The San Antonio Spurs are an outstanding basketball team. They might wind up with the best record in the NBA, and they could reach the NBA Finals.
But unless literally everything breaks the Spurs' way, they're not actually title contenders.
Too many people are confusing regular-season excellence for potential postseason dominance. Year in and year out, though, we learn the playoffs are a whole different experience than the 82-game grind.
Even the most minor flaws can shatter a gem of a season when March and April give way to May and June — and as fantastic as Kawhi Leonard & Co. are, this team absolutely has flaws.
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Let's start with LaMarcus Aldridge. The big man has improved immeasurably since his time in Portland. He's a far better defender and a more willing passer than he was as a Blazer, to be sure.
He no longer hijacks entire offensive possessions by catching the ball on the wing, planting himself with his back to the basket, and slowly deciding to loft a shot over his defender.
Still, there's no way around the fact the Spurs are a much better team without Aldridge. San Antonio has a net rating of 6.0 points per 100 possessions when Aldridge is on the court and 12.2 points when he sits.
The former's a fine number that would rank the Spurs fourth in the NBA this season, but it's not a championship-caliber number.
The latter would rank among the greatest scoring margins in basketball history.
Why the disparity? Aldridge hesitates on the catch far too often, and when he is decisive, it's because he's over-passing. He also overhelps on defense, in a noble effort to clean up his teammates' mistakes — but the Spurs' system is predicated on people being in the right place at the right time.
Don't get me wrong; I'm very happy Aldridge is healthy and able to play. Anyone who's treating his return as the key to a Spurs title run, though, isn't paying attention.
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Speaking of paying attention, did we all forget what happened in the 2016 playoffs?
The Spurs eviscerated the Thunder in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, only to watch Billy Donovan change tactics and leverage Oklahoma City's abundant athleticism to throttle San Antonio the rest of the series.
The indelible image of that series (other than a couple questionable calls, to be sure) is how slow the Spurs looked relative to the opposition. And it wasn't just Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Enes Kanter, Steven Adams — basically everyone but Cameron Payne ran right past the lead-footed pretenders clad in black and silver last postseason.
Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw are gone, but the Spurs still rely on ... veteran presences, to put it kindly. Unless Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are saving another gear for the postseason, San Antonio will struggle mightily to keep up with the likes of James Harden and the Rockets, Blake Griffin's Clippers, or, of course, a full-strength Golden State Warriors team.
And should the Spurs somehow find a way through the Western Conference, well, there's that LeBron James guy waiting in the wings. You don't think he's salivating at the idea of playing a team that gives significant minutes a 36-year-old Pau Gasol, a 33-year-old David Lee, a 34-year-old Parker, and a 39-year-old Manu?
Experience is great and all, but let's be real here. Western Conference contenders? Sure. Favorites in the West? Maybe. Capable of winning a ring? Not when your experience borders on NBA senility. Sorry.
Before San Antonio can even think about the NBA Finals, however, there's one matchup in the West that would spell certain doom for the Spurs.
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Be careful what you wish for, indeed.
The No. 1 seed might look like a nice prize for a solid 2016-17 season, but it could mean a date with the formidable Utah Jazz, my sleeper pick in the West.
Rudy Gobert's squad is perfectly comfortable playing the Spurs' style of basketball, and the Jazz big men are just better than their San Antonio counterparts. Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson and, yes, Boris Diaw can all fill it up and create shots for others. Plus, Utah would have the advantage on the point guard front; there's a reason the Jazz's George Hill was one of Gregg Popovich's favorite players, after all.
Add it up, and I'd favor Utah over San Antonio in a potential second-round matchup.
The only caveat: NBA playoff series often come down to the single best player on either team. Against anyone but the Cavs or Warriors, that's Kawhi Leonard.
And the Spurs' one potential saving grace is The Klaw.
In the postseason, however, opponents will scout San Antonio's reliance on Leonard to carry so much of the burden on offense. They'll force any other Spur to beat them, and I don't see how they'll be up to the challenge.
Honestly? This is one time I wouldn't mind being dead wrong.
Leonard's growth is one of the best stories in all of professional sports. He's exactly the kind of superstar every team wants — and he's not alone.
Of course, Pop remains his awesome self, and you have to love Pau Gasol. Dewayne Dedmon's emergence is fantastic. Dejounte Murray looks like a future rotation mainstay. The list goes on and on for San Antonio.
So if the basketball gods choose to reward the best franchise in the NBA, that would be great. We just hope it doesn't lead to a bunch of "Tim Duncan was holding the Spurs back!" hot takes.