It's been a more active than normal summer for basketball. The NBA Finals bled right in to the NBA Draft, which bled right in to NBA Free Agency which bled right in the Olympics. Now the Olympics are over and training camp is over a month away. This is officially the NBA's summer doldrums. Because of the relative lack of team activity, writers, sites and blogs begin to do things like analyzing the end of a season before we even know what many regular season rosters will look like opening night. ESPN is not immune to exercises like this and Tuesday they released their "expert" picks on where each team will finish the regular season.
The panel, which consisted of "100 of ESPN's best basketball minds," picked the San Antonio Spurs to finish third in the Western Conference with a 54-28 record. At first glance this doesn't sound so bad but that's only four more wins than this past season when the Spurs played only 66 games. True Hoop's Beckley Mason points out that it's hard to believe a team that is returning almost it's entire roster is going drop nearly 100 points in their winning percentage (.758 in '12 compared to a projected .659 in '13). Specific explanations from each panelist were not provided, but one could assume that this percieved drop off in winning percentage can be attributed to an expectation that there will be injuries to this "old team" and that Gregg Popovich doesn't care about the regular season enough to want to win 60 games.
Injuries are a concern for the Spurs, but no more than they are for any other team. It's entirely possible that a key member of the Spurs will miss several games due to injury, but this Spurs roster is built to sustain injuries to a guy like Manu Ginobili. Tim Duncan getting injured is another story all together, but otherwise the Spurs are built to be able to absorb any other injury for a short period of time. Additionally, the notion that Coach Pop doesn't care about the regular season is a bit outdated. Yes, Pop prefers health over playoff seeding, but the depth of this Spurs roster has allowed Pop to rest guys like Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan throughout the regular season while still being able to compete for the top seed in the Western Conference.
There is also an expectation in South Texas that the Spurs will be better this coming season than they were last year. Bringing back 13 players from last year's team (potentially 14 if James Anderson comes back) gives the Spurs a sort of head start versus many of the other teams in the West because of the turnover for teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks. One can also assume that players like Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green are bound to improve their game and guys like Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw will benefit greatly from having a full training camp in the Spurs' system.
Don't get it twisted, the Spurs still have their issues. They're still woefully unathletic and have only one rim protector in Tim Duncan. They're a good but not great defensive team with Duncan in the game and not very good when he isn't in. Nando De Colo does give them another shot creator, but it's way too early to tell how much playing time he'll receive. These are issues that will come up once the Spurs play the Thunder or probably the Lakers in the playoffs. On the other hand, during the regular season, they're depth and team chemistry is going to be a nightmare for 95% of the league during the regular season.
Coach Popovich also has extra incentive to make a push for the number one seed in the West. A number one seed means the Thunder and Lakers will most likely have to deal with each other before either plays the Spurs in the playoffs. Defeating the Lakers, Thunder and Heat in consecutive series would be an incredibly tough task for any team to achieve. 54 wins is probably a little low, ESPN. 59-23 seems like a more accurate finish for the Spurs, which would likely put them atop the Western Conference again, unless Oklahoma City takes another leap and reels off something like a 65 win season.