clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

San Antonio Spurs 2016/17 season preview: The post-Tim Duncan era begins

The Spurs will try to remain a contender in a transitional year after losing the franchise's best player ever.

NBA: Preseason-Atlanta Hawks at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The moment every Spurs fan has been fearing for years has arrived. Tim Duncan has finally retired and that means a new era of San Antonio basketball starts in the 2016/17 season. For the past 19 years Big Fun was the constant on the court. Now he's only around as a "coach of whatever he feels like." Needless to say, that will be a huge adjustment.

Fortunately, the front office prepared for this exact moment. Kawhi Leonard is in tow to carry on with the tradition of stoic franchise stars. LaMarcus Aldridge is flanking him as a second option. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are still around to provide shot creation and leadership. The team's depth might not be what it was, but there are still quality role players around and promising youngsters. The Spurs will be fine.

There's even a chance they do better than they did in Duncan's last two seasons in the league. After bowing out in the first and second round in the past two years, respectively, they could reach the conference finals. The West is wide open and even if there is a drop-off, a team coming of a 67-win season can take it and still remain among the best in the league.

So let's take a look at what happened in the offseason and figure out how this new version of the Spurs will look like going forward.

San Antonio spurs

Last year's record: 67-15
Key losses: Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, Boris Diaw's espresso machine, David West, Boban Marjanovic, Matt Bonner's general awesomeness.
Key additions: Pau Gasol, Dewayne Dedmon, David Lee, Dejounte Murray, Livio Jean-Charles, Davis Bertans.

What significant moves were made during the offseason?

Well, one of the best players to ever suit up retired. The Spurs brought in a future Hall-of-Famer in Pau Gasol to replace him, but they had to move Boris Diaw to make room for him. David West defected to the Warriors. The Spurs lost three of their four rotation big men, plus their most promising big man prospect in Marjanovic and a veteran who knew the playbook in Matt Bonner.

Getting the now available minutes behind Aldridge and Gasol will be defensive specialist Dewayne Dedmon and David Lee. The downgrade is obvious, but the Spurs are hoping former first round pick Livio Jean-Charles and former second rounder Davis Bertans can give them some athleticism and shooting at power forward to make up for it.

At guard things will remain largely the same. The loss of Andre Miller and Kevin Martin are not significant and Ginobili returned, so the sixth man role will remain his. Gregg Popovich will take anything he can get out of second-year swingman Jonathon Simmons and rookie combo guard Dejonte Murray, but the rotation will likely remain similar to last season's.

What are the team's biggest strengths?

One of the Spurs' biggest strengths is obvious. They have one of the best players in the league in Kawhi Leonard and a perfect second option in Aldridge. Sheer talent masks a lot of weaknesses and San Antonio has plenty of star power. Those two carried the team for long stretches last season and will surely do the same in 2016/17. It's hard to imagine any team with two legitimate stars in their prime winning fewer than 50 games.

A historically good defense has likely taken a step back with Duncan gone but it should remain stout going forward. The offense, which ranked third in the league last season, might be improved. The Spurs were among the best rebounding teams in the league and while that area might see some regression if they go small more often, Popovich's teams have traditionally done well on the defensive glass. San Antonio is still a balanced team that can do everything important at a high level. There are no glaring, obvious weaknesses, at least on paper.

Finally, it's impossible to discount the importance of the culture Popovich and Duncan built. The Spurs don't typically have internal problems and their "next man up" mentality carries them through tough times. They won't beat themselves, and that's important.

What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

A lack of proven big man depth looms large. Dedmon seems like a steal for his salary but in his three seasons in the league he’s failed to snag a permanent rotation role. He's supposed to be the Spurs' second best defensive big man behind Aldridge, which is concerning. Jean-Charles and Bertans are rookies. Anderson entered the league as a point guard and might be asked to spend time at power forward. The only bench big that has significant experience is Lee, and he stopped being a reliable contributor years ago.

While depth is a new concern, age isn't. Three of the Spurs' key players — Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol — are on their last legs. Parker tries on defense but his lack of speed and his slight frame makes him a liability there; Ginobili doesn't have the athleticism to take over on offense and relies heavily on his anticipation to make up for a loss of quickness on defense; and Kobe Bryant was a true superstar the last time Pau had the mobility to defend well in space. If those three take a step back, it will force Pop to go deeper into his bench and there might not be enough talent there.

The worst case scenario involves Gasol and Parker being defensive liabilities that not even Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green can make up for and Ginobili failing to orchestrate the second unit without Diaw. If that happens, the Spurs will still win plenty in the regular season but won't go far in the playoffs.

What are the goals for the Spurs?

San Antonio wants to contend. Otherwise, the front office would have gone younger instead of signing Gasol. A title seems like a long shot, considering it's a transitional year for the franchise and the Warriors and Cavaliers look to be a step above the Spurs. Anything short of a conference finals appearance, however, would be considered a disappointment.

A secondary goal is to develop the young talent on the roster to replenish the team's depth. The developmental staff and the Austin Spurs coaches have to start molding Jean-Charles and Murray. Pop needs to figure out if Anderson, Simmons and Bertans are on the team's long term plans. The Spurs won't force-feed the youngsters minutes, as it would conflict with their main goal, but they have to find a way to see what they have.

What does Kawhi Leonard need to do to win MVP?

Leonard came in second in MVP voting last season, but it was a footnote on Stephen Curry's unanimous win. This upcoming season he should have a better shot at getting the honor, but it won't be easy.

Per Game Table
2015-16 33.1 .506 .443 .528 .874 6.8 2.6 1.8 1.0 1.5 1.8 21.2

Fortunately, his numbers from last season seem sustainable, with the exception of his three-point shooting. What he needs to improve on is his playmaking. Leonard averaged just over two assists per game last season, not a great number for a first option. Developing his court vision will be crucial for him as he looks to expand on his growing offensive game. Voters will note improvement in that area.

Ultimately, what might determine whether Leonard becomes the first Spur to win the MVP award since Duncan did it in 2003 might come down to team success. With Durant and Curry splitting the credit for the Warriors' likely dominant year, LeBron James not exerting himself in the regular season and James Harden, Paul George and Russell Westbrook likely leading mediocre squads, Kawhi could be the clear-cut best player on one of the best teams in the league if the Spurs finish second in the West.