With 28 seconds remaining in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, the celebratory Larry O'Brien trophy was wheeled aside the court as the world prepared for the San Antonio Spurs to finish off the Miami Heat.
San Antonio's storybook ending never occurred however; fate had other plans. A missed free throw, a nonexistent rebound attempt and a handful of other last-minute screw-ups ensured that the Spurs would fall just short of a Game 6 victory—and later—the NBA title.
It also ensured that change is on the horizon for the veteran squad, whose previous failure to update their jewelry collection will leave them in search of ring No. 5 during the upcoming campaign. But the league has improved around them, as the Spurs elected to distance themselves from the hectic surroundings of the 2013 offseason. Internal changes that will manifest themselves once the season begins will have to be enough to drive the squad past its numerous and talented competitors if the storybook ending should occur in 2014.
Expediting the Development of Aron Baynes
Many a Spur began his career in anonymity, only to rise from obscurity to take the league by storm. Tony Parker was a first-round afterthought in the 2001 NBA draft, and the egregious pronunciation of Manu Ginobili's name just two years before is a testament to how far the Argentinian standout has come. Even Danny Green—though not a superstar by any stretch of the imagination—has made colossal strides since being cut by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Spurs' 2013-14 recipient of the annual "Most Unknown Player" award will be Aron Baynes, and while not every unidentifiable player in San Antonio matures into a household name, Baynes certainly has the physical tools to make a statement when given playing time.
As a former rugby player, Baynes bares a slight resemblance to a cinderblock when sporting the Spurs' alternate gray uniforms, as his sheer size and build allow him to be an imposing monster when on the court. However, as impressive as his stature may be, the Australian center lacks finesse and basic basketball fundamentals that would help him dominate opponents with ease.
He is as green as any player the league has ever seen, though San Antonio's top-notch coaching staff has the ability to stimulate his growth until he is a formidable rotation player.
While practice drills will be pivotal to his evolution, Baynes will value most his on-court experience, a source of training that cannot be replicated and must be given to him more and more as the season progresses.
While he needs the opportunities for his own individual career, the team needs his help just as much. With DeJuan Blair having found a new home in Dallas, the Spurs no longer have a go-to strongman off the bench. Tim Duncan's age will also leave the team searching for monstrous size in the reserve pool, something that the collection of 6'9'' big men cannot assist with.
Baynes is only 6'10'' but plays with the tenacity of a seven-footer. Duncan's health will be of primary importance come playoff time, meaning an ample amount of rest should be in store for the future Hall of Famer. Tiago Splitter alone cannot hold down the fort, meaning Baynes should see a handful of minutes from the start at the 5. Should he impress, his playing time will increase, as the Spurs will welcome both the opportunity to facilitate his growth as well as the opportunity to save Duncan for the postseason.
For the sake of his own individual career as well as that of the entire team, Baynes should be given sufficient playing time as he transitions from an unseasoned enigma into an integral rotation player.
Deploying the Small-Ball Lineup
One of the increasingly common trends that the league is witnessing is the growing popularity of small ball, a style of play in which the five players on the court are collectively smaller than the common basketball lineup.
In most cases, the power forward is not—by nature—a big man, but a small forward with decent size. LeBron James is the prime example, as he has the scoring ability of a slashing wingman but the strength to defend power forwards, giving his team an offensive advantage over competitors whose big men are confined to the paint.
The Association is beginning to transition into a small-ball league, and while Gregg Popovich has never been one to worry about staying trendy, the Spurs would be wise to adopt the system in San Antonio as an everyday tactic.
Kawhi Leonard would become the team's valued stretch-4, as his 6'7'' height and 7'2'' wingspan ensure his ability to contribute as a big man when needed.
Against Miami, Leonard found himself playing valuable minutes in the small-ball set, as the defensive matchup of LeBron James coupled with a struggling Tiago Splitter forced Popovich to deploy the tactic. The results were promising, as Leonard became a double-double machine, posting four of them—falling one point short of a fifth. Throughout the entire regular season, the sophomore managed just six.
Using Leonard at the 4 would help give Duncan rest—as he would find more opportunities to sit out. It would also allow the Spurs to take advantage of their plethora of talented guards, as either Manu Ginobili or Marco Belinelli could play alongside Danny Green and Tony Parker.
Still, against teams like Miami who currently use the small-ball system or teams with power forwards who cannot push around Leonard in the paint, utilizing the style will either create positive mismatches or prevent mismatches that would occur in the normal set.
The team has the talent to pull it off, and taking advantage of Leonard's ability to play big would be a wise move for San Antonio.
Utilizing Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli as Facilitators
Tony Parker is the best player on the team, and because of the team's constant need for his production, the backup point guard position has never found a consistent suitor.
The trio of Cory Joseph, Nando de Colo and Patty Mills currently make up the team's depth at the position, but not one of the three is best suited for the job.
Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli are naturally shooting guards, though the abundance of talent at the position will allow for both to garner playing time at different positions, namely the 3.
However, while depth isn't an issue at the point, the duo collectively represents the answer to the backup point guard mystery.
Ginobili often assumes the role of playmaker when in, and while he developed a tendency to turn the ball over last year, a summer of rest should allow the veteran to adopt the mindset that fostered his rise to fame as a young star.
While a resurgent 2013-14 campaign may not be on the horizon, he is still an exceptional passer, creator and ball-handler whose only problem is his desire to make unnecessarily risky plays.
However, he's experienced enough to be more than just a serviceable reserve at the position, and that will help Parker receive greater rest.
A similar situation presents itself with Belinelli, who joins the roster after floating around the NBA landscape for the past few seasons. As a member of the Chicago Bulls, the shooting guard often controlled the ball, serving as the primary facilitator in situations when score-first point guards like Nate Robinson took the floor.
In San Antonio, he could find himself with a similar role, helping out at the point guard position when the team's primary offensive catalyst is resting. Cory Joseph can produce at the 2, and Patty Mills would thrive in a shooting role. Allowing them to defend point guards while offensively contributing as shooting guards would help them flourish in ideal situations.
The team lacks a true backup point guard, and both Ginobili and Belinelli have the talent to fill the void while allowing others to perform in more natural roles.