When teams get swept in a best-of-seven playoff series in sports, there are different ways to react as a team and a franchise.
Sometimes, there are teams that just aren’t on the same talent level as an opponent — like a young team facing a championship contender, or a team that barely made it in that’s totally outclassed and overmatched — and that team tips its proverbial cap and moves forward. Other sweeps make franchises think, reflect, contemplate and question its overall direction.
The latter is the case for the Indiana Pacers, swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round, causing them to wonder whether it’s time to trade franchise player Paul George and begin a rebuild. After being swept by the Cavs in the second round, the Toronto Raptors will also consider whether its current core has peaked or not.
Then there are the three teams swept so far in this postseason by the Golden State Warriors — who became the first team in NBA history to start a postseason 12-0 — the Portland Blazers, Utah Jazz and now the San Antonio Spurs, who fell in Game 4 on Monday night.
Utah is a team on the ascent, looking to re-sign star forward Gordon Hayward and point guard George Hill, and can envision a title-contending window in the future. Portland has a sensational backcourt in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but may not be strong enough defensively with that pairing to contend. That leaves the Spurs, the actual subject of this column.
How far behind the Warriors — who embody the unselfish, team-first ethos San Antonio has cultivated, nurtured and preached over the last 20 years under head coach Gregg Popovich — are the Spurs?
“They don’t just play with talent,” Popovich said Monday night of the Warriors, “they execute at the defensive end of the floor. On offense, no team is more unselfish… they’ve got a multitude of people who are unselfish.”
How should San Antonio management view this sweep? As something it can build upon, or a message that this team has a long way to go to reach Golden State’s current level?
To begin answering that question, you need to ask another fundamental question: How different would this series have looked had All-NBA forward and MVP finalist Kawhi Leonard been healthy?
Before Leonard got hurt in Game 1 of the series (we won’t get into the specifics of how or why he was injured in this space), San Antonio had built a 25-point lead on the road, playing strong defense and getting much needed brilliant intensity and efficiency from LaMarcus Aldridge, the kind of performance that made him a max contract All-Star in the first place. Perhaps it would’ve been a tight series, but chances are that the Warriors would’ve prevailed anyway. The sweep re-enforced the notion that the Houston Rockets, who fell prey to the Spurs in the conference semifinals, would’ve been a more challenging adversary for Golden State based on their fast-paced, three-heavy offense.
So where do the Spurs go from here? They successfully transitioned from the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili era into the Kawhi Leonard-LaMarcus Aldridge era, winning 61 games during the regular season and boasting the league’s top defense in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions and second-best scoring defense, only behind Utah.
The roster will continue to change, led by the possible retirement of Ginobili. Manu is one of two players to ever win an NBA title, a European title and an Olympic gold medal, winning in 2004 with his native Argentina. Metrics show that in terms of win shares per 48 minutes, Ginobili is the best bench player the league has seen in 30 years, per Jared Dubin. If he retires, he’ll be difficult to replace.
Parker is 34 and has only one year left on his contract, and the Spurs need to decide who his long-term replacement will be. Patty Mills will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and Dejounte Murray just finished an encouraging rookie season, though he’s still very raw. Big men Pau Gasol, Dewayne Dedmon and David Lee all have player options on their contracts and could also go into free agency.
And if Ginobili retires, it’ll make retaining Jonathon Simmons all the more important. Simmons only averaged 6.2 points per game during the regular season, but the 27-year-old played over 20 minutes per game during the playoffs, averaging over 10 points per game on 35.1 percent shooting from three. Simmons will be a restricted free agent in high demand — the Spurs can match any offer sheet Simmons signs with another team — and will receive a significant raise from his 2016-2017 salary of $874,000.
So San Antonio has a chance to look a little different from this season, but how much can the team improve to keep up with a Golden State group that has a chance to be remembered as one of the great teams of all time? With a core group intact that will still be one of the three or four best teams in the NBA, all these San Antonio Spurs teams can do is try to get back to to this point, facing the Warriors in the conference finals and hoping for the best.