I still can't explain what happened to the San Antonio Spurs in last year's playoffs. It's easy to forget now, but the Spurs rolled into the playoffs looking unstoppable. They were a machine designed by God (my nickname for Coach Pop, out of respect) to win basketball games. I mean, the Spurs rolled the Thunder in Games 1 and 2. They had won 20 straight games going back to the regular season. 10 straight playoff wins. They were amazing. And then suddenly, inexplicably, it all fell apart. But strange things happen in the playoffs. So I expect more of the merciless killing machine as we enter this new season, and less of the "suddenly losing four straight games to the Thunder".
No coach in the league manages his parts better than Gregg Popovich. There was a post over at Pounding The Rock, SB Nation's Spurs blog, with the teaser tag "Is Pop overrated?" While it's a very thorough and thoughtful evaluation of the ways Popovich might be overrated, I think it would have been easier to just write "No." and hit the Publish button. Pop gets players to buy into his system, and his system works. Those are two very simple attributes for coaching success, but they are terribly complicated and difficult to achieve. It's what allows Stephen Jackson, a headcase everywhere else, to show up in San Antonio and immediately fall in line and perform well. It's what allows Danny Green, who Cleveland (who could use a talent infusion wherever possible) waived, to become a key member of the Spurs' playoff success. It's what allows a guy like Boris Diaw to wander around aimlessly in Charlotte, and then revive himself as a useful player. It's why it was almost a surprise when the Spurs waived Eddy Curry. It was more surprising that they couldn't find a way to make him achieve his long-lost potential.
Of course, the other side of the coin is that it's easier to coach a team built around Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. Parker had a magnificent season last year. While Parker should not have won MVP last season, I think it's a shame he finished as low as 5th. Duncan continues to defy age, but that isn't to say he hasn't slipped. Watching him, he's nowhere close to where he once was. But he's such an incredibly smart player that you can't help but admire how much production he gets out of a body that appears to have given up the idea of athleticism years ago. Where this is most apparent is on defense, where Duncan is still really, really effective. Ginobili is aging as well, but I believe his decline last season was more due to nagging injuries than actual decline. The beauty of the Spurs, though, is that Popovich knows exactly how far he can push his aging stars, and when he needs to give them an opportunity to rest and recover.
The player to really watch this season will be Kawhi Leonard. The knock on Leonard coming out of San Diego State was poor shooting. With the Spurs, he surprised everyone by developing a reliable shot, especially from the corner three. The corner three is the most efficient shot in the game, and the Spurs' system uses it a lot. This development shows that not only is Leonard willing to work, but he's an apt learner who is capable of adjusting. Many players put in the time and effort, but are simply unable to fix a clunky jumpshot. That Leonard did it in less than a season is exciting for Spurs fans, and terrifying for the rest of the league.
I expect the Spurs to be right there in the West again. If you have a chance, I recommend watching some Spurs games. They're no longer the Spurs of old, with the slow, methodical style. They've become a must faster-paced team, and a more fun team to watch. The Spurs have always been touted as a fundamentally strong team, but now they're both fundamentally strong and actually entertaining. While I don't see another title in their future, you can never count the Spurs out entirely.