No day at the beach: Spurs know road to repeating as champions won't be easy despite roster upgrades
Web Posted: 10/30/2005 12:00 AM CDT
Express-News Staff Writer
Over the course of three months this summer, the Spurs won their third championship in seven years; re-signed Mr. Big Shot; added another rugged, pass-happy Argentine; plucked Nick Van Exel from the scrap heap; and, last but certainly not least, convinced Michael Finley to accept less money and fewer minutes for a chance to win his first title.
After helping assemble the most talented roster in franchise history, Gregg Popovich's next task was figuring out just how to prep his collection of past, present and, possibly, future All-Stars for the grind of the coming season, as well as the enormous pressure a title defense brings.
Should he deliver one of his famous expletive-laced soliloquies on the importance of not taking anything for granted? Take the team, as he did four years ago, to a wooded obstacle course that promotes leadership and unity among military types and white-collar executives? Remind everyone — for the 3,723rd time — about the keep-pounding-the-rock wisdom of 19th century social reformer Jacob Riis?
Instead, Popovich opted to make the Spurs sweat.
On the Caribbean coast.
"I decided the best way to do it was to go to the Virgin Islands and have a couple of drinkie-poos," Popovich said. "Not take it so seriously, be a little counterintuitive. It's too damn early to get them all lathered up about what they have to do to win a championship. They already know it's a long-ass journey."
While the Spurs have never had as scenic a training-camp setting as the one they enjoyed in Tim Duncan's homeland this fall, no one needs to remind them the road they're about to travel isn't quite so picturesque.
Their first attempt at repeating ended when Tim Duncan injured his left knee and missed the team's first-round loss to Phoenix in the 2000 playoffs. Four years later, the Spurs appeared more than capable of defending their 2003 championship when they took a 17-game winning streak into Los Angeles during the Western Conference semifinals. Ten days and one Derek Fisher miracle later, they found themselves on vacation.
"I've learned the following season is always tougher," Duncan said. "We always get everybody's best game. ... But understanding that collectively is a whole different thing. It's not like we can go out there and say we are what we are and walk through the season."
Some of the Spurs' peers, however, think they have the potential to do just that.
In the NBA's annual general managers' survey, all but one of the 26 participating teams predicted the Spurs to win the Western Conference. Twenty of the canvassed general managers (77 percent) think the Spurs will win the championship — the highest percentage since the league started the survey three seasons ago.
The Spurs have inspired such optimism, in part, because of their success in the offseason. In Finley, Van Exel and Fabricio Oberto, they added a pair of former All-Stars and one of the best big men in Europe, solidifying a bench that Tony Parker called the team's "only weakness" last season. Devin Brown was the lone player to depart from the regular rotation, and he played only briefly in the playoffs because of a back injury.
Finley passed on offers from Phoenix, Miami, Denver and Minnesota to join the Spurs. The Heat also discussed signing Van Exel. The Spurs' pitch to both was the same: We would love to have you, but we can't give you much money. Or a starting job. Or a lot of minutes.
"We don't sell anything to anybody," Duncan said. "You either want to play with us or play against us."
The former has proven to be the safe option in recent years. During the previous seven seasons, Duncan has led the Spurs to three championships with three different rosters.
"What they have is a team that doesn't beat itself, doesn't make mistakes," Denver coach George Karl said. "It has a composure and a toughness to it that is incredibly difficult to crack. I'm not sure adding Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel is going to make them so unbeatable. I just think it gives them more insurance that they're going to be the same team they were last year.
"That doesn't mean we can't get to that level, or a Phoenix, Dallas or Houston can't. But San Antonio is not going away."
Indeed, while the Spurs have yet to establish themselves as a dynasty, they have at least built the foundation for one. Parker is only 23. Duncan and Manu Ginobili, despite the considerable mileage they have accrued in recent years, are 29 and 28. All three players, and their coach, have long-term contracts.
What the Spurs haven't done so far, however, is successfully defend a championship.
"To this day, that's why I give the Lakers so much credit for winning three in a row (from 2000-02)," Popovich said. "That's a stupendous achievement. They did a good job of keeping their core together that whole time and adding a few pieces here and there. I hope that's what we do this year."
The Spurs have learned enough about the difficulty of repeating from their previous pursuits. In addition to Duncan's season-ending knee injury in 2000, the Spurs also weathered the loss of Sean Elliott, who underwent a kidney transplant less than two months after their first championship.
More recently, Amare Stoudemire's knee surgery, and the subsequent effect it figures to have on Phoenix's season, has reminded the Spurs of the role luck plays in a team's success.
"If we don't win a championship this year, it won't be because we took it for granted or thought we already arrived," Popovich said. "It will be because somebody else plays better or somebody else is healthier or a combination thereof."
Or, because the Spurs can't develop the same chemistry they had last season. Because of the influx of talent, nearly every player on the roster — with the possible exceptions of Duncan and Ginobili — likely will have their playing time cut. As a result, Popovich has this message for his team: Live with it.
"I've already decided that there's no way that all the players are going to get the minutes they want," Popovich said. "The second thing I determined is I don't care. The guys who play the best will be playing. The people who aren't getting minutes it will be because somebody else is doing better or the matchups or the situations require it. They're going to have to trust me on it. If they don't, I don't care."
So far, the Spurs are at least saying the right things.
"I asked myself what's more important, winning or playing time?" Finley said. "For me, it was winning. Hands down."
Popovich can only hope everyone shares that attitude. History has taught him this much: No matter how sunny the forecast, the season following a championship is never a trip to the beach.
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