The San Antonio Spurs make their usual early-season visit to TD Garden on Sunday, and this time they are a revamped bunch that not only has championship aspirations, but are prohibitive favorites in the Western Conference.
The Spurs have been the model for how NBA franchises should be built and maintained, as general manager R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich formed a Big Three in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, and were able to keep all three at reasonable salaries.
Meanwhile, Buford prepared his salary cap to make a run this past offseason at a major free agent for the first time in years. Buford traded Tiago Splitter, allowed backup point guard Cory Joseph to sign with the Raptors, and slashed other salaries to push for Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge.
The Spurs were able to sign the power forward to a four-year deal, and he has joined Kawhi Leonard as cornerstones in their prime, while Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili provide support.
There has been a high level of good fortune for Buford and the Spurs, who have kept Duncan happy while Parker and Ginobili have remained productive. When the Spurs faced the Heat in back-to-back NBA Finals, the first an excruciating seven-game loss after they blew Game 6, it was believed that it would be the final run for the Big Three.
San Antonio was disposed in the first round of the playoffs by the Clippers last May, a brutal seven-game series that could have marked the end of the Duncan era. But when Buford made it apparent he intended to pursue Aldridge, Duncan decided to return along with Ginobili.
Meanwhile, the Spurs received a gift when Indiana’s David West opted out of the final year of his contract at $12 million and signed a one-year minimum deal to join this veteran group. What was interesting about the Spurs’ first two games — a loss to the Thunder and win over the Nets — was that Leonard tallied 48 points while Aldridge averaged just 10.5 points on 39.1 percent shooting.
It’s hardly a surprise that Aldridge is struggling early. While he was a standout in Portland, he was never surrounded with so much talent or under the amount of pressure he is now. Aldridge felt underappreciated in Portland and it was apparent the Trail Blazers were not going to be title contenders soon, even if he had returned.
TNT analyst Kenny Smith said he is convinced Aldridge will adjust and the Spurs will emerge as the best team in the West.
“I have faith in Gregg Popovich understanding the adjustment [Aldridge will go through],” Smith said this past week on a conference call. “I think he’s a really underrated rebounder and his ability to shoot from the outside will give Tim Duncan some good looks inside. You add David West to that mix, I don’t see how they don’t win the West.”
The Celtics could perhaps take a page from Buford’s plan. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge has built a core of young players through the draft and is now waiting for his opportunity to use available salary cap space on a difference-making free agent.
San Antonio was able to sell Aldridge because of its winning tradition — five titles since 1999 — and Aldridge is from Texas. It was the perfect storm, the perfect free agent at the perfect time.
Ainge can’t just bid for every premium free agent. Like Buford, he has to strike when the time is right. Aldridge was ready to leave Portland, intrigued by playing with Duncan and wanting to play on a bigger stage.
Ainge is scouting potential free agents who would relish the opportunity to play in Boston, under Brad Stevens, with the team’s younger core, and have an opportunity to win a title and dominate a wide-open Eastern Conference. Not every free agent is suited for Boston, and Buford realized the same applies to San Antonio.
Popovich has chewed up certain veterans who weren’t prepared for how the Spurs do things. San Antonio has taken chances on players who believed they could coast in their later years, rest on the shoulders of Duncan, and win a ring. And Popovich and Buford have exhibited patience with certain younger players — such as James Anderson and DeJuan Blair — gave them enough time to learn the system, and when they didn’t produce, disposed of them.
Not everybody is suited for the Spurs Way, but that way is widely admired around the league. The Celtics fully realize the challenge they are in for Sunday afternoon.
“That’s the first thing Brad said after [Friday’s] game, ‘Let’s focus on San Antonio,’ because they are a very good team and we know they’re going to come in here and try to jump on us early so we have to make sure we’re prepared,” Avery Bradley said. “We can’t turn the ball over against San Antonio. They’re going to score every single time.”