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The Hard Truth About the 2015-16 Spurs

By Trace Ronning on June 23, 2016.

Apr 30, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs players (from left to right) Kawhi Leonard, and Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili (20) watch on the bench against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game one of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Apr 30, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs players (from left to right) Kawhi Leonard, and Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili (20) watch on the bench against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game one of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs hit their ceiling in the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs. It’s weird to say this about a team that won 67 games in the NBA regular season, but after taking some time to digest the Spurs’ loss to the Thunder, the seven-game maelstrom that was the Western Conference Finals, and an NBA Finals that just about had me speechless, it certainly feels like the truth.

The Thunder have been a nightmare matchup for the Spurs for the better part of the last four years, and even when the Spurs are clearly the superior team, OKC has held the recipe for making things difficult. This time around, the Thunder certainly looked like the superior team, despite their decidedly less impressive W-L record. They made me nervous in San Antonio’s season-opening loss last October, and they made me nervous again when they clinched the 3-seed in the playoffs, all but guaranteeing a second-round matchup. And outside of the game 1 blowout in the AT&T Center, they validated my fears in a way I thought could only exist in some sci-fi alternate reality where the Spurs always win 60+ games but get slaughtered in the playoffs.

So yes, the 67-win Spurs hit their ceiling, and a lot earlier than we imagined. But that’s the way it goes. It’s also the reality for a team that doesn’t have the clock on its side. As San Antonio’s athleticism has diminished, they’ve increasingly relied on intelligence, ball movement, outstanding bench play, and timely shooting to get by. And that can work. The Spurs nearly won back-to-back championships with that strategy. They beat a lot of incredibly athletic teams during that stretch, too. And now they’ve had back-to-back early playoff exits with the same strategy against the hyper-athletic 2015 Clippers and 2016 Thunder.

It was easy to think that a 67-win team had figured out how to ignore the fact that time comes for all of us, but against the better teams in the league, it looked like San Antonio struggled to keep up. They lost 3 of 4 to Golden State, split the season series with the Thunder, Raptors and the Cavaliers. Hell, they even lost to the Rockets and Clippers. Four of those teams, as you know, made it to their respective conference finals. All of them are much younger and athletic than the Spurs.

The Spurs have defied convention and remained successful for the better part of two decades, but keeping together a roster that’s only getting older, while the rest of the league stays young, might be something San Antonio tries to avoid going forward.

Yes, it seems weird to suggest that a 67-win team needs to rethink its roster if they want to take home a sixth Larry O’Brien trophy, but if you really think about it, it makes sense, right?

I’m not saying they should cut everyone who isn’t named Kawhi Leonard or LaMarcus Aldridge and start over from there, but the aging role players have all but disappeared in the last two Spurs playoff oustings, so it’s certainly worth at least thinking about for the San Antonio brain trust.

Speaking of aging players, a lot of what San Antonio is going to do this offseason depends on what Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili decide to do with themselves. If they decide they want to give it another go, nobody in the Spurs organization is going to stop them, but it will mean that the team has two fewer roster spots to work with in free agency.

There’s also the curious case of just what the hell happened between Boris Diaw and Gregg Popovich that caused Pop to sit Diaw for nearly the entire Thunder series. It feels like Bobo’s not going to be a Spur next year, which might be for the best, although I’ll certainly miss him. And earlier this week, David West opted out of his insanely team-friendly contract. More power to him, I say. The Spurs experiment didn’t work out quite like he hoped, and he’s certainly worth more than peanuts to an NBA team, even at 35 years old. It’s been pointed out that just because he opted out doesn’t mean that he won’t be a Spur next season, but I’m not holding my breath.

Again, it feels weird to write this about a 67-win team, but there’s a really disconcerting air of uncertainty swirling around San Antonio right now. I – like many of you, I’m sure – am torn between the team doing what’s best for the future while simultaneously hoping that guys like Duncan and Ginobili never actually have to retire because it’s almost impossible to remember life before they donned Spurs jerseys. If you thought the lineup this year was radically different than the Spurs you know and love, just imagine what next year could look like. I wouldn’t expect anything drastic this offseason, but it would be nice to see San Antonio start making moves to counter their biggest competition (and the evolution of the league). Alternatively, Danny Green and Patty Mills could just start making 75% of their 3-pt shots – that would help get the Spurs over the hump without a roster overhaul.

Or instead of looking ahead to decisions that we don’t have any control over, we can look back and smile, because although things didn’t go 100% to plan, it was still a really damn good season.

Remember how cool it was that Duncan broke a record just about every other week?

Or how happy it made you to see the Duncan/Ginobili/Parker trio become the winningest trio in NBA history?

Or how San Antonio won 40 games at home, tying them for the best home record of all time?

It’s easy to lose sight of how fun it is to watch the Spurs play basketball when you look at the big picture, but holy hell, look at how much joy they brought us this season!

The 2015-16 Spurs were an amazing team. The 2015-16 Spurs would have won every championship from 2008-2015 if you put them into a time machine and replaced them with whatever Spurs team was actually in the playoffs this year. If they’d managed to go all the way this year, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that they’d become my favorite Spurs team ever. There’s not a single guy on that roster that I didn’t want to just run over and give a giant hug at the end of the Thunder series. It’s the least I could do after all they gave us.

As magical a ride as this season was, it wasn’t enough. But the Spurs will be back. They always find a way back. Here’s to an even more magical 2016-17.

Go Spurs Go.