Are the San Antonio Spurs Still the Team to Beat in Western Conference?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 30, 2014

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When the tectonic plate that is four-time MVP LeBron James shifted back to Cleveland this summer, the NBA landscape should have changed dramatically.

It didn't. Not at the top, at least.

James' Cleveland Cavaliers might have gained entry to the basketball elites, but the barrier separating the world champion San Antonio Spurs from the rest of the field still stands. In fact, it might be more impenetrable now than it was before.

And that's saying quite a bit. The Spurs didn't simply catch fire en route to their fifth title since 1999, they ruled the regular season and prevailed over the entire playoff field. Their opponents weren't dominated; they were demoralized.

San Antonio's Brilliance By The Numbers
PeriodOff RtgRankDef RtgRankNet RtgRank
Regular Season108.2Sixth100.1FourthPlus-8.1First

Explosive on offense and razor-sharp at the opposite end, the Spurs blitzed the competition in unstoppable waves. Nine different players averaged at least eight points a night, none of whom logged even 30 minutes per game.

As good as they were during the year, the Spurs were even better during the second season. They shredded the Miami Heat during the championship round in a manner never before seen on that stage:

Granted, last season's success guarantees nothing going forward. However, with so many familiar faces returning to the fold—and the arrival of a rookie tailor-made for the Alamo City—it's impossible to remove the Spurs from their prominent perch atop the basketball world.

"Sometimes there's just no substitute for a time-tested, old-fashioned adage. In this case: If it ain't broke, don't fix it," wrote Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan.

Clearly it isn't broke, and the Spurs are't risking any changes to their recipe.

Future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan opted in for his $10.3 million salary. Maybe the rate sounds steep for a 38-year-old, but consider this: The Spurs are getting a player who posted per-36-minute averages of 18.7 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.3 blocks, per, for less than $11 million.

That's either a door-busting bargain or grand larceny. Either way, it's money extremely well-spent.

The same could be said for the investments made in free agents Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Matt Bonner:

Diaw, in particular, could be an invaluable piece of San Antonio's puzzle.

His insertion into Gregg Popovich's starting lineup for Game 3 of the NBA Finals sent the Spurs to a different stratosphere. San Antonio had a plus-13 point-differential after the first two games of the series. It won the next three games by an average of 19 points.

"The basketball fit between the pass-happy Spurs and the unselfish Diaw is as good as it gets," wrote Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver.

Pop struck playoff gold when he trotted out Diaw alongside Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker. That quintet played 135 postseason minutes together, outscoring their opponents by an astounding 18.8 points per 100 possessions, per The five only shared the floor for 193 minutes during the entire regular season. Expect that number to increase dramatically in 2014-15.

That's just one of the many possible avenues to internal growth, a staple in San Antonio's unprecedented run of sustained success.

There's also the continued development of Leonard, a three-year veteran who has already had to clear mantle space for a Finals MVP award.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 15: NBA Legend Bill Russell gives Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs his MVP Trophy against the Miami Heat during Game Five of the 2014 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center on June 15, 2014 i
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Popovich predicted in 2012 that, "As time goes on, he'll be the face of the Spurs."

Looking back on Leonard's Finals performance (17.8 points on .612/.579/.783 shooting, 6.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks) some might say that time is now.

He could easily make another leap next season, although it will likely depend on his amount of opportunities. Last season, he was one of four players—and the only wing—to average at least 12 points while shooting above 52 percent with a usage percentage below 19, per

Leonard won't go hunting for stats, but if the Spurs need him to elevate his game, the 23-year-old looks like he could climb several more levels.

As for external additions, San Antonio has really only made one: rookie Kyle Anderson, who's such a perfect systematic fit that it's almost a surprise he didn't wear a Spurs cap to the draft.

Light on athleticism but heavy on skills and smarts, the former UCLA Bruin could not have found a better situation.

"Guys that like to pass, guys that know how to play, guys who are slow and can't jump, they fit pretty good in San Antonio," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford told reporters.

The lack of national attention—unfortunately, another staple of Spurs basketball—doesn't change the story of this offseason. The rich absolutely got richer.

"The Spurs did not transform, and that was the point. They stuck with what works,"'s J.A. Adande wrote. "... If other teams want to model themselves after San Antonio, they can start with that."

Of course, other teams might need transformations to overcome the Spurs.

That's why Western Conference clubs have looked to bolster their ranks this offseason.

Some made major moves: the Dallas Mavericks trading for Tyson Chandler, then signing Chandler Parsons. Others made quieter additions: Shaun Livingston and Brandon Rush to the Golden State Warriors, Spencer Hawes to the Los Angeles Clippers, Chris Kaman and Steve Blake to the Portland Trail Blazers, Vince Carter to the Memphis Grizzlies.

The West could be even better than it was last season, but this conference still runs through San Antonio. The Spurs' stranglehold perhaps even tightened with the notable debits of the Houston Rockets (Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik) and Oklahoma City Thunder (Caron Butler, Derek Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha) outweighing the significant credits (Trevor Ariza and Anthony Morrow, respectively).

The Spurs didn't sift through the offseason talent pool in search of the ultimate trump card. They didn't need to.

They've held it since last season, and they're ready to play it again.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of and


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