Friday, October 5, 2012

Team Preview: San Antonio Spurs

In the first of these previews I mentioned that some of them wouldn't be as long as the others, and no offence to any Spurs fans out there, I'm not going to spend too much time on this one. Not because they aren't a good team, more because they are a model of consistency and there isn't a whole lot that needs to be said. So let's get stuck in...

Heading up the guard department for the Spurs are the ever-reliable Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili; the two of them remain effective as ever, Parker in particular having a tremendous season in 2011-2012 and indicating that he is now the pivotal member of the Spurs Big 3. Parker is still one of the best point guards at scoring in the paint, has added a jump shot in recent years, and his floater is as deadly as ever. Ginobili will be coming off the bench again this season, and the only numbers that will likely drop are those of his bank accounts, with the new flopping penalties specifically targeting his defensive tendencies. Backing up these two franchise cornerstones are Gary Neal, Patty Mills, Danny Green, Nando De Colo, Corey Joseph and Marcus Denmon. Neal was a late invite to the NBA, but like Toronto's Alan Anderson, he has a well-rounded skill-set, a fearless mentality and great size. Mills is coming off another strong showing in the Olympics, which might have just earned him the position of first point guard off the bench, but that might just be my Australian bias kicking in. Corey Joseph was a former first rounder who has seen limited action in the pro ranks, but this might be the season he starts to earn a spot in the rotation, especially if Parker misses time with injury. Danny Green will likely hold down the starting shooting guard spot for the regular season for a second straight year, his team-first mentality, athleticism and intensity making him a favourite of Coach Pop. Nando De Colo is another late arrival, at the still young age of 25, he's a team mate of Parker's on the French National team, and to be honest, I was unimpressed with his performance in the Olympics. He was flustered by aggressive pressure in the half-court and turned the ball over frequently in the games I watched. However, even if it's a rough first year, expect Nando to eventually work his way into the rotation. Denmon was one pick away from being Mr. Irrelevant in the 2012 draft, and it's unclear whether he'll survive training camp and remain on the roster with the amount of guards already on board.

Small Forwards:
Checking in at the 3 for the Spurs are Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Jackson and Matt Bonner. Coming off a rookie year where he proved his defensive ability translated to the NBA and that rumours of his poor shooting touch were exaggerated, Leonard has all the makings of a next-generation franchise cornerstone. He's a selfless, hard-working forward with great defensive potential, underrated scoring ability and plenty of room to grow. On a team like the Spurs where Coach Pop does arguably a better job than anybody in the NBA at getting most out of his players, Leonard will have room to grow at his own pace and may eventually take the place of Parker as the team's focal point as the team transitions into the post-Duncan era in the next few years. With a full training camp under Pop and a deep playoff run under his belt, look for Leonard to be more of a scoring threat this season and play plenty of minutes as the old timers get their rest. Speaking of old timers, Jackson now fits in this category, but while he's no longer the inspirational leader who led a plucky Warriors squad over the hotly favoured Mavs a few years back, he's still a long, tough defender, with great shooting touch and loves being a part of the Spurs franchise. Jackson did a great job getting under the skin of Kevin Durant in the early part of the Western Conference Finals last season and like many older players, his value will be more apparent in the playoffs than the regular season. Matt Bonner will play minutes at either forward spot, and will continue to benefit from the Spurs' excellent ball-movement to drain open 3s. Neal and Green might also play spot minutes at the SF.

The big man rotation of the Spurs consists of Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw and DeJuan Blair. Although the mechanically efficient Duncan is starting to spring a few leaks, he can still elevate his game when  necessary, as Serge Ibaka found out in the WCF when Timmy almost casually spun off the low block to surgically slam the ball home in the face of the leading shot-blocker of the past season. Pop will keep Duncan's minutes down to keep him fresh for the playoffs, which should open up opportunities for Tiago Splitter to gain confidence and continue the strides he made last season. Splitter was arguably the most decorated player outside the NBA before making the jump to the Spurs, but he struggled to adjust the the pace and athleticism he faced in the US. However, he showed steady improvement last season and with more minutes and responsibility he'll be a key part of the Spurs' regular season bid for a top seed in the West. Diaw and Blair share a few traits; they are both undersized and stoutly built, but that's where the comparison ends. Diaw is a versatile player who makes up for his lack of quickness with a tight handle, great vision and keen understanding of positioning on the court. Looking lost on the Bobcats early last season, Diaw found new life alongside his fellow Frenchman Tony Parker, and it was no trouble for Pop to get the most out of him. Blair on the other hand is the ACL-less marvel who gets by on extreme aggression, athleticism and toughness inside. Although he wowed people early in his career, he has somewhat lagged of late, and seems destined to be a bench player for a playoff team, but his broad frame and strength should be useful against the powerful big men of the West.

Interesting Storylines:
The always reliable Spurs are lacking in any huge roster changes, but they did draw the attention of optimists everywhere by inviting newly minted championship player Eddy Curry to training camp. Curry was part of the initial post-Jordan revival alongside Tyson Chandler, and while he put up numbers early in his career, his motivation dropped after his first major contract and he put on obscene amounts of weight. He has barely seen the floor for years, but he has reportedly dropped below 300 pounds again, and if any team is equipped to motivate and guide a highly talented player like Curry, it's the Spurs. Still only 29 years old, and without plenty of rest in the past few years, a healthy and motivated Curry could provide the Spurs with at least four more years of quality basketball. Of course, that all depends on whether he makes it onto the roster, but with the Spurs' tendency to save the careers of NBA misfits, it's not too much of a stretch to see Curry beating out Blair or Splitter for minutes off the bench.

Season Prospectus:
Although the Spurs always seem to find a way to win in the regular season, looking at the moves made by other teams in the West it's entirely possible that they finish around the fourth seed this time around but make it out of the first round come playoff time. I know the Spurs are criminally underrated, but with their current roster it's just hard to see how they'll manage to maintain their standard of excellence in a reinforced Western Conference.

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