LaMarcus Aldridge Filling the Duncan Hole

New Faces: Pau Gasol, Dewayne Dedmon, David Lee, Livio Jean-Charles (R), Dejounte Murray (R)

2015-16 Regular Season Record: 67-15

2015-16 Regular Season Achievements: 1st: Points (Defense), 3-Point % (Defense), Defensive Rating. 2nd: Field Goal %, 3-Point %, Free Throw %, 2-Point % (Defense).  3rd: 2-Point %, Assists.  4th: Offensive Rating, Field Goal % (Defense). 5th: Defensive Rebounding. 6th: Blocks. 10th: Points.

Leading Scorer: Kawhi Leonard, 21.2

Leading Rebounder: LaMarcus Aldridge, 8.5

Whether the Spurs won a title in 2016 or not, they upped their talent quotient making them the envy .around the league. The addition of LaMarcus Aldridge last season, a 23 point, 10 rebound player in his former life, served two purposes. In the immediate future, it added an additional scorer and rebounder to the Spurs front court so Tim Duncan could play less minutes in his 19th season. More importantly, it set the Spurs up nicely for the post-Duncan era.

Hello era. Here we are.

For the first time since 1997, Duncan will not be in uniform opening night and the Spurs will have to reflexively lean on LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol in the front court. It will be an adjustment. Duncan was as brilliant defensively as he was offensively. Aldridge and Gasol have cemented their reputations as offensive players. Throughout their careers their defense has been inconsistent and often spotty but their offense has bordered on brilliant.

Aldridge at 31 is still in his basketball prime with a good five years left at this production level. Although Aldridge isn’t a leap out of the gym athlete like a DeAndre Jordan, he is a deeply skilled power forward who can score from just about anywhere on the floor except the three point line. Take out his rookie year and the lowest rebound total Aldridge ever amassed was in his third NBA season (7.5). Before his inaugural season with the Spurs, Aldridge had two seasons of double digit rebounds. It decreased playing opposite Duncan (as was expected) and next to Pau Gasol, a superb rebounder himself, history will repeat itself.

One transition is over for  LaMarcus Aldridge and another is beginning. He has adapted to the Spurs culture and the Gregg Popovich way. Now he has to fill Tim Duncan’s shoes. Being the main wheel for the Blazers is one thing. But the Spurs and their recent history, and the contract Aldridge signed, and replacing Tim Duncan, is a lot to take on. With Duncan and 67 wins, Aldridge couldn’t will the Spurs to the conference finals. He was never able to will the Blazers to the conference finals either. So how can he achieve the one thing he has never accomplished in his career?

Pau Gasol has willed his team to the Finals and to title rings. But Gasol, a sensitive player, must be legitimized within the culture which Popovich and his brilliance will do. Though Gasol prefers playing forward, he will play center knowing Aldridge is behind him. Gasol has had brilliant years playing with Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah. He’s older, 36, but he can still block shots and swallow rebounds. His one-on-one paint defense is mediocre. Gasol is a finesse player and nothing has changed- except the league. It is more explosive and athletic, expect his shot to be swatted at the rim by the high flyers. Additionally, Gasol is going to get beat on a lot of defensive plays. But what Gasol gives up athletically, he adds in intelligence. And leadership.

The rest of the Spurs are older too. Tony Parker has been hampered by injuries and isn’t as quick as he was three years ago. Last year, he had a brilliant game against Steph Curry, just playing defense. That’s fine in a one game situation but the Spurs need Parker on both ends of the floor throughout the season and playoffs. It’s hard some nights. The league is getting younger and more explosive at Parker’s position while he is getting older.

Kawhi Leonard is the straw that stirs the Spurs drink. If the Spurs get to the WCF it is because Leonard has led them there. Another Defensive Player of the Year in his back pocket, Leonard had a career year making shots. He was a 44.3%  3-point shooter, a better percentage than Kevin Durant. He barely missed the 40-50-90 club (his free throw shooting was 87.4%). Rarely is Leonard mentioned in the same breath as Larry Bird. But he should be.

The Spurs also added David Lee but at this point in his career Lee is a role player who can give you rebounding and mid-range shooting in limited minutes. There was a reason the Warriors didn’t play Lee in the playoffs in 2015. He can’t match the quickness of the league. Lee is serviceable in short blocks of time.

As long as the Spurs have Gregg Popovich, and Kawhi Leonard  remains moderately healthy, the Spurs will win 55 games. The West is tough again with Kevin Durant added to the Warriors perimeter shooting attack making Golden State a tough team to defend, but the Spurs will compete near the top of the conference.

The Spurs learned a tough lesson two years ago. Every regular season game counts and can be the difference between playing a game 7 against the Clippers in San Antonio, or in Los Angeles. Last season, the Spurs didn’t take a game off. They competed every night. Their year was overshadowed by the beautiful brilliance of 73 Warrior wins but it was exceptional. Minus the finish.

The Spurs open the season at the revamped Warriors and get their first shot at the Kevin Durant team. Up close will be a brief taste of Kawhi on Durant. Three of the Spurs next five games are against teams that didn’t make the playoffs (the Kings on the road, a home-and-home series with the Jazz). Mid-March they play the Thunder on the road, the Warriors at home, then the Hawks, Blazers and Grizzlies. Nine days later they have a killer three gamer: Cavs and Warriors at home, Thunder on the road. The Spurs will be at their best with seeding on the line.

Prediction: 57-25

photo via llananba