The San Antonio Spurs enter the 2011-12 NBA season in an unfamiliar position. A 61-21 record usually instills confidence moving forward, but the Spurs sacrificed that privilege after suffering one of the most shocking first-round playoff upsets in recent memory.
San Antonio's penchant for relatively low roster turnover and conservative spending in the free-agent market means that the team rarely garners the buzz it deserves, but this marks the first season where the Spurs aren't widely considered to be a Finals contender.
Has the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili reign actually come to an end, or can this aging trio remain a force to be reckoned with in the West?
Here are seven questions facing the San Antonio Spurs that will be answered over the next six months.
If we use history as any indication, an upset of this magnitude can undoubtedly put a team into a long-term funk. The 2007 Mavericks were the last top seed to lose in the first round, and Dirk Nowitzki and Co. responded with two underwhelming seasons in which the team appeared to lose all confidence. Despite the embarrassment of affording the perennially underachieving Memphis Grizzlies their first series win in franchise history, the Spurs will not meet a similar fate.
The 2012 version of the San Antonio Spurs holds a distinct advantage over the 2008 Mavericks: experience. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are professionals. They realize that their playoff failure will not be immediately forgotten, but, more importantly, they realize that it doesn't really matter. This team won't feel the pressure to run their opponents out of the gym on a nightly basis early in the season. They will simply revert to their tried and true, war of attrition-style that has proven to be so successful over the past decade.
TJ Ford appeared to be an elite talent coming out of the University of Texas, but his career hasn't met the high standards demanded of a lottery pick. After suffering a career-threatening spinal cord injury in his rookie season with the Milwaukee Bucks, the undersized point guard had stints with the Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers but fell out of favor with both. Last season, the Pacers acquired Darren Collison to start at the 1, and chose not to retain Ford over the summer.
George Hill was an efficient scorer as the Spurs' sixth man, but his flaws made him expendable in the offseason. The IUPUI product struggled as a playmaker (proven by his sub-2.00 assist-to-turnover ratio) leaving little option but to keep giving big minutes to starter Tony Parker. Hill also struggled to make plays on the defensive end, only averaging 1.47 steals/48 minutes.
Based on his skill set, Ford has the potential to be more valuable to San Antonio. He is an inferior shooter to Hill but should offer more assists and steals and, more importantly, have some success running the offense, allowing Parker more time on the bench.
After falling out of favor in Indiana, Ford has officially achieved bust status. Though he'll never be elite, a return to the familiarity of his south-central Texas stomping grounds and his acceptance of a clearly-defined backup role will enable Ford to solidify the Spurs point guard position.
I was initially shocked that the Spurs didn't use the amnesty clause on Richard Jefferson's albatross of a contract. He was a borderline-elite scorer with New Jersey, but his average has declined drastically since he left the Garden State before the 2008 season. Though his acquisition is a black mark on San Antonio's stellar record of personnel decisions, management made the right call by bringing him back this season.
According the reports, the Spurs had serious interest in bringing in several small forwards, but each one declined. If Jefferson had been amnestied, San Antonio, with only Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green at the position, would probably have been forced to overpay a mediocre 3 to help the team contend (think Travis Outlaw's contract with the Nets, but to a lesser extent).
Despite Jefferson's precipitous decline, he actually posted improved shooting percentages last season. Shooting 44 percent from distance, Jefferson forces the defense to keep track of him beyond the arc, opening up space for Parker and Ginobili to get to the basket. Furthermore, he should be more efficient this season as he will cede some minutes to the more athletic Leonard.
Spurs management will be hoping that Jefferson treads water this season, and that a opportunity to sign an impact free agent will arise before next year, allowing them to wipe Jefferson's contract from the books.
The Spurs are still hoping to compete with their aging core, but they still made a concerted effort to get younger over the summer.
Kawhi Leonard was acquired in a draft-day trade for George Hill, and he comes to San Antonio with high expectations. With his 6'7" frame and ability to sky for dunks and rebounds, Leonard is immediately the top athlete on the Spurs roster. His offensive game may need refining, but he should be able to contribute as a defensive stopper from Day 1. For a team that has garnered a reputation as old, slow, and boring, Leonard will serve as the antithesis to that style, allowing the Spurs to diversify their game. Leonard will begin the year as a reserve, but don't be surprised if he steals the starting job from Richard Jefferson, which I believe would make him a dark horse candidate for Rookie of the Year honors.
Cory Joseph at the end of the first round was not as impressive. The ex-Longhorn should serve as a third-string point guard this season, and won't command many minutes. The Spurs may see him as the point guard of the future, but there were other options at No. 29 that could have contributed immediately.
To compete for a high playoff seed, the Spurs need to add a big man.
At power forward, Tim Duncan's minutes decreased last season, and with a compressed schedule, they should decline even further. Matt Bonner is a valuable long-range shooter, but he's too perimeter-oriented to effectively deputize for Duncan.
The center position is only marginally more settled. DeJaun Blair and Tiago Splitter should see big minutes, and while both are accomplished, tireless defenders, neither is a bona fide rim-protector.
To solidify the frontcourt, the Spurs should look into making a move for an athletic big man who will make opponents think twice before attacking the rim. Duncan remains an elite shot-blocker, but adding an inexpensive big like Johan Petro or Ryan Hollins (who have surprisingly high blocks/48 minute ratios) could be a cheap fix for a team without much wiggle room under the salary cap.
Despite what the picture suggests, Gregg Popovich is one of the most intelligent and steady coaches in the NBA. Though his sideline antics can occasionally paint him as stubborn, he's had to make adjustments to his coaching style to keep the Spurs at an elite level for over a decade.
Popovich made a mistake last season in playing his top players too many minutes. This was obviously successful during the regular season, but that's not where championships are won. Against the Grizzlies, Ginobili was not playing at full health, and Duncan and Parker looked slow and tired. All three should play fewer than 30 minutes per game.
Furthermore, I expect Popovich to simply leave his stars at home for some games (especially during a brutal back-to-back-to-back), while hoping to steal a cheap win or two out of the reserves. The Spurs will see a drop in their win percentage, but will ultimately be more fresh when playoff basketball rolls around.
The short answer is yes. The long answer is more complicated.
San Antonio added a couple of pieces in the offseason to improve their team, but their fate is clearly in the hands of their established stars. Expect the Spurs to be more cautious in the minutes they give Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, ultimately leading to a fifth-seventh place finish in the West.
The Spurs will use their experience to their advantage in a Western Conference Playoff landscape that doesn't include it's usual heavy favorite. The Thunder are supremely talented, but showed some playoff jitters against the Mavericks. The defending champions' interior defense has been weakened with the departure of Tyson Chandler. The Lakers lack depth and a point guard, while both the Grizzlies and Clippers are unproven.
Would I pick the San Antonio Spurs to come out of the West? Probably not. However, the conference is wide open, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the most experienced team catch fire and make a surprise appearance in the Finals.