SAN ANTONIO -- Adjustment periods shouldn’t run so smoothly.
Yet 14 games into the season, the San Antonio Spurs are tied for the second-best record in the NBA (11-3) after thumping the Phoenix Suns 98-84 Monday night, thanks to a Kawhi Leonard double-double (24 points, 13 rebounds) and Tony Parker's 20 points and eight assists.
“I think we’ve come along pretty well for just being this far into the season,” Tim Duncan said.
The Spurs expected to gel eventually, just not this quickly.
Everyone knows the story: San Antonio added prized free-agent acquisition LaMarcus Aldridge during the offseason as well as veterans David West, Rasual Butler and Ray McCallum to the longtime nucleus of Leonard, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. Typically, the Spurs avoid disrupting the long-established status quo but saw a chance to extend their championship window by adding Aldridge.
That move and other dynamics at play, such as Leonard’s rapid ascension, changed the Spurs more significantly than it appears. At one time San Antonio’s offense ran through Duncan, and later through Parker and Ginobili.
Now Leonard and Aldridge are the team’s main scoring options, which changes everyone else’s roles.
“I think it’s more of just finding rhythms than roles. Everybody knows their roles here. It’s making those other [new] guys feel comfortable, getting them acclimated and just kind of playing with them and seeing how we fit together,” said Danny Green, who finished with a season-high 18 points, including four 3-pointers. “I think it’s on both parties [being] a little bit passive before we can actually feel comfortable enough to be aggressive within each other. David [West] is a very pass-first guy. LaMarcus is more of a scorer, but even him now in this system he’s thinking about [passing]. I think we’re over-passing sometimes instead of being aggressive. But most guys are trying to feel each other out and seeing what spots, and we’re picking and choosing where we’re going to find our looks.”
Those choices, however, now seem to be coming with more confidence and decisiveness.
For example, Parker started off the night serving more as a facilitator and defender, scoring just two points in the first half. In the second half, with Aldridge missing his second consecutive game due to a sprained ankle and Leonard putting in most of the work on the offensive end, Parker decided to crank up the aggression, as he’s still plenty capable of taking on the role of scorer.
“It’s been the dilemma my whole career [between scoring and distributing],” Parker said. “So I’m always looking to find that balance. LaMarcus was out. So I knew I was going to be more aggressive. Kawhi was doing a lot. So I had to help him out.”
Green lent a hand, too.
Normally a long-range shooter and defensive specialist, Green stepped inside the 3-point line and fired 15 attempts from the field. Duncan mentioned that because of Green’s success from long range in the past, teams no longer let him sit out on the wing and drain 3-pointers, which translates to the guard working to find other ways to effectively contribute.
Duncan’s role has changed as well.
“For Timmy, it’s very different too because whenever we wanted to go to the paint, it was going to him,” Ginobili said. “Those plays [were] for him. And now, most of the plays are gonna be for LaMarcus; some for Kawhi, too. So it’s a little different for everybody. We needed a little time to adjust. But Timmy is a great teammate, wants the best for everybody so we’re all better. It was very hard for a little bit, but we’re all gonna adjust.”
The Defensive Player of the Year in 2014-15, Leonard continues to showcase a newfound ability on offense to create off the dribble, which boosts his usage rate, not to mention his confidence. Aldridge served as the go-to guy his entire career in Portland before joining the Spurs, where he’s now becoming more of a passer.
Meanwhile, the vets such as Duncan, Parker and Ginobili seem happy to pass the torch to Aldridge and Leonard as the rest of the team blossoms in their respective roles.
“People are still trying to figure out when and where their shots are and what’s right and wrong in the offense. So that leads to a little bit of hesitation,” Duncan said. “We’re gonna make mistakes, and we’re gonna use as we always do, use the 82 [regular season games] to figure those mistakes out and try to minimize them as much as possible. It’s very different for us, but it’s been wonderful because [the new players have] been great, willing to learn. They’re willing to find their roles and play their roles. They’re here to win, and that’s all they’re about. That’s what we want people to buy into. That’s what we want people to do.”
Duncan said he’s surprised by “how fast we’ve kind of gelled together more than anything. I think we still have some growing to do. We’re going to go through some ups and downs. We’re gonna lose some games. Even the games that we’ve lost and the situations we’ve lost [in], we don’t have the experience to kind of finish those games, and that’ll come. That’s just experience with this crew. All in all, I’ve been really pleased with all we’ve done.”