Wednesday, October 9, 2013

2013-2014 Season Preview: San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are definitely one of the most exciting and talked-about teams heading into the regular season.  Why wouldn’t they be after the offseason they just had? First, Tim Duncan demanded a trade.  Then Manu Ginobili showed up with hair plugs disguising his famous bald spot.  After that, Gregg Popovich announced his intentions to walk away from the NBA after this season to record a rap album with former Spur Stephen Jackson.  To top it all off, All-Star point guard Tony Parker turned into a 50-foot tall croissant and terrorized downtown San Antonio for two hours before a building fell on top of him, crushing him to death.

OK, so none of that actually happened. And maybe the Spurs aren’t among the most talked-about teams in the NBA.  Not even after they were one half of probably the most entertaining Finals matchup ever.  You see, the fact is that First Take doesn’t spend much time discussing “headlines” like “Spurs players report to camp in great shape”, or “no gripes whatsoever about contract issues or playing time in San Antonio”.  Yes, in a world driven by controversy, these Spurs have (for over a decade now) mastered the art of being an elite team that generates virtually no buzz.  Nonetheless, the team’s streak of 50-plus win seasons will be extended to fifteen this season.  The Spurs will definitely reach that landmark, but for a team that was mere seconds away from a fifth ring last June, there is no doubt these guys are thinking championship or bust.  So what are the odds of them succeeding where last year they failed?

Additions: Marco Belinelli, Corey Maggette, Sam Young, Jeff Ayres

Subtractions: James Anderson, DeJuan Blair, Gary Neal

As per usual, the Spurs failed to rock the boat with any offseason transactions.  Their biggest moves were to re-up two of the biggest contributors from last’s year Western Conference champion squad: Tiago Splitter and Manu Ginobili both re-signed with the Spurs for (typically) reasonable terms. 

Probably the biggest addition to the team is former Bull Marco Belinelli.  In addition to bringing yet more international flavor to the Spurs squad, Belinelli will be asked to handle some ballhandling duties as well be a sharpshooter.  Sam Young is not a highly-skilled player, but his blue-collar mentality fits in well with the Spurs, and he will likely become a fan favorite.  Jeff Ayres (formerly Jeff Pendergraph) will add some depth to the team, as well.

DeJuan Blair, who could seemingly never get on the court for Coach Popovich towards the end of his time in San Antonio, is gone to Dallas, and Gary Neal, who occasionally frustrated Spurs fans with his shot selection and inconsistency, will now ply his trade in Milwaukee.  Elsewhere, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are still on the roster, and the sky is still blue.

Tim Duncan

Little bit about this guy.  He is 37 years old.  Last year, he was an All-Star and made All-NBA first team while racking up his second highest PER of the last six years.  His numbers per 36 minutes looked like this: 21 PPG, 12 RPG, 3 BPG.  In the playoffs, he roasted the world champion Miami Heat to the tune of 25 points in ONE HALF in Game 6 of the Finals.  By all accounts, the big man was as fit and as motivated last year as he has ever been in his career.  Until this year, that is.  Yes, somehow, Duncan has apparently managed to get leaner and more in shape than he was during his ridiculous “comeback” season last year.  In short, Timmy could well be in store for another humongous season. 

Tony Parker

There are some warnings that Tony Parker could be headed for a down year.  Foremost among them is that he is now on the wrong side of 30 with a lot of tread on the tires.  Of course, that hasn’t exactly proven a death knell for his teammate Mr. Duncan, but Tony has a very different game, one that relies heavily on quickness and him careening into huge bodies in the paint at seemingly 1000 MPH.  Furthermore, his performance in the Finals was poor by his standards (making it the second straight year he has failed to dominate with his team facing elimination).  Parker also spent his offseason racking up minutes for France in the Eurobasket tournament and admitted that he was “tired”.  San Antonio fans should hope Parker is still ready to shoulder the load because it’s no secret the Frenchman has been the most important Spur for some years now. The team needs him to eventually turn in another MVP candidate-type year.  Luckily, the Spurs are deep and balanced, so his teammates should be able to hold down the fort should he start the season slowly.

Danny Green

Danny Green had a historic run in the Finals last year, breaking the record for total three-pointers made in a playoff series, but, like Parker, came up small in the decisive final two games against the Heat (he shot an abysmal 2 for 19 from the field in Games 6 and 7).  He went from the Spurs MVP to goat in a few short games, and as such, Green likely comes into this season feeling he has a lot to prove.  Was his red-hot shooting in that series a fluke? Or is he ready to join the ranks of the league’s elite sharpshooters (Curry, Korver, Allen, etc.)?  Surprisingly, the answer may be that Green is already in that group.  He was one of only three players (along with Curry and Korver) to be among the top eight players in the league in both three-pointers field goal percentage and three-pointers made.  Actually, the real question for Green next year will be whether he can improve his game in any other areas.  Can he become a lockdown defender?  Can he improve at putting the ball on the floor and creating his own shot?  The UNC product is only 26, so there is certainly room for optimism.

Most exciting player to watch: Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi isn’t consistently a highlight reel type player, and he doesn’t possess blinding speed like Parker, but there is something exciting about the potential development of this quiet young man.  There is a reason that, in the ESPN preview for the Spurs, Leonard was mentioned by every single analyst in response to the question of “most intriguing” Spur.  Still only 22, Leonard has the poise and maturity of a veteran on the court.  He also has a rabid desire to improve.  Before his rookie year, he broke down and rebuilt his jump shot, which had been considered a major weakness coming into the draft.  This past season, he improved his post game considerably and actually became a deadly three-point shooter.  Additionally, Leonard is a monster on defense and actually legitimately flustered LeBron at times during the Finals last year.  In fact, he was probably the Spurs second-best player in that series (yes, better than Ginobili AND Parker), and arguably their best rebounder as well (at 6’7”).  Leonard already has a laundry list of skills and is developing at an alarming rate.  He could be a candidate to take a Paul George-esque leap forward into stardom this year.  If that happens, he will most certainly qualify as the Spurs’ most exciting player to watch.

Prediction: 57 wins

Duncan is unlikely to be as ridiculously dominant as he was last year, and Parker may struggle to start the season.  As a result, the team will rely more on their young guns (Leonard, Splitter, Green) than ever before.  That will be enough to get them homecourt advantage in the playoffs (as always).  This team is all about a ring, though, and the development (or lack thereof) of the aforementioned “young big 3” will go a long way towards determining if they can accomplish that goal.

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Sheridan Hoops