The San Antonio Spurs were one of the four best teams in the NBA by the end of the 2014-15 season. Unfortunately, they were closer to average in early November.
And they lost four straight on the "Rodeo Road Trip" after the All-Star break. And they lost two overtime games in March — one understandable, one inexplicable — and they couldn't beat a playing-for-his-playoff-life Anthony Davis on the final night of the season.
That's all it took.
A couple of ill-timed blips and a league rule guaranteeing a top-four seed to division winners locked Gregg Popovich's crew — who followed up their NBA championship-winning 2013-14 campaign by finishing 55-27, a full four games ahead of the Northwest Division-winning Portland Trail Blazers — into the West's No. 6 seed. That set the stage for a meeting with the third-seeded Los Angeles Clippers — who, to me, joined the Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers in that top-four mix — that would produce one of the best first-round playoff series in recent league history. It would also produce a change in the rules; starting this season, conference playoffs will be seeded solely by record, with division winners guaranteed nothing but a postseason berth.
Led by the incomparable Tim Duncan and rising star Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs fought valiantly, coming back from a Game 1 beating to put L.A. on the brink of elimination. But after staying alive in Game 6, the Clippers drove a dagger through San Antonio's heart, with a hobbled Chris Paul hitting a game-winning, series-winning runner over Duncan to end the Spurs' title defense in just seven games.
There was no shame in losing that series. Still, the defeat left a bitter taste for Leonard, who shot just 29.5 percent over the final three games; for Tony Parker, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili, all of whom shot less than 37 percent in the series; and for Spurs fans, who just knew that if they'd escaped, they could've won the whole thing. I mean, where do you go after a loss like that?
The answer, evidently: Big-game hunting.
The Spurs enter this season loaded for bear, with a brand new star added to their constellation. Again, they've got the talent, the experience and the coaching to win the championship. Again, they've got to run the brutal gauntlet of a Southwest Division that sent all five teams to the postseason. Again, they must face the prospect of opening up against a fellow championship contender.
This time, though, they'll begin the campaign not with banner-raisings and ring ceremonies, but with the painful and instructive reminder that in this conference, letting your guard down for even a night or two can mean an early vacation. Maybe that difference will make all the difference.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
So all 55 wins gets you is a first-round matchup with a team that won 56? Man, f*** the West. Let's change the rules.
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Did the summer help at all?
Yep. The Spurs might not have burned the midnight oil on July 1, but they wasted no time in taking care of family business, agreeing minutes after the start of free agency to terms on a five-year maximum-salaried contract for Leonard, the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Hours later, they locked up Green with an even more-team-friendly-than-first-reported pact that ensures San Antonio will boast the league's best pair of wing defenders for the next four years.
Between those two deals, San Antonio bid farewell to Tiago Splitter, shipping the starting big man off to the Atlanta Hawks to clear salary-cap space. They also secured a commitment from Duncan, who agreed to return for less than the midlevel exception to help Pop and R.C. Buford do their thing. (He's not the Teammate of the Year for nothing.) They held up their end of the bargain, landing one of the top free agents available — All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge — with a four-year max deal that added some name-brand fireworks to Independence Day celebrations along the Riverwalk.
With Aldridge delivered, the rest of the pieces fell into place. Ginobili accepted the $2.8 million room exception to make the cap math work. Professional badass David West took an $11 million pay cut to leave Indiana and come off Pop's bench. Beloved floor-spacing reserve Matt Bonner re-upped on a one-year minimum deal. The gang's all here.
Well, not exactly. San Antonio's summer makeover did include sayanoras for several rotation players: Splitter, off to ATL; backup point guard Cory Joseph, now home in Toronto; sweet-shooting guard Marco Belinelli, headed west to Sacramento; bruising big Aron Baynes, gone north to Detroit. How well their replacements — ex-Kings guard Ray McCallum, 7-foot-3 former Euroleague standout Boban Marjanovic, Summer League star Jonathon Simmons, and likely only one of Rasual Butler or Reggie Williams on the wing — perform will remain to be seen.
Whatever your view on the final third of the Spurs' roster, though, the additions of Aldridge and West alongside the other retentions mark this summer as an unqualified success that makes San Antonio a title favorite.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Aldridge gives San Antonio a reliable high-volume scoring threat, a low-post bully who has become one of the league's preeminent midrange jump-shooters and last year even flashed a league-average touch from beyond the arc (35.2 percent on 1.5 3-point attempts per game). He's an offensive problem-solver who can get buckets with his back to the basket on the block, facing up on the wing, popping to the perimeter after setting picks or by slipping his screen and slicing to the bucket.
