For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the will-never-go-away-and-thank-Pop-for-that San Antonio Spurs.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
Attempting to write something negative about the San Antonio Spurs is a pointless exercise. They're the class of the NBA, even if the squad is five seasons removed from its last NBA championship. Somehow, in the team's old age, they've developed that grinding, defensively complex style of ball into a pleasing and more importantly winning style of basketball based around endless movement and league-best offensive efficiency. They'll win gobs of games in 2012-13, and though they may fall short in the third or even second round during the postseason, complaining about such is like saying "you never really got into franchising, eh?" to the retiring owner of a beloved local diner.
The Spurs fell apart in what seemed like an instant last June when the Oklahoma City Thunder realized that Stephen Jackson was not only not 25 years old, but also not 6-11; as Kevin Durant twisted and spun and shot his way to essentially a four-game sweep after the Spurs had gone up 2-0 in the series. The same depth that had served San Antonio so well during a late-season charge that included a fantastic 20-game winning streak also was completely mitigated by a possession-to-possession postseason style. You have to go top-heavy in May and June, and the Spurs' tops just don't play the role of the heavy all that well anymore.
They're still to be feared, though. Tim Duncan can't bank and brawl his way towards wins in the fourth quarters of games in June as well as he used to, but he also played just over 1600 minutes in 2011-12, and should be able to sustain his production as he enters his 16th season. The Spurs didn't plan on minding Manu Ginobili's minutes to the point where he played just seven games last season, a broken left hand took care of that, but that unexpected year off will help buffer the sort of fatigue that usually follows another long offseason full of international ball. Tony Parker? He's 29 years-old!
(He's 30, actually, but it hardly matters. They're the Spurs.)
The lone aspect of the Spurs' routine that gives me pause is the team's attempt to talk up Kawhi Leonard as a savior of sorts — the second year swingman (I guess?) will be phenomenal soon enough, but at age 21 I don't think he's ready to put a team over the top just yet. Still brilliant, though, featuring an all around game and an aversion to turnovers that belies his age; you get the feeling coach Gregg Popovich would trade half his wine cellar for the right to field the 24-year old version of Kawhi amongst this year's aging crew. Almost half, at least.
From there, the ball moves. Effortless decision-making from Mssrs. Parker and Ginobili inspire types like Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson to make quick hits with the ball, and think about what you just read and what I just wrote — Stephen Jackson, quick hit artist. No deliberate loping isolations, here; just swing, swing, swing. Duncan is all screener and sometimes scorer, reminding of Dave Cowens' final years, while Tiago Splitter remains perhaps the rarest of all NBA commodities — a scoring low post center that comes off the bench. Such luxury, coach Pop. Nice work, R.C. Buford.
For older teams like the Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks, the trick is storing enough Bobcat and intrepid Trail Blazer meat to make it out of winter alive, and see what the family's fortunes are when it comes time to plant in spring. The Spurs, seemingly, would be of the same ideal; but I don't think it's a knock to point out that the San Antonio Spurs — once continuously lit by nationally televised klieg lights as they walked the ball past that postseason decal — are regular season wonders of the highest order. The depth demands it, and it's no shame to be hustled by the younger Thunder, or overtaken by the soap opera Lakers once they finally get their act together.
Until then? Winning. Lots of it, and aesthetically pleasing in a way that even the defensive monsters that burned up the league in 2005 couldn't hold a candle to. Old dogs, old tricks, different ways of skinning that cat.
Projected record: 58-24
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: That you know what you are, and could get better at it. Because the principals have stayed the same for so long -- Tim Duncan down low, Tony Parker up top, Manu Ginobili off the bench, Gregg Popovich on the sideline -- it's not uncommon for folks to think the Spurs are still the same kind of team they've always been, relying on efficient post play, tough defense, smarts and execution to win (way) more games than they lose and keep playing late into the spring. If you've watched San Antonio in recent years, though, you know they've undergone a stylistic overhaul, establishing a spread pick-and-roll formula that made them the best offense in the league last year and should have them at or near the top of the NBA again this year.
