Last Season: 67-15, 2nd Seed in the West
Off-season Gains: C Pau Gasol (free agent), PG Dejounte Murray (draft), C Dewayne Dedmon (free agent), PF David Lee (free agent), PF Davis Bertans (draft trade stash), SG Bryn Forbes (free agent), PG Nicolas Laprovittola (free agent)
C PF C PF C PF C Tim Duncan (retired), PF Boris Diaw (trade/Utah), PF David West (free agent/Golden State), C Boban Marjanovic (free agent/Detroit), PF Matt Bonner (free agent), SG Kevin Martin (free agent), PG Andre Miller (free agent), witty, handsome blogger
Off-season Stock: /Tugs on collar
League Pass Team?: I guess they're gonna have to be again now that I'm back in Cali, huh? I'm sending JRW the bill.
Well here it is, our final preview of 30. I'd like to say I'm going out on top but... well maybe you should just skip this and go read the Philly one again. I wrote the hell outta that one. It's just that, well, you might want to sit down for this, but I'm not overly optimistic about the 2016-17 edition of the Spurs. Perhaps you listened to the Limited Upside podcast I did with SBNation's Mike Prada. If you didn't, and have no intention of doing so, you can just scroll down to the comments, where someone with the handle Skookum#6 observed "No idea why Erler hatin'" and honestly, that about sums it up.
It's not that I think the Spurs will be bad. Far from it. But we're the very definition of "First World Problems" when it comes to fans. You do realize San Antonio can be 17 games worse than last season and still keep their 50-win streak alive, yes? That's insane to me. I keep looking at last year's roster and the numbers and remain absolutely befuddled as to how that team won 67 games. "The Big Three" were all clearly at the end and all missed significant time. Even Kawhi Leonard only played 72 games. Danny Green shot poorly for most of the year. Patty Mills and Boris Diaw basically disappeared after New Year's. Jonathon Simmons hit the skids after January.
How that Spurs squad, of all the incredible teams we've been so lucky to watch, was the one to set a franchise record for wins is something I'll never quite be able to wrap my head around. I covered the team and still can't believe it happened, and I don't think it's the recency bias from the morbid way the season ended, in six games to the Thunder in the second round. Frankly, the signs were there going into the playoffs if you were paying attention.
The only conclusion I can come up with is that Gregg Popovich has solved the regular season. On the podcast I likened it to a long con or a magic trick. The left hand doesn't see what the right hand is doing. The Spurs have everyone suckered into thinking they care about regular season results less than everyone else, with their relentless resting of stars and low-minute totals, but in fact they care more. It's not about the players, it's about the system. Everyone knows what they're doing, they're all grown-ups, and they all play hard when they're out there. Their 13th man is better than the opponent's 10th man. Their 8th guy is better than the other team's 6th guy. All that stuff adds up and matters in the regular season.
The playoffs are a completely different sport. Everyone plays hard and pays attention to the scouting reports. There are no more road trips or SEGABABAS. Rotations are cut down. Having a relatively good 11th man doesn't matter. It's all about who the best six or seven guys are. The Thunder had the better top-end of their roster and they were the rightful winners of the series.
And probably around here we should mention that the main reason the Spurs won as much as they did last year was their defense, and that it'd be silly to suggest that Tim Duncan's retirement isn't going to have an adverse impact in that. I still don't think it's hit me that he's really done. He was our basketball compass, our foundation, our security blanket, our anchor, our faith, our captain, our leader, our engine, our metronome and our soul. Just the essence of the team for the past 19 years and the best player in franchise history, that's all.
We can try and pretend that his absence won't be felt on the floor --we are replacing him with another future Hall-of-Famer, after all-- but I don't feel that's realistic. Pau Gasol will help the offense, but they'll be worse on the other end. Even if it evens out, which would be the best case scenario, where does that leave them? Still short of where they're hoping to be.
Pounders know I like Gasol a lot. Have so forever. He's been perennially underrated. Some critics --even ones who write for this very blog-- have lampooned the signing, but I don't think Gasol will be the problem. I just don't think he'll make them better than they were last year, when they were merely one of the three or four best teams in the league. Like I wrote above, First World Problems.