He sees the floor well, both by virtue of being 6-foot-11 and spending eight years as a No. 1 or No. 2 option (miss you, healthy Brandon Roy) at whom defenses have thrown everything, and he's a smart passer when he wants to be. He's neither a true rim protector nor an elite frontcourt defender, but he's strong enough to bang with beasts, nimble enough to move with smaller fours and can handle himself when switched onto ball-handlers on the perimeter. He can vacuum the defensive glass, pulling down better than 20 percent of opponents' misses in each of the last three seasons.
There are legitimate questions that will have to be answered about how Aldridge will fit into the Spurs' system and culture. He has ranked in the top seven in the league in usage rate in each of the last two years and finished a career-high 30.2 percent of Portland possessions with a shot, foul drawn or turnover last season; no Spur's been that ball-dominant in the last seven years. It's possible that the adjustment will take time, and that San Antonio will start slowly as all those big brains and bigger talents set about solving the equation.
Aldridge is both good enough and committed enough to make the adjustment work, though. His presence opens the door to all sorts of benefits that could make San Antonio a nightmare matchup come spring, and could result in Aldridge playing past mid-May for the first time in his career.
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"Glaring" is too strong a word, but the interior defense that's been so stellar in recent years could take a step backward. The Spurs ground opposing offenses into a fine powder when Duncan and Splitter shared the floor, and their D mostly held up when Duncan was off the court thanks to the ability of Splitter (and, to a lesser extent, Baynes) to handle the post, hold up in space and protect the rim. Aldridge, West, Marjanovic and Boris Diaw all offer some combination of heft, quickness and shot-blocking, but none check off every box, which could make San Antonio more permissive in non-Duncan minutes than it has been.
Two other possible causes for concern:
• A potential lack of shooting off the bench after letting Belinelli and Joseph walk. Yes, San Antonio cut Jimmer Fredette, but there's a reason they signed him in the first place. If Ginobili can't wash away the taste of a rough-by-his-standards campaign and Patty Mills can't return to his 2014 Finals form after a down season, San Antonio's second unit could lack the firepower that's made it so effective in recent years, which would make it harder for Pop to get away with limiting his starters' floor time.
• Age. It feels mean to harp on the inescapable passage of time, but nasty or no, Duncan will turn 40 in April, Manu turned 38 in July, West hit 35 in August, and Diaw and Parker will be 34 this spring. With the exception of Duncan, all of those players looked notably worse for much of last season than they had the season before. That's not the kind of thing that tends to reverse itself the older you get. Keeping all these vets in top working order will be San Antonio's most significant challenge.
Contributor with something to prove:
In the grand scheme, Parker's bona fides have long since been established. He's a six-time NBA All-Star, a four-time NBA champion, a four-time All-NBA selection, the MVP of the 2007 NBA Finals, and the man who earned EuroBasket MVP honors after leading France to the gold medal in 2013. In the present tense, though, he must prove he's still capable of being the straw that stirs San Antonio's drink, the man who makes the beautiful machine thrum along.
He struggled, at times mightily, with that responsibility last year. Parker missed more than 10 games for the third straight season, played the fewest minutes per game of his NBA career, and turned in his lowest per-possession scoring and assist numbers in 11 years. He frequently lacked the burst that's long made him one of the league's most difficult players to keep out of the paint. In perhaps the most telling marker of his lack of get-up-and-go, Parker shot just one free throw for every five field-goal attempts he notched, far and away the lowest free-throw rate of his time in San Antonio.
The culprit behind that declining production: a left hamstring strain suffered in December that plagued him all year long.
"I have not been the same since I came back, and it's still bothering me," Parker told Yahoo Sports NBA writer Marc J. Spears in March. "Everybody knows. I am not going to use that as an excuse. I am just going to work it out until it gets better."
Parker's play did pick up — he averaged 18.2 points and 5.3 assists per game in March, shooting 55.5 percent from the field in 15 games. But he looked like a shell of himself in the postseason, averaging only 10.9 points on 36.3 percent shooting with 3.6 assists in 30 minutes per contest while being roundly outplayed by Paul. He followed that up with an underwhelming EuroBasket turn, shooting just 34.3 percent from the field as France won bronze, leading many to wonder if the step he lost last year is gone for good.
