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Meet the Competition: San Antonio Spurs

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After arcane seeding rules led to San Antonio's downfall in an epic Round 1 thriller, they took to free agency to reload the team for yet another championship run in Tim Duncan's twilight years. But could this be the year age finally catches up to them?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Even though they grow older every year, the Spurs seem to be getting more and more respect as a championship contender nowadays. Even though their aging stars are well into the waning portion of their career arcs, I don't know if we've ever seen the Spurs get this much hype as a championship contender for quite some time now.

But they've done some supposedly very un-Spursian things this offseason by signing LaMarcus Aldridge, perhaps the biggest free agent acquisition the Spurs have made in quite some years now. There's a lot of experience on this roster; but with experience comes age, and every year it becomes increasingly likely that Father Time finally gets his man.

What Happened Last Year?

The Spurs last year were coming off one of the more impressive championship performances in recent memory, and perhaps there was a bit of a hangover effect on the team. Regardless of the extent to which that was a factor, it wasn't as meaningful as the spate of injuries that affected the team for most of the season.

The team was kept afloat for much of the year by Tim Duncan, who continues to defy the laws of entropy and challenge other fundamental beliefs we might hold to be true. Even at his advanced age, the man was a DPOY candidate who went unfortunately overlooked in the final voting (did you know he's never won the award before?).

Instead, those votes went to his own teammate, Kawhi Leonard, as the budding star stole yet another accolade from Duncan. Kawhi had injury issues for most of the first half of the year, but he was fantastic when healthy and should be expected to make his first All-Star team this year.

The Spurs down the stretch were perhaps the hottest team in all of basketball. Their healthy starting lineup was the best 5-man unit in the league last year (albeit in significantly fewer minutes than the Clippers'). By any reasonable measure they were one of the four or five best teams in basketball last season (and they probably should have won more games, too). They ended the season on a 13-2 tear, outscoring teams by an absolutely bonkers 16.1 points per 100 possessions.

Of course, we know what their reward was for that — playing another member of that exclusive club in the very first round. It produced one of the greatest series of all time, coming down to the final possession of the final game. If the series were replayed 100 times, it's likely the Spurs would have won close to half of the time. As it was, they were perhaps hampered by lingering injuries to Tony Parker and Tiago Splitter.

In the offseason, the Spurs let go several bench players who had made solid contributions in recent years, in Cory Joseph (Raptors) and Marco Belinelli (Kings) — as well as Splitter, who was traded to Atlanta. However, apart from perhaps Joseph, the production lost is certainly replaceable. And the additions of Aldridge and David West add new dimensions to an old team.

Who's Playing This Year?

PG Tony Parker Patty Mills Ray McCallum
SG Danny Green Manu Ginobili
SF Kawhi Leonard Kyle Anderson Jonathon Simmons
PF LaMarcus Aldridge Boris Diaw
C Tim Duncan David West Matt Bonner

The starting lineup shouldn't be much different, except with Aldridge replacing Splitter (and proving once and for all that Tim Duncan really is a center, and has been for quite some time).

Similarly on the bench, West takes the spot of Aron Baynes. The loss of Belinelli (a good shooter, but a poor defender) leaves a void at the backup SF position. Former UCLA star Kyle Anderson is coming off an excellent Summer League, and is likely to take this role — but Jonathon Simmons is a name that's been garnering a lot of attention this summer. Simmons is a D-League journeyman who also impressed big-time in Summer League, enough that the Spurs signed him to a two-year minimum contract. It's possible that he fits better on this bench unit with his athleticism and defensive potential.

Questions

The Spurs have been penciled in by many as a Western Conference favorite; Bovada even has them with better title odds than the Warriors, which is ludicrous. But there's a lot of questions for a contending team.

How does LaMarcus Aldridge fit in? A lot of very smart people are undecided on how long it will take to integrate Aldridge into the Spurs' system, and how much of a change that might have on the team's identity. Matt Moore and Zach Lowe are just two of many writers who have discussed this subject extensively.

The Spurs in recent years haven't leaned too much on their star players the way other teams usually do. But Aldridge (and to a lesser extent, the continued growth of Kawhi Leonard) significantly alters that calculus. The issue won't be whether he'll be a fit on the floor; this is LaMarcus Aldridge and San Antonio, not Rajon Rondo and Dallas.

