Whenever I go to my local park to play basketball, inevitably I always see the same two guys there. Their names are Mike and Mike (not the same ESPN radio personalities); I would guess they are in their mid-50s, both have grey-ish hair, and they like to yell at each other a lot.
I dread playing them.
For one thing, they run set plays, which usually consist of running around in circles, setting picks, and shooting mid-range shots. Whether it’s 2-on-2 or 5-on-5, they usually win—and they have 30 some years on me.
It dawned on me while playing them recently that being an old basketball player isn’t a bad thing at all. In this day and age, certain words like “youth” and “potential” are looked at with much positivity. Why don’t we hear about the “experienced” or “wise” anymore? It might be because they’re boring, or the mere fact that the young beating the old at a game they’ve been playing before they were born is an exciting prospect.
That’s why it continues to baffle me as to why major media outlets are continually leaving a team like the San Antonio Spurs out of the title picture. They’re called “over the hill,” “beat up,” or just simply not up to the high level of competition out West. It’s just comfortable to hop on this bandwagon that suddenly appeared about five or so years ago.
It was especially tempting when Richard Jefferson failed to implement himself successfully into the team’s half-court offense last year, and the club looked like a dead meat seventh seed going in against the high-octane offense of the Dallas Mavericks in the first round.
What was the outcome of the series?
Spurs in 6.
Granted, the Spurs couldn’t keep up with the Phoenix Suns in the second round (in hindsight, when a team is shooting that well against average to above-average defense—who can? The same Suns team who swept the Spurs in the second round looked lost against the Lakers in the Conference Finals during the first few games—I’m looking at you, Channing Frye), but they had already proven to everyone that their title chances weren’t done just quite yet.
Let’s be honest, the 2009-2010 Spurs never got it really together. Tony Parker was in and out of the lineup constantly, Manu Ginobili wasn’t the same player after Dirk Nowitzki accidentally broke his nose in Game Three of the first round, and Tim Duncan never got consistent rebounding and scoring help from his other man in the post.
So why will the 2010-2011 San Antonio Spurs be a heavy favorite out West right next to the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks?
Well, there are a few reasons why.
First, Tony Parker took the summer off to completely heal his nagging ankle injury. Spurs fans never saw the explosive Parker last year. You can bet, however, that in his contract year, he will be back with a vengeance, especially considering the emergence of George Hill as a playmaker in the first round against the Mavs.
Plus there's the fact that if Parker loves San Antonio as much as he says he does and he wants to keep his starting job, he’s going to really work hard to keep that spot, in addition to getting a new contract with the team.
Secondly, the Spurs still have two of the best players in the game. Bad knees didn’t slow Tim Duncan down from having another solid season, and even if Manu’s nose is longer than it was before after his latest injury, what he did in the second half of last season was MVP-caliber stuff. It doesn’t matter that both of these guys might only have a few years left in the league, they will always be feared by any opposition.
Thirdly, Richard Jefferson doesn’t have the weight of a gigantic contract weighing down his confidence anymore. It would be an understatement to say Jefferson didn’t play well last year. Some of that applies to some of the bonehead plays he made, but a majority of it had to be attached to the fact that RJ really, really wanted to fit in. But he never fully grasped the Spurs' very detailed playbook and was scared to try to just play his game once in a while.
Now, with the Spurs inking him to a four-year extension, RJ can rest assured that the club still has confidence in his playing abilities, and for this reason, many Spurs fans believe Jefferson will be much improved over last season.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, the Spurs did add some young guns next to those aching legs. Tiago Splitter, one of the best big men in Europe, is a 25-year-old, long-armed, smart-shooter, who looks a little like Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, and will give Gregg Popovich a well-rounded, good passing big man in the post to put next to Tim Duncan.
The team also added James Anderson in the draft with the 20th pick, and also signed Gary Neal from their summer league team. It’s safe to say Roger Mason Jr. won’t be back after his disastrous season, which included a ridiculous trade request, as well as him trying to play with an injured shooting hand, the latter of which resulted in some of the worst shooting in the playoffs.
While Anderson and Neal won’t be anything spectacular, they’re both well-skilled perimeter shooters who instantly improve one of the Spurs' weaknesses from last season—three-point shooting. Don’t forget about the maturation of George Hill and DeJuan Blair (a fan favorite) as well.
Will the Spurs be 2010-2011 NBA Champions? It’s very hard to say at this point.
The Los Angeles Lakers got stronger by adding Steve Blake (an improvement over a suddenly turned-off Jordan Farmar), Matt Barnes, and Theo Ratliff to the fold.
The Mavericks also upgraded their center position by ditching the plodding Erick Dampier for the giant wingspan of one Tyson Chandler, while also keeping Dirk Nowitzki for the remainder of his career.
The Lakers, Mavs, and Spurs will all jostle to represent the West in the NBA Finals next year, with once powerhouses like the Jazz, Suns, and Blazers struggling to stay where they were last year.
Being an old NBA team is looked upon with much dismay by many people, and numerous personalities have already written the Spurs off and said “it’s time to rebuild.” But this team continues to show that even if they might have a few guys over 30 and show signs of weaknesses during certain segments of the regular season, the NBA is all about who comes together and makes the biggest run at the right time.
You can bet the Spurs will be right in the mix of things when the playoffs begin in mid-April next year.