I never gamble and don't like making predictions for matters out of my control. Looking at last year's forecasts, pretty much every anointed expert had the Lakers and OKC battling for the West, and the Celtics or even the 76ers challenging Miami in the East. This is why I'm not all that bothered with preseason posturing, nor am I going to argue with other fans on whose team is better, since at this point everyone is a contender. Anything can happen in the next eight months. However, I do like our boys' chances for the following reasons.
10. Patty Mills is in his contract year.
Pattycakes is back and he won't settle for a third-string role anymore. If he can't earn a solid rotation spot, he needs to showcase himself to attract potential suitors. Either way, his new physique should be a hint of just how motivated he is to step up this year. The backup PG job is still up for grabs, and Mills will give Cory Joseph a run for his money. I predict some jaw-dropping moments this season from our favorite towel-waver as he brings his signature spark of energy off the bench.
9. Aron Baynes has untapped potential.
The perception of Baynes as the worst player on the roster might come from his first second on the floor resulting in a turnover, or possibly of all other facepalm moments he created with his awkward play later on. In perspective however, high turnover and foul rates are common among new players. Baynes was signed mid-season and this is his first NBA team. Once he gets more familiar with the Spurs and the NBA style, the buttery-hands syndrome should subside somewhat, making him more usable as time goes on. After all, Baynsie does have many positives: he is a solid rebounder and shot-blocker; he can score when given a good look; and he has a large bulky frame to defend those huge guys who don't possess much finesse but use their athleticism to muscle up to the rim, such as Dwight Howard or Blake Griffin (as we saw in the Lakers series).
8. Marco Belinelli might have found a niche.
Much like Boris Diaw, Belinelli has bounced around the league as a solid bench contributor - never an outstanding player, but always capable of doing a little of everything. His numbers with the Bulls last year were not particularly impressive, but they were also one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league. The Spurs, in contrast, are an excellent offensive team that lives on pick-and-roll and setting up easy open baskets. I don't think Marco will become the next Manu, but he has decent ball-handling skills - sorely lacking on the bench - and might take some pressure off Ginobili. J. Gomez's post on the way the Italian nation team used Marco showed how well the Spurs' offensive schemes are suited to his talents -- far more so than than Chicago's system -- so with some practice he should fit in quite well.
7. Danny Green acknowledges his limitations.
He received a lot of attention for his three-point shooting in the playoffs, but Green is nevertheless aware of his handicaps. I don't expect him to magically develop a layup or floater off the dribble early in the season, but there's a good chance he'll expand his game by the playoffs. A late draft pick who was waived twice early in his career, Danny has worked hard both in college and the NBA to get where he is, showing consistent improvement. He's still very young, so there is no reason to think he has reached his ceiling.
6. Kawhi was not rattled by the Finals.
While Coach Pop and the vets have been visibly shaken by the close loss, the quietest member of the Spurs has merely shrugged his shoulders. I'm personally not surprised by his attitude, nor do I believe he's secretly grieving. The kid is ambitious and will work hard to win, but he's not feeling the same pressure as the others. While the Big Three's run is ending, Kawhi's is only beginning and his future looks bright and shiny. He went to the Conference Finals as a starter in his rookie year and to the NBA Finals in his second. How many 15th -- or even 1st draft -- picks can match that? He is not worried. When the Spurs hit a bump in the road, and there should be a few of those, they will be able to count on their young star to remain composed and keep pounding, as he has done in the past.
5. Pop's humility.
In the NBA, where most head coaches are easily interchangeable and disposable, Gregg Popovich has been the unrestricted ruler of the Spurs for almost twenty years. Everyone knows: it's Pop's way or the highway. At the same time, Coach Pop is far from an arrogant hard-head. I won't attempt to analyze whether the Game 6 loss was his fault for various reasons, but I'll bet anything that Pop has spent countless hours replaying the Finals in his head, agonizing over what he could have done differently. This is a guy who throughout his tenure with the same team and the same stars has made numerous changes to their game, especially following tough losses. He routinely consults with other coaches and experts, watches other teams, corrects past mistakes, and always looks for improvement. We've seen the Spurs go from a slow-grinding defensive team to a fast-paced top offensive team with complex perimeter motion plays that have basketball purists writhing in orgasms. No, Pop will not dig his heels in; he will make adjustments to bring his guys all the way, especially considering how much he genuinely loves them.
