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San Antonio Spurs 2017-18 season preview

A summer filled with questions leads into a season of uncertainty and opportunity.

NBA: Preseason-Sacramento Kings at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Another season of Spurs’ basketball is finally here, friends. Around the league, it was one of the most hectic off-seasons in years, with stars changing teams left and right. Now it’s time to see how it all works on the court.

Amid the chaos, the Spurs remain familiar. Once again, San Antonio is not only expected to make the playoffs but also to contend. Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are back. Kawhi Leonard is prepared to lead the charge, with LaMarcus Aldridge flanking him.

Yet there are some key differences from the team that won 61 games last season. From the bench personnel to the style of play, PATFO has tweaked things. The 2017/18 iteration of Spurs could be unique, even if a lot of the individual parts remain the same.

Let’s take a look at what’s changed and what could determine how successful the Spurs are.

Don’t call it a transition year

The Spurs essentially stayed put in the off-season, despite being included in a surprising amount of trade and free agency rumors. The popular notion was that they were keeping their powder dry for next summer, where they could have carved up substantial cap space under the right circumstances.

That colored the way many looked forward — it was going to be a transition year. The Spurs were aiming to remain relevant for one more season, then pull off a bold move to transform their team in the summer. Then, out of nowhere, they signed LaMarcus Aldridge to an extension, completely changing their outlook for the future.

What we now see in place is the core the team will carry forward for the next few seasons. That adds even more weight to how things go this year. If the Spurs don’t look like a contender, there’s no potential cap flexibility coming. Aldridge and Leonard have to mesh in a way they haven’t so far for the extension to make sense.

This season is suddenly not just about this season, but also the future.

The year the Spurs finally go small

The Spurs built an identity years ago around being big in the paint and controlling the defensive glass. They stuck with it even as most observers clamored for change. This year, they will finally attempt to modernize their approach.

There are only three big men on the roster. Aldridge and Pau Gasol will likely start. Newcomer Joffrey Lauvergne looked good in preseason, likely earning a spot in the rotation. Yet even if all three traditional big men get minutes, the Spurs will still have to play small for stretches.

Pop will have options. The three combo forwards who will fight for minutes next to the centers offer very different skillsets. Davis Bertans is a deadly marksman who can do a bit of rim protecting in a pinch. Rudy Gay is a gifted scorer who brings size and athleticism to the table. Kyle Anderson is a terrific defensive rebounder who can handle the ball.

It will be a little strange to see the Spurs try to implement a new identity, but they do have the pieces to make it work.

Surviving without Tony

Is Tony Parker an asset to the team or a liability? That discussion has become more common as Parker has aged. It’s understandable, to a degree. What Parker still does well – getting the team into its sets and managing the floor — is subtle, and even seemingly easy. His flaws, meanwhile, are obvious.

We are about to find out the answer to that question. Parker is not expected back until December, following a torn quadriceps tendon. Second-year player Dejounte Murray will likely start, so that Patty Mills can remain in the bench role for which he’s best suited. Manu Ginobili will continue to be the primary playmaker at times, like he has been for years. Kawhi Leonard will get to handle the ball more.

Those are not terrible options. Still, the Spurs might struggle to develop a rhythm on offense without Parker. Murray is not ready to be a starter. Mills is more of a shooter than a playmaker. Manu is 40 years old. Kawhi is an isolation scorer. They’ll keep the team afloat, but could struggle with keeping everyone involved and the ball moving.

The Spurs need someone to get their scorers — especially Aldridge — the ball at the right time and the right places. Parker is still the best at doing that, so he will be missed.

Looking for that extra gear

The Spurs will be good. They’ll beat inferior teams on individual talent and execution alone. The question is whether this team has that X-Factor, a player or lineup that allows it to raise its ceiling for tough games in the regular season and in the playoffs.

For years, Manu Ginobili occupied that role. Then in the Summertime era, they found that extra gear through collective greatness, especially on bench units. In the past couple of years, however, they’ve struggled to raise their play at key moments.

The hope is that Rudy Gay, and the small units his presence unlocks, will be that X-Factor. Yet Gay is returning from a serious injury. He’s also used to being a featured weapon. It could take some time for him to regain his level and adjust to the team. And even if the Spurs’ small units are great, so are other teams’. There’s no guarantee the Spurs will actually get an edge by downsizing.

Still, it seems like there’s a plan. If Gay goes back to being the player he once was, the Spurs could put together lineups able to blitz opponents.

Best and worst case scenarios

The Spurs typically have a high floor and a relatively low ceiling. Not this year. If things go bad, they could go really bad. If things go great, San Antonio could actually challenge the Warriors. Unfortunately, both scenarios seem similarly likely.

If Aldridge continues to struggle to find his place in the offense and the interior defense suffers due to the absence of an athletic rim protector, the Spurs could become just another playoff team with no shot of getting past the second round.

If Aldridge goes back to being a dominant offensive player and the small lineups smother opponents on defense with the length of its perimeter players, the Spurs could be the second best team in the West and put a scare on the Warriors.

Prediction: 55 wins, another conference finals appearance and an MVP for Kawhi

It’s hard to imagine everything — from Aldridge’s offense to injury luck — going the Spurs’ way. Fortunately, they don’t need perfection to be really, really good.

No one knows how to get the best of his players like Pop, except for Rick Carlisle. Continuity is on the Spurs’ side, too, for the most part. Kawhi Leonard’s two-way excellence alone could carry a team to the playoffs. He has enough help to lead San Antonio to another deep postseason run.

The Spurs will win a lot, like they typically do, and with some luck could once again reach the West finals. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which, once there, they actually beat the Warriors — but stranger things have happened.