The Spurs' transformation over the past half-decade from a slowdown/shutdown team led by Duncan into a high-octane, motion-centric, drive-and-kick squad led by Parker has been pretty remarkable. In each of the last five seasons, the Spurs have risen up the NBA's ranks in pace factor, which measures the average number of possessions in a team's games (from 28th among 30 NBA teams in 2007-08 to eighth last season, according to NBA.com's stat tool), and offensive efficiency, which measures the average number of points a team scores per 100 possessions (from 13th in '07-'08 to No. 1 last season). The Spurs have long been big fans of the corner 3-pointer, having placed third or higher in corner attempts in 10 of the last 12 seasons, but have also shown more love for the above-the-break 3 over the past two years (13th-most attempts in the league in '10-'11, No. 11 last year) as they've made the long ball a more integral part of their attack -- they've led the league in 3-point accuracy two years running, generating 24.2 percent of their points from beyond the arc (a higher share than at any point in the previous 15 years) in each of the last two seasons.
The formula's clear: Create half-court flow with sharp screens and off-ball movement, spread the floor to create room for Parker or Ginobili to penetrate, use their smarts and speed in the pick-and-roll game to collapse defenses, and then swing the ball until you find either a wide-open 3-pointer (preferably from the short corner) or a high-percentage look near the basket. As we saw during the remarkable winning streak that San Antonio carried from the final month of the season through Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, it works. Really, really well.
It's unlikely that the Spurs will outscore their opposition by 19.8 points per 100 possessions, as they did the 10-game run that closed the '11-'12 campaign, or by 12.5-per-100, as they did in the 10-game run that opened the playoffs, over the course of the upcoming season. But they'll still score quite a bit and, unless the Memphis Grizzlies take a big step forward offensively, should remain the class of the Southwest Division. Continuity helps -- the Spurs return all of their key contributors and nearly 87 percent of their minutes from last year's roster, with the largest disappearing chunk belonging to Richard Jefferson, who mostly underwhelmed in San Antonio before being moved at the trade deadline. No big loss there.
A full season from Boris Diaw, a perfect fit alongside Duncan and a surprisingly able defender in Pop's system, should help, too; in the playoffs, the Spurs outscored opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions with Diaw on the floor and were outscored by 1.8-per-100 with him off it. Stephen Jackson -- who didn't look great after being acquired for Jefferson but found his niche as a sniper in the postseason (60.5 percent from deep) -- adds another floor-spacer to a cast that includes bombers Gary Neal, Matt Bonner and Danny Green, whom Spurs fans hope won't turn back into a pumpkin after getting paid following a breakout season.
San Antonio also looks to have more playmakers, with Australian jitterbug/Olympic hero Patty Mills and second-year man Cory Joseph eager for the chance to slide into the penetrator/facilitator role when Parker needs a breather. Ditto for French rookie Nando De Colo, whom Pop may or may not think is another Manu, but does view as another ball-handling option capable of making plays off the bench … and actually, come to think of it, ditto for Manu, who missed 32 games due to injury last year and rarely looked like himself in the postseason.
With all that shooting and playmaking on hand, even if Duncan slides further as he nears his 37th birthday, it's hard to see the Spurs' offense regressing significantly; if Kawhi Leonard builds off a stellar rookie season to become the kind of star his coach thinks he can be, it could be even better. Now that's scary.
What Should Make You Scared: That your opponents know what you are, too. It's not easy to shut the Spurs down, but as we saw in the final four games of the Western Conference Finals, it can be done. The Thunder stymied Parker's penetration by hounding him with a long, quick, excellent defender (Thabo Sefolosha), changing their method of defending the pick-and-roll, and attacking San Antonio's offense from surprising angles rather than just waiting to be attacked. Breaking the insane rhythm the Spurs had developed required an inventive game plan, the willingness to take risks to attempt to force turnovers, frontcourt players capable of defending in space and wings athletic enough to be able to continually contest and recover for a full 48 minutes; Oklahoma City had all of those ingredients, used them well and upset Pop's apple cart.
