I have to be honest, I thought you had your super-fan goggles on. We've all been looking forward to finding out a little more about Nando de Colo, but these Rubio comparisons had to stop. Pump the brakes a bit, J.R. Slow your, uh, roll-o on de Colo (I'm literally the worst). But I didn't say anything, because I knew it was only the excitement of the new season emanating from our leader's mind. I mean, I was excited in my own right, I just had very tempered expectations. He was decent during the team scrimmage but certainly didn't 'wow' anybody. Still, while he made a minor mark in the box score, his basketball acumen was evident. Gregg Popovich said at media day this was a kid who needed time to watch and learn. After all, this team is stacked. And yeah, he'll certainly spend a large portion of his time learning, but after last night's game-winning 11-point, nine-assist performance, I feel as if I owe Mr. Wilco an apology for the disrespect; the questioning of his basketball I.Q. It does look like this guy has a flair that's nearly NBA-ready.
His arsenal of passes doesn't seem to be limited at all. He can go behind his back and behind his head, or he can set up beautifully orchestrated bounce passes from anywhere on the court. Add a decent looking jumper to that equation and you're looking at a serviceable if not key role player in the Spurs' rotation. He's got the skill set, but does he have a viable roster spot? As I said, the Spurs are as deep a team as you'll see in the league. So, I ask you, Mr. Wilco, where exactly does he fit in?
That, Mr. Tynan, I simply cannot tell you. I'm sorry but I don't see anywhere he can fit in, unless one of the guys regresses or is inexplicably put into Pop's doghouse. We were wondering where all of the wing minutes were going to come from even before Nando showed up for training camp. And now?
I guess all there is to say is that Pop will have a ton of freedom on those days he decides to rest Manu and/or Tony. Which raises an entirely different question: Will Pop do that as often as he did last season?
But back to Nando. He certainly looks comfortable running the offense, but how often is he really going to be called on to do that? With Patty Mills and Gary Neal fighting with Cory Joseph over Tony's back up minutes, it already seems like too much of a logjam at point guard. And there's just as big an issue at the two with Neal and Danny Green working with Manu. Finally, I know that he's being listed at 6'5 or 6'6, but I stood next to Nando on Saturday and I wouldn't put him an inch over 6'3, So I don't see any way he bridges up to play small forward unless Pop opts to go über-small.
And speaking of small forward, what did you think of Kawhi Leonard from what you've seen this preseason?
He hasn't been very good, but I wouldn't at all be concerned by what we've seen on the floor thus far. He's playing in a far different role with hardly a semblance of familiar surroundings. I mean, Eddy Curry, Derrick Brown and Cory Joseph were starting alongside he and Danny Green. That's a far cry from what the Spurs' roster will look like on opening night against the Hornets. While he did begin to create a few more plays for himself late last season, Leonard was almost exclusively a spot-up shooter and hustle-play scorer. So his value manifested itself in broken plays, fast breaks and put-backs off the offensive glass on top of his unexpectedly improved three-point shooting.
But we've heard it and seen it written all offseason: Kawhi will have much more responsibility on his shoulders in the 2012-13 season. Pop and R.C. Buford have mentioned on many occasions that Leonard's usage rate will see a significant rise going forward, which of course means he will be used more often in initiating the offense than he has been in the past. That means more and more often, he'll be at the point of attack rather than off the ball, in a Spurs system that thrives so much in the pick and roll. Being the ball-handler in these situations constitutes a much higher level of responsibility than his role did on last year's team. Instead of spotting up and waiting for the pass - which I'm sure he'll still have plenty of opportunity to do - he'll be expected to properly read his teammates' screens and make a split-second decision on whether to pass, pull up for the shot or drive to the basket.
His ball-handling ability, mid-range jumper and ability to get to the rim surprised many during the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. And maybe 'surprised' isn't the right term as clearly these were skill sets he possessed on some level, but he performed his duties - against inferior competition, mind you - at an impressive level. We saw him drastically improve his shooting ability going into his rookie season, so I think it's safe to say many around the Spurs' organization expect him to make another leap during his sophomore campaign. I believe he'll be smack-dab in the middle of the league's Most Improved Player conversation. This is a team that behind closed doors has made the decision to put him on a steep learning curve and bring him along quickly. That's what's going to make watching his progression so interesting. With Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker still running the show, I can't think of a better situation in which to heap this burden upon the 21-year-old forward.