The problem is almost half the team is brand spanking new and it's hard to have faith in any of them. Either we have no reliable data for the four (!!!) rookies or the data we do have isn't overly encouraging, as in the case of David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon. That's six question marks with ninth-man ceilings, two more youngsters it's hard to be completely sold on in Simmons and Kyle Anderson, and the aforementioned Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker whose needles are past red. What was once the strength of the club, its ensemble cast, is now heavily weighted toward Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green (out for three weeks with a strained groin) and the 36-year-old Gasol.
Leonard is incredible. I'd still take him over Kevin Durant, right now, all things being equal. He's a top-five player, regardless. Every year I think "that's it, he can't possibly get better," and he improves some facet of his game. I've given up trying to put a limit on him. I'm hopeful his game will be less Carmelo-like and he'll be less of a ball-stopper and more of a playmaker, and I'm not about to suggest he can't do it. Can't is no longer in my vocabulary when it comes to Leonard.
As for Aldridge, I sincerely hope all the rumors are wrong and my ample gut was wrong and that the credible national reporters sniffing around the story are wrong. He was really good last year! Especially after the first couple of months. When his jumper is falling, LMA makes the game look very easy. And his defense was better than advertised (well, with Duncan next to him, anyway). We'll see how he makes it work with Gasol, but I'm excited about the possibilities of the two of them switching from low-post to hi-post and from inside to the three-point line. I think they'll complement each other very well.
Bottom line, I think the Spurs will still be a good, entertaining, interesting team. There are avenues for them to be a great team. Leonard could reach yet another stratosphere. Green could return to health and regain his past form. Gasol's transition could be seamless and his play could still be at All-Star level. Anderson and Simmons could take a step forward into consistent, productive rotation pieces, with the former quickening his release and accuracy on threes and the latter finding an in-between game to make his drives less predictable. Dedmon could be a solid rim-protecting backup and Bertans could add some much-needed shooting. I just think there are too many question marks and too many things have to go right. The "corporate knowledge" is mostly gone or will be watching from the bench.
I've got the Spurs finishing as the third seed and losing to the Clippers in the second round, no worse than last year, in the macro sense. I'm still looking forward to watching them play all year, thankful we've got another year of Ginobili to entertain and inspire us as only he can, and genuinely curious about the team, which I haven't always been in the past. It's all going to be new and uncharted. They're rebuilding under our noses, slowly but surely, and Dejounte Murray's development will be vital to that. It's just for the first time in forever I have no hope at all of them winning a championship, and that's different. Not good or bad, just different. It's liberating, in a sense, and logical. If they somehow won a 'chip the year after Duncan retired, it would be jarring and skew everything we thought we understood as gospel. It'd seem almost blasphemous. Some part of me wants them to be way worse, just to validate and appreciate everything Duncan gave us for the past two decades, as bizarre as that sounds. And hey, their luck in the lottery has been pretty decent, you know.
If you read all 30 of these, I appreciate it. I tried to make them informative and different and fun where I could. Here are the final predictions, so you can make fun of me in June. Best of luck to everyone figuring out the 5-12 in the East or even the 7-11 in the West.
First-round Upset: Pistons over Celtics
Semis: Warriors over Blazers in 7, Clippers over Spurs in 5, Raptors over Pacers in 6, Cavaliers over Pistons in 5
Conference Finals: Warriors over Clippers in 5, Raptors over Cavs in 6
Finals: Warriors over Raptors in 5.
(To be clear, I think the Cavaliers could beat the Raptors if they wanted to. I just don't think their hearts will really be in it. They accomplished their mission. They won one for "The Land." I think LeBron James is smart enough to see what's coming and will want no part of adding another Finals loss on his resume. He'll let the Raptors be the sacrificial lambs. Just my conspiracy theory.)
League Pass Rankings (I loved Quixem's concept, but would've had Simmons way higher, personally):
1. Spurs, duh