Pop said during Media Day he's not concerned about Parker's struggles for France, and Parker attributed his poor performance less to any declining gift than to the at-times unkind bounce of the ball: "I felt great. I just didn't make shots." Eager to put last season behind him, Parker approached this season with a revamped preparation routine that includes more stretching and has sought this preseason to find his place in an offense powerfully altered by the presence of Aldridge. In terms of productivity, though — 7.3 points in 23.2 minutes per game through three preseason contests, making just one-third of his shots with an assist-to-turnover ratio just above 2-to-1 — the results haven't been overwhelming.
Parker told Spears this month that he wants to play five more years as a Spur. If the decline continues unchecked, though, Buford might have to start thinking hard not only about whether he'll want to offer Parker a three-year deal after his existing contract, but whether he needs to find a way to move on from the remaining two years and $29.9 million Parker's owed after this season.
Potential breakout stud:
Really, Leonard has already broken out. When your encore to becoming the youngest NBA Finals MVP since Magic Johnson is joining Dwight Howard and Alvin Robertson as the youngest Defensive Player of the Year in league history, and getting more First-Team All-Defense votes than anybody, it's no secret you're dope.
That said, while Leonard has achieved a certain level of fame through his first four seasons — beloved by diehards, salivated over within the game, people's champ in his home gym, deal with Jordan Brand — he's not yet a star. That's not just about San Antonio never seeming to have the same national wattage as other contenders; even within that context, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have become stars.
Leonard hasn't yet, due largely to the fact that despite very real improvements — in the post, off the dribble, handling in the pick-and-roll, remaining a steady 3-point shooter despite firing more shots — he's regarded as a defense-first player. (Defense wins championships, but buckets win hearts.) Now, though, Leonard's got both a superstar's salary and, as the Tim-Tony-Manu trio recedes and Aldridge acclimates, an opportunity to be San Antonio's leading man.
After his mid-January return to the lineup following a torn ligament in his right hand, Leonard averaged nearly 20 points per 36 minutes over 42 contests on 49/37/82 shooting. While Aldridge will eat and San Antonio's system demands spreading the ball around, Leonard's share of the offense has increased each year, and he's looked more aggressively to create this preseason, taking 13 shots per game (including four 3-pointers) and generating 4.6 free-throw attempts per contest in just 24 minutes a night over five outings. Pop has brought Leonard along patiently, but he's also given him more responsibility when he's seemed ready. Now, to hear Kawhi tell it — which he doesn't do that often — he wants a lot more.
“I want to be an All-Star and MVP of the regular season,” Leonard said this summer, according to David Zink of the Press-Enterprise. “I’m trying to be one of the greatest players, so whatever level that consists of is where I want to take my game.”
More offensive responsibility could mean a statistical bump from last year's already impressive 16.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.3 steals per game — say, 19-8-3-2.5, which is M.J./Scottie/Fat Lever/George McGinnis territory. That could produce more stories about how, Duncan's timelessness and Aldridge's addition aside, the best player in San Antonio is the dude with the braids. With that storyline in place, we could see Leonard start getting both All-Star and MVP votes, officially elevating him to the upper echelon of full-fledged stars.
Aldridge fits perfectly as San Antonio's new offensive hub. Leonard stays healthy all season, anchors the defense and continues his offensive growth, earning that first All-Star berth. Parker, Ginobili and Mills all turn in bounce-back years, making the Spurs backcourt fearsome rather than fractured. Diaw and West become one of the NBA's most beautiful odd couples. Duncan continues to produce at an unprecedented level as a two-way fulcrum, turning 40 during a playoff run that ends with San Antonio's sixth NBA championship.
If everything falls apart:
Aldridge and West struggle to get acclimated. After 55,000 NBA minutes, Duncan's wheels finally fall off; when they do, San Antonio winds up missing Splitter's defensive versatility. Kawhi doesn't take the next step as an offensive creator, the recent decline of Parker and Ginobili proves pattern rather than phase, and a dearth of capable initiators bogs down the offense. The Spurs win fewer than 50 games in a full 82-game slate for the first time since 1997 — and suffer a second straight opening-round elimination for the first time in the Popovich era.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
58-24, fourth in the West.
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Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
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