Spurs Don't Need to Blow It Up
Guard Manu Ginobili said something Monday that hasn't been heard much here the past dozen years.
"We were not ever really a championship-caliber team,'' he said one day after the Spurs' season ended with a 4-0 sweep by Phoenix in a West semifinal.
The Spurs went 50-32 but it was their worst record since the disastrous 20-62 injury-riddled campaign of 1996-97, which enabled them to accumulate enough ping-pong balls to win the lottery and get forward Tim Duncan. They were merely the No. 7 seed in the West.
Yes, San Antonio did close the season with a 20-8 spurt and upset No. 2 Dallas in the first round of the playoffs. Still, it was hardly a rousing campaign by the standards of the Spurs, who have won four titles since 1999.
"It was probably the most challenging because it took so long to get the team together,'' said coach Gregg Popovich of his 13 ½ years as Spurs coach, although he still called it a "satisfying'' season since San Antonio eventually did get things going.
With that in mind, don't expect the Spurs to order any truckloads of dynamite. This team hardly needs to be blown up.
There are three players who perhaps hold the key for the Spurs to next season again be a legitimate championship contender. They are Richard Jefferson, Tony Parker and George Hill.
The Jefferson acquisition from Milwaukee last summer was thought by many to be a move that could propel the Spurs to another crown. Instead, it helped win Executive of the Year for Bucks general manager John Hammond.
But Jefferson can't all of sudden be this bad, can he? His regular-season scoring average dropped from 19.6 to 12.3, and he was even worse in the playoffs, averaging 9.4.
Jefferson told FanHouse last month he hadn't ruled out of opting out of a contract that will pay him $15 million season. But since that obviously would be an absurd move by Jefferson, who declined an interview request