Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Spurs Still Looking Strong

Coming off of a convincing 2014 NBA Championship, it's really hard to think of how the Spurs could get significantly better. With most of the big free agent names accounted for, and the Spurs not being a landing spot for any of them, free agency for San Antonio fans essentially boils down to who make the Spurs' much speculated but typically irrelevant 15th roster spot.

I typically love the free agency period of speculation, however, given how well the team played together last year, and how soundly they beat the two-time defending champs in the Miami Heat. The Spurs have essentially come to master a system in which the opposition are need five above-average to exceptional individual defenders (i.e. never help) to stop when it starts rolling, something that no team in the NBA can currently claim to have. Maybe this is the beginning of the resurgence of the two-way player. Then again, maybe not. While it's perhaps unrealistic to expect the Spurs to maintain that inhuman level of precision basketball that they played through 4 games against the Miami Heat, the Spurs sit in essentially the same position while, in my opinion, none of the teams at the top that were in a position to oust the Spurs improved significantly in any meaningful way.

Unless R.C. Buford decides to surprise everyone (me) and pull the trigger on a fairly major trade, the signings of Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Matt Bonner, and first round draft pick Kyle Anderson puts the Spurs at their typical roster capacity of 13. While they still have several contracts/options available, a look at their Summer League team has me fairly convinced that the major rotation players are all in place. I anticipate the depth chart to look something as follows:

PG - Tony Parker, Patty Mills, Cory Joseph
SG - Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli
SF - Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Anderson
PF - Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner
C - Tiago Splitter

Now, given how the Spurs play offense, the concept of a depth chart is neigh irrelevant. We could almost simplify the positions to: ball-handler, wing, big, but for a little help with clarification (and to help me count) I put together a somewhat more traditional depth chart. I believe that Aron Baynes has not yet been offered a qualifying offer, and I rather doubt that he will be coming back. While Austin Daye and Jeff Ayres both have guaranteed contracts, they are relatively small, and given that they are both playing on the San Antonio Summer League team, I rather expect that their roster spots are not exactly set in stone. I know that Bryce Cotton's contract is contingent on his making the team (which I honestly don't think will happen). The other news of note is that Davis Bertans (the 2nd round draftee we got in the Kawhi Leonard trade), has come to terms for a buyout with his current overseas team, which may mean he may be coming to the States to play NBA basketball. Now, I just named 5 players and I think we only have 2 roster spots, but I think they're going to be the two spots that don't dress for games regularly, so again, not really a big deal.

Here I'm going to be entirely honest. I'm not entirely sold on Kyle Anderson. While he has potentially the court vision to be the second coming of Boris Diaw, watching film of Anderson (who somewhat ominously is nicknamed "Slo-Mo") has me questioning his athletic motor's ability to keep up in the NBA. He's THAT slow. I'm not worried about his shot simply because Chip Engelland is amazing, but even then, Boris Diaw was at least somewhat athletic and still kind of is. Granted, he's much more of a savvy player now than before, which I suppose is the best we can hope for with Anderson. While he's listed at 6-9, 230 lbs, I feel like he still looked kind of skinny and got pushed around a bit. So definitely, he needs to build some strength. I'll be honest, the speed of a lot of his drives made him look as slow if not slower than Matt Bonner, now some people might argue that Boris Diaw isn't significantly more athletic, I would kind of beg to differ. That being said, if anyone can figure out how to use him, it'd be Pop. But unless he adds some strength, I don't see Anderson being long in the NBA in any meaningful role, because both with the ball and without the ball, he's not losing his man, at least I can't see it. Prove me wrong Pop. Prove me wrong.

That being said, looking at all the major free agent moves of the other teams, I'm honestly not overly concerned because I believe that no team took a significant step forward, at least not one that is significant enough to warrant extensive amounts of concern in regards to matching up against the Spurs.

I'll start with the East, because while there was more movement in the East, keep in perspective that the 9th seeded Phoenix Suns would have been 3rd in the conference had they been an Eastern Conference team. The first item of note is the return of LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers. While that immediately vaults the Cavs into a position to represent the East in the NBA Finals, I'm not positive that they are quite there. While I am bullish on first overall pick Andrew Wiggins, the Cavs other first overall pick Kyrie Irving has shown a knack for being unable to stay on the floor due to injury. That being said, even at full strength, I'm not convinced that the Cavs have the versatility and depth to be considered championship material. Certainly a backcourt of Irving, Wiggins, and James would be quite difficult to deal with, I'm not familiar enough with Wiggins's game to say for sure if it will translate seamlessly. Certainly we can see he has all the tools to be an elite player, but whether or not that impact comes immediately is to be seen. Additionally, even with that loaded backcourt and another potentially dangerous sparkplug in Dion Waiters coming off the bench, their frontcourt rotation of Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson, and Anthony Bennett is not exactly something that is wowing me. While Bennett may have been maligned last season due to various reasons, I'm not convinced that he will be THAT good and Thompson has certainly shown he's a good role player at best. Even then, despite the movement of the NBA towards small ball, having Varejao as the only player with any size to play the center position leaves me a little hesitant to be raining any accolades on this team just quite yet. I'm also still not quite sure whether the Cav's ability to play four of their own number 1 overall picks from the draft is impressive or sad.

