Silver’s 1st full season
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - October 29, 2014 - 12:00am

Adam Silver took over as NBA commissioner from David Stern last February and starts his first full season in the saddle with the 69th edition unfolding with three games this morning (Manila time). Each of the pro league’s 30 teams will play 82 regular season contests until April 15.

Defending champion San Antonio hosts Dallas in its season inaugural this morning (last night, US time) with coach Gregg Popovich assisted by Jim Boylen, Ime Udoka, PBA veteran Chip Engelland, Chad Forcier, Italy’s Ettore Messina and Becky Hammon. New Zealand’s Sean Marks was in Pop’s staff last season but has since been elevated to assistant general manager.

The Spurs have now captured five NBA titles in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014. They’ve never won back-to-back and in fact, San Antonio failed to make it to the Finals every year after bagging the championship. Pop hopes to break the jinx this season with a souped-up staff and basically, the same playing nucleus.

The international flavor will be even more pronounced this year in the Spurs’ style of play as Pop’s new assistant coaches Messina and Hammon are extremely familiar with the FIBA game. Messina is a four-time Euroleague champion coach and has piloted the Italian national squad as well as CKSA Moscow in Russia and Real Madrid in Spain. Hammon was a WNBA star who as a naturalized Russian citizen, played twice in the Olympics, once in the World Championships and once in the European Championships. Additionally, Udoka has played for the Nigerian national squad and Engelland was on the Philippine team that took the Jones Cup crown in 1985.

Pop returns nine international players, namely, the Virgin Islands’ Tim Duncan, France’s Tony Parker and Boris Diaw, Argentina’s Manu Ginobili, Australia’s Patty Mills and Aron Baynes, Brazil’s Tiago Splitter, Italy’s Marco Belinelli and Canada’s Cory Joseph. Other holdovers are Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Jeff Ayres, Matt Bonner and 6-11 Austin Daye. The only addition is 6-9 rookie Kyle Anderson of UCLA. An NBA team is limited to 15 players in a roster like in the PBA.

Pop recently signed a three-year contract extension and the 65-year-old US Air Force Academy graduate is far from calling it quits. Every season, Pop’s nucleus gets a year older and that may be a cause of concern. Duncan, 38, Ginobili, 37 and Parker, 32, can’t play forever at a high level and sooner or later, their age will show if it hasn’t yet. Duncan has a year left in his contract and he, like Pop, isn’t making noise about retiring any time soon. Another ring will likely reward Duncan with a contract extension.

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Pop’s genius is why the Spurs continue to be competitive despite the wear and tear on the bodies of his Big Three. He’s developed a system of team play where the Spurs aren’t dependent on any one player. Pop likes to spread the floor and his options. He’s not a huge post fan but he won’t hesitate to attack the low block in a mismatch. His approach is to read the defense then find a way to beat it with all five players on the court working together as a unit unselfishly. Pop disdains ego-tripping. Nobody is indispensable in his book. So when Leonard emerged as the MVP in last season’s Finals, Pop took it as a testament of his no-star system because none of the Big Three took the award.

Last season, only nine teams posted at least 50 wins and seven were from the Western Conference, showing an imbalance of power. The only Eastern Conference teams in the elite class were Indiana (56-26) and Miami (54-28). The Western achievers were San Antonio (62-20), Oklahoma City (59-23), the Los Angeles Clippers (57-25), Portland (54-28), Houston (54-28), Golden State (51-31) and Memphis (50-32).

Over the last five years, only six teams advanced to battle in the Finals – Miami thrice, San Antonio twice and the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston, Dallas and Oklahoma City once each. The Lakers were a lowly 27-55 last season and aren’t expected to contend despite Kobe Bryant back to near 100 percent condition. The Clippers will remain the toast of Staples Center as the Lakers continue to struggle.

In the preseason, the Lakers won only three of eight contests. New coach Byron Scott won’t be able to save the Lakers from sinking. In coaching a full 82-game schedule over 11 NBA seasons, Scott posted more losses than wins in seven. While he steered New Jersey to two Finals, Scott has never won a title as a coach. He had forgettable stints with New Orleans and Cleveland. Would Brian Shaw have been a better choice? Shaw, however, is on his second season as Denver head coach.

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Bryant played only six games last season but appears to be in shape for a major rebound. The problem is at 36, you wonder how long he can stay healthy if the Lakers’ offense and defense will still revolve around him almost exclusively? Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer were brought in to bolster the Lakers’ rotation but neither is a game-changer. At best, they’re characters in a supporting cast. Rookies Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Ryan Kelly aren’t shakers so Bryant is left to fend for himself. Nick (Swaggy P) Young averaged 17.9 points last season and is fresh from signing a four-year $21.5 Million contract but once he recovers from his thumb injury, will he be able to put up big numbers playing caddy to Kobe?

Scott is one of nine coaches making their debut with new teams. The others are New York’s Derek Fisher, Milwaukee’s Jason Kidd, Brooklyn’s Lionel Hollins, Utah’s Quin Snyder, Golden State’s Steve Kerr, Cleveland’s David Blatt, Minnesota’s returning Flip Saunders and Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy.

Out of the East, the top contenders are Cleveland, Miami and Chicago, not necessarily in that order. The Cavs won’t be pushovers with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love backstopped by James Jones, Mike Miller, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Shawn Marion. Blatt’s international exposure will bring Cleveland close to San Antonio’s style of play. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has big shoes to fill with LeBron gone but the Heat is a proud team that will try to show it can win without James. Miami, of course, won the NBA title in 2006 without the King. Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Chris Andersen, Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem are back. Danny Granger, Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Shannon Brown will provide support with rookie Shabazz Napier. The Bulls will parade a reinvigorated Derrick Rose, 6-10 rookie Nikola Mirotic, former Laker Pau Gasol, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich. Coach Tom Thibodeaux, a defensive master, hasn’t tasted a losing record in four years at Chicago and this season, he’ll make a big push for the Finals.

The title is up for grabs and the race is wide open. San Antonio is favored to repeat but the Spurs won’t get it done. A team from the East will rise to win it all.

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