Welcome back friends to the third annual installment of my NBA League Pass Rankings. For those new to the process, forget power rankings. Forget Vegas Over-Unders and salary cap gymnastics. Here at Knicks at Night we dive into the teams one by one to answer one simple question. If you’re shelling out the money for a League Pass subscription, which of these teams are worth that top 5 night-in, night-out slot and which of these guys are absolute, unwatchable garbage people?
Another year, another huge offseason for a team normally known for its quiet, diligent institutional stability. And, while Tim Duncan may have left the Spurs with the same kind of reserved grace that characterized his entire career, these guys kind of lack the usual excitement of the total re-brand that comes when trying to move on from a franchise player.
The San Antonio front office scrambled to replace the Big Fundamental and did a fairly admirable job, inking Pau Gasol to a two year contract for a cool $31 million. In a vacuum, the move makes perfect sense. Gasol is an older, veteran player who should fit right in with a mature Spurs locker room, not to mention the timeline for a team that won 67 games last year and is positioned to compete right away. However, even if Pau can buy in right away from a culture standpoint, there’s more than enough reason to think he’ll re-shape this team in a couple of smaller, more subtle ways.
For starters, despite Timmy’s advanced age (and basically playing on one leg by the time the playoffs rolled around), he was the second-best defensive player in the league last year by RPM and helped to anchor an all-time great defense, which led even the Warriors by 5 points in defensive rating. Now that might a little stats heavy for some people, and Timmy was surrounded by three lockdown defenders in Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and LaMarcus Aldridge, but the fact remains that this defense is primed to get a lot worse.
Gasol may do a fine job of rebounding the ball and blocking shots by the raw numbers, but all of the on-off splits show a guy whose team gets definitively worse at rebounding and playing defense while he’s on the floor. And while he can contest shots standing right under the rim, he does a horrible job of guarding the pick-and-roll and switching out onto quicker guards. If you thought the Spurs would have come up short against the Warriors in the playoffs last season with Duncan, they’ve taken a huge step back (Before even factoring in Durant). Add in another year of regression for Tony Parker who could barely stay on the court for France during the Olympics this summer, and you’re looking at some serious slippage on the defensive end.
Pau is a fabulous offensive player, though, and his shooting touch and excellent vision should work perfectly in the Spurs system. Popovich is used to playing two traditional bigs together, and it should be fun to watch a frontcourt where everyone can pass and knock down 18-20 footers on the automatic. It may not be quite the beautiful basketball that beat the Miami Heat in 2014, but it could be an interesting throw-back counter to the kind of spread pick-and-roll, four-out style that has completely swallowed up the entire league. Orrrr, it could be an even more boring iteration of last year’s Spurs offense where there are now three, not two, ball-dominant forwards who need to post up and shoot long 2 pointers to score.
Now I am excited for the moment when the Spurs are totally over their golden generation and have said goodbye to Parker and Manu Ginoboli. When Kawhi Leonard is finally given the keys to the kingdom and young athletic up-and-comers like Jonathon Simmons and Dejounte Murray have had another year or two to marinate under the best coach in the league. I can see the future where these guys, as well as free agent pickup shot-blocker Dwayne Dedmon, totally reshape the identity of Spurs basketball into a crazy, breakneck athletic slashing rollercoaster. For how much we view San Antonio as an old group, their best player is still just 25 years old and they have a ton of intriguing prospects for a team always picking so high in the draft. Unfortunately, this won’t be that year. There are still a ton of vets in this locker room and Poppovich is going to go all-out to get one more ring for them before they all fade into the dusky sunset. They owe that much to Timmy.
Last year’s ranking: 8 (-16)