Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's late-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the San Antonio Spurs.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
There is no conceivable way to follow the San Antonio Spurs without being cheered up by perhaps the least-cheeriest coach in the NBA, Gregg Popovich. Coach Pop's talent, edge, humor and all around prickishness remain one of the highlights of any NBA season. I wouldn't want to be his son-in-law, video coordinator, or starting small forward; but I sure will enjoy Popovich as he resumes a coaching career that began about 15 years ago when the then-GM Popovich kicked coach Bob Hill to the curb.
(On the same day that David Robinson returned from injury and played his first game of the 1996-97 season. Cold, dude. Cold dude.)
I don't care where the collective knees end up in 2011-12, because this year will be no different than any other. And that consistency is warming. There will be nights, weeks even, where the Spurs will look like this year's champion. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili on full blast at even 30 minutes a game will win plenty of games, and all it takes is a proper matchup in the first, second, third (OK), and fourth (maybe) rounds to bring home the team's first even-year trophy.
Kawhi Leonard isn't going to put this team over the top, Richard Jefferson might be a inching closer to a lost cause at this point, and it's hard to imagine Tiago Splitter making a massive jump in his second season (though he will improve, enough earn big minutes on most nights and possible consideration as the league's Most Improved Player).
DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner and Kawhi all have significant holes in their games. It won't matter. Coach Popovich will have this crew playing larger than the sum of its parts. We'll know why they lost, when they lose, but we'll never be able to accurately articulate just why they're winning. Unless they play the Raptors.
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This group isn't deep. It has to hope that its injury-prone trio of stars -- Duncan, Parker and Ginobili -- also manage to avoid accident injuries to pile on top of the fatigue that comes from wear and tear. And as far as the 66-game season? We'll only know following 2011-12. And even then, this weird turn will be a one-season sample size, hopefully never to be replicated again. Will the Spurs' veteran guile earn them an advantage, or will their "drafted in 1997"-knees push them aside? You'd have to think those two sides would even out, righto?
This will be entertaining, this will be compelling, and this will be as fun to Spurs fans on that team's opening night as it will be some time in May when the team's season ends.
Or June, even.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: San Antonio Spurs
I'm so excited for you!
It stands to reason that San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, general manager R.C. Buford and owner Peter Holt would command an awful lot of respect from NBA pundits and fans -- after all, over the past 17 years, they've presided (to one degree or another) over a monstrous run of success that has produced 16 playoff trips, 15 50-win seasons, four 60-win campaigns, seven trips to the Western Conference finals, four NBA titles and just one losing record. (Which, naturally, got them enough ping-pong balls to win the chance to pick Tim Duncan.)
Sure, players win games and championships; Popovich knows that as well as anyone. But someone's got to identify, evaluate, procure and develop the players, and doing so isn't easy. Continue to do that well over a long enough period, and people not only take notice -- they start to think every move you make is sainted. And that's why damn near everyone (this writer included) who thought Kawhi Leonard would be good when the Indiana Pacers chose him with the 15th pick in this past June's NBA draft quickly became positive he'd be excellent once the Spurs get their hands on him by agreeing to send George Hill toward Pawnee.
The hands are a big thing (um, literally) with Leonard. Scouting reports talk about the 6-foot-7 former San Diego State star having hands like catcher's mitts at the ends of his outsized arms (he's got a 7-foot-3 wingspan), which come in handy when corralling rebounds, grabbing loose balls, deflecting passes and generally making life miserable on opposing players. Adding a player with that kind of skill set gives Popovich a potentially interesting weapon -- one that the coach could use not only to back up Richard Jefferson, but also, depending on health and matchups, in some other interesting ways.
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Maybe Pop uses the 20-year-old Leonard more often to take a load off Manu Ginobili, who played 25 percent of the Spurs' minutes at the three last season, according to 82games.com's positional stats. Maybe the rookie's quickness allows the Spurs to get away with sticking him on rabbit point guards for a bit to give Tony Parker -- who will hit age 30 during this shortened season and now stands at 29,967 combined regular-season and playoff NBA minutes -- a breather now and again if new backup T.J. Ford can't stay healthy or fellow rookie Cory Joseph isn't ready. Maybe, against teams without great size and dominant big men, Pop can even use Leonard's length and quickness to steal a few minutes at the four spot to help the Spurs' thin front court (more on that in a sec).
Maybe Pop won't use Leonard in any of these ways, and maybe -- like many coaches -- he'll be reticent to give a rookie that much faith and that much floor time. But with an aging roster facing a compressed schedule that will include a pair of back-to-back-to-backs, giving a coach as intelligent and innovative as Popovich a new piece with fresh legs that (if things pan out as the Spurs hope) isn't a defensive liability to deploy as he sees fit could open a lot of doors.
Leonard is reportedly quite raw on the offensive end, needing to develop consistency in his jump shot if he's going to be able to work on the wing in an offense where most of his half-court attempts would likely come off of passes out of the post, drive-and-kick dishes from penetration by Parker and Ginobili, or ball swings resulting in that trademark Spurs 3-ball from the short corner. But in terms of his defense, rebounding and effort, Popovich recently said, "Kawhi is what we expected ... Already he's a little more explosive than we expected," which is about as ringing an endorsement as the Spurs' famously acerbic coach is likely to give a rook.
