The NBA has placed a "tentative" gift under our collective tree to be opened Dec. 25. Never mind the 149 days of coal sagging your stocking down, real games return via a triple-header on Christmas Day, and sometime soon thereafter the San Antonio Spurs will attempt to set aside the frustrations that swallowed a promising season a year ago.
Training camps and free agency will begin simultaneously Dec. 9, and a whirlwind of action will quickly commence. Prior to that burst of chaotic movement and preparation, let's take a slow breath to peer into where last year's top seed from the Western Conference will begin, as well as some questions they will face.
With the return of basketball comes the return of some bruised emotions for Spurs fans. 61 wins, only a game off the league's best record, set the stage for a return to postseason prominence; only the Memphis Grizzlies took the spotlight. Still, there is reason for hope as well as more than a few genuine concerns.
As sour as the lingering tastes may be, this was a team that won 61 games a year ago by drastically shifting their approach from its long-time perch on the shoulders of one of the game's greatest players, Tim Duncan, to lean more heavily on the athleticism of their guards, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
As evidenced by their record, this strategy worked extremely well in the regular season. Perhaps you can find some wiggle room to explain the postseason failure in Ginobili's injuries, as well as a perfectly nightmarish matchup against a team whose greatest strength directly matched up with the Spurs most glaring weakness: interior play and size.
This brings the first glaring question facing this year's Spurs team: can they add an interior player, or is there a solution already on the roster?
Time will be tight as the entire league scrambles to fill their needs through what many consider a weak list of free agents. Already hovering around the projected luxury-tax line, a name like Tyson Chandler or Nene isn't likely on the way. If free agency isn't the avenue for a fix, could Tiago Splitter, with a year of NBA experience under his belt, and DeJuan Blair bridge the gap between what was a weakness last year to something more, to enough?
Beyond its implications in the chase for a big man, the next major question facing the Spurs is what to do with the amnesty clause included in the new CBA. This allows a team to shed a single player with a contract signed in the prior CBA, removing their complete salary from all cap and tax numbers.
Without blinking, most Spurs fans probably just smiled and whispered their goodbyes to Richard Jefferson, who has vastly underperformed his contract (note his 6.5 points on 38.7-percent shooting in the playoffs). This could mirror the thought process of Spurs management. However, one must note that the player will still get his salary, with the team waiving him being responsible for most or all of those checks (depending on if the player is claimed in a bidding process that will result in his new team taking on a sliver of that burden).
So, is it worth it to pay Jefferson to go away?
Strangely, some of the answers to that question may spill into the next big question facing San Antonio. How much can Kawhi Leonard, taken with the 15th overall pick in last year's draft, contribute in the immediate future?
Many came away from the draft viewing Leonard as a steal, and some even tossed him among those on a short list of viable Rookie of the Year candidates. He has length, athleticism, a willingness to work on defense and a work ethic that should allow him to instantly fit in beside the Spurs' veteran leaders.
If he's ready for big minutes right away, the need for Jefferson shrinks and he could even become a hindrance to Leonard's progress. Yet, with there being no need to use the amnesty in the immediate future, as it will remain available, the Spurs may decide paying Jefferson to play for someone else isn't a prudent decision for this moment though that would change drastically ifwhen the cap space found by erasing about 30 million over the next three years (just over 9 million this season, 10 next, and a player option for 11 in 2013-14) is needed.
The odds would say Jefferson is destined to be an amnesty casualty at some point. Only the question of "when" remains.
Next up on the list of questions facing the Spurs in this shortened season: with George Hill now in Indiana, who keeps the team afloat while Tony Parker is on the bench?
Is Gary Neal going to move over and find some point-guard minutes? Will Popovich stagger minutes to keep Manu on the floor to run the offense when Parker rests? On this, we'll have to wait and see. Of course, should the answer come from outside the roster, add to the list of reasons Jefferson won't finish his contract as a Spur.
Perhaps a little more vague, but the final question we'll pose here is: Does this Spurs team have enough left to make another Title push?
In other words, are they too old?
We struggled to embrace the drastic changes in the Spurs' approach last season, wondering aloud if Popovich was outsmarting us all once more and saving Tim Duncan for the playoffs, when the team would revert to Pop's own diagram for playoff success as Duncan would erase thoughts of career lows in scoring, rebounding, field-goal attempts and minutes to emerge fresh and ready to dominate like days of old.
That didn't happen. The playoffs came, and the Spurs strode on as the team they showed us in the regular season. Duncan had a little extra to give, but not enough to be a direct echo of his former. The truth, as sad and hard to accept as it may be, is that Duncan carries the years with him. No matter how much Spurs fans want to see him shed that weight and dominate for an extended period, that time has come and gone. As glorious as it was, and it was, it's bound to yesterday.
Gregg Popovich knew this, and we must give credit to his coaching acumen by seeing what he was able to accomplish anyway.
Beside Duncan, one must wonder if Manu Ginobili, at 34, hasn't hit the crest of the hill to begin descending the other side. You may quickly note the 17.4 points he averaged last season, the second highest of his career, but would also be bound to note that he did so while playing the second highest minutes per game of his career while ranking amongst the three worst seasons of his nine years in the NBA in field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage, rebounds and assists per game not to mention the injuries in the playoffs that a pessimist may label as signs of a body breaking down.
To compound these issues, how will Duncan and company handle the stress of back-to-back-to-back games, of which all teams will face at least once in this lockout-truncated 66-game season, and a generally compressed schedule?
Despite this, the window may not be closed entirely. San Antonio has the lessons and heart of a championship core and stands only a year removed from winning 61 games. There are reasons for optimism.
They have a group of young players poised to improve, from Splitter, Blair and James Anderson (a second-year player who had most of his rookie campaign sabotaged by injury) to a promising rookie (Kawhi Leonard). And, let us not forget what happened the last time the NBA endured a shortened season. That's right, the Spurs walked away with a Title.
The road won't be easy, but it never is. Only a fool turns his back on a champion.