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Enemy: San Antonio Spurs
3SOB Forecast*: 56-26

Photo: Lynne Sladky / Associated Press

What’s the story with the Spurs?

It’s only fitting that last but absolutely not least in 3 Shades of Blue’s field of assessment is the very team that we left off with at the end of last season: the one and only San Antonio Spurs.

As far as theater is concerned, their season ended in as tragically dramatic a manner as possible. The yellow tape was out with the committee on hand to for the fifth time crown the franchise from San Antonio the NBA champion. Had the “Hail Mary” LeBron James jumper bounced off the rim differently, Chris Bosh positioned himself elsewhere on the when the ball was up in the air, or Ray Allen not injected pure ice into his veins prior to Game Six, all parties involved would have gone forward with the celebration — but we all know that was not the case. What ensued from that point forward is history.

Seldom the team to jerk the knee, cannonball into the market, and soak the front row in the biggest splash of the summer, the Spurs simply have a way with slipping under the radar and hiding within the depths of your psyche — no matter how darn well they executed in the year prior.

Each time around it seems that the lack of captivating activity is mistaken for a lack of potential, as the same rhetoric pervades the conversation year after year. “They’re getting old,” “Tim Duncan’s best years are behind him,” “Tony Parker should have never let Eva Longoria go,” … wait a minute, how did that last one slip in there?

Even the advanced stats community has bought in, as I’m seeing Parker projected for a staunch demise at age 32, after arguably producing the best season of his career. Yet for all the bellyaching and ballyhooing, the Spurs have found themselves in the thick of it year, after year, after year. In the Duncan era, San Antonio has yet to slip below .600 for any given single season. The worst regular season record that the team has logged in the span was when it went 50-32. Just to put that into perspective, there are teenagers that have never lived through a sub-50 win season in San Antonio. Better yet, the Spurs have failed to escape the first round of the playoffs only three times since this reign of terror began — once of which was at the hands of our Beale Street Blue Bears just a few seasons ago.

And yet, we forget. I’m not forgetting this time.

Not surprisingly, this off-season was again a very “Spurs” off-season. They locked up Tiago Splitter, drafted a high-upside international stash option (Livio Jean-Charles), declined overpaying to keep a role player from the previous year (Gary Neal), and signed a quick-triggered long range threat to fill the void (Marco Belinelli). Simple enough.

The biggest threats to how the Spurs intend to pick up this year stand alongside father time (as always) and the obliteration of the middle of their coaching staff, as Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer each moved on to fresh new gigs with the chance to run their own show, in Philadelphia and Atlanta, respectively.

Who are they cooking with?

PG: Tony Parker
SG: Danny Green
SF: Kawhi Leonard
PF: Tim Duncan
C : Tiago Splitter
6 : Manu Ginobili

Always striving to straddle the cutting edge of efficient in play, we can expect to see a generally similar product from the Spurs in the coming year. In a league that has become dominated by a rush of capable point guards at the helm, it is unsurprising that a team as successful as the Spurs has one of the best in the business calling the shots. Parker came in at third in the league among all ones last year, with a PER of 23.1, and was the general for an offensive attack that led the league with an assist ratio of 19.2 per 100 possessions. A towering 64.1% of the Spurs field goals were assisted baskets on the season, highlighting their superior ball movement — much of which Parker had a great hand in initiating. More impressive for Parker is his 52.2% field goal percentage, which qualified as the second highest full-season mark for his career.

The Spurs use Parker in an exhaustive manner that involves him dribbling, cutting, and probing off of screen, after screen, after screen, with surgical precision, to take the legs out from under his matchup, as well as soften up holes in the opposing defense. At the same time, there is always at least a duo of snipers on the floor to give ball handler and screeners room to operate. Just ask anyone on our Grizzlies how it works. The result is usually quite fruitful for the Spurs, as they finished as the seventh most efficient offense in 2012-13.

Combine that offensive attack with their return into the top five with their trademarked defense, and you have the formula that catapulted them through the Western Conference and back into the NBA Finals. I’m still marveling at the way that the collective of Duncan, Boris Diaw, and Matt Bonner put saran wrap over Zbo, and everybody else not named Quincy Pondexter for that matter, in the Conference Finals. An often forgotten ingredient of the Spurs’ formula is their defensive efficiency, as they allowed a mere 99.2 points per 100 possessions, ranked behind only the Pacers and Grizzlies in 2012-13.

The cerebral Tim Duncan is a central component of what they do on both ends of the floor, but entering this season at 37 years old he is no spring chicken. With the contract awarded to Tiago Splitter this summer, the expectation must be that he will continue to make up ground in covering the difference accounting for what Duncan loses.

For the Spurs to continue to work beyond these twilight years of the core, it will also be imperative for the coming-of-age Kawhi Leonard to step his other foot into the spotlight as gracefully as he did the first one. Missed free throw aside, his playoffs were an encouraging indicator of his ability to do so. Similar to the Splitter/Duncan relationship, Leonard will be making up for Ginobili’s depreciation on the wing. As more of a defensive stalwart, Leonard is not alone in this crusade, as the continuity of any development from Finals hot-hand Danny Green will be gravy. Signing a two-year deal this summer, the conscience-less Belinelli should contribute to the cause as well, but is not likely to be looked at as a long term option.

