At what point to the San Antonio Spurs finally move on, close the window and begin life post-Three Amigos? It's going to happen eventually.
Just not this season.
The Spurs, for those who have forgotten, have forged the best regular-season record in the Western Conference the last two years. Though that doesn't guarantee anything in the playoffs, obviously, it does indicate that San Antonio belongs in that precious group of teams capable of winning the whole thing.
It's going on six years since the Spurs claimed their last of four titles in the Duncan-Popovich Era. Six years is an eternity in pro sports, and it would be foolish to think that the Spurs of now are just as qualified as the Spurs of then to be the last team standing in June.
Dismissing their chances is just as foolish. Defending conference champ Oklahoma City Thunder and the rebooted Los Angeles Lakers are the class of the West by most accounts, leaving the Spurs as a second thought in the Larry O'Brien chase.
But these Spurs are deep and athletic beyond Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Kawhi Leonard has a makeup to be something beyond just a Bruce Bowen-type defensive stopper. Youngsters such as Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, Cory Joseph and French-import Nando De Colo give the league's best coach options.
And, as Gregg Popovich points out, out these Spurs are hungry. They were two wins away from facing the Miami Heat in the Finals. They head into 2012-13 with something to prove before it's too late.
"We're still feeling the pain of that loss to Oklahoma City." Popovich said. "When you're in the conference finals and you're up 2-0 and you don't get it done that hurts. Obviously you give them credit, they're a heck of a team, but it doesn't take the hurt away. I think we still all feel it very, very much.
"That's a good thing. We gotta use that as fuel. That was a very, very, very tough loss. It's our job to just see what else we can do to combat that youth and that talent, and we've got some ideas and we'll see what happens."
Last season: 50-16, lost to Oklahoma City in conference finals.
Coach: Gregg Popovich (17th year, 847-399)
Top returnees: PF Tim Duncan, G Manu Ginobili, PG Tony Parker.
Key additions: G Nando De Colo.
X-Factor: F Kawhi Leonard has the ability and mental makeup to become a fourth wheel on the San Antonio wagon. Leonard wants to be more than just a lockdown defender and spot-up shooter in the corner. After spending his rookie season guarding the best scorers in the league from Kevin Durant to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James, Leonard spent the summer handling the ball and learning to run the offense. Pop placed a high ceiling on Leonard and he's ready to reach it.
Strengths: No team in the league has more continuity and organizational knowledge than the Spurs. Popovich's system has avoided getting stale over the years, which is a testament to his genius. San Antonio has morphed into an efficient offensive club able to attack from every spot on the court. Parker breaks down defenses, Duncan is still solid on the block and Manu's planned improvisations wreak havoc. G Gary Neal, GF Danny Green, GF Stephen Jackson and F Boris Diaw understand and execute their roles.
Weaknesses: Much to Pop's dismay, defense has slipped in recently. The Spurs were middle of the pick in most key defensive categories last season, including points allowed and opponent's field-goal percentage. The lack of a true basket-protecting presence alongside Duncan has been an issue. The Spurs don't force many steals or block many shots.
Outlook: Duncan arrived in camp in excellent shape, buoyed by a new three-contract and driven to collect a fifth ring. Parker and Ginobili still qualify as an upper-tier backcourt, even if Manu comes off the bench. The rotation has quality depth at almost every position, with the only real question at center. It Tiago Splitter is a dependable big man able to defend and rebound, the Spurs have to feel really good about their chances.
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