Everything seemed to be in place for a fifth San Antonio Spurs championship last season.
For the second year in a row, the Spurs finished with the West's best record last year, and unlike in 2011, their dominance extended into the postseason—at least for a short while.
After sweeping opponents in the first two rounds, and subsequently beginning the Western Conference Finals with a 2-0 lead, the Spurs' 20-game win-streak gave fans the confidence that another banner would soon be hung in the rafters.
However, four games later, the Spurs were sent packing, losing four straight to the Thunder, allowing them to pass onto the Finals.
Once again, the Spurs' regular season dominance failed to translate into the playoffs, leaving the team empty handed and fans wondering what went wrong.
After failing to reach the Finals despite winning the conference for the second time, a postseason fall-apart became a part of the Spurs' label, and failure to flourish late in the playoffs is now expected for the San Antonio team.
This year, the Spurs have begun the season is top shape, playing better than ever.
Tim Duncan is defying age better than ever before, and Tony Parker has bailed the team out of some sticky situations. Kawhi Leonard has been the strong defensive presence that everyone expected, and despite Manu Ginobili's early struggles, the bench has performed at a very high rate.
To Spurs fans, this is all good news. The team sits atop the conference standings and in their first seven games, they have only dropped one.
And yet, even if this dominance continues throughout the rest of the regular season, it would be hard to predict the Spurs as the indisputable champions, or even irrefutable finalists. Their track record is simply too contradicting—and a postseason collapse is always a strong possibility, no matter how many regular season wins they collect.
So what can the team do to ensure that their title hopes don't suffer the same, upsetting fate?
For starters, the Spurs relied too heavily on offense last year to overcome their opponents, an issue that played a large role in their Western Conference Finals defeat. While they certainly were among the league's most offensively productive teams, the Spurs' lack of defense allowed the offensively brilliant Thunder to take the victory.
In order to garner the best chances for success, it is imperative that the Spurs find a strong balance of both defense and offense going forward. Coach Gregg Popovich promised a stronger focus on defense this season, and the results have been somewhat encouraging thus far.
With Tim Duncan playing like his younger self, and Kawhi Leonard's famous defensive ferocity, the Spurs' new approach is a smart one. They have the necessary components to shine defensively, and while there certainly have been visible lapses, an improvement is apparent at this point in the season.
Another way to improve the defense, as well as the overall team, is to add another big man to the roster. While DeJuan Blair is coming into his own and Tiago Splitter is showing major improvement, another big body on the roster would be of major help to the team.
The problem has existed since last year, and if the Spurs find themselves lacking height, welcoming a center or power forward to the squad will be crucial should they want to succeed.
While free agents like Kenyon Martin and fan favorite Eddy Curry remain available, the team's plethora of guards give them flexibility should they look towards trade.
However, these proposed external changes may not be necessary, as success may be imminent without drastic changes.
Despite the similarities to last year's roster, it is fairly evident that this year's version of the San Antonio Spurs is different from last year's.
Duncan has stepped up, with his dominance reminiscent of his glory days, and yet, he is not the only distinction from last year's team.
The Spurs' younger players are another year more experienced. Apart from rookie, Nando De Colo, the entire roster is returning, and has therefore gained experience on the big stage.
Danny Green's dismal Conference Finals campaign may not be an issue anymore, as the young shooting guard may find the setting more comfortable, should the Spurs return.
Other youngsters—including Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills—may also perform better with a year of experience under their belts.
As of now, the Spurs look like a top-notch team, and while their disappointing history is not comforting, the truth is that this is a different team from last year.
While other weaknesses may unearth as the season progresses, as of now the Spurs have the look of a contender, giving critics little to complain about. Their 6-1 record is among the league's best, and while the season has just started, the Spurs—and Spurs fans alike—have a lot to look forward to regarding a change in fate.
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