4. Manu's terrible Finals performance.
The Spurs shocked everyone by re-signing their aging vet after a cringe-worthy Finals performance and his statistically worst year since 2005. I think it was a smart move. Ginobili is a fierce competitor who is harder on himself than anyone could possibly be and he was touched to the core by the Spurs' faith in him. He'll move mountains to redeem himself for his failures. Those failures, I must say, are greatly exaggerated by those who only watched the Spurs in the Finals. Manu's regular season numbers dipped slightly (to around the "sharpshooter" Gary Neal's level) and his turnover rate increased due to his role as the effective backup PG for new teammates while battling strain injuries. The situation got out of control in the Finals, as the Heat closed out Parker (and later Duncan) to kill the pick-and-roll and force the rest of the team go one-on-one and handle the ball (resulting in such ghastly sights as Danny Green on the dribble), and Ginobili was left as the only capable ball-handler and creator. The glaring PG deficit was exposed, yet it was Manu who became the fans' scapegoat. Meanwhile, PATFO rightly chose to replace Neal instead of Ginobili, and I hope they'll keep working on closing the point guard gap.
3. Tony Parker's Eurobasket win.
The symbolic passing of the torch from Tim Duncan to Tony Parker has not been a smooth ride. Whether Parker's tentativeness as a leader has stemmed from a lack of confidence, the habit of playing second fiddle, or his respect for Timmy and fear of overstepping, we can only speculate. Parker has been phenomenal in many games, sparking his team to some improbable victories and making clutch shots, only to fade out in the Finals under Miami's choking defense on him. My second most heartbreaking moment of the Finals was the sight of a defeated and extinguished-looking Tony sitting out the last 27 seconds in Game 7. In contrast, watch this clip of him calling out his French teammates for playing like merde in the Eurobasket semifinal and inciting them to play with pride and be more aggressive. Later he rallied them to pick up the slack in the final because he was dog-tired. As a result, his team pulled an unlikely overtime upset over the more polished Spain and won the country's first European basketball title. Now am I crazy to hope that should another tough Finals series roll around, we will see a more confident and keyed-up Tony Parker leading the Spurs to victory?
2. Tim Duncan's face at the post-Finals conference when questioned if he was "confident" that he was coming back next season.
You remember that interview and Timmy's dejected state (here it is if you don't). The drooping shoulders, the head hung low, the palm trying to cover his face. I was afraid to watch. While everyone can't stop talking about Game 6 and 28 seconds, the single most heartbreaking moment of my year was seeing Timmy's reaction after missing the tip-in. I still can't help tearing up every time I remember it. When I finally watched the press conference, it actually wasn't that bad. Yes, it was supremely sad and depressing, but there was that spark of indignation in Tim's eyes and the furrowed eyebrow when he was asked about his retirement. The idea of giving up did not occur to him even in the worst moments of bitter disappointment, and he is not going to slink away, tail between legs, no sir. Recently Duncan admitted his intent to retire at the end of his contract to spend more time with his kids (*tears*), so there is the ticking clock. Expect the return of grudgingly rapturous remarks from opposing team commentators on Tim Duncan's secret fountain of youth.
1. The Spurs are hungry.
They've tasted blood and now want more. After several disheartening first- and second-round exits, as well as the painful loss in four consecutive games in the conference finals, the Spurs finally came close enough to victory to taste it. It's no longer a distant dream but a vividly imagined possibility for this team. The sting of loss should be an excellent motivator to play just a little bit harder and little bit smarter when the critical time comes. I can't wait to see it.