Miami also has changed significantly as well. As expected the Big Three of LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh all opted out, originally, it was thought, to restructure their deals in a way to bring in better players to help their NBA Championship chances once again. Initially the Heat sought to woo LeBron by drafting LeBron's favorite player in the draft, Shabazz Napier, and then signing Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts. However, that being not enough to keep LeBron in South Beach, the Heat promptly went to spend their cap space. Wade signed for less as anticipated, they were able to lure as solid an SF replacement as you could get for LeBron in Luol Deng, and they spent the rest on... maxing out Chris Bosh? I suppose, Pat Riley understood that losing LeBron was bad and he could ill afford to lose both LeBron and Bosh, and thus he had to make his offer look much sweeter than that of the Houston Rockets. While the move smacks of desperation, it certainly makes sense. With all of those moves, ultimately, it will be a year of "how well did Pat Riley compensate for the loss of LeBron?" which leads most of us to believe they will be worse.

Chicago got markedly better, at least on paper, even after trading fan-favorite Luol Deng during another Derrick Rose-less season. Naturally the Bulls (who managed to make the playoffs entirely on defense), will stand to get better by the return of former MVP Rose, but they also managed to add versatile big man Pau Gasol while finally amnestying defensively-limited Carlos Boozer. They also managed to convince arguably the best European player Nikola Mirotic to come play in the NBA as well as traded their two first round picks to Denver for scoring draftee Doug McDermott. On paper it looks better, but I'm not entirely convinced in regards to two things: first, overall depth. It won't be too bad if they manage to bring back Kirk Hinrich and keep Mike Dunleavy, but even then I'm not positive. Draft Express has Mirotic listed as a PF, probably because he's listed at 6-10 and 210 lbs. That being said, he's somewhere right in between Rashard Lewis and Chris Bosh, and I would guess he would be pretty close to Lewis and Bosh when they were younger (Lewis probably shed weight to keep playing as he's older and Bosh added weight to play more center). So I kind of anticipate Thobideau, playing a slower pace, would have Mirotic play an over-sized SF position (somewhat akin to Seattle Rashard Lewis) instead of burying him behind Gasol and Gibson. Certainly he'll see minutes at the PF position, but I imagine the big-man rotation (given Thobideau's minutes-management) to be a combination of Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, and Taj Gibson. There definitely will be an acclimation period with so many new players (I don't think Jimmy Butler is familiar playing with Rose yet), but certainly, on paper, I would peg them as top of the East. If and only if Rose is healthy and plays.

None of the other teams I feel are really worth mentioning in any significant detail as they didn't make any significant changes and those teams that did didn't make big enough changes to vault them to the top. Toronto and Washington stand to improve as their players improve, but unless Jonas Valanciunas (for Toronto) and John Wall and Bradley Beal (for Washington) suddenly become super stars, I'm not seeing a significant jump. Additionally, the loss of Ariza, while giving Washington the chance to develop Otto Porter, will make Washington's perimeter defense worse, at least in the short run. Detroit and Charlotte are in similar situations, and while Detroit added some shooters (i.e. Caron Butler) and while I trust Stan Van Gundy's ability to right the ship and get the team to a place it needs to be, I'm not positive about where the Pistons end up until they've resolved their frontcourt situation (trading Greg Monroe or Josh Smith, I'd trade Monroe) and Brandon Jennings. Charlotte, while improved, I think still has a ways to go. I like their pieces, but they're still not scaring anyone, especially with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist being as one-dimensional as he is. Brooklyn just gets older and worse (losing Paul Pierce), though maybe it's addition by subtraction, though I can't see them getting any significantly better with another coaching change.

In the West, the Thunder and Clippers didn't make any major moves. While the addition of Spencer Hawes to the Clippers may signal a more solid frontcourt rotation, most of how the Clippers will improve will be through the player improvement of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and while I don't think either have reached their ceiling, I'm not sure either are at a point where they make the Clippers significantly better. The Thunder have lost Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, and Thabo Sefolosha, and are attempting to add new young pieces that will bolster their roster. However, I'm still not entirely convinced that their additional pieces make significant improvements over a generally uninspired offense. I know it's considered one of the better ones in the league, but I attribute that more to the simple prowess of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook than any actual offense. I think the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers offense featuring basically just LeBron James was statistically pretty good too.

Memphis adds Vince Carter but loses Mike Miller, I guess that's a net gain. Otherwise, they're just more of the same, especially after extending Zach Randolph. While Denver and Utah are intriguing, neither I think are contention material. Same with Phoenix and Golden State (even if they get Kevin Love). Houston whiffed pretty badly in this offseason landing none of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, or Chris Bosh, instead trading away Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in order to bring in Trevor Ariza. Not knocking Ariza, but Houston still seems several pieces away from contending. While Harden may be something of a phenom offensively, I feel that his overall game is just over valued, especially due to how exposed he is on defense. While Patrick Beverly may make up for some of it, they don't have anyone that can really shut down larger wings, which I suppose now is what Trevor Ariza is supposed to do. I don't know, something about James Harden just rubs me the wrong way. Additionally, with the shedding of all that salary to make cap space, they lost a lot of versatility in their bench.

The one team that does intrigue me is Dallas. After re-signing Dirk to a discount, they managed to trade for Tyson Chandler and snag Chandler Parsons, Rashard Lewis, and Richard Jefferson, while retaining Devin Harris. It seems like a solid lineup and with Rick Carlisle running the show it could be a call-back to the 2011 Dallas championship. However, I'm a little tenuous regarding the depth. I'm not positive how much Devin Harris, Raymond Felton, Rashard Lewis, and Richard Jefferson really have in the tank, and I don't know that any one of them are quite so reliable to be the scoring punch off the bench that Jason Terry was in their championship year, and the sparkplug-by-committee sort of mentality seems good in concept, but I kind of iffy in practice.

While I may be exhibiting irrational confidence in the Spurs' ability to repeat, I honestly can't say that I see any team that has gotten significantly better, and if the Spurs continue to play at the high level they ended 2014 with, it's hard not to see them back in the same place in 2015.

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