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Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall, Who is the Fairest Team of Them All?

By Jeff Koch on October 28, 2009.

I don’t much care for making predictons, other than this: The Spurs will finish the season 98-0.

On our march towards immortality, here are some things to watch…

Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Ankles (Knees and Ankles)

Nothing is more critical to the upcoming season than Duncan’s knees and Ginobili’s ankles. With a healthy team we can compete with anybody; without it, we have no chance. Popovich recognizes this, and will never sacrifice the war to win a battle.

Tony! Toni! Tone!

Despite how hard Pop and the entire Spurs fan base has been on Tony Parker, he has gotten better every year and is a bona fide star and game changer in this league. Last year was his best year statistically, partly out of necessity. This year he will have an unheard of level of control over the offense, and is definitively the focal point of the team on that end of the court. How will he handle it? Will he raise the level of his game another notch yet again?

Do You Remember the Time?

Last year we slipped from our perch atop the defensive totem pole. We were still a good defensive team, but not a great one. It’s a tired cliche, but it rings true: Defense wins championships. Defense has always been our bedrock. Pop has promised a return to form. Will we get there?

I Want a New Drug, One That Does What it Should

Reading the writing on the wall and observing the escalating arms race, the Spurs went out and got some brand new players, infusing the roster with more talent than it’s ever had before. We’ve always hewed to the “Big 3″ philosophy, but times are a changing. We still have the Big 3, but we also have a proven star in this league in Jefferson and a very talented veteran in McDyess. Will these players be able to find their role on the team? I’m especially interested in seeing how Jefferson fits in. He’s been saying and doing all the right things, but is he comfortable being a fourth option on a team? Will he accept the thankless task of guarding the best wing players in the league and not getting as many shots and points as he’s used to?

Youth is Wasted on the Young

After years of bellyaching about our team being “old as dirt”, suddenly we have some youth. No one doubts that the infusion of energy and athleticism will do us good. But one of our great strengths has always been our veteran savvy, and our refusal to ever beat ourselves. Are we sacrificing too much corporate knowledge at the altar of youth? Will the youngsters be able to earn and keep Pop’s trust? When push comes to shove, will Hairston possibly see minutes over Finley or Bogans? Will Blair earn burn over Ratliff or Bonner?

The Summer of George

All we’ve heard and read about since the beginning of summer was how good George Hill looked, and how he was Pop’s favorite player on the team, and what a leap he’s made. Is this true? Will this translate once the lights are turned on? If so, we will have our best backup PG in a long time, not to mention a great defender at both guard positions. George’s development could be the tipping point of our team and season.

I Was Just Guessing at Numbers and Figures

We’ve added a lot of new, proven players. How will they fit in? Will they be able to integrate to the system? It usually takes a full year to completely understand the Spurs system, but Popovich has simplified it in the hopes of getting everybody up to speed quicker. Will it work? We’ve always relied on a proven hierarchy and outstanding chemistry. Will it still be there? And what will the rotation be, and how long will Pop tinker? Last year we never really settled into a comfortable rotation (a lot of that owing to injuries), and I think it messed with our rhythm and chemistry. Keep an eye on how Pop works the rotation as the season progresses.

It’s Always the Quiet Ones

There is (rightfully) a lot of focus on the Big 3, the health, the new guys, and the young guys. But don’t forget about Bonner, Mason, Jr., and Finley. Their abilities may be limited, but they all fill a vital need on this team: shooting, particularly 3-point shooting. There will come a time late in the season, possibly in the playoffs, where a made 3-pointer is going to determine a win or a loss, and there’s a very good chance one of those 3 players will be taking that shot. They need to know their role, be comfortable in their role, and be unafraid to take and make that shot.

How the West Was Won

Everybody and their sister predict that the Lakers are coming out of the West. All those people also predict that they will meet the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. But don’t sleep on the other dangerous teams in the league. The Blazers probably have the deepest roster of talent in the West, even if half the team still can’t legally drink; Chris Paul and David West are still nightmare match-ups for us, even if the rest of their team is filled out with rec league players; the Mavericks might be good this year (or complete crap), but they always give us their best shot; Denver is the most volatile team in the league, who can go on a ridiculous hot streak at any time; and Utah is still coached by one of the very best and play with exacting precision and brute force. There are no foregone conclusions in the Western Conference.

Home Sweet Home; On the Road Again

Are schedule is front-loaded with home games and back-loaded with road games. We’ve always been one of the best road teams in the NBA, but our home record has been slipping as of late. We need to protect our home court, especially with so many early season home guys in which we’ll be trying to figure things out. The ratio of Road Wins:Home Losses is one of the more telling stats and a great indicator of future success, so keep an eye on that number.

It’s Not How You Start, It’s How You Finish

But in this case, it’s also how you start. We’ve always been strong finishers. And Pop has never been afraid of a loss if it helps build towards something greater. But our schedule being what it is, we have to take advantage of our early season home games and make sure that we’re not giving away mid-December games at home to the likes of the Timberwolves or Clippers. We have a lot of personnel and playing time issues to figure out, and we need to pace ourselves; but we also need Wins.

Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone

We’re spoiled as Spurs fans, especially those of us that have been fans only in the last decade or so. Our team has always been good, we’ve always competed for titles, we’ve always been professional and likable, and we’ve been able to watch one of the greatest players ever. But Duncan is heading into the twilight of his career, and no matter how smart our front office is, once Duncan’s gone, so is the dynasty. I have no doubt that we’ll still be very good and
will still compete fiercely, but championships are generally won on the backs of all-time great players.

I didn’t really notice when we won in 1999. I watched and rooted casually in 2003. I saw Fisher’s .04 in ’04, and it hurt, but it didn’t stick with me. In 2005 i watched every second of the Finals, agonizing after Games 3 and 4, unable to sleep in the off days, jumping off my couch when Horry saved Game 5, and running up and down my street after pulling out Game 7. In 2006, I felt my heart leap with Ginobili’s 3 and then break with his foul. In 2007, I watched every second of the entire playoffs–Nash’s bloody nose, Horry’s hip check–as we methodically marched through the playoffs to our 4th title. By 2008 I was following most regular season games and watching all of the nationally televised ones. I sat motionless, unable to speak, feeling as if I’d just been dumped when we blew 2 huge leads to the Lakers and had another game slip away on a no-call. Last season I started watching every game of the regular season and following the team regularly on several different Internet sites. I started writing for this site just before the playoffs, and cheered on our hobbled team as they gallantly fought the odds and injuries fighting against them.

I realize that we only have a few years left of the Duncan era, and I don’t want to miss a single moment. I wish I had followed the team more closely earlier. I wish I had a clearer memory of Duncan’s masterpiece in Game 6 of the 2003 Finals. I wish I remember the Memorial Day Miracle. I wish I remember seeing Robinson in his prime.

So be thankful for your Spurs team, and enjoy them. Enjoy Parker’s continued ascent; enjoy the mad genius of our favorite Argentine; enjoy Pop’s brilliance, ingenuity, and self-deprecation; and enjoy rooting for one of the greatest players AND teammates ever. Cherish the wins, mourn the losses, but mostly, revel in and appreciate the journey.

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