"The Spurs are old."
"The window is shut."
These are common one-line excuses I’ve been hearing since I started blogging on the Spurs in 2004 of why the Spurs aren’t real title contenders amongst younger, ESPN headline-grabbing title favorites.
Sure, the Spurs haven’t won a title since 2007, but before last year’s lockout-shortened 66 game-season, pundits wrote off the Spurs, saying the glory days were over and they couldn’t seriously contend in the playoffs and were headed for an early exit similar to the way they lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round the year before.
Then something none of them expected happened. With practically no training camp and a short season with back-to-backs and three games in three nights unfavorable to the “old” Spurs, a veteran squad infused with youth in key starting and role positions led the Spurs to a finish that tied them for the best record and two sweeps into the playoffs, the Spurs found themselves back in the Western Conference Finals against a young title favorite in the Oklahoma City Thunder.
So now, a year later, and yes, a year older, the Spurs once again are out of title talks and many NBA previews are penciling them into the fifth and sixth slots in the Western Conference.
But as someone who has followed the Spurs very closely and who covered a majority of the home games last season, I tend to be more optimistic, and I think you should be too for the following reasons.
1. Rejuvenated core.
Sure, Tim Duncan is now 36, Manu Ginobili is 35 and Tony Parker is 30 and the latter two played in the Olympics, but all three came into a training camp, a full training camp looking fresh and in top shape. As one reporter commented, Duncan looked “skinny” and has worked as hard as ever to stay in shape and seems focused as always. The Olympics definitely add some miles onto the legs of Ginobili and Parker, but as both said, the Olympics were earlier this summer and both players had more time to rest up before the start of training camp.
2. Focused and fueled.
Several Spurs and coach Gregg Popovich talked about still feeling the pain of losing to the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals after winning the first two games. This team is still hurting from that loss and they all seem to be using that as fuel for this season. They will all be focused on proving themselves and getting back to where they left off. The Spurs are also very aware of what the Lakers have done in the offseason and that should add even more fuel to the fire.
3. Emerging youth.
Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green became bigger contributors to last season’s team than even they could have expected. Green was Johnny on the spot when James Anderson failed to make much of an impact in a start and when Manu Ginobili was injured. Green was effective outside and gave the Spurs another perimeter defender to throw at the likes of the Bryants and LeBrons. Of course that’s when rookie Leonard wasn’t hounding them. The Spurs took a big gamble by trading for Leonard and giving up a fan favorite and eventual successor to Parker in George Hill. But Leonard got Spurs fans “over the Hill” faster than expected. He was one of the Spurs top defenders, snared away big rebounds away from much taller power forwards and centers and learned to knock down the corner three with consistency. Look for Leonard to take a big step up this season. The Spurs will be looking to him on offense even more and Green should provide some added help on both sides of the court.
Those are just a few reasons why I won’t be surprised if the constantly under-the-radar Spurs make another late season push again. For more on why I think the Spurs could be a threat even in an uneventful offseason, look for my post and others in the Project Spurs season preview next week.
The Spurs may have a tough task ahead with the Heat, Lakers and Oklahoma City in their way, and with other teams improving, but don’t be too surprised if they are proving doubters wrong yet again.