1 - Patty Mills is back, but he's looked a bit rusty. Do you think he can make an impact right away or will it take a while for him to look like himself?
Michael Erler: Absolutely he can make an impact. The Spurs biggest problem with the absences of Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker has been that the team goes through periods of sluggishness and fatigue. Sometimes they recover, but often they don't. These dead periods turn potential easy wins into coin flips, and coin flips into losses. Mills' energy and fresh legs will ease the burden on everyone, but especially Manu Ginobili. It might take Mills a while to get his full rhythm, but even without a three pointer he can make things happen just with his foot-speed.
Jesus Gomez: I think it will take him a while to get back to being the impact player he was last season, which makes the fact that he came back earlier than projected all the more helpful. At some point Manu is going to miss games with some kind of injury.Hopefully Mills is at his best by then.
J.R. Wilco: Mills' impact goes beyond whether his long distance sharpshooting is on target. He harasses the opposing point guard. He makes it difficult to inbound the ball after the Spurs score. And even if his shot isn't on, the defense has to account for him because you never know when he'll go off. No matter how long it takes from him to get reasonably close to last year's form, having him back on the active roster is a huge benefit to the Spurs.
2 - What does Mills' return mean for Cory Joseph when Parker is ready to play?
Erler: My theory is that Pop has seen enough from Cory to realize he's too good to not play. My guess --and it's only a guess-- is that Pop will play Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills their usual minutes in the first half. Then, if either of them plays poorly in that first half, their second half minutes will go to Cory. There will also be blowout garbage-time minutes, and the games he'll play because Parker/Ginobili will be hurt or rested. I don't think Joseph will be hurting for minutes.
Gomez: This is one of the most interesting story lines to follow in 2015.Joseph has exceeded expectations but Mills' three-point shooting is a huge part of what made that second unit so successful last season. If he regains his shooting touch, Mills will get his minutes back. I think Joseph will battle Marco Belinelli for playing time.
Wilco: I'll take this opportunity to talk about how impressed I've been with Joseph's play. As I've mentioned countless times on my Vine feed, he's constantly making plays that make him look like a reasonable facsimile of Tony Parker. His creativity in finishing around the rim, the way he keeps players off-balance with a simple hesitation, and even his pull-and-pop game -- it's obvious that he's made the most of his last few years in San Antonio, soaking up every bit of knowledge that Parker could pass along. He's established himself as a player in this league, and the Spurs have gone from an era where they lacked a viable backup point guard, to having two excellent options. I wouldn't be surprised to see Pop go to a dual PG lineup in the middle of games while there are any injury issues.
3 - The early returns on the All-Star game voting are in and it looks like Tim Duncan, who is one place away from a starting spot, is the only Spur with a chance to make it. Should he get in over one of DeMarcus Cousins, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dwight Howard?
Erler: Absolutely Duncan should make it. He's been the Spurs' best and most consistent player by far. Leonard's missed too many games and neither Ginobili or Parker have been deserving. I know Cousins has been a beast too, but I'd give Duncan the nod over him because Cousins has missed too many games. Besides, it'd be pretty flippin' weird for A) the defending champions to not have a single representative and B) for an All-Time great like Duncan to not make the All-Star Game in what's likely his final season. If Kobe makes it, Duncan definitely needs to make it. I'd give Duncan the nod over Cousins and Howard. It's a shame that Blake Griffin will get voted in because I don't think he's having a great season. The seven frontcourt players, if you count the three leading the voting, should be Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki and I know he has no chance but I think the most deserving small forward in the west has been Gordon Hayward.
Gomez: Davis, Gasol and Griffin are in. Kevin Durant will be voted in by the coaches if he's healthy. That leaves three spots for frontcourt players. Cousins's numbers should make him a shoo-in. Of Nowitzki, Aldridge and Duncan, Timmy is the more complete player because of his defense but his numbers are not as good and the Spurs are below both Dallas and Portland in the standings at the moment. I would love for Duncan to make it but I'd understand if the coaches go a different direction.
Wilco: There's a perverse part of me that wants to see the Spurs repeat without a single player on the All-Star team. Chris Itz looked the historicals earlier this year, and there doesn't seem to be a single instance of a team winning a championship without any of its players being chosen to represent their team. I think it would stress how team-centric the Spurs are, and it would be one more way San Antonio could set itself apart as a franchise unique from the rest of the league. That said, I think Duncan has played well enough to deserve being included.
4 - The December Gauntlet is over. How would you rate the team's performance beyond wins and losses?
Erler: I think offensively they've been as good as could be expected given the injuries and the schedule. Defensively they've been quite poor and I've been disappointed --but not too surprised-- that Tiago Splitter hasn't made more of an impact in that regard. It's amazing how much they depend on Leonard for so many facets of their defense. They're allowing way too many open threes now, fouling too much and giving up too many offensive rebounds. But the quality of the opponents and the condensed schedule certainly contributed to that. Basically Leonard and Parker got injured in the absolute worst month they could've chosen. I'd give the team a D+. Even with all the injuries and every other excuse, they've got too much corporate knowledge and champion DNA to fold in as many games down the stretch as they have.
Gomez: I was about to give a gloomy answer until I remembered the Spurs were without Parker, Leonard or Splitter for a lot of December. "The System" gets so romanticized that we often forget that without the talent the Spurs have, no philosophy or pretty offensive sets would make a difference. So I think the team did fine on both ends. The only real concern is the late-game mistakes. If they clean those up, the Spurs will shoot up the standings when everyone is healthy.
Wilco: They fought and they scrapped, and as short-handed as they were, they were a non-called travel by Pau Gasol and a missed out-of-bounds play by LaMarcus Aldridge from being 10-8 instead of 8-10. They didn't perform as well as we'd have liked, but with the brutal schedule (back-to-back FIGASENIs?) I'm proud of the way they competed and I expect them to get their winning percentage back up in January.
5 - The Eastern Conference finally has a semblance of parity, with five teams looking like potential finals candidates. Which of those teams (Raptors, Hawks, Wizards, Bulls and Cavaliers) has impressed you the most?
Erler: The Hawks, because they have the least talent on paper but they're still making it work. Unlike the other four teams, they don't really have one All-Star worthy player right now. Maybe Jeff Teague if you really stretch. The Wizards have overcome early injuries to Nene and Bradley Beal and are really rolling, and the Bulls look very close to the squad we all expected now that they've gotten whole. The Raptors are hanging in even without DeMar DeRozan, but I don't think their schedule has been too hard of late. The Cavs are kind of a joke at the moment, and the loss of Anderson Varejao pretty much dooms them. Unless they find some people via trade they might not make it out of the first round.
Gomez: The Hawks are my sentimental pick because they play beautiful basketball and Coach Bud is leading them.Plus, no one expected them to be this good. But the most impressive team for me are the Wizards. I keep trying to find one glaring weakness that would prevent them from winning the East and I can't. John Wall is a superstar, their defense ranks in the top five and they seem to enjoy playing together. The second round of the East playoffs will be really fun for the first time in years.
Wilco: While the Raptors have done quite well without Demar Derozan, and made mincemeat of the competition while they had him, I love what Atlanta is doing. Coach Bud is showing that he's capable of coaching a contender, and I couldn't be more excited for him. I think the Hawks are going to make a lot of noise in this year's playoffs.