After a long 82-game season filled with twists and turns and perhaps the most MVP candidates in history, the NBA playoffs are finally here. This is where the fun really begins. Will we see an NBA Finals rematch, a tiebreaker between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers? Or will a different team break the trend and lift the Larry O’Brien trophy?
I, for one, am of the latter belief. While the race for the championship will be a close one – there are so many legitimate contenders this season – I truly believe that the San Antonio Spurs are going to run away with the title come June. While this isn’t the hottest of takes given the Spurs’ fantastic record this season, a lot of people think that the West’s representatives in the Finals will be the Warriors now that superstar Kevin Durant is healthy again. The Houston Rockets, led by James Harden, are pretty good contenders as well. But in all honesty, there probably isn’t a team that can truly compete with the Warriors or the Spurs in the West.
While the East has four or five teams that could compete for a chance in the Finals, it will likely be the Cavs representing the conference. Yes, Cleveland has been horrendous as of late, posting a 10-14 record in the months of March and April, but LeBron James will make sure they turn up the intensity in the playoffs and they will inevitably find their way to a matchup with either the Warriors or Spurs. I really don’t see the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards or Toronto Raptors making a run, and even if they did, only the Cavs can really matchup with the superior Western Conference.
Now that I’ve broken down how the playoffs will shake out in general, let me get into the specific statistics of why the Spurs will be this season’s champs.
First and foremost, the Spurs are by far-and-away the best team against the other best teams in the league. They own a 9-2 record against the top five teams in the league, good for a .818 win percentage in those games. The next best record among the top five in such games is Cleveland at 5-6. While the Spurs have lost a few games to lesser competition, head coach Gregg Popovich has often rested his players in the meaningless regular season games so that they are more refreshed when it matters.
Another big reason the Spurs will come out on top is the fact that their superstar leader Kawhi Leonard, who would probably be named MVP if it was any other year ever, is perfectly-suited for a deep playoff run. Leonard has been incredibly efficient all season long, scoring 25.5 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the field (38 percent from three) and tacks on around six boards and four assists a game. In his six years in the league, Leonard has transformed himself into quite the offensive threat, a threat that can lead the Spurs to NBA glory.
Leonard’s most important contribution to the Spurs’ title chances, however, is his unreal defensive ability. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year – soon to be three-time – locks down pretty much any offensive superstar thrown at him and it is scary how good he is at pickpocketing his opponents without fouling. To put it in perspective, as of March 3, 2017 Leonard had 672 career steals and just 663 fouls. That number is insane and only a handful of NBA players have done it in their careers, including Jason Kidd and Allen Iverson. Leonard is already eighth in career steals rankings, by the way, with many years remaining in his career-barring injury.
Everyone has heard the old cliché, “defense wins championships.” If that holds true, the Leonard-led Spurs’ defense, which was the most efficient in the regular season, could very well win a championship come June. And it’s not just Kawhi that contributes to the greatness of this defense. Several other pieces have been huge on the defensive end this season including Jonathan Simmons, Dewayne Dedmon and Danny Green.
Offensively, San Antonio has plenty of depth with several players that contribute and put points on the board. The aforementioned Green and Patty Mills give the team some real 3-point threats, while the elder statesmen on the team, Manu Ginobli, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker, provide a lot of experience and poise. Then, there is perennial All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge who suffered through some heart problems this season, but has been playing well and adds a threat in the paint. This team has youth, too. Players like Dejounte Murray, Kyle Anderson and Davis Bertans provide that little spark of energy off the bench if Popovich needs it.
This team really has all the makings of a championship-winning team. A definitive leader and defensive stalwart? Check. Experience? Check. Youth and energy? Check. All that, and I still haven’t even gotten into Popovich with his championship DNA and philosophies.
The foundation of this multi-decade Popovich dynasty, which started with David Robinson and Tim Duncan in the late 1990s, has been the development of a truly unselfish team. The Spurs always find the right man to shoot the ball. They make the right passes at the right times and usually shoot the most efficient and most effective shots they can take.
That philosophy traces back to Popovich, a Bill Belichick-type coach that just knows how to win. It is a personal fundamental belief instilled in each of the players. It’s how they win games. Some fans get sick of it. Others love it.
All I know is, this is another one of those years that Popovich and his San Antonio Spurs will be lifting that NBA Finals trophy in June.