that their dynasty was still alive and strong. Tim Duncan, the future Hall-of-Famer who was also the starting center in the All-Star Game, has been the face of the franchise for over a decade, and it's hard to imagine the Spurs without him. Then San Antonio went and lost to Memphis in the first round of the playoffs, and talk of the Spurs being too old started. Are the Spurs going to be a legitimate title contender next season? What about the year after? What kind of team will San Antonio be in 4 years? Hit the jump to find out!

For starters, the Spurs are getting old. Tim Duncan is 35, Manu Ginobili is 33, Richard Jefferson is 30. Tim Duncan's numbers appear to be on the decline.
  • In 08-09, he averaged 19.3 pts and 10.7 rebounds
  • In 09-10, he averaged 17.9 pts and 10.1 rebounds
  • In 10-11, he averaged 13.4 pts and 8.9 rebounds
Is Duncan, 35, done as a dominant player?
There is clearly a downward trend here. How much longer should we expect Duncan to be a dominant big man in the league? How much longer can the Spurs keep that streak of 14 straight seasons winning 50+ games (lockout-excused)? Based on some advanced metrics, it looks like the Spurs got a little lucky to win as many games as they did. They ranked 2nd in offensive efficiency, 11th in defensive efficiency, 11th in rebound rate (including 21st in offensive rebounding rate). While these numbers are certainly above average, they do not necessarily indicate a team with the 2nd best record in the NBA. The main reason the Spurs were able to get to a Western Conference best 61 wins was because they started out strongly. Over the first 28 games of the season, the Spurs were an astounding 25-3. In the middle 27 games, they went 21-6. Over the final 27 games of the season, they went 18-11. All of the other top teams in the league are just coming together and/or had significant issues with injuries this season. All of San Antonio's top players played with them last season, meaning that they didn't have to go through an adjustment period at the beginning of the season, as many teams did-- most notably the Heat.

The Heat also had well-documented struggles with finding their identity, especially starting the season off 9-8. With a team made up of players not as familiar with playing with each other to start the season, it makes sense that they struggled a little bit to start the season, which ultimately prevented them from winning 60 games in the regular season (58-24). The injury bug hit Boston (56-26) pretty hard-- Shaq and Jermaine O'Neal missed 44 and 50 games, respectively, and Kendrick Perkins missed 29 of the 55 before he was traded to Oklahoma City. After Boston traded away Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic on February 24, the team struggled to find their identity for a little while. Their first win against a team that made the playoffs following this trade was March 16, against the Indiana Pacers. It is unclear if the Celtics have found their identity since the February 24 trade, and Shaq is still out, so Boston reached 56 wins in a very difficult manner. Chicago, who owned the best record in the NBA (62-20), had Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah missed 23 and 34 games, respectively. Boozer and Noah were both in the top-10 in rebounding in the NBA this season, so missing them definitely hindered Chicago's ability to win games, but they still managed the league's best record. The Lakers (57-25) did not have their starting center, Andrew Bynum, for 28 games.

On the other hand, the Spurs did not do any mid-season or pre-season moves and Matt Bonner was the only one of the Spurs' top nine who missed more than eight games, missing 15 games while ranking 6th on the team with 21.7 MPG. The Spurs also struggled in their few games when players were out with injuries. The Spurs were 1-5 in the six games Duncan was out, 0-2 when Ginobili was out, and 1-2 when Parker was out. Essentially, other teams had periods of time during the regular season where they struggled because of circumstances not fully in their control, while all season, everything went nearly perfect for the Spurs and they were at full strength almost the entire season.

The first round loss to Memphis began to open people's eyes that maybe the Spurs dynasty is on the way out. In round 1, Tim Duncan averaged 12.7 pts, and 10.5 rebounds, while Zach Randolph averaged 22.7 pts and 9.1 rebounds for Memphis. Next season, the Spurs will be one year older, which is a bad thing for almost everyone on that team. As a rule of thumb, basketball players improve until they turn 27, are in their  prime until age 30, then  begin to get worse as  they  enter their mid and late 30s.
Can Blair (L) become a dominant NBA player?
The only Spurs from this season under 28 who averaged over 15 MPG during the regular season were George Hill (24 years old, 28.3 MPG), DeJuan Blair (22 years old, 21.4 MPG), and Gary Neal (26 years old, 21.1 MPG). These are talented role players right now, but it does not look like these will be the type of players to lead a playoff team later in their career. George Hill and Gary Neal are both point guards, and averaged only 2.3 and 0.8 assists per game, respectively. Blair (above left) is a 6'7 power forward/center with no jump shot and also no ACLs, making him a possible injury risk down the road. The Spurs were very smart to take DeJuan Blair with the 37th pick in the 2009 NBA draft, which has looked to be a steal thus far, as he posted a PER of 17.20 this season. However, he still does not look like a future all-star, or a leader on an NBA Finals contender, and neither do George Hill or Gary Neal.

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