How do the good guys stack up?

Photo: Stephen Dunn / Getty Images

Phillip Dean:

If you ask any true Memphis Grizzlies fan who is their toughest matchup year after year a very large percent of fans would tell you it’s the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs are a dynasty franchise that knows how to make the right moves, with the right players, and the leadership of a Hall of Famer coach Gregg Popovich. It seems like every year Tim Duncan, who will go down as one of the greatest power forwards of all time, and Manu Ginobli get better as the years go by. It’s like somehow they found the fountain of youth. The Spurs became a dominant shooting team from the 3-point range now with the addition of Marco Belineli, the Spurs are going to be a major threat for the Western Conference and have a better chance of going back to the NBA Finals.

Spurs fans will probably tell you as well that the Grizzlies have given the Spurs their toughest matchups the past couple of years. The center matchup between Marc Gasol and Tiago Splitter goes to Marc Gasol. Gasol is one of the best all around centers we will see in the NBA for a long time. Reigning defensive player of the year, double-double machine, great free throw shooter and has a great mid-range shot. The power forward matchup between Tim Duncan and Zach Randolph is very hard to decide but I will lean towards Duncan. You will see the very best out these great forwards every game. But like what we saw in the Western Conference Finals in the 4th Quarter, Tim Duncan is a student of the game and knows when to take over.

The Kawhi Leonard/Tayshaun Prince matchup is going to go in my opinion to Leonard. Leonard has the potential to be a superstar in the years to come but still needs time to develop his game and Popovich is going to help him with that. We really didn’t see much out of Prince in the Western Conference Finals and that made for concerns for Grizzlies fans. It even leads up to question if there will be trade talks. The shooting guard matchup between Tony Allen and Danny Green goes to Green in my opinion. Danny Green has phenomenal during the 2013 NBA Playoffs shooting 48% from 3-point range. Tony Allen will be the key defender this year for the Grizzlies to be able to “shut the water down” on Danny Green.

And finally the point guard matchup Tony Parker and Mike Conley has been one my favorites to watch the past couple of years. One of the key reasons the Grizzlies lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals is due to the fact that they had to response to Tony Parker. Parker dominantly took over the Western Conference Finals and proved to me again that he is one of the top 3 point guards in the NBA. Mike Conley is growing into a franchise point guard year after year and after the finals he told the media he is going to work on his game all offseason to get better to take this Grizzlies team to the next level. The Grizzlies and the Spurs will play each other 4 times this season (twice in Memphis and twice in San Antonio) and I believe that this series will be split up 2-2 seeing how competitive these teams are during the season.

Matthew Tynan (of 48 Minutes of Hell):

It feels like we just saw this matchup, doesn’t it? The thing about the carryover between these two teams is that neither one really changed a whole lot — personnel-wise, at least. San Antonio and Memphis have both essentially brought the band back together for another run, with the Grizzlies changing band managers (Dave Joerger) and adding a rangy backup singer (Mike Miller), and the Spurs going even more Euro than they were before (Marco Belinelli). But bringing Miller back to Memphis and seeing DeJuan Blair and Gary Neal swapped out for Belinelli and Jeff Ayres in San Antonio won’t do a ton to change the overall landscape. It’s still going to be a defensive battle every time these teams square off.

Each game of the Western Conference Finals felt close despite the sweep, but the Spurs were always just one step ahead. And when you can’t shoot consistently from the outside, it’s going to be difficult to stick with San Antonio. Miller’s presence will no doubt help out with that issue, but will he play enough to be a major factor when the outcomes are decided? Mike Conley and Marc Gasol still have their best basketball ahead of them, and they’ll no doubt be crucial to the Grizzlies’ success when facing the Spurs, but Memphis is going to have to figure out a way to get Zach Randolph loose against the Duncan-Splitter frontline. You can point to all the bad outside shooting during that playoff series, but Randolph was dismal offensively. The Grizzlies don’t beat the Spurs without him.

You never know when that fall from glory will happen for San Antonio. One injury to Tony Parker (who’s been playing basketball all summer), Tim Duncan or Kawhi Leonard could derail a deep playoff run, and the age of the Big 3 will eventually keep up. I still don’t believe that’ll happen this season, though. If all else remains the same, I do believe we’d be looking at a similar result if these teams square off again in the playoffs. We’ll see what Joerger’s coaching stye brings to the table, and it’d probably be closer this time around; but with the Spurs’ offensive firepower and defensive prowess, it’s going to be difficult once again for Memphis to get loose.

Though I’m curious to see if Conley has been able to improve his outside shot this summer. He shot 26.7 percent from deep against the Spurs in the WCF, a number that must come up. If he can bring that closer to his career averages once the postseason rolls around, the added perimeter threat would be massive.

When and Where do they square off?

October 30th: 7:00PM at the AT&T Center
November 22nd: 7:00PM at the FedEx Forum
January 7th: 7:00PM at the FedEx Forum
April 6th: 6:00PM at the AT&T Center

For more Spurs content, check out our TrueHoop comrades at 48 Minutes of Hell.

*3SOB forecast projections are derived from an average of the contributing staff’s predicted win totals.

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