Rather, you wonder if the Spurs will take after other teams in recent years that underwent dramatic roster changes. The 2011 Heat had an uneven start but managed to recover, as did the 2015 Cavaliers. That wasn't so much the case with the 2013 Lakers and 2014 Nets. The Spurs need every win they can get, especially in this conference.

San Antonio's situation is unique and doesn't really fit any of these other cases. They've been an elite team for a hot minute now, and they have a ton of roster continuity. But they're also in a transitional period where they're bringing in a star player to take over as their new #1 option. I don't know the last time we've seen something that quite resembles this.

Will there be depth concerns? David West's fit on the team has also been widely discussed among Spurs fans. Pounding the Rock's Jesus Gomez argued last month that he doesn't fit in with the second unit, which led to an excellent roundtable among highly respected Spurs bloggers Gomez, Michael Erler, and Matthew Tynan.

Gomez's main point is that the Spurs have no true backup center, which could lead to defensive issues (primarily rim protection). It doesn't help that West and Boris Diaw will likely be playing alongside Manu Ginobili and Kyle Anderson, neither of whom are projected to be plus defenders at this point in their career. Overall, the second unit might face an athletic deficit too. These issues might not ever arise, considering the Spurs' intelligence and ability to play team defense, as well as the fact that they'll be playing other bench units.

More importantly, San Antonio has been accustomed to getting production from 10-12 guys in the last few regular seasons, and that was especially critical last year, having enough quality bench players to step in without missing a beat when others were injured. Age might also play a factor here, and if the Spurs' depth doesn't materialize guys like West, Ginobili, and even Duncan might be required to play more minutes than they should be getting at this stage of their careers.

Do the Spurs have point guard issues? I'll let the excellent Nate Duncan take this one:

Unfortunately for San Antonio, their one weakness may be at a position of traditional strength, with Tony Parker finally beginning to show his age. The 33-year-old floor general has held on to star status admirably, and long beyond when normal aging curves suggest a decline. Last year, though, finally saw Parker take a major step back.

Long one of the league’s best in the paint (at any position), Parker’s percentage of shots at the rim declined precipitously from the low 30s to only 26 percent last season (his free throw rate also cratered). A big culprit was the loss of Parker's typical transition burst; he used to be good for about two or three one-man fast breaks per game. Meanwhile, his defense has declined to the point where he needs to be hidden from any solid opposing point guards — a task that proves difficult against playoff rivals like the Warriors and Clippers, who boast multiple threats on the wing.

Parker had an awful series in the Spurs’ loss to the Clippers a year ago, compiling a mere 6.5 PER. While some wrote it off as little more than the struggles with his notoriously balky hamstring, Parker fared little better against even weaker competition at the recently completed Eurobasket.

Fortunately, San Antonio has one of the league’s best backups in Patty Mills, though Mills is more marksman than playmaker. With the 38-year-old Ginobili likely to take even more of a back seat to Leonard and Green this year, the Spurs may find themselves with a deficit of perimeter playmaking if Parker somehow can't recapture some of that old magic.

This also ties back into questions about the Spurs' identity. Parker has been the engine to their offense in recent years; if they can't rely on him, they might have to play very differently.

The Spurs have enough in Mills and McCallum to fill that role satisfactorily in the regular season, but a championship-caliber team needs more than that in the playoffs, especially when rotations shorten. When it comes to perimeter playmaking, the Spurs might be the most deficient team in that regard out of any of the Western contenders —  and by the time the postseason comes along, potentially the worst of any Western playoff team.

The Spurs have a ton of good passers, especially in their big men (Diaw, West, and Duncan), but ballhandling might be in shorter stock. Kawhi Leonard is a very good player, but to this point in his career he's not anything resembling a point forward in the mold of LeBron or Durant.

If Parker continues to decline, it's interesting to speculate on what San Antonio might look like. It's possible they might resemble a throwback team, a slow-paced outfit that posts up more than anyone else in the league (which might happen anyways, between Leonard and their bigs). Like the Grizzlies, but with better shooting.

What's the Prognosis?

Ultimately, the Spurs are a team that will define themselves by playoff success, not regular season performance. This is an old team, with five rotation players above the age of 33. The Spurs already emphasize minute restrictions and pacing themselves, and that's only more true with their older players.

Combine that with questions about Parker's performance and how they might have to adjust their offensive system this year, and this team won't do quite as well in the regular season as you might think. I think they'll be a very good team for the next few years, but they're not there yet and their conference isn't as forgiving as Cleveland's was last year.

Forecast: 5th Seed (55-27), Western Conference Semifinals