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Division Preview: the San Antonio Spurs are still the best

People have finally gotten past the whole "the Spurs are finally going to be too old this year" meme, and now everyone just assumes (justifiably) that the Spurs will be contenders every season. 2014-2015 is no different.

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[Ed. note: In lieu of a traditional quick preview, we decided to run the final division preview as the game preview. We'll be back to quick previews for Thursday's game.]

The Spurs are again the favorites in the West. After two straight Finals appearances, this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, especially considering that last year's title team returns completely intact. While no one should underestimate the Spurs, two straight Finals appearances is a lot of extra basketball on a team featuring more than a few older legs. In a Western Conference that is tougher than ever, will the Spurs have enough in the tank to make it through yet another long, grueling playoff grind?

Offseason Changes

Almost none. The Spurs re-signed Boris Diaw and Patty Mills, and Tim Duncan did not retire. So they returned every single player who contributed to last year's championship. Tony Parker quietly signed a 3-year contract extension. Same old, same old.

The Spurs then somehow drafted Kyle Anderson, who is basically a younger, less donut-happy Boris Diaw. Anderson is so perfect for the Spurs that basketball twitter basically exploded when he fell to San Antonio in the 2014 NBA draft.

Anderson will replace rarely used former Longhorn Damion James. It's anyone guess which Spurs team Anderson ends up contributing to (San Antonio or Austin), but if he does end up in San Antonio most of the season, expect Gregg Popovich to find ways to use him while resting his older starters on a regular basis.

The most visible offseason move the Spurs made was adding Becky Hammon to the coaching staff. Hiring the NBA's first full-time female assistant head coach (and straight out of her playing career in the WNBA no less) was a surprisingly flashy move for a franchise often accused of being boring.

Offensive Breakdown

The Spurs offense is a balanced, efficient buzzsaw of death. Don't expect that to change this season. People accuse the Spurs of being unexciting offensively, but these people are stupid children who don't actually appreciate basketball. The Spurs offense is elegant and beautiful, and makes basketball look like ballet.

The Spurs had six players average double digit scoring last season. Two of those players--Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills--did so almost exclusively by making open three-point shots made possible by the incredible spacing of the Spurs offense. The Spurs led the league last year in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and assists. This is by design. San Antonio has perfected a motion offense that makes full use of passing, screens, off-ball movement, and designed sets to create open looks and driving lanes.

What is even more terrifying is that, at this point, the players are experts in the system. Everyone understands the offense, knows their role, and are fully aware of what that offense can achieve (ringzz, in case that wasn't clear). There is no one new to introduce to the offense, other than maybe Kyle Anderson, but there's already a clear Boris Diaw-sized model for how Anderson can fit in. What I'm trying to say is that the Spurs could be even better this season than last season. Sure, Ginobili could completely fall apart, or Diaw could decide basketball just isn't as much fun as wining and dining on the riverwalk. But barring injury, the Spurs offense should be as good or better than it was last year. Everyone be very afraid.

I know that I gushed a lot about a division rival's offense here, but it really is that good. And it is a perfect model for what the Mavs can do this year, only Dallas has arguably more talented offensive weapons.

Defensive Breakdown

As fantastic as the Spurs offense is, their defense is just as good. It is the reason they're coming off two straight Finals appearances. Teams don't make deep playoff runs without defense. While the Spurs were seventh in the league in overall offensive rating, they were third in defensive rating.

Part of the reason the Spurs are so good on this end is their depth. Though Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard are no slouches defensively, San Antonio doesn't really feature any prolific defensive stoppers. Much like their offense, their defense stops opponents through a coordinated, systemic effort. The Spurs rotate well, don't make many mistakes, and have a lot of bodies to throw at an offense.

This is an area where Pop's hyper-effectiveness at managing his players' minutes pays off. Team defense depends largely on players paying attention and not having mental lapses. Mental lapses are much more likely to occur when players are either undisciplined or tired. Pop's players are never undisciplined or tired.

Again, with everyone coming back, don't be surprised if the Spurs are still one of the best defenses in the NBA.

When the Teams Meet

This series should be a lot of fun to watch this season. These two teams should be competing for both the Southwest Division and a top spot in the West. The Spurs are the clear favorite, but Rick Carlisle has the most talented roster he's arguably ever coached. Expect a lot of adjustments from both coaching staffs when these rivals meet.

As far as player matchups go, Parsons vs. Leonard should be really interesting. Hopefully Dirk's new quicker jumper will cause some issues for Diaw and Splitter defensively, and Tyson Chandler should provide a better answer for Duncan. Tony Parker is going to be an issue as long as Devin Harris is on the bench. We'll see what sort of creative solutions Carlisle can develop to prevent Parker from demolishing Jameer Nelson and Monta Ellis. Another interesting thing to watch for is whether Al-Farouq Aminu might get some serious burn trying to guard Diaw. The Mavs struggled to contain Diaw last season, and Aminu may turn out to be the perfect guy to match up with Diaw's unique offensive skillset.

Offensively, plenty of points should be scored. The major question is whether the Mavs can keep up with the Spurs defensively. As fantastic as last year's first round series was, there isn't a lot of reason for optimism on this front. Until the Mavs prove otherwise, the Spurs are the clear favorites because of their obvious advantage on defense.

Gameday Update

The Spurs will be opening the season at less than full strength. San Antonio will begin their title defense without starters Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter. Leonard has yet to recover from an eye infection that kept him out of the majority of training camp, and Splitter has a calf strain. The Spurs will also be without backup point guard Patty Mills, who is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. No word yet on who will start in place of Leonard and Splitter, but it isn't uncommon for Gregg Popovich to beat good teams without the help of multiple starters. Dallas should not take this matchup lightly.