Once the Spurs could no longer score at will, the pressure was on their defense to keep the Thunder from doing the same, and while San Antonio wasn't an all-O/no-D unit last year, finishing 11th in the league in defensive efficiency, they (like every other team outside Miami) weren't equipped to stop three dominant scorers in the midst of a historic offensive run of their own. Unless Pop managed to clone Leonard in the offseason and sneak him onto the roster under the pseudonym "Tiago Splitter" -- something I wouldn't totally rule out -- they still aren't.
For the Spurs to win a title last year, they had to be able to outscore their opponents, and they couldn't, so they didn't; last I checked, the Thunder are still in the Western Conference, so it appears that the same problem could present itself this year. And even if the Spurs' path to the NBA Finals doesn't include a rematch with OKC, the looming presence of the Los Angeles Lakers -- particularly the duo of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol up front -- looks like it would offer a really tough matchup for a San Antonio team that's deep on the wing and the guard spots, but still wafer-thin in the frontcourt.
There are moves to be made, if Pop and R.C. Buford want to make them -- Jackson's $10 million expiring contract could fetch some added frontcourt bulk, for one thing, and all that inexpensive backcourt depth creates opportunity -- but more than likely, the Spurs team that enters the postseason will bear a close resemblance to the one that enters the regular season. And after two years of watching beautiful basketball turn bloody against a bad playoff matchup, it'd be understandable if that thought shakes some Spurs fans up.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
Two games into the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs looked like an unstoppable, historically great offensive force and prospective favorites in the NBA Finals. After four losses to the Thunder, they suddenly had to ask themselves serious questions about their future. Were they still a legitimate contender? Or was their regular season winning percentage acting as a false indicator of their ability to win another championship?
The logical takeaway would be that earning a No. 1 seed and holding a 2-0 lead in the conference finals are marks of an excellent team. The Spurs, arguably the most practical franchise in the NBA over the last 25 years, are likely to understand the value of those achievements and avoid panicking or getting too worked up about perceived impending doom.
However, that series did tell us quite a bit about the Spurs and how their current identity affects their ability to compete at the highest levels of the league. For all their offensive acumen, this particular Spurs team relies on their offensive precision. In practice, that means they can be beat when teams are able to disrupt their offensive system. The team that one thrived when things got ugly now needs finesse to flourish. So, while the Thunder receive lots of press for their trio of offensive superstars, they really won that series because they were better suited to situations in which the style of play became a little more scattered.
Given this system, it makes sense that the Spurs have recently been at their best in the regular season and early rounds of the playoffs, when they face less resistance and have more room to operate their (actually quite beautiful) offense. Against the best teams in the NBA, that approach becomes harder to execute. Peculiarly, the most battle-tested, veteran core in the league, after necessarily becoming an offensive-minded club as Tim Duncan aged, now finds itself at a disadvantage at the time of year when clichés dictate that the most experienced team wins.
The Spurs, self-aware as always, seem to have recognized this problem before everyone else. Their acquisition of Kawhi Leonard in 2011, hailed at the time as a smart move for the future, will probably pay its greatest returns more immediately as Leonard takes on a bigger role as a wing defender and tertiary scorer. However, it's possible that he won't be enough. The Spurs need athletic players like Leonard who can score and help out defensively in the paint. Last I checked, those guys are tough to find without regular lottery picks.
It's entirely possible that the Spurs have reached the end of their lengthy run as one of the handful of true contenders in the NBA. Either that, or they'll find a way to adjust to new realities and find a way to remain near the top. It's only what they've done for the last 15 years.