Season preview: San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs didn't make many offseason moves to upgrade an aging roster
With Manu Ginobili sidelined early, who will step in to fill the scoring void?
Defense is one constant that San Antonio can rely on throughout the season
SI.com will analyze each of the NBA's 30 teams as regular-season tip-off approaches. For a complete list of team-by-team breakdowns, click here. The information in the "Go figure" category below is provided by Roland Beech of 82games.com.
Spurs at a glance
Last season: 56-26; lost in Western Conference finals to Lakers
Notable additions: Roger Mason (FA), Salim Stoudamire (FA), George Hill (R)
Notable losses: Brent Barry (signed with Rockets), Robert Horry and Damon Stoudamire (unsigned)
Coach: Gregg Popovich (632-302 in 12 seasons with Spurs)
Reasons for hope
1. They know the drill. The Spurs have played an integral role in shaping the Western Conference race every season of the 11-year Tim Duncan era. They have compiled a 615-255 record (.707 winning percentage) and won four championships during that stretch. This team has confronted every kind of situation, and usually succeeded. San Antonio also understands how to work through the grind of the regular season and turn it up a notch in the playoffs. That type of know-how, coupled with the All-Star abilities of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, is a formidable combination.
2. They're well-coached. Is it possible that a man with four championship rings could be underrated? Despite the postseason success, 632 career victories and the third-best winning percentage in league history, Popovich is rarely mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Phil Jackson and Pat Riley when the subject turns to all-time great coaches. Sure, he's had Duncan the whole time -- just like Jackson had Michael Jordan and then Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, just like Riley had Magic Johnson followed by Patrick Ewing and Shaq and Dwyane Wade. Whether it's allowing Steve Nash to become a scorer while the rest of the Suns flounder on offense, or carefully limiting the minutes of his veterans to keep them fresh for the postseason, Popovich orchestrates his bunch with aplomb.
3. The D is always there. The Spurs' throttling of opposing offenses has been a fact of life for years. In fact, San Antonio has ranked in the top five in field-goal-percentage defense in every season since 1997-98. It's that sort of stinginess that has neutralized everyone from individual talents such as LeBron James to team juggernauts like the run-and-gun Suns.
Reasons for worry
1. They're long in the tooth. While a team can hide a player or two who has slowed because of age, the Spurs have to adjust for almost everyone expected to play meaningful minutes. Duncan is 32 and frontcourt mate Fabricio Oberto is 33. Ginobili and backup swingman Ume Idoka are 31. Reserves Michael Finley (35) and Kurt Thomas (36) are entering their 14th seasons, and defensive ace Bruce Bowen is chasing around the NBA's top scorers at age 37. Veteran guile has its limits.
2. An unhealthy Manu. Ginobili is expected to be sidelined until at least mid-December after ankle surgery. While that won't derail the Spurs' season, it could put a sizable dent in it. San Antonio relies heavily on the backcourt scoring of Ginobili and Parker. Without half that duo for several weeks, the Spurs might dig a hole that results in a low playoff seed and a tougher road to winning the West.
3. Best-laid plans spoiled. The Spurs had hoped that 2007 first-round pick Tiago Splitter would join with 2005 first-rounder Ian Mahinmi, who starred in the D-League last season, to bolster the aging front line this season. But Splitter, a 23-year-old Brazilian power forward, decided to re-sign with Spain's Tau Ceramica. Meanwhile, Popovich wanted to use the 6-foot-10 Mahinmi frequently in exhibition games, but the Frenchman has not played because of a sprained ankle. Mahinmi will be playing catch-up once the regular season starts, never an easy task for a young player who is trying to establish himself in the rotation.
Keep an eye on ...
Mason. The fifth-year shooting guard, who was the Spurs' biggest offseason acquisition, is expected to be tested immediately because of Ginobili's absence. Mason received consistent minutes for the first time in his career last season, averaging 9.1 points in 21.4 minutes while shooting 39.8 percent from three-point range for the Wizards. He obviously can't replace Ginobili's production, but every little bit will help as the Spurs search for scoring options beyond Parker and Duncan.
LeBron, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki were the only players who scored more points per 48 minutes of clutch time (five-point game in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime) than Ginobili last season.
The Ginobili injury isn't a good start, but the Spurs will stay afloat early behind Duncan, Parker and the defense before Manu returns in time to lead a second-half push. If Popovich is able to manage his key players' minutes again, there's no reason the Spurs shouldn't reach the West's final four. But given the confidence that the younger, talented Hornets have after taking the Spurs to seven games in last season's playoffs, and the knowledge that the younger, talented Lakers have that they can beat San Antonio, Popovich and Co. appear destined to fall short of the NBA Finals again.
Sports Illustrated's NBA preview issue will be on newsstands Wednesday, Oct. 22.