Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Greatest Season Ever: Post 3

Beginning in 2003, the San Antonio Spurs reeled off three straight championships every odd year. Not forgetting their chip in 1999, and its safe to add historical precedence to the list of reasons why the Spurs should rightly be considered dangerous in 2011. With the foundation of Tim Duncan/Greg Popovich and Pete Holt/R.C. Buford, the Spurs have all the makings of a team that if healthy, should be considered in a class with Boston, Orlando, Los Angeles and Miami.

It is my humble belief that the Spurs are the deepest they’ve been since 2003.

Last season, the team made it to the Western Conference Semis with Tony Parker hobbled and Richard Jefferson clearly still trying to find his way in a system that takes most a year to acclimate to. To his credit, Jefferson has been very candid about his struggles last year. He’s even put in one-on-one time with Greg Popovich and with a new, fat contract in tow, seems to be more than willing (dare I say driven?) to focus on molding his game to fit with what the Spurs have successfully done for over a decade (at least 50 wins for the last 11 seasons).

Parker is in a contract year and is only 28. Despite the pounding his body takes due to his attacking style of play, with George Hill’s emergence and Pop’s brilliant time-management skills, Parker will get the best of both worlds. Plenty of rest. But plenty of opportunity to return to the 50 percent shooting and 18 and 6 he consistently put up the five seasons prior to last.

Outside of Lebron, potentially the biggest offseason acquisition for a legitimate contender? Tiago Splitter. For those who don’t know, Mr. Splitter was named the 2010 Spanish League MVP last year. A couple of other recent Spanish League MVPs? Luis Scola (twice) and Marc Gasol. Sure, there was an adjustment period for both, but they each shot over 51 percent and both had PERs better than 16 their first seasons in the Association. And neither got to play and learn from Tim Duncan. Splitter is tough, unselfish, smart and defensive-minded. Basically the perfect fit in the Spurs system. Best of all, he’s only 25.

As for the rest of the roster, Gary Neal, another Euro-find, is polished enough to contribute right away and there is absolutely no reason why the Spurs’ drafting magic can’t continue. James Anderson will join DeJuan Blair, George Hill and to a certain extent, Alonzo Gee, as an immediate contributor with plenty of upside still yet to explore.

Look, people are rightly talking about the Boston Celtics (me included) and how they should still be the most feared team in the East, always providing the caveat of health. So, what makes the Spurs any different? Well, besides the fact that they have three championships with the Manu, Parker, Duncan core to Boston’s one with Pierce, Allen, KG.

I expect a Western Conference Finals bid for the Spurs barring no major injuries.

Despite my affinity for Kobe Bryant and my belief that he is widely undervalued, I still recognize that there’s little debate that Duncan has been the decade’s best. As a big man with a new defensive presence protecting him, I’m confident that he’ll continue to play at an elite level.

Especially with how svelte and fit he’s looked in the preseason. It’s preseason, but he did put up 10 and 7 in only 16 minutes a game.

Some quick thoughts on a few other teams.

The Orlando Magic are also not being given the proper amount of respect. Is Vince Carter past his prime? Yes, but he’s still a really good player and any marginal improvement from last season, which is a reasonable expectation, could be enough. Especially if Dwight Howard has figured out how to utilize his speed and athleticism to punish the two centers that have been his kryptonite (Shaq and Kendrick Perkins). If, if, if…sure, but Miami, LA, Boston all of have plenty of ifs as well.

Look at the Magic. They are perhaps the deepest team going into the season. Two-deep at every position, the Magic can easily withstand any injury to anyone on the roster that is not season-ending. That goes for Howard as well, seeing as how Marcin Gortat would start on no less than 13 other teams. Ryan Anderson, who was stolen from New Jersey in the Carter trade, is a Troy Murphy-in-training. Brandon Bass provides size and offense off the pine. Mickael Pietrus is good from beyond the arc and a defensive menace while Quentin Richardson started 75 games last year for the Heat. And if Orlando had not matched Chicago’s offer, J.J. Redick would be starting at the two for the Bulls.

Hell, Chris Duhon has 137 starts over his past two seasons.

The Magic have a new state-of-the-art arena; a terrific coach who has talked earnestly about unwinding from previous stressful highs; a deep as the ocean bench, and several trade assets that could be used come February to snag a whale of a catch…

I’m going to watch the Toronto Raptors this year. I thought last season was going to be a grand experiment testing if a Euro-style team could be successful in the NBA. Only problem was that Jarrett Jack and Chris Bosh still played like Americans. Now Bosh is gone, and Andrea Bargnani has assumed the mantle of franchise player. Bargs is the prototypical European player. Tall, skilled. A stretch-five with a deficiency in the rebounding and physical play that the NBA demands.

A very intriguing player is Linas Kleiza who led Lithuania this past summer to a bronze medal behind 19 points and 7 boards on 52 percent from the field. He’s a bit laterally slow for a small forward, but he’s big, strong and weighs close to 250. He’s also 25 and coming into his prime. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the Raptors go-to scorer this season and average 16-18 points.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that five or more players will be averaging at least 10 points.

Freak athlete DeMar DeRozan will get plenty of looks to have a breakout sophomore campaign. Leandro Barbosa, with a year’s distance from his mother’s death and the injuries he endured, will be looking to reprise his sixth man of the year role. Bargnani will be shouldering a greater scoring load. And the dynamic duo of Jarrett Jack and Jose Calderon has me thinking of 07-08 when T.J. Ford and Calderon shared the lead guard spot and both had highly efficient seasons.

This year’s Raptors are going to be weak inside and will survive by moving the ball and spreading the wealth on offense and by implementing a variety of zone defenses and team rebounding concepts. If the team gels, they could win 35-40 games and snag a playoff spot and officially announce what has been steadily gaining momentum—that Euro League style of play and players are both NBA-ready.

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