The Spurs made sure it didn’t get to a Game 6 in 2014 as they dominated the Heat in five games to win their fifth championship. Tim Duncan, who many assumed would retire after his fifth title, now enters the 2014-15 season looking for a ring for his other hand now.
The Spurs brought everyone back in the offseason and added rookie Kyle Anderson to the mix via the draft.
The following are five things I will have my eyes on when the season tips off.
1. Is this the last hurrah for Tim Duncan? Duncan opted in to the remaining year on his contract in the offseason, but there isn’t anything else for him to prove with his Hall of Fame career. If Duncan – who will turn 39 during the first round of the playoffs – can lead the Spurs to their first back-to-back championships, I can’t see him passing up the chance to go the route of David Robinson and retire on top.
Duncan is a competitor, though, and he didn’t play like someone at the tail end of his career last season. He hasn’t played more than 30 minutes per game in any of the last four seasons, and that should continue. However, Duncan’s remaining games will now have a special meaning in San Antonio – and across the NBA.
2. Can the Spurs stay healthy? Any chance of the Spurs returning to the NBA Finals will hinge on health. Tony Parker (France) and Manu Ginobili (Argentina) opted to skip international play in the offseason, although Ginobili wanted to play but was denied by the Spurs. NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard also withdrew from Team USA’s Select Team with that in mind.
With an aging core last season, coach Gregg Popovich did not have one player average more than 30 minutes, marking the first time in NBA history that happened. Given that the result was a championship, he likely will be as diligent in managing playing time this season.
Depth should help the cause. While backup point guard Patty Mills (shoulder surgery) is out for a few months, having Mills and Cory Joseph to back up Tony Parker will be important in the stretch run and into the playoffs. Ginobili and Marco Belinelli can also play multiple positions, and Popovich has several options when looking to rest Duncan.
3. Is Kawhi Leonard ready to take over? Leonard’s 2013-14 season ended even better than he could have dreamed. He was a force on both sides of the court in the NBA Finals and was named Finals MVP. But is Leonard ready to take over as the alpha dog, or has he been a beneficiary of joining a veteran team and not facing as much pressure to produce as other young players?
Only Leonard will be able to answer that this season, but given his growth from initially being known purely as a defender to developing a 3-point shot to becoming capable of taking over games, I wouldn’t doubt him.
Several NBA writers are calling Leonard a top-10 or even a top-five small forward in the company of superstars LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. Coaches will definitely be game-planning for Leonard more, and we will see how he reacts to that attention and transitions into a bigger role.
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4. Is Gregg Popovich armed with his best coaching staff yet? Popovich has become accustomed to losing his prized proteges over the years, with several former assistants leaving to take head coaching jobs throughout the league. After losing Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown prior to last season, Pop has reloaded with two coaching acquisitions that give him a talented group of assistants.
Bringing former CSKA Moscow and Italian national team coach Ettore Messina stateside was one of the Spurs’ biggest offseason moves. There is a lot of mutual respect between Popovich and Messina, whose style fits the Spurs and was Ginobili’s coach in Italy before “El Contusion” came stateside.
On top of that, the Spurs are getting an assistant that could be a head coach in virtually any NBA city.
While Messina is accomplished and experienced as a coach, Becky Hammon will just be cutting her teeth. However, Hammon will be an asset in her own right. She has defied odds throughout her career and has always been a high IQ player. She is an extension of WNBA coach Dan Hughes, who has always given Hammon credit as a leader for the organization.
“Becky kind of makes things work,” Hughes said. “She’s a veteran and can understand not only her position, but the totality of what we’re doing and she can communicate on the floor in a way that provides understanding. That’s what great players do. They empower others, and Becky empowers others, whether it be with the pace or whether it be with the organization, or spacing or patience, or toughness, that’s what she does.”
While the Spurs are blazing trails with the hiring of Hammon, they are also getting someone that knows the ins and outs of the game, is respected by the players and hungry to learn.
Add those additions to a group including Jim Boylen, Ime Udoka, Chad Forcier and Chip Engelland, and Popovich has all his bases covered.
Popovich and GM R.C. Buford could teach a master class in putting together a roster. Skeptics will always make the age argument, but the core is now surrounded by youth. Leonard is entering his fourth season and is just 23, turning the “Big Three” into the “Big Four.”
With several players capable of starting coming off the bench, the Spurs have reliable players, many of whom can shoulder the scoring load on any given night.
Given that the same team that dominated the Miami Heat is back together, and the addition of a late first-round steal in the versatile Anderson, returning to the Finals seems like a reachable goal. Repeating is another beast in itself, although the Spurs certainly have the pieces to make it happen. But anything can happen between now and June.