8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: San Antonio -4
One of the longer standing rivalries in the NBA continues tonight in the season opener, as the defending champion San Antonio Spurs play host to their neighbors to the north, the Dallas Mavericks, at AT@T Center in a rematch of last year’s First Round Playoff Series. During their run to their fifth NBA Title since 1999, the top-seeded Spurs found the most resistance against the eighth-seeded Mavericks, who took them to the brink of elimination in the Round of Sixteen, going the distance in seven games. And it’s with that confidence in coming so close to dethroning the mighty Spurs, that Rick Carlisle and Co. take into this new campaign, reloaded and chosen by many as a popular dark horse candidate to advance to the Finals. Last season, the Mavs barely made it into the Playoffs in the stacked Western Conference despite going 49-33, a record that would have earned them the third seed in the East. Dirk Nowitzki continued to play at an All-Star level, averaging 21.7 points on 49.7% shooting from the field, including 39.8% from three, along with 6.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists, with a PER of 23.6. Management did a tremendous job of surrounding the former MVP with younger weapons, particularly in the form of Monta Ellis, who matured by leaps and bounds in Dallas, averaging 19.0 points on 45.1% shooting from the field, including 33.0% from downtown, along with 3.6 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 1.7 steals.
However, for the third consecutive season the Mavericks changed their supporting cast significantly, with arguably the biggest move being acquiring Tyson Chandler from the New York Knicks, three years after sending the seven-footer to the Big Apple. Injuries dogged Chandler throughout his final campaign in New York, limiting the former Defensive Player of the Year to just 55 games of action, while his bloated salary ($14.1 million) made him expendable after the Knicks floundered to a 37-45 record. While potent offensively, Carlisle’s charges struggled mightily on the defensive end of the court last year, allowing 102.4 points (20th overall) on 46.4% shooting from the field (22nd overall), including 35.9% from beyond the arc (15th overall), all the while posting 40.9 rebounds (26th overall) and 4.3 blocks (21st overall) per game. In his lone season in Dallas, Chandler was credited for transforming the team’s play defensively, providing them with a deterrent at the rim that could allow his teammates to gamble more on the perimeter, en route to the franchise’s first NBA Championship. With Chandler in the middle, the Mavs’ defense ranked ranked tenth in points allowed (96.0), eighth in field goal percentage allowed (45.0%), and fourteenth in rebounding (41.4). Granted, Mark Cuban gave up a lot of players to get him (Samuel Dalembert, Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, and multiple draft picks), and the owner is gambling on the chance that the oft-injured 32-year old will remain healthy over the course of 82+ games and post numbers comparable to the 10.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks that he produced back in 2011. Keep this in mind folks, Chandler played 74 games that season, but hasn’t logged more than 66 games in a season since departing Northern Texas.
Meanwhile, while their opponent tonight has changed faces yet again, the San Antonio Spurs stand largely intact, retaining the majority of the roster that had propelled them to back-to-back NBA Finals, and their first NBA Title since 2007. Every year you hear about the collective age of their star triumvirate of Tim Duncan (38), Manu Ginobili (37), and Tony Parker (32), but each year these proud veterans continue to prove the naysayers wrong. But it’s not necessarily all about these guys, for Management has done a masterful job of surrounding them with youthful players in support of those three. One of the biggest keys to the Spurs’ success last season was Gregg Popovich’s brilliant use of his bench; San Antonio had six different players average in double-figures in points, but none of them managed to score over 16.7 points per game, the first time in NBA history that a team produced such a stat line. This ridiculously even distribution of points came from a rotation that at times last season went nearly twelve players deep, with a dozen players logging over ten minutes a night. This further fostered the team aspect that the Spurs have braced offensively over the past four years, en route to becoming the most efficient offensive team in the league.
Simply put, on the offensive end of the court, the Spurs were a frighteningly efficient group. During the the 2013-2014 campaign, Popovich’s charges averaged 105.4 points (6th overall) on 48.6% shooting from the field (2nd overall), including 39.7% from three (1st overall) and 78.5% from the free-throw line (4th overall), along with a very healthy 25.2 assists (1st overall). Furthermore, they ranked second overall in eFG% (Effective Field Goal Percentage ), which places an emphasis on the three-point shot, at 53.7%. San Antonio had seven different players shoot over 37.0% from beyond the arc, most in the NBA, including Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, and Matt Bonner, whom each netted over 42.0% of their attempts from three. However, one of the biggest proponents of their recent success has been the evolution of Kawhi Leonard, who will miss tonight’s contest as he continues to recover from a case of pink eye, that caused him to miss the majority of the preseason. After getting off to a slow start last season due to a broken hand, Leonard rounded into a force to be reckoned with in the Playoffs, eventually securing Finals MVP honors in the Spurs’ five-game sweep of the Heat last June, making him the youngest player in NBA history to receive the award. The 6-7, 225-lbs Small Forward averaged 14.3 points on 51.0% shooting from the field, including 41.9% from three, along with 6.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.7 blocks during the postseason, and posted averages of 17.8 points on 61.2% shooting (57.9% from downtown), 6.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.2 blocks, and 1.6 steals in the NBA Finals.