Two years after an aged and ineffective Bruce Bowen retired, the Spurs look to have imported an evolutionary wing stopper more on the order of Shawn Marion -- a long, quick small forward capable of guarding three or possibly four positions on the court. Leonard's defensive versatility and energy should enable him to contribute right away on a veteran Spurs team that could use some vim and vigor. If his offensive game develops quicker than anticipated, he might put Jefferson on the bench sooner rather than later. That'd be pretty exciting for San Antonio fans eager to lessen the price their team pays for "RJ's boondoggle."
I'm so worried for you!
Tim Duncan is Tim Duncan, so the Spurs will be good. But nearing age 36, with almost 45,000 minutes of NBA ball on his body, Tim Duncan isn't TIM DUNCAN anymore; he needs more help than he used to. Last season, San Antonio's approach was predicated largely on getting increased contributions from the backcourt and wings to push the attack -- Parker, Ginobili, Hill, Jefferson and Gary Neal provided 67.3 of the Spurs' 103.7 points per game in 2010-11 to pace the second-most efficient offense in the NBA.
But the top-seeded Spurs' perimeter-heavy attack masked a thin frontcourt rotation that got exposed in their first-round upset at the hands of the eighth-place-finishing Memphis Grizzlies. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol got everything they wanted in the paint against Duncan, Tiago Splitter, Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner. That five-man front line was simply overmatched.
Now, Duncan is a year older, McDyess has retired, Splitter and Blair can't play together, and all San Antonio has added on the front line are training camp signees Gani Lawal and Luke Zeller. And barring a trade, there's not much the Spurs can do to add any quality bulk (if any even remains). The team's payroll still looks to be over the $70 million luxury tax line, even after shedding McDyess' contract and waiving Steve Novak and Da'Sean Butler, which means San Antonio would only be able to use the so-called "mini" mid-level exception to sign a player. Unless Splitter, Blair or both are able to make massive improvements fast, the Spurs look to be heading back into battle in a pretty tough Western Conference -- for what might be the last year of the Tim Duncan era -- looking worryingly light up front.
I have no idea what to make of you!
Piggy-backing off the last section, I'm not yet sure what to make of Splitter. Finally coming over to the NBA from Spain several years after the Spurs tapped him with a first-round pick, the 25-year-old rookie was heralded by some as just what the doctor ordered for the twilight of Tim Duncan's career -- a young, talented big man who could take ease some of the low-block burden shouldered by the aging Hall of Famer, just as Duncan had done for David Robinson in the late 1990s.
That idea was probably always at least a little far-fetched -- while Splitter was well regarded, Duncan had been touted a can't-miss, must-tank-for No. 1 pick way before he ever left Wake Forest -- but Splitter performed pretty well in limited run during his debut campaign. The Brazilian big man only averaged 12.3 minutes per game -- an early calf injury slowed his integration and made cracking even a thin rotation difficult -- but he hit 52.9 percent of his field goals and rebounded at strong rates, especially on the offensive boards. Splitter did virtually all of his damage at the rim, hitting just one-third of shots taken from three to nine feet away and less than one-quarter of his tries from 16 to 23 feet out, according to Hoopdata, but he did put up 13.6 points and 9.8 rebounds per 36 minutes of action.
In your first year playing against Western Conference bigs, posting an above-average Player Efficiency Rating (16.0) is pretty dang good; given full health to start his second year, it's reasonable to expect an improved Splitter getting closer to the vision the Spurs front office had when they used the 28th overall pick to draft him in 2007. But Splitter's shaky performance in this summer's FIBA Americas tournament, plus a whiplash training camp that curtails the amount of time the still-developing big man will get with the Spurs' coaching staff, may cast some shade on that sunny assumption.
The jury remains out on Splitter's ceiling; with Duncan's time drawing to a close, Spurs fans are hoping that the verdict comes back in their favor, and soon.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
San Antonio Spurs: "Cocoon"
The Spurs are an old team. This is not a particularly controversial statement, because it's right there in the core: Tim Duncan might be close to retirement, Manu Ginobili is 34 with enough wear on his joints to make a much older man blush, and Tony Parker is right at the age where players who rely greatly on speed start to dip. The 2010-11 regular season proved that they still have plenty of ability, but their playoff series against the Grizzlies showed they have plenty of weak spots. In order to improve, they're going to need young players like rookie Kawhi Leonard to take on a bigger role.
Yet the idea isn't so much that the youngsters must prop up the aging stars, but that their strengths will complement each other. It's a concept discussed in the 1986 smash hit "Cocoon," in which a bunch of old people absorb an alien life force and regain some of their youthful vim and vigor. Crucially, especially as it corresponds to the Spurs, Wilford Brimley and Co. don't get younger -- they stay old and simply get livelier. They don't lose the things that make old people useful, like wisdom and experience. Instead, they just manage to have more energy.
If the acquisition of Leonard pans out, he'll reinvigorate Duncan, Ginobili and Parker. He won't supplement, but act in concert with his aged teammates. And if things really go well, he'll take on the importance that major Hollywood star had for the box office prospects of "Cocoon." Sometimes, a young guy provides enough to make a movie starring a bunch of old farts a blockbuster. Who knew?
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