The San Antonio Spurs haven't entered an NBA season with such favorable media coverage in a long time. After flying under the radar for years, it appears as though the team's title in 2014 killed off the final naysayer who had said that the team's window had closed.
In 2014-15, the other teams in the ever-competitive NBA will look to keep the Spurs from winning their sixth title in what might be the final season of the Tim Duncan era.
Much will be the same as the team attempts to repeat last year's success, but with moving pieces and evolving stars, you can bet that enough will be different to keep fans captivated throughout the season's entirety.
Sure, San Antonio may have made more headlines with its coaching staff than its players over the offseason, but even if the 2014-15 roster resembles the previous one externally, it'll return for the upcoming season with some noticeable changes.
First, Patty Mills—though re-signed by the Spurs—will miss the majority of the year with a shoulder injury. A major factor in the team's title run, Mills will be missed as both a bench spark and a pure shooter when his backup duties fall onto the shoulders of Cory Joseph.
Though Mills was the superior scorer, Joseph's move into the primary reserve spot may not be as detrimental to the second unit as one would assume. Joseph is a fantastic perimeter on-ball defender, a skill category in which the squad's second unit struggled.
Additionally, Joseph has established himself as a legitimate floor leader with a high IQ and a versatile repertoire. Though he doesn't possess the knockdown ability from deep, he'll bring a valuable set of skills to the Spurs bench, and while Mills will be missed, Joseph's talents should guarantee that the team's regular-season success is unaffected.
The other noticeable rotation shakeup will be the addition and introduction of Kyle Anderson, the Spurs' 2014 draft pick. Anderson, famous for his Boris Diaw-like ability to orchestrate despite being 6'9'', won't receive much playing time out of the gate, but his pass-first style of play should earn him minutes by the end of the season.
He'll likely bite into Diaw's time a bit given the French big man's age and head coach Gregg Popovich's tendency to preserve his veterans. He'll also log some time behind Kawhi Leonard at the 3, allowing the Spurs to utilize Danny Green and Manu Ginobili at their natural shooting guard positions.
However, that too will likely have minor effects during the regular season. Anderson, though a rookie, has a skill set that should make for a seamless transition into the NBA, though he's also inexperienced enough to ensure that the rotation won't change drastically due to his addition.
Other changes that will occur without any roster moves might have an even larger impact. A greater offensive focus will fall on Leonard, who—despite an excellent campaign all of last year—officially broke out in the Finals. He averaged 17.8 points—including three straight 20-plus-point games to close out the series—on 61 percent shooting against the greatest player in the league (LeBron James) en route to his Finals MVP award.
With his game constantly growing, there's little doubt that he'll find himself with a larger role as the franchise embarks on its biggest transitional season yet. Leonard, having shown a growing comfort with the ball in his hands, will serve as a catalyst. If his shot is falling and his finishing ability stays on par with its previous brilliance, he'll likely find himself a primary candidate to participate in the festivities during All-Star weekend.
Outside of Leonard, Tiago Splitter may find himself eating into Duncan's regular-season playing time a bit more, but not to a noticeable degree. Aside from the offense evolving, this Spurs team will bare plenty of similarities to last year's version, and given their success in 2013-14, that isn't a bad thing.
Where the Spurs Stand
With last year's best-record, championship-winning team returning for the upcoming season, it's easy to peg them as favorites out of the gate without much thought—especially in the regular season, where they've been historically dominant even in years when they failed to capture the title.
That said, for yet another year the NBA's best teams have improved, making both conferences increasingly competitive.
In the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder will emerge again as threats to the team, and without any major health issues to start the season, they'll have the opportunity to compete with the Spurs for the No. 1 seed from the beginning. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook always present a formidable duo, and Serge Ibaka—back in full after missing the beginning of the Western Conference Finals—will return as a dynamic defensive centerpiece.
Even so, the Spurs match up well with the Thunder. Continued growth from Leonard's end will decrease Durant's capacity to dominate, while the high chances that the Thunder roll out a dual-point-guard lineup with Reggie Jackson beside Westbrook should benefit the Spurs, who will no longer create defensive mismatches for Tony Parker when they play Green on Westbrook.
In the post, the Spurs managed to figure out Ibaka by the series' end, and even with Steven Adams likely taking a bigger role, the team will still have a hole in the frontcourt that Duncan and Splitter can exploit.
The Thunder's bench, should Jackson make the jump into the starting lineup, will be worse than it was last year, making the Spurs the all-around stronger team. Though the West may have gotten tougher, the Thunder are a still a few moves away from overtaking the Spurs as the best team on paper.
Outside of the Thunder, the Los Angeles Clippers will look to finally live up to the hype, as will the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers, who after another year of experience will emerge as dangerous threats to the entire conference.
All three teams, however, have a lot to prove. Parker and Duncan can go head-to-head with each team's point guard-big man duo. Portland, though it has performed well against the Spurs in previous regular seasons, was embarrassed by the veteran team in last year's playoffs. The Warriors and Clippers impose greater challenges, but neither has improved significantly on paper to the point where anything different should be expected.
As for the Spurs' particular division, the Southwest has improved immensely outside of the Houston Rockets—whose disaster of an offseason was highlighted by the departure of Chandler Parsons to Dallas. Still, Houston hurt San Antonio in the regular season last year and will be a playoff contender despite a bad summer.
The Memphis Grizzlies aren't much different, but a healthy Marc Gasol will make them more competitive in the regular season even if the Spurs still match up well with them, as evidenced by the 2013 Western Conference Finals—a series in which that San Antonio team was inferior to the current one.
As for the Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs' in-state rivals will be as competitive as ever. Dirk Nowitzki is aging in a Duncan-esque manner, and the additions of Parsons and Tyson Chandler will hit San Antonio in two positions where it previously had clear advantages.
The Pelicans won't prove to be too much of a roadblock, though Anthony Davis could very well make the jump into superstardom this year.
The West, as a whole, is growing in competitiveness, but San Antonio will return as the favorites and—as long as Pop doesn't throw away the top seed by tanking in the season's final weeks—should be able to capture the conference's best record.
The East, however, is another story. Though the improved Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls won't affect where the Spurs stand within the Western Conference, both teams pose a legitimate threat to the Spurs' quest for the league's top record.
Before Derrick Rose went down with injury—the first time—he had led his Bulls to the NBA's best record in two consecutive seasons. Since then, Chicago has improved; Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson are different players, and the addition of Pau Gasol makes the team as competitive as ever. Look for Chicago to pose the single greatest threat to the Spurs this season, even if it doesn't have a direct hand in messing up the Western Conference's seeding.
The Cavs, too, will be a hurdle for the Spurs. LeBron James will return with a renewed passion and a taste for revenge, and if Kevin Love finds himself in Cleveland, the team will have the tools to attack offensively on all cylinders.
Both Chicago and Cleveland will stand in the way of the Spurs' search for the overall best record. However, each will have to deal with a handful of issues—namely, meshing together their respective rosters—that San Antonio can avoid.
No matter what happens in the East, the Spurs should enter the season as the regular-season favorites in the West. Much can happen once the playoffs roll around, but until then, the West's best team for the past two years stands pretty good odds for hitting the 50-win mark once again and capturing the conference's best record for a second consecutive season.
Prediction: 59-23, first in the West