BDL 25: The Spurs' post-Duncan challenge of winning the West

Tim Duncan points Kawhi Leonard in the direction of superstardom. (Getty Images)
Tim Duncan points Kawhi Leonard in the direction of superstardom. (Getty Images)

The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.

I picked the San Antonio Spurs to win the title last year. I picked them because they added LaMarcus Aldridge and David West to a core that won in 2014 playing the best team basketball I’ve ever seen. I picked them because Gregg Popovich is the NBA’s best coach and they win 50 games on cruise control. I picked them because Tim Duncan was still on the roster.

I am not picking the Spurs to win the title this year.

This is not because West left. Hell, this isn’t because Duncan left. It’s because, as you all know, the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, and they will be a damn nightmare for everyone else in the league.

I did not foresee the Warriors winning 73 games last season. I did not foresee the Oklahoma City Thunder winning three straight to eliminate the Spurs. I did not foresee the Warriors winning three straight to eliminate the Thunder. And I did not foresee the Cleveland Cavaliers winning three straight to eliminate the Warriors. I do not foresee lots of things.

I do not foresee the Spurs challenging the Warriors this year.

If it sounds like I’m oversimplifying this, that’s because it’s not that hard. Durant left the Thunder. They are worse — significantly worse. Durant joined the Warriors. They might be better, if that’s possible. The Spurs couldn’t take down either last season with Duncan. Now, without him, San Antonio is a little worse — better than Oklahoma City now, but still not as good as Golden State.

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The Spurs finished 20-62 when last we saw them sans Duncan. Popovich took the reins 18 games into the 1996-97 season and steered the tank into the league’s third-worst record, with the immortal Carl Herrera working as his starting power forward. They picked up a lucky Ping-Pong ball in the process.

Of course, San Antonio’s better off now than they were then. Aldridge’s arrival and the recent addition of Pau Gasol ease the transition to the post-Duncan era. In Duncan’s 1,536 minutes last year, the Spurs owned a 93.8 defensive rating and a 107.6 offensive rating — numbers that would’ve respectively rated first and fifth in the league. In 2,405 minutes with Duncan on the bench in 2015-16, their defensive and offensive ratings moved to 98.4 and 108.9, which would’ve been the NBA’s best and third-best marks.

So, the Spurs still outscored opponents by double digits per 100 possessions without the greatest power forward in history. They won 67 games last season, after all. Provided Gasol, quite a big-man talent himself, can give them anything at age 36, they should be just fine, possibly even still great.

But better than the Warriors? Well, they do have the best possible defender against Durant on their roster. In the 62 minutes he shared the court with Kawhi Leonard during the 2015-16 regular season, Durant finished 15-of-38 from the field (39.5 percent), including 2-of-10 from 3-point range. In 2,516 minutes opposite everyone else, KD shot 50.9 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from 3. That drop-off wasn’t so dramatic in the playoffs, when Durant was essentially unstoppable against the Spurs, but that doesn’t change the fact Leonard is the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

Additionally, both the Thunder and Cavaliers found success against the Warriors last season on the offensive glass, scoring a combined 226 second-chance points in a pair of seven-game series. Gasol and Aldridge were not as effective offensive rebounders as Enes Kanter and Steven Adams last season, but both remain above-average in that regard and could pose a similar threat against Golden State, especially now with Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli and Marreese Speights no longer on the roster.

To defeat a super-team, as we learned in the 2016 playoffs, you have to maximize your opportunities and limit theirs. With Duncan on the bench last season, the Spurs still ranked among the league’s most efficient teams offensively (53.4 effective field goal percentage) and defensively (48.7 opponents’ eFG%), while also winning the turnover and rebounding battles. When you take more shots and make them at a higher rate than your opponents, that’s generally a recipe for success against any team. All of which makes San Antonio the most logical challenger to Golden State, even in Duncan’s absence.

One area where San Antonio will struggle to follow OKC and Cleveland’s blueprint against the Warriors — assuming it’s still viable — is the point guard position. After a second straight subpar playoff performance, Tony Parker wasn’t great playing for France in the Olympics, either. At 33 years old, he’s hardly capable of consistently putting up Russell Westbrook-esque or Kyrie Irving-like numbers on the offensive end, never mind the challenge of keeping up with Stephen Curry on the defensive side.

At the other backcourt position, there’s hope Danny Green can resurrect his status as one of the game’s elite 3-and-D wings, considering he shot 42.3 percent from distance for four straight seasons before a 33.2 percent outlier in 2015-16, and that should help combat Klay Thompson’s impact.

Elsewhere on the roster, reliable backcourt backups Manu Ginobili (albeit at 39 years old) and Patty Mills return, with ex-Warriors big man David Lee adding depth in the frontcourt. Youngsters Kyle Anderson and Jonathon Simmons should continue to develop, as should high-scoring rookie Dejounte Murray. And you can always rely on Popovich to inspire a surprise contribution from a newcomer, whether it’s underutilized Orlando Magic center Dewayne Dedmon or Latvian import Davis Bertans.

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Now, even if Popovich maximizes every ounce of this roster, which he undoubtedly will, it’s hard to imagine them being any better than the 2015-16 team that won more regular-season games than all but six teams in history, considering one of the game’s most reliably remarkable post players is gone.

And as hard as it is to imagine the Warriors being any better than last year’s Greatest (Regular-Season) Team Ever, it’s equally difficult to comprehend how the famed Death Lineup, which outscored opponents by 47 points per 100 possessions last season, won’t be even more deadly with one of the NBA’s top three talents operating in place of the departed Harrison Barnes. In the end, this comes down to the fact that the Warriors have four of the NBA’s best 20 players, and the Spurs have two.

The equation really is that simple.

Regardless, the Spurs will still win 50 games on auto-pilot, maybe even 60, and it’ll be fascinating to watch what Leonard and Aldridge do with the baton post-Duncan. Undoubtedly, they’ll be one of two Western Conference teams, along with the Los Angeles Clippers, waiting in the wings should unforeseen circumstances befall the Warriors. And that’s a pretty damn good place to be when a legend retires.

Also, it’s important to remember, I’ve been dead wrong about San Antonio before.

Previously, on BDL 25:

Chris Bosh’s increasingly hazy career prospects

Kevin Durant sets about winning back our love

Stephen Curry’s search for an encore, and for invincibility lost

The NBA, social activism and a change we need to see in 2016-17

The Trail Blazers, and the promise and peril of ‘pretty good’

Will the Pistons ever get into gear?

Introducing the (maybe) thoroughly modern Grizzlies

Is the new-look Indiana Pacers core worth fearing?

It’s time for Anthony Davis to resume blowing our minds

How will the Warriors recover from a historic Finals collapse?

Is the new-look Indiana Pacers’ core worth fearing?

Counting on the Clippers to contend is insane, so call them crazy

The 76ers and the fascinating challenge of figuring it all out

On the final ‘couple of years’ of Dirk Nowitzki in the NBA

Can Jimmy Butler and ‘the three alphas’ coexist on the Bulls?

The Knicks make no sense, which makes all the sense in the world

LeBron, the Cavs, and writing sequels to storybook endings

Russell Westbrook is going to absolutely go nuts this year

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Ben Rohrbach

is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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