Just two years ago, the San Antonio Spurs were on top of the world for the fourth time in nine years. Last season, the Spurs went through two emotional series before meeting the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. They looked old and tired against the Lakers, and were eliminated in an uncharacteristically quick five games. The fight just seemed to have left them. Going into the 08-09 season, the Spurs made very few changes. They lost Brent Barry to division rival Houston, but managed to sign up and coming guard Roger Mason as his replacement. Starting this season will be very difficult, however, as star shooting guard Manu Ginobili is out with an ankle injury, and will miss at least the first few months. On an already aging Spursí team, this is a huge loss. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker will be able to carry the load while Ginobili is sidelined, but the rest of the team will need to step up until he gets back. Both Duncan and Parker can single-handedly get the Spurs back to the postseason, but without some help, the team of the decade might miss the Playoffs for the first time since 1997.
Offense: The Spurs were in the bottom five last season in terms of points scored. That, however, is the way they need to pay. The Spursí half-court offense is very time consuming, but this allows them to make the best decision possible, and prevents many careless mistakes that would be made if they were a fast-paced team. This isnít saying that they canít run, because they can, and they excel in that style as well. Keeping the play at their pace, though, allows the Spurs to control the entire game. Keeping the game close is another peculiar style the Spurs employ, as they always seem to put the game out of reach within the last few minutes, or nail a clutch shot to end the game. The Spurs look like an arrogant team, because they act as if they know they wonít make near as many mistakes as the opposition in crunch time. When the opponent does falter, San Antonio capitalizes on the situation, and many times pulls the still-beating heart out of a teamís chest. The Spursí players and fans obviously enjoy that, and it happens at least a few times every single year. Oh, and by the way, I hear that Tim Duncan guy is pretty good.
Defense: The Spurs donít score a lot of points, but neither do their opponents. The Spurs held the opposition to just 90.6 points per game last year, and this year I expect the same hard-nosed defense from these old geezers. Tim Duncan patrols the post like no one else, and is one of the best help-defenders in the game. Bruce Bowen is arguably the best perimeter defender in the game, and even at 37 years of age, he will still be seen this year putting his defensive skills to the test against the Kobeís, LeBronís, and even Chris Paulís of the league. He may have lost a step, but he is still an elite defender. Kurt Thomas provides steady support under the basket for Tim Duncan, and is one of the most unheralded players in the game. He doesnít put up big numbers, or pull off 360 dunks, but he does play great man to man defense against the big players in the paint. Defense has been the key to San Antonioís success, and this year should be the same.
Strengths: Tim Duncan is one of the biggest strengths a team can have. Since joining this team way back in 1997, the Spurs have been a title contender every year simply because his name is on the roster sheet. In the Playoffs, Duncan continues to prove that he is the most reliable and consistent player in the league and no one enjoys facing him on the block. Duncan is one of the hardest working players in the game, and he is still the foundation of this team. Everything has always run through Duncan, and this year will be no different if the Spurs hope to contend for another title.
Weaknesses: The Spurs are one of the oldest teams in the league, and it showed against the Lakers in the Playoffs last season. Save for Tony Parker, the entire lineup is past their prime, and this year could be the last where the Spurs are actual contenders. Or, perhaps, that was last year.
Five Players to Watch:
Tim Duncan - Duncan has had much more rest this offseason than he is accustomed to, which is a very good thing, considering that Ginobili is out for the time being. Duncan needs to stay healthy if the Spurs even have a shot at the Playoffs. I still believe that Duncan is a superstar caliber player and can carry this team far, but if he isnít healthy, that wonít even matter.
Manu Ginobili - Well, Ginobili will be spending a big chunk of time off the floor to start the season, which is a killer. Ginobili is so effective and efficient on the offensive end, and in the clutch, he is the go to guy most of the time. Ginobiliís value can not be measured in numbers, and the Spurs will miss his versatility in the backcourt. Ginobili has been playing basketball almost non-stop for the last few years, that he hasnít had any breaks. This injury will give him time to heal both his ankle, and his battered body. If Manu is smart, as well as Gregg Popovich, he will take his time coming back, because the Spurs can not risk an even worse injury at the end of the year. Ginobili is just too valuable to this team for that to happen.
Tony Parker - The Spurs are quickly becoming Tony Parkerís team, if they arenít already. Parker has improved his playmaking abilities ten-fold since entering the league in 2001, and is a reliable distributor. He still isnít a pure point guard, but that actually benefits his game in the Spursí system. Parker can be both a scorer and distributor at the same time, and not confused about it, like, oh, Stephon Marbury. The Spurs are a very old team, but Parker is the player that gives this team that spark of youth, that kick in the ass to get the team going. Tony Parker is a tremendous leader, and is a vessel of Gregg Popovich on the floor. Parker is an amzing player, so hopefully his celebrity life stays out of the way.
Roger Mason Jr. - The Spurs signed Roger Mason Jr. over the offseason to replace Brent Barry in the rotation, but he will now be playing an even bigger role with Ginobili out. Masonís game has grown exponentially over the last few seasons in Washington. He will need to continue that development, and be an impact player from day one. Otherwise, the Spurs still have veteran sharp-shooter Michael Finley, and rookie George Hill, who is full of potential. Mason will need to be that spark in the offense that he was for Washington, and he will be a solid fill-in for Manu until his return.
Gregg Popovich - Popovich is one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, but this year may present his biggest challenge. He is now the coach of an old, beaten-up, Spursí team. The West is growing around the Spurs, while they are fading away. Popovich needs to find a way to rejuvenate this team, and make them the force they are supposed to be. Otherwise, the Playoffs might even be out of reach for this team.
Title Hopes: With The Big Fundamental on the squad, the Spurs will always have a shot at the title. The team will start off slowly without Ginobili, though, and they wonít be getting any younger by Playoff time next year. All it takes is one serious injury to either Duncan or Parker while Manu is out to completely sideline this Spursí team. People canít give up on them yet, though, as 2009 will be the two-year anniversary of their last title. The Spurs won the title in 2005, missed it in 2006, won it again in 2007, missed it last yearÖÖ..The Spurs could be the ďsexy pickĒ to win the title this year, or maybe theyíve wrinkled out.
Prediction: 3rd Place, Southwest Division