I have but one concern, Mr. Wilco. I'm a bit worried this role adjustment will cause a regression in the three-point shooting ability he worked so hard to achieve last year. The increase in Kawhi's three-point efficiency from college to the pros was astounding, but it takes much longer than a year to permanently refine one's stroke. I trust he's still putting up the shots, but there's a lot of work that goes into becoming a high-usage ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations, not to mention becoming a respectable pull-up, mid-range shooter. Am I crazy to think we might see a dip in his three-point shooting percentage for no other reason than he's got a lot more on his plate this season?
Concerned about Kawhi's shooting, are you? I don't see that one myself. I'm more likely to look askance at his overall performance in the preseason, but I've decided to go with a rose-colored response to his underwhelming play through training camp that goes something like this: So what if he didn't look great in the preseason. Just how much does that mean? He looked fabulous in Summer League, but that doesn't mean he'll set the league on fire, does it? He'll be somewhere between those two extremes, and settling into a season-long stretch of incremental improvements all year long.
So while I'm still optimistic, my expectations concerning The Big Island are being dramatically reduced. If he's simply able to do what he did last year while showing occasional flashes of future brilliance, I'll be satisfied. Nothing kills a good solid performance like overly high expectations. And so I'm making a conscious decision to NOT put myself in a position where I'm disappointed with Kawhi's play all year long for the sole reason that he doesn't quite meet the crazy potential I was looking for after Pop's "star" comment.
So, we're here at the beginning of the season and all of the camp fodder turned out to be just that. They were all waived, including poor Eddy Curry, who's now with the Mavericks (snicker). The roster is at 14 which frees up PATFO to do what they love so much to do: pull in a red-hot Development League guy for a 10 day contract and see what he's made of. Also, it allows all of those talented wings to stay right where they are and get additional playing time while Manu rests his back.
Which brings me to look forward at the Spurs chances for the coming year in the aftermath of the Thunder's trading away James Harden. J. Gomez has already done an excellent job of looking at the repercussions of the deal, but I want to talk about how it affects us as fans. Before the weekend, it appeared that (for all conventional wisdom purposes) that the top teams in the West would be the Lakers, because of their acquisitions, and the Thunder, because of their appearance in The Finals. But this changes everything because you can no longer say that OKC is now indisputably better than San Antonio. In fact, there's already been mention about how L.A. and S.A. are the West's top contenders since the Thunder decided "to break up the reigning Western Conference champs now in hopes of a better long-term outlook". Regardless of the thinking behind it, I'm excited about not having to worry about that deadly crunch-time unit of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
And I'm not usually one to tout how the Whirlwide Liter feels about the Spurs' place in the league, but I'm mentioning it now, at the beginning of the season, for all of you who live in hostile NBA territory and can't avoid talking hoops with those who generally swallow whatever trending topic is being shoveled out from Bristol, Connecticut. The Spurs are number two on the preseason rankings. No, it doesn't mean anything substantial. But when you, educated reader of Pounding the Rock, are talking about the upcoming year, it's nice to not be laughed out of the conversation at the barest mention that the Spurs have a excellent to once again claim the most wins in the Western Conference.
And I think they will.
I'm not sold on the Lakers because of their roster that's as front-loaded as a rhino carrying an anvil on its nose; their thick-skulled devotion to the Princeton offense that (with Steve Nash on their team) is as out of place as Gov. Romney at a Phish concert, and Pres Obama at an NRA rally; or their ability to keep all of their guys healthy for an entire 82 games plus playoffs. Nor am I sold on an Thunder team that chased the Spurs out of the WCF with a closing unit helmed by a guy they just shipped to Houston. Seriously, Harden's ball handling, decision making and clutch three-pointers were the difference in last year's series with San Antonio, and they just treated him like dirt, like garbage, like slime, like filth, like putrescence.
Finally, I expect the Spurs to win a lot of games this year. Like they did last year. And the year before that. Only I wasn't expecting it in either of the two previous years. But that crazy fifty-five game run with a winning percentage of .872 (the equivalent of a 71 win season when projected across 82 games) sold me on the offense that Pop has transitioned to and his ability to get all of his guys on the same page, and operating (as I've said before) like they're all being controlled by a single mind. With lots of regular season wins comes exposure, and with exposure comes expectations, and with expectations comes the possibility of major disappointment if they're not fulfilled. And that's why I expect to see a trade this year.
Yup. I said it. I rarely if ever make predictions, and I just made two. But I'll make it even more specific than I have. Barring injury, I see the Spurs winning at least 60 games, and I see them making a trade to get them that power forward Edg5 is always going on about. Now, the first depends on health, and the second relies on a trading partner, but I think they'll get both this year. I'm not certain they can take the Heat (or whoever else makes it out of the East) if they make it to the Finals after all of this prognosticating, but if they do, I like their chances.
Regardless, it's sure to be a seriously fun ride.