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2017 Playoffs Preview: Referendum Vote

By Jeff Koch on April 15, 2017.

The Spurs have a lot to prove in these playoffs.

For the Spurs, the 2017 Playoffs aren’t about matchups, or adjustments. They’re barely about opponents. These playoffs are about them, their culture, and a referendum on exactly what kind of team they are.

From 2012 to 2014, the Spurs lost in the Conference Finals, lost in the Finals, and won the Finals. It took the perfect storm maturation of 3 generational stars to beat them the first time, and perhaps the most miraculous shot in NBA history to beat them the second time.

Since the 2014 championships, the Spurs have won one playoff series, and that was against a Grizzlies team that was barely able to field a professional starting 5. They’ve lost two series they easily could have won (and were favored to win by many), against the Clippers and the Thunder.

It’s time for the Spurs to decide what kind of team they are.

Are they the playoff beasts of so many championship runs? Or are they the most ruthless and efficient regular season of all time with no extra gear in the postseason?

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. The Spurs have essentially perfected the regular season. They maximize every strength of their team, exploit every inefficiency of opponents and the rest of the league, and get the absolute most out of every player (and use their entire roster for season long success).

Many of these things come back to bite them in the ass, though, in the playoffs. Rotations shorten for opponents. Stars play more minutes. The benefits of having a very good 11th man disappear. Intensity is ratcheted up, and everybody is prepared. The system can no longer be counted on to secure the win.

Some may see this as a failing of Pop, but I see it as proof of his absolute coaching genius. The fact that the Spurs can be penciled in for 50 wins (and usually plenty more) every season regardless of almost anything other than the system is a testament to his coaching prowess. Nobody is better.

But there are two games: the regular season, and the postseason. For the last 2 seasons, the Spurs have failed the postseason.

The problem with maximizing the regular season is that you leave no headroom, no place to grow. The Spurs won 61 games this season, the Rockets won 55. But the Rockets might have the headroom of a 62 win team, while the Spurs likely top out exactly where they finished.

Put another way: do the Spurs have a playoff gear?

For the last two seasons, it looks like they haven’t. I fear that’s the rule now, not the exception.

So these playoffs become a referendum on the Spurs’ system and culture: is there more ‘more’ here? Is all this regular season success inversely proportional to postseason success? Is there something inherently flawed (vis-a-vis the Playoffs) about their system?

So these playoffs become a referendum on Coach Pop: he has nothing left to prove to anybody. But is there more there he wants to prove? Does he still have the Playoff chops?

So these playoffs become a referendum about LaMarcus: is he who everyone thinks he is? The slightly churlish superstar whose game is a bit hollow?

So these playoffs become a referendum on the Spurs’ depth: can a bench be critical to postseason success? Or is it merely a tool to gobble up regular season wins?

So these playoffs become a referendum on Kawhi Leonard: he is undoubtedly a superstar; but is he a super-duper-star, the type of player who can carry a team on his back through playoff runs? Does he have the natural offensive talents to win playoff games? Can he be the leader of a playoff team, and not just merely a cog in it?

I’m not concerned about opponents these playoffs. Outside of the Warriors, all six teams in the West present a nearly equal amount of challenge. The Spurs main opponent these playoffs is themselves.

Nobody expects any team to get past the Warriors. For this to be a successful postseason, though, the Spurs need to get to the Warriors and the Western Conference Finals. Anything less would be a disappointment.

The Spurs begin their playoffs Saturday evening against the Grizzlies.

Go Spurs Go.