Team name: San Antonio Spurs
Last year's record: 62-20 (NBA Champions)
Key losses: the single-minded motivation that comes with a thirst for revenge.
Key additions: Pop's magnificent beard, Kyle Anderson.
1 - What significant moves were made during the off-season?
As soon as the celebrations stopped, all eyes turned to Tim Duncan, as he took time to decide between coming back to attempt a repeat or retiring. Fortunately, he chose the former and that decision shaped the rest of the Spurs' off-season. Since Timmy was coming back, so was the rest of the team.
The Spurs kept every single player from their playoff roster, bringing back free agents Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Matt Bonner and Aron Baynes. The only new face on the team is rookie Kyle Anderson, the last pick of the first round. On the court, these are the same Spurs that dominated last season.
The changes mostly came on the sidelines. A year ago, long-time assistant coaches Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer left for head coaching jobs. Jim Boylen was added to the returning Ime Udoka and Sean Marks left his post in the front office to lend a hand. This season Marks returns to a position as executive and the Spurs have made two splashy assistant coach signings in European basketball standout Ettore Messina and former WNBA star Becky Hammon.
2 - What are the team's biggest strengths?
The same that have been their strengths for the past couple of years: continuity and depth.
San Antonio has spent years establishing an identity as an unselfish team, ready to make the extra pass sometimes to a fault. There's accountability on the defensive end and generally everybody knows what they have to do, resulting in few blunders of their own and an uncanny ability to exploit opponent's mistakes. By bringing everyone back and likely keeping them all in a similar role as last year's, the Spurs will continue to have that edge against squads that are still trying to figure things out.
Credit: USA Today Sports
The other big advantage? A killer nine-man rotation with players in the deep bench ready to step up and provide some minutes when needed. In 2013/14, not a single player that was in the playoff roster ended the regular season with a negative net rating. That doesn't mean the Spurs have 15 rotation-level players. There are some really limited guys in the fringes, like on every team. But because they know what their role is and have at least one valuable skill, they can be used to adjust to match ups. No other team has that level of versatility.
3 - What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
There are some on-court concerns that were present last season and weren't addressed in the off-season, like a lack of length in the perimeter and athleticism down low. But the Spurs played so beautifully on both ends in the playoffs that pointing them out seems like nit-picking. Those problems are still there but they certainly weren't big enough to derail the Spurs' march towards the Larry O'Brien a year ago.
What can do that are injuries. The Spurs will start the season down one man already, as Patty Mills recovers from shoulder surgery to fix a torn rotator cuff. That means Cory Joseph will be thrown into the fire with a second unit that might not fit his strengths. Tiago Splitter will miss the pre-season with a calf injury. Manu Ginobili should be fully healthy by opening night but he had a stress fracture that kept him out of the FIBA World Championship and should be penciled in for a couple strained hamstrings a year.
Last season the Spurs survived multiple freak injuries to almost their entire wing rotation by plugging in guys like Shannon Brown and Othyus Jeffers in large part because Tim Duncan remained healthy and led the team. But Duncan is 38 and has played on a gimpy knee for years now. He can't be counted on to play over 2,000 minutes of quality basketball again. Fortunately Tony Parker is starting the year in better shape after sitting out international competition and the rest of the guys are young or have been durable. But if OKC proved anything last season is that anyone can get hurt at the worst possible time.
The team's depth will get them through the regular season. But they will need all their soldiers ready come playoff time or their chances dwindle.
4 - What are the goals for this team?
Repeating as NBA champions is the ultimate goal here. That's the only thing missing from the Spurs' dynastic run. A sixth title would put Tim Duncan ahead of Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson and into the MJ-Kareem realm. The Spurs as a franchise would tie the Bulls. And it would be the perfect send-off for Manu Ginobili and Big Fun if they decide to hang them up.
Credit: Andy Lyons
That being said, no one knows how hard it is to repeat better than the Spurs, who have not been able to accomplish that in four tries. The West will be a gauntlet once again and seeding could be important. A slip in the standings during the regular season could mean facing the Mavericks, Clippers and Thunder, for example. A healthy Spurs team can beat anyone but the road will be tough. And anything short of a conference finals appearance will feel like failure.
5 - Can the Spurs overcome complacency?
Gregg Popovich is concerned about it. Manu Ginobili said "Of course you are not as hurt. Usually a hurt animal is more dangerous. We're going to have to work mentally to have the same desire, the same hunger. " For all the great milestones a new title would help the team achieve, there's a real possibility that going deep in the playoffs three years in a row and finally getting revenge on a heartbreaking loss can lead to a feeling of satisfaction and contentment. After all, the veterans have their legacy secured and the youngsters have their NBA career still in front of them.
So the onus will be on the coaching staff and Tim Duncan to keep everyone in the right mindset. The good news is Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are rabid competitors and Kawhi Leonard is a cyborg whose first directive is to always improve. Also, the Spurs reached the conference finals and then the finals in the past few years without the extra motivation that resulted from the heartbreak of the 2012/13 season. They don't need revenge to drive them; a chance to win it all is enough. Or at least that's the hope.