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The heartache from training camp a year ago is long gone, buried underneath the confetti that poured down in June during the celebration of the San Antonio Spurs' fifth championship.
Their latest conquest might have been their most impressive. They overcame the gut-wrenching, seven-game loss to the Miami Heat in 2013 by posting an NBA-high 62 wins in the regular season, outlasting the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs and then bulldozing the rest of the way through to dethrone LeBron James and the Heat.
Practically the only thing the Spurs haven't done in the Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan era is repeat as champions. Now they have that chance.
They have almost the same team returning, but in a way, they're still starting from scratch when they open at home against Dallas on Oct. 28. On the first day of training camp, Popovich recounted a conversation he had with Duncan as they prepared to embark on their 18th season together.
"I said, 'Timmy, what year is this for you?'" Popovich said. "He said, 'This is my 18th camp in a row.' I said, 'My gosh. What do you think the first drill is going to be?' He said, 'Is it going to be the same stupid drill we do every year?'"
That's the way the Spurs are built. They develop a plan and stick to it better than any organization in professional sports. And another championship isn't going to change that.
"It's all about starting at the beginning every year. Not skipping steps," Popovich said. "You've heard me say that a million times. It really is the truth. You have to build it all over again. You can't just assume you're going to start where you left off. Luckily, I've got a group that understands that and allows me to start at the beginning."
Here are some things to watch this season with the defending champion Spurs:
LEONARD'S CONTRACT: Kawhi Leonard is up for an extension of his rookie contract this month, and the timing couldn't be better for him. He's coming off a brilliant two-way performance against the Heat, one that earned him a Finals MVP award and made him a legitimate star in the league. Leonard has missed time in the preseason with an eye infection, but that won't hamper his long-term importance to the team. The Spurs and Leonard have until Oct. 31 to reach a deal. If they don't, Leonard will become a restricted free agent next summer, which still means the Spurs could match any offer he receives.
MANU'S MOOD: Super sub Manu Ginobili played through a stress fracture in his right leg in a gutty performance in the NBA Finals. Given that injury, the Spurs barred the 37-year-old Ginobili from playing for his native Argentina in the FIBA World Cup. Ginobili has made no secret of his displeasure with the decision. "I was hurt (by the decision), probably I am still hurt," Ginobili said when camp opened. "Of course, I understand why they did it, I just didn't like it, and I disagree with it."
NEW FACES: First-round draft pick Kyle Anderson was the only noteworthy addition to the roster this offseason, meaning the Spurs generated most of their headlines with the splashy hires they made on the coaching staff. They brought European coaching legend Ettore Messina over to serve as an assistant under Popovich and made former WNBA star Becky Hammon the first full-time female assistant in the NBA. Hammon has a lot of familiarity with many of the Spurs players having spent much of her career with the San Antonio Stars.
REST UP: The Spurs have long been the best in the business at parsing out minutes during the regular season to keep the players fresh for postseason play. Not one player last season averaged 30 minutes per game, a strategy that was key to them finding another gear in the playoffs. The approach from Popovich requires uncommon patience and disregard for individual statistics, but Tony Parker, Duncan and Ginobili set that tone for the rest of the organization. That approach extends to the preseason, as well. Popovich kept five players home from a trip to Phoenix, which brought a sharp rebuke from Suns owner Robert Sarver. "The only thing that surprises me is that he didn't say it in a chicken suit. I'll just leave it at that," Popovich cracked.
BALL MOVEMENT: Just sit back and enjoy the most unselfish team in the league and how they approach the offensive end. They pass, pass and pass some more, whipping the ball around the perimeter and bouncing it from inside-out in a dizzying display of basketball beauty. The philosophy creates open shots by the bushel full and make it nearly impossible for opposing defenses to key on one or two players. "You move the ball," Popovich said during the finals, "or you die."
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