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Tony Jones: Even post-Duncan era, Spurs remain a title contender

Published March 18, 2017 12:22 pm

Inside the NBA • A franchise that is relentless — on the floor and off — in its consistency
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Not that we need reassurance about how good a team, system and franchise the San Antonio Spurs are. But they offered yet another sample this past week.

The biggest comeback in the NBA this season happened against the Sacramento Kings — who exemplify the way you don't want to run a franchise. The Spurs trailed — at home no less — by as many as 28 points. And they came back to win, without star forward Kawhi Leonard, and without star big man LaMarcus Aldridge.

The game serves as a microcosm for the best-run NBA franchise of the past 20 years. Against the Kings, the Spurs stayed true to their system. They displayed machine-like consistency. They never panicked, they made shots, they came up with defensive stops. And eventually, the Kings buckled.

Remember the movie Terminator? That's San Antonio. No matter what, the Spurs keep coming at you with a relentlessness that can't be stopped. More often than not, the opposition wilts.

These Spurs aren't scary in an individual sense. Yes, Leonard has been one of the best players in the league this season. But Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are on their last legs. Aldridge has been almost mediocre this season, by his previous standards. Pau Gasol isn't quite on his last legs, but the retirement light at the end of the tunnel is visible for him.

Yet, as of Friday, San Antonio is 50-14 and two games behind the vaunted Golden State Warriors in the race for the top spot in the Western Conference. They have the second biggest net scoring margin in the league, outscoring opponents by eight points a night. They are still, clearly, a championship contender.

How does San Antonio do it? By staying true to themselves and sticking to their blueprint, both on the floor and in the front office.

Gregg Popovich is widely considered the best coach in the league. I happen think he's the best coach in NBA history. Yes — better than Phil Jackson. Better than Red Auerbach. Those guys were no doubt great. But they won titles exclusively when they had the best talent. Popovich hasn't always had the best talent, and he's still won.

As good as Popovich is on the coaching level, general manager RC Buford has performed at the same high standard in the front office. The Spurs have survived and thrived without high draft picks — just look at their rotation. Parker was a late first-round pick. Danny Green was a late second-round pick by Cleveland. Jonathan Simmons is a veteran of the D-League. Kyle Anderson was a late first-round pick. Ginobili came late in the second round.

I'm not sure the Spurs can win the Western Conference this season. But, if any team in the west is going to knock Golden State off, the Spurs are the best choice. Leonard has evolved into one of the best two-way players in the league, and is a legit MVP candidate. Parker and Ginobili would love one more shot at a ring. Aldridge and Gasol could give the Warriors trouble.

San Antonio's depth this season defines them. Patty Mills, Simmons, Anderson, David Lee, Dewayne Dedmon. That's easily one of the best second units in the league, and should serve as a major advantage come playoff time.

Title or not, San Antonio's season has been impressive. There hasn't been a drop-off without Tim Duncan. And over the years, the Spurs have remained one of the best teams in basketball when almost every other franchise has hit at least one lull.

The Spurs have never stopped winning. They've never stopped advancing or moving forward. Neither did the Terminator. NBA Power Rankings

1. Golden State Warriors • Still the best team in the league. But sans Kevin Durant, the margin for error is smaller.

2. San Antonio Spurs • The Spurs and Warriors play twice more. That could go a long way toward determining West's top seed.

3. Boston Celtics • Beating the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Warriors in the span of a week? That comes with rewards.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers • Had lost three straight and four of five as of Friday. Will they be ready for the playoffs?

5. Houston Rockets • Missing the shooting of Ryan Anderson, who has been out with injury.

6. Utah Jazz • Have beaten the Rockets and the Washington Wizards since the All-Star break. Both wins have come on the road.

7. Washington Wizards • Staying strong in that three spot in the East. Had a horrid start and now on pace for 50 wins.

8. Los Angeles Clippers • Still a very dangerous team. But they have to start putting it together — and soon.

9. Toronto Raptors • Missing Kyle Lowry. Former Ute Delon Wright is in an NBA rotation for the first time in his career.

10. Memphis Grizzlies • Almost in a free-fall. Offense is hard to come by, and they haven't been great defensively.

11. Oklahoma City Thunder • Russell Westbrook gets 31st triple-double in win over the Spurs.

12. Atlanta Hawks • Entering a dangerous realm: Too good to tank, not good enough to contend.

13. Indiana Pacers • Very good at home with 22 wins. Not good at all on the road, with 21 losses.

14. Detroit Pistons • Got a very good home win over Cleveland on Thursday.

15. Chicago Bulls • With Dwyane Wade injured, Jimmy Butler has had to carry the load.

16. Miami Heat • Dion Waiters deserves a lot of credit. He has resurrected his career in Miami.

17. Denver Nuggets • Entering a very difficult stretch of games. Their playoff chances depend on how they navigate it.

18. Milwaukee Bucks • A half game out of a playoff spot. Amazing, considering how many injuries they've had to manage.

19. Portland Trail Blazers • Getting Jusuf Nurkic has been a great trade for them. He's already a fan favorite.

20. Dallas Mavericks • The same thing can be said about Nerlens Noel. That was a trade deadline steal.

21. Minnesota Timberwolves • Karl-Anthony Towns has been sensational since the All-Star break.

22. Charlotte Hornets • Hard to believe this team was solidly in the playoff race for 30 games. Then, they fell off a cliff.

23. Sacramento Kings • May be better with DeMarcus Cousins off the floor, but they are struggling on the floor.

24. New Orleans Pelicans • Speaking of Cousins, he has already been suspended, fined since trade to New Orleans.

25. New York Knicks • Played the Golden State Warriors tough on national TV. That's a win for them, these days.

26. Orlando Magic • Elfrid Payton is developing into a very nice point guard.

27. Philadelphia 76ers • Have fallen off the map since Joel Embiid went down for the season.

28. Los Angeles Lakers • We're seeing why they wouldn't include rookie Brandon Ingram in a deal for Cousins. Bunch of upside.

29. Phoenix Suns • They are finding out that diminutive point guard Tyler Ulis can really play.

30. Brooklyn Nets • Only team in the league without at least one win over a division foe (0-10).






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