Hey, remember the San Antonio Spurs? It's a bit difficult to recall that this team was once thought of as title favorites in the early summer of 2011. When they were up 2-0 against the Oklahoma City, many writers and pundits had already mentally fast-forwarded to another Riverwalk parade.
Then, the young Thunder rose up and ran circles around the suddenly creaky Spurs. The series was closely contested, but OKC had punctured San Antonio's aura of invincibility in more ways than simply winning could accomplish. When harassed by a long wing like Thabo Sefalosha,Tony Parker looked average.
Parker is a fine player, and he runs offensive sets with few errors, but the series elucidated the difference between "good" and "great." "TP" is a good player, but he lacks the creativity of the increasingly injured Manu Ginobili, or the once inexorable mastery of Tim Duncan.
Teams can win without a "superstar," but it's rarely done. As the Thunder improve by virtue of age, it will be difficult to supersede them through balance and scheme. In short, it will be hard to beat the Thunder with Tony Parker as your best player.
Are the Spurs still "contenders"? Of course. I would not put my money on them, but they figure to be a high seed thanks to depth and system. San Antonio is, in many ways, a perfect regular-season squad. Their "motion weak" offensive strategy is rarely thwarted by teams that have little time to practice for it. Do you think that a team like the Nets have a prayer of stopping such organization on a back-to-back?
It gets a little harder in the playoffs when the opposition has days and days to plan for this beautiful machine. The playoffs is where Matt Bonner goes from being helpful to useless. The playoffs is where Tim Duncan must maintain his level of play while adding five minutes to his routine.
If San Antonio is to succeed against OKC and the Lakers, Kawahi Leonard must improve. He was fantastic as a rookie, developing a long-range jump shot that few foresaw, but Leonard must graze All-Star status to make a championship run possible.
The Spurs' core is aging, that much isn't a secret. In the meantime, they've evolved, wringing all they can out of a group of players that were all better a half decade ago. They need their athletic, second-year swing man to get better at dribbling, and shooting off the dribble.
San Antonio still retains contender status. It would be hasty and disrespectful to forget about them on account of an L.A. team that has yet to play. But to win a championship, the Spurs likely must find a new player to build around.