|Spurs open campaign with new-look Timberwolves|
Expectations, based on prior excellence, are always high for the San Antonio Spurs but it will be the revamped Minnesota Timberwolves that many fans will be hankering to watch when the two teams meet to open their NBA campaigns on Wednesday at the AT&T Center in San Antonio.
The Spurs will be without star forward Kawhi Leonard and venerable point guard Tony Parker, both due to quadriceps injuries. Parker suffered his injury in last season's playoffs and is targeting a November return to the court; Leonard did not practice or play during the preseason and his availability is yet to be determined.
Thanks to its always stifling defense, its pass-first offensive attack and the heavy but steady hand of 22-year veteran coach Gregg Popovich, San Antonio is still a force to be dealt with in the NBA.
The Spurs won 61 regular season games last year and beat Memphis and Houston in the playoffs before falling to Golden State in the Western Conference finals. San Antonio posted its best defensive rating (103.5) since 2011 while its 111.1 offensive rating was its second-best in 21 years.
"We are still working on implicating our system and bringing in the new guys and familiarizing them with what we want to do and how we do it," Spurs guard Danny Green said. "We may be a little behind where we were in previous years because of the new guys and the injuries to Kawhi and Tony, but we're getting close."
Outside of Leonard, San Antonio's other go-to player will be LaMarcus Aldridge. The 6-foot-11 forward has been one of the most consistent scorers and rebounders since he joined the NBA in 2006, with career averages of 19.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Aldridge signed a three-year, $72.3 million extension on Monday that will keep him in San Antonio for at least the next four seasons.
Gone are David Lee, Dewayne Dedmon, and Jonathon Simmons. The Spurs signed Joffrey Lauvergne, Rudy Gay, Derrick White, and Brandon Paul to replace them.
After being considered one of the oldest teams in the league for years, this edition of the Spurs has six players who were born after 1993. Even with Parker, 11-veteran Aldridge and Manu Ginobili on the roster, the youth movement is clearly in play for San Antonio.
"I see how much these kids work out and how improved they are," said Ginobili, in his 15th year. "How hungry they are. It's exciting to witness that."
The Timberwolves begin the season with renewed excitement keyed by the continued improvement of center Karl-Anthony Towns and the signing of free agents Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford, and Jeff Teague. In all, eight new faces dot Minnesota's roster.
Last week, swingman Andrew Wiggins signed a five-year, $148 million contract extension that will lengthen his stint in the Twin Cities.
Minnesota is all in after posting eight consecutive losing seasons and missing the playoffs for 13 straight years. Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau, who is also the team's president of basketball operations, knows this collection can only be a success if it's unselfish and willing to boost the whole rather than seek out individual glory.
"You're probably not going to average 28 points or whatever if you have a lot of guys who can really play," Teague said. "You've got to make sacrifices to be great, and for our team to be really good, everyone is going to have to sacrifice, myself included."
Butler, Gibson, Teague and Crawford are all still in search of their first championship, while Towns, Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng have never even participated in the postseason. Right now the Timberwolves are focused on the latter.
"We know the opportunity that we have ahead of us if we do the right things, if we guard, we share the ball, if we rebound, don't turn the ball over, all the things that Thibs says to do," Butler said. "And we know that we can win, we have the potential to do that, but we've got to go out there and do it."
The Spurs have taken the last 11 games from Minnesota, including seven in a row at the AT&T Center since a 108-95 Timberwolves win on April 17, 2013.