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New Faces, Familiar Places

By Jeff Koch on October 27, 2013.

At last, the regular season is upon us, and Coach Pop can worry about more important things than dinner (though dinner plans should never be taken lightly).

I’ve had a hard time getting excited this pre-season. The roster looks almost identical to last season’s Western Conference championship team; and the Spurs, more than any team perhaps ever, are the most known quantity in the NBA. We know what we’re going to get.

But there are some new faces, and some old faces that might play a more integral role this season. The biggest addition this offseason was Marco Belinelli who, more or less, replaced Gary Neal in the rotation. It might not seem like much, but I really like the addition of Belinelli. Neal was a favorite of mine, and I hope he has a successful career. But Belinelli seems like an upgrade AND a better fit for this roster. While Neal is perhaps a better shooter and more pure scorer, I think Marco is slightly better almost everywhere else (and he’s a solid 3-point shooter, to boot). Neal was often asked to run the offense, which is something he should never do. He should always be playing off-guard, asked only to shoot and score. Belinelli, on the other hand, has a bit more creativity in his game, and can handle the ball and run the offense some. Particularly when paired with Manu, the two can both work creatively on and off the ball. And Belinelli has more aggression to his offensive game than you might think: I expect to see him driving to the basket and getting fouls and easy shots for himself and others.

And while he has the reputation as a bad defender, I think that’s a bit overstated. He played (and played well) in Chicago last season on one of the top defenses in the league for the most demanding coach in the league. Great defense always begins with a system and then players willing to follow the game plan and work their butts off. While perhaps not a fantastic individual defender, he has proven that he knows how to work well in a well-defined system.

Most of my experience of Belinelli comes from watching him in the Bulls’ playoff run last season. I was quite impressed with what I saw, and I think he’s a natural fit for the Spurs.

The other pick-up was Jeff Ayres from the Pacers. He is kind of an unknown quantity, but the early signs in pre-season are overwhelmingly positive, and based on the Spurs early signing of him and the fact that the Spurs coaching staff also picked up a piece from the Pacers, I’m excited to see what he can bring. At the very least, he provides another solid piece to a frontcourt rotation that seems deeper than it has in years (Duncan, Splitter, Diaw, Bonner, Ayres, and Baynes).

Speaking of, I’ve always been impressed by what I’ve seen from Baynes, and I do expect him to play a more significant role this year. With his size and sheer bulk, he’ll provide solid minutes against the bigger players in the league. The Spurs now have a frontcourt that can show so many different looks.

Other things to watch early in the season:

–How will the back-up PG spot play out? I have a hunch De Colo has fallen to the bottom of the pile, but Joseph and Mills will be an interesting tandem to watch. Manu and Belinelli will most likely also see time running the 2nd team.

–By all accounts, Duncan has lost even more weight. Will he continue to mock father time?

–Can Manu return to some semblance of his previous self?

–Will Leonard make another leap?

–Perhaps the biggest changes in the off-season happened on the coaching staff, as Pop lost two of his top assistants. We don’t often think of coaching turnover as a catalyst to upheaval (and with the Spurs’ organizational solidity, I don’t expect it to), but it will be interesting to see what wrinkles this might cause.

–The biggest question of all: how will the Spurs bounce back from the way last season ended? The West is wide open but very competitive: the race to the top will start on opening night.

Most of the changes, though, exist in the rest of the West. The Western Conference is really odd this year, with several teams having designs on the top spot, but only 2 teams having proven anything. The path back to the Finals might be easier than ever, as the Spurs are the only team I totally trust in the West. But the rest of the West is also loaded with “potential” that could lift any number of teams to the top. Those teams…

Oklahoma City: Westbrook is out for the first several weeks of the season, which might be enough to keep them from the #1 seed. They lost Harden and replaced him with Kevin Martin, a lesser player, but a solid and reliable one. Now Martin is gone and they’ve replaced him with…? Durant is still the 2nd best player in the league, but the supporting cast might be his worst of the last 5 years. After watching this team without Westbrook crumble last year, the aura is gone, and I really don’t fear them like I did in the Conference Finals two season ago.

Los Angeles Clippers: They upgraded at coach and added some minor pieces that will make the offense even more potent. They are the early-season buzz team out West, and I think they’ll end the regular season with a great record. Personally, I think Chris Paul is a bit overrated as an elite player (he’s never been out of the 2nd round), and I don’t trust any of their players as big time playoff performers.

Golden State Warriors: The Western Conference team that gave us a big scare last year. They added Iguadola, which is a very nice pick-up. They remain mostly the same team as last year, but will they be able to build on that run? How many times have we seen a young team make a surprise run to the 2nd or 3rd round of the playoffs, be deemed “The Next Great Team”, and then never replicate the success? They’ll always be a threat with that shooting, but I think they have too many mouths to feed, so to speak. Who is going to close games for them?

Houston Rockets: On paper, they should be a huge threat. But Dwight Howard doesn’t scare me; at all. Maybe I’m wrong.

Memphis Grizzlies: Still no outside shooting, and they lost their coach, who really gave them their identity. I think last year’s run was the best they have in them.

Those are really the only teams I see as being able to make a legitimate run at winning the West. Looking that over, I think the Spurs have a wonderful shot of getting back to the Finals. If we can stay healthy, I think we’re the prohibitive favorites. I’m actually a little worried because I’m so confident.

But that’s months away; for now, let’s enjoy the start of games that matter and welcoming the Spurs back into our daily lives. It’s been too long, boys.

The season tips against the Grizzles on Wednesday. Finally.

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