Players getting older and slight roster changes mean the San Antonio Spurs will need a few players to step up in 2013-14.
Most NBA free agents have been signed, so San Antonio's front office is putting the final touches on the team's season-opening roster.
With two additions to the team, longtime Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is considering what rotation will bring San Antonio the most success next season. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are obviously two of the biggest factors, but a few less-heralded players will greatly influence whether or not San Antonio returns to the NBA Finals.
A blossoming talent, Kawhi Leonard shined on both sides of the court throughout the finals, and big things are expected from the 22-year-old in 2013-14.
Leonard averaged a solid line of 13.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game during the 2012-13 regular season, and while guarding some of the best scorers in the league throughout the playoffs, Leonard still tallied 13.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals per contest.
Although he will not necessarily light up the scorebook, Leonard is a reliable scorer, rebounder and defender. Leonard's versatility on both offense and defense is essential to the Spurs' success.
He battles in the post for rebounds and second-chance points, but Leonard also chases and disrupts players around the three-point line, while knocking down a few outside shots of his own. Since Manu Ginobili is slowly becoming less of an offensive threat, Leonard must be ready to take a couple more shots, too.
Leonard's career offensive (points produced per 100 offensive possessions) and defensive (points allowed per 100 offensive possessions) ratings are rather impressive with 116/100 and 119/99 marks in the regular season and playoffs, respectively.
For comparison's sake, LeBron James' career lines sits at 116/102 and 115/101. Though this is not to say Leonard is James' equal, the two players are equally important to their respective team's success. The biggest difference is that LeBron is a star player and focal point of the offense, while Leonard is an unsung contributor.
Simply put, Kawhi Leonard is a key cog in the Spurs' machine.
One of the newest Spurs, Marco Belinelli was already expected to be a valuable contributor during his first season with the team.
San Antonio's fast-paced offense is spearheaded by Tony Parker, one of the best facilitating point guards in the game, but it relies heavily on shooters, too. Players like Matt Bonner, Danny Green and Neal are supposed to find and convert open threes, and the trio did that very well last season, knocking down a combined 41.8 percent of trifecta attempts.
Belinelli slides into the void Neal's departure created, but the former Chicago Bull is a career 39 percent shooter from beyond the arc, so that, of course, is a major reason he was signed to a 2-year deal anyway.
Creating open shots both on- and off-ball will be Belinelli's top responsibilities next season, but he need not be a prolific scorer. Replacing Neal's 21.8 minutes and 9.5 points per game is a must, though that should not be difficult for Belinelli to accomplish.
Additionally, Neal could be quite a liability at times on the floor, and Belinelli should be marginally better both as a defender and ball-handler.
Beyond replacing Neal's skill set, Belinelli will take some pressure off Ginobili to be the sole playmaker while Parker is on the bench. The Miami Heat exposed the Spurs' lack of a substitute ball-handler, and it certainly had a negative influence on the result in the finals.
Oh, and the slight upgrade San Antonio gets in Belinelli was $1 million cheaper, too.
Tiago Splitter recently signed a massive new contract, and many basketball fans raised a questioning eyebrow at the four-year, $36 million deal.
Bleacher Report's Jared Johnson explains why Splitter was worth the money.
As discussed previously, Splitter plays with undeniable hustle and constantly gives maximum effort, but—more importantly—is effective, too. Splitter's career-per-36-minute line is a surprising-to-some 15.1 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks.
While the Spurs absolutely need his post presence, small lineups, like Miami's Game 7 rotation, pose problems for San Antonio. Splitter's weaknesses in this case are his lack of mobility and little range, so he is relatively ineffective and must be on the bench.
But San Antonio's offensive scheme is centered on the pick-and-roll, and Splitter is an excellent fit in the Spurs' attack.
Both Tim Duncan and Splitter leave the block to assist Tony Parker's playmaking ability, and Splitter crashes into the post for a late pass or cheap rebound and putback.
Splitter is certainly not a superstar in the paint, but the 7-footer can still wreak a bit of havoc down low, defensively. If Splitter can become a more consistent rebounder, his once-puzzling contract will not be remembered in a negative light, sooner rather than later.
Note: All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.