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Spurs season preview: One year older, one year wiser

Does the continuity of San Antonio's roster mean another No. 1 seed in the West come playoff time? I believe so. But does it mean a fifth ring for Tim Duncan?

Can Tim Duncan return to the NBA Finals for another shot at a ring?
Can Tim Duncan return to the NBA Finals for another shot at a ring?
Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

The evolution of the San Antonio Spurs over the course of the last five years has been as interesting (and, really, unprecedented) as that of any team in recent memory with a consistent core of players. Aside from the fact we rarely see groups of players remain together for the length of time Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have, watching a team's style go through a complete metamorphosis the way the Spurs' has is a whole different story. This was a team that bored the country with defense on its way to four NBA titles but rarely finished atop the regular season standings, opting for health rather than seeding come playoff time. Then again, those teams weren't as deep as this one.

And many left San Antonio for dead - or at least on the doorstep - after being swept by the upstart Suns and Goran freaking Dragic in 2010, and the Spurs as we knew them were certainly done in 2011 after being physically bullied out of the first round by the Memphis Grizzlies. But the defense-to-offense mentality has worked extremely well, even as Ginobili and Duncan reach the end of their careers in an young, up-tempo NBA stocked with premiere athleticism. Still, here is San Antonio, looking to finish as the Western Conference's No. 1 seed for the third consecutive year with its own blend of youthful depth and veteran resurgence.

So go ahead and write the Spurs off again; just remember you do so at your own risk. Still, maybe you'll be right. Father Time is inescapable, after all. But he is only as effective as the limitations that befall and plague his victims. This team is still really, really good, and with the improving young talent and a core that has defied the effects of age and attrition, the demise of the silver and black as we know it is anything but imminent.

A season to forget that should be remembered ... or something like that

You know the story by now; you remember how you felt as it has punched you repeatedly in the face since early summer. The Spurs' seemingly unstoppable roll was unceremoniously derailed by the Oklahoma City Thunder in a four-game losing streak that was as surprising to the national audience as it was to the viewership of Bexar County. San Antonio entered Game 3 of the conference finals riding a 20-game winning streak and a 48-7 tear, only to have its identity stolen and used against it by the supremely talented Thunder. It was a shocking end to what had been a veritable renaissance in the Alamo City.

The Spurs and their fans have been conditioned to measure success in nothing other than Larry O'Brien trophies since Duncan came to town, so while there has been a run of recent regular season success, it's been the end of these campaigns that will indelibly stick with us. While that's certainly understandable, let's not discount what we saw last spring: one of the best stretches that any NBA team has ever experienced.

We all remember the night Manu went down in Minnesota. Ginobili had begun the 2011-12 campaign at an All-Star level and had the Spurs humming right along with him, but that broken shooting hand left a terrible feeling in the pit of every Spurs fan's stomach. It was that "here we go again" feeling; a moment that left many thinking the inevitable end was nearer than expected. For a team widely expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference, San Antonio hit an earlier rough stretch than it had planned for. But what was originally thought to be a devastating injury turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise. With Ginobili's early absence came the emergence of Danny Green, the offensive maturation of Tony Parker and the overall revelation of team depth that stretched beyond what possibly the Spurs themselves had expected. Here at PtR we talked extensively about "staying afloat" during LWM (Life Without Manu), just biding time until San Antonio's emotional leader returned to action. And stay afloat it did, on its way to a 12-9 record through 21 games. But there would be no more biding time from that point on.

The Spurs went on the greatest run in this franchise's history, finishing the regular season 38-7 and toppling the Thunder for the conference's No. 1 seed with an overall record of 50-16. In a season with only 66 games, San Antonio managed to extend its streak of 50-win seasons to 13, setting an NBA record in the process. Along the way, the Spurs acquired veteran Boris Diaw, reacquired fan favorite Stephen Jackson by coaxing the Golden State Warriors to take on Richard Jefferson, and picked up Patty Mills to form a roster as deep as any in the league. The wild success was more than anyone had anticipated as the Spurs continued on to win 10 straight in the playoffs, but the euphoria came to an crashing end after Game 6 in Oklahoma City.

We've discussed what happened and why it happened ad nauseum, coming to inconclusive conclusions that have satisfied some while leaving others still hungry. The truth is there's a giant propensity for over-analysis, a search for answers that don't always exist. Basketball is a sport of chance and percentages that rise and fall with situational execution and measurable player skill-sets. But like most things in life, variables exist that can often force a progression or regression back to the mean. Unfortunately for San Antonio, there was an explosive regression back toward the norm after a 20-game winning streak, and it came at a very bad time. Key role players who had been so good all year fell off, both offensively and defensively, forcing the Big 3 to take on a load they hadn't had to carry all season long. Depending more on the Spurs' longest tenured stars isn't necessarily a bad thing, but when it comes as a result of a lack of trust in the team's depth - which was warranted considering the horrible play of certain players - it becomes a cause for concern.

If players around Parker, Ginobili and Duncan had been able to sustain success - as they had all season - and maintain the trust they earned from their All-Star teammates, we very well might be having a completely different discussion right now. While I hate to keep picking on Green (he's certainly not THE reason for the Spurs' failures), the need for Popovich to reinsert Manu into the starting lineup in place of the under-performing guard marked the beginning of the end for San Antonio. A second unit that had been so lethal all season was suddenly lacking its leader, and a rotation that had been so trusted was now an experiment.

Sometimes it just comes down to hitting shots and playing defense. Sounds so simple, doesn't it?

The rise of Kawhi

Easily the storyline of the upcoming season is the continued progression of second-year forward Kawhi Leonard. And it's as intriguing a development as the Spurs have seen in a while. Leonard, the highest draft pick in town since Duncan (even though he was originally drafted by Indiana), represents tangible evidence of a future in San Antonio after the Big Three. His rapid development as a shooter and maturation as a starter in his first year weren't just pleasant revelations, they were necessities. Leonard was used as the team's primary defensive stopper as a 20-year-old rookie, matching up with offensive talent unlike anything he'd ever seen. But he took it in stride, regularly casting aside questions from the media regarding what it's like to defend the league's top offensive players. His even-keeled, wise-beyond-his-years approach had Popovich using him as he hadn't used a rookie since Parker's first year, and he figures to fit in more prominently moving forward.

But there's perhaps an element of over-excitement when it comes to the 21-year-old. While most expect there to be another significant improvement heading into Leonard's sophomore campaign, any expectation of Kawhi improving enough to form a "Big 4" in San Antonio might be a bit premature. There has been much discussion of an increased usage rate by Pop and Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford, but exactly how that will work remains to be seen. This is a player who made massive strides coming out of San Diego State, but learning how to hit open threes and becoming a primary ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations are two completely different things. It's an element to his game we've seen very little of outside of the NBA Summer League, not to mention the Spurs already have two of the best in the business in that role with Parker and Ginobili.

The process of increasing Leonard's usage rate will likely be a gradual one, as members of the old guard, namely Ginobili, edge closer to retirement. The development we're seeing now in terms of ball-handling responsibilities may not be as obvious today as it will be a couple of years from now. With Pop making another concerted effort to push this team back into the upper tier defensively, Leonard's biggest improvement could very well be seen on that side of the ball. With a year of guarding players like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant under his belt, Kawhi will have a more experienced outlook and familiar scouting report to refer to. Leonard is the type of player the Spurs had been starving for since Bruce Bowen retired. On top of the surprising three-point stroke, his ability to defend and rebound as well as thrive in loose-ball situations and in the open floor will continue to make the biggest impact in the immediate future. But in terms of offense, you can be sure he'll continue to be more and more opportunistic around the creative abilities of the Big 3.

Can he progress to the point of being the team's fourth best player? Absolutely. But to view him as a savior that can carry this team past the Thunder (or perhaps the Lakers) in the West would be a mistake. If San Antonio is able to make it back to the NBA Finals, it won't be solely because of Leonard's continued emergence. It will be because he and the rest of this team's key role players excelled in their roles and maintained the same level of excellence as the stage got bigger.

Still, don't be surprised when you see Leonard's name near the top of the list of candidates for the NBA's Most Improved Player. Then again, we'll probably see Green and Tiago Splitter up there as well, especially when you consider the voters are usually a year late with that award anyway.

Forecast for the season ahead

With all the success San Antonio had last year it's tough to find much fault in the front office retaining nearly the entire roster. When you win the number of games the Spurs did it would be a mistake to make any drastic moves, save for the obvious blockbuster that never came along. Tim Duncan re-signed over the summer (duh) for less than $10 million, and Green and Diaw are staying put for roughly $8 million per year combined. These subtle moves, along with the signing of 2009 draft pick Nando De Colo, give the Spurs the advantage of continuity. With virtually no roster turnover of consequence, San Antonio can continue what it developed a year ago in an attempt to return to the promised land. But is it a year too late? That depends.

Barring any sort of significant injury or other setback, we know this offense will be just fine. It will score a ton of points very efficiently and will give the Spurs a chance to beat anybody in the league. And while it's crucial that offense which fell off in the final four games of the Western Conference Finals preserves its identity, even more important is the improvement of the defense. Popovich said he wants his team back in the top-5 range in terms of team defense, a move from the middle of the pack that will take some work to achieve. With no new impact players on the defensive side of the ball, San Antonio must rely on what it already has. The Leonard-Green pairing on the perimeter has a lot of promise, but Duncan will need significant help in the interior for this team to make that next leap. None of the other bigs on the roster - Diaw, Splitter, Matt Bonner or DeJuan Blair - are known for their defense, so there's no question it will take some work. But if Green and Leonard are able to make it even more difficult on opposing backcourts, any help Duncan gets in the paint will be a plus. Make no mistake about it: Duncan is still playing at a high level defensively.

This is a team that has the depth, firepower and experience to once again push for the league's top seed, and I believe they will do it once again while topping the 60-win plateau. But as we've seen over the last two seasons, getting that No. 1 seed hasn't pushed them over the top when it's all been said and done out West. There's been an obvious development over the last two years, however, and this group is deeper than any Spurs team before it. With a full training camp and a full complement of players in tow, San Antonio is poised to get out of the gates quickly. Whether we'll see any player movement by the front office remains to be seen, but the Spurs certainly have the pieces and flexibility to be an attractive trade partner moving forward. These are things you can't necessarily forecast at this point of the season, but is it possible you see someone like Jack - who has the always valuable one year remaining on his $10.06 million contract - moved? Sure it is, though I doubt he's moved unless the deal is a no-brainer.

As for my prediction, this Spurs team will be even better than last year's in many areas, namely defense and maturity level of young players. Given the continuity and depth of the roster, San Antonio is still good enough to finish the season as the West's No. 1 seed for the third straight year, and I believe it will. But, unfortunately, the season will once again end in the Western Conference Finals. A matchup with the Thunder will just be too much for San Antonio to deal with. (Side note: if somehow the Lakers match up with the Spurs in the WCF, I actually like San Antonio's chances.)

I don't say this too often, but I sure do hope I'm wrong.

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