San Antonio Spurs preview: Same as it ever was

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

No one's talking about them, but they're right back in the mix at the top of the Western Conference, where they've been since the Clinton Administration.

Aaron McGuire is one of the most prolific writers in the NBA blogosphere, so we'll have to forgive him for being a Spurs fan. He blogs (a lot) about the NBA over at Gothic Ginobili, where he just finished a capsule series on every (!!) player in the NBA. You can follow him on Twitter at docrostov.

How do Spurs fans view last year's WCF -- a nail-biter where the ball just didn't bounce their way, a passing of the torch or somewhere in the middle?

Can't speak for all Spurs fans, just myself. And I've heard a wide range of opinions on last year's Conference Finals, ranging on both ends of that spectrum. I err more on the side of "nail-biter" than "passing of the torch" myself. Are the Spurs too old to win a title now? Perhaps. The Thunder are certainly an up-and-coming team, and it's quite possible that last season we bore witness to the painful quashing of the Big Three's last legitimate shot.

But the Spurs were within 3 points late in the fourth quarter in each of the last three games of the conference finals. There were numerous either-way calls, a few bad breaks, and some big-stage yips from San Antonio's youngest players. It was a perfect storm of things to go wrong, and it happened incredibly quickly. I don't know if the Spurs can win it all this year, and I think the Thunder may very well be better than they were when they beat the Spurs last season. But I don't think last year's series win was preordained, and I think it was a great deal closer than most people realize.

Do you think this team will make a move before the deadline? Should they?

Barring a slam dunk trade like Neal/Bonner/Blair for a big time rotation player, I sincerely doubt they will. And I think that's fine. Stephen Jackson isn't the greatest player in the world, but he has a good history of stepping his game up in playoff situations and Popovich is notoriously churlish about wholescale personnel changes very late in the season.

Yes, the Spurs could really use another big behind Tiago/Duncan. Especially with Diaw looking more akin to his Charlotte form than his 2013 Spurs form. Is it essential? Not really, no. The Spurs have played to the level of the 2nd or 3rd best team in the league to date, and they're finding a better rhythm on defense than they've had in years. They may not win it all this year, but short of a slam dunk trade, throwing what looks to be a top-tier defense and a playoff-strong offense to the fates for some sort of band-aid doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

How many years left do Ginobili and Duncan have? They have to start declining at some point, right?

They do, yes. And to some extent, they already have. Manu Ginobili has already begun his descent into darkness -- he's been on the downhill trail to some extent since his shades-of-an-MVP 2011 maestro performance. At this point, while he's still a phenomenal player, he's become more of a 20-25 minute a game guy than a 30-35 minute superstar. Excellent per-minute numbers, of course, but he doesn't only play scant minutes to keep him fresh. He plays scant minutes because he can't reasonably play much more.

Duncan, on the other hand, has been insanely revitalized this season and more essential to San Antonio's fortunes than he's been in years. He isn't just San Antonio's MVP -- he has a fringe case for league MVP! The Spurs are winning games through their defense, once again. And Duncan's been their mainstay-of-mainstays to keep the run going. I'm not really sure how many years he has left; after all, I didn't even expect he'd have this one. My best guess is that he'll start to break down a tad more next year, and the wheels will come off for good in the last year of his new contract. But, as always, I've high hopes that my favorite player ever will prove me foolish.

[Ed. Note: San Antonio will be without Duncan, as well as Pop, on Friday. Details on a class-action suit forthcoming.]

What's changed for Tiago Splitter this season? Is it a matter of him becoming more comfortable in San Antonio or a change in philosophy? Do you think he'll stay with the Spurs long-term?

He's never played a ton, but Tiago Splitter has always been quite productive in the minutes he's seen the court. He's playing a bit better this year than he has before, but it's hardly a huge sea change in Splitter's comfort or play quality. He's fouling a bit less because he's a touch more used to the NBA game, which helps him stay on the court a tad more. As his feel for the NBA game improves, the defensive instincts that once led to cheap fouls are instead leading to strong contests and altered shots. Combine that with San Antonio's distributors getting more attuned to Splitter's clever backdoor cuts and Duncan returning to a power forward role (offense-only) with Splitter on the court? That's the recipe for a strong Splitter season, with no philosophy needed.

I think there's a good chance he stays with the Spurs long term, but it's going to be an interesting free agency. I could see a team like Dallas throwing a contract at Splitter that San Antonio can't afford to match. Barring that, though, the Spurs will be happy to match any reasonable -- and even a few unreasonable! -- contract offers. He's a good piece, and he's grown to fit the San Antonio system well.

Nando de Colo, San Antonio's 25-year old first-year guard from France, looks like an interesting player. What's his deal and do you expect he'll have a consistent spot in the rotation come playoff time?


De Colo is something of a hybrid of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Their youngest incarnations, that is. That's actually not meant as much of a compliment, either -- few remember just how precocious and shaky those two were in their earliest games. While they both showed clear flashes of more to come, both were far from flawless. De Colo is as prone to random over-dribbling and poor midrange shots as a young Tony Parker was, and he's got the vintage young Manu trait of throwing passes that are a few billion steps ahead of every agent involved. He has some incredible court vision, no doubt, and he's got a strong talent for finishing at the rim. He's even got a decent three!

But there's a general sense that he's yet to put everything together, and as a 25-year-old rookie, the jury's out on how high his ceiling really is. I doubt he'll see more than 5-10 minutes a game in the playoffs -- unlike the Spurs of Manu and Tony's youngest years, the 2013 Spurs have enough depth that they don't need to subject their youngest guns to trial by fire through necessity. He'll be firmly behind Tony, Manu, Green, Jackson, and Neal when the playoffs come around. And that's just A-OK with me.

How do Spurs fans view the rivalry with the Mavs after Dallas' struggles in the last two years? As an outsider, what's your view on the situation in Dallas?

Let's not mince words. Dallas is San Antonio's bitter rival, and I can't say the Mavericks' struggles have lessened the distaste I have for the franchise. Certainly doesn't help matters that the Dirk-sporting Mavericks always seem to put up a good fight in our rivalry games, regardless of how good or bad they are. I don't know many Spurs fans who think differently. As for my view on the Mavericks' current struggles, I don't think things are anywhere near as dire as most of the Dallas fans I'm friends with. The Dirkless Mavs were a horror show, no doubt -- but they were neither as bad as their record (so many close losses!) or bad enough to completely eliminate the Mavericks from playoff contention.

It'll take a strong finish to the season, but of the 3-4 teams in contention for the 8th seed in the West, the Mavericks are the only team with a serious case that they'll look significantly better going forward than they did in the early season. Dirk is finally starting to resemble his old self, they've found a rotation that works moderately well, and they're only three games out of the eight seed with half a season yet to play. As for the future? They've got cap space, Dirk's waning years, and an owner who's willing to spend up the nose. Things are uncertain, and I can understand how unsettling that is for a franchise that's won 50 games for over a decade. But they certainly aren't grim. Cuban, Carlisle, and Nelson will figure it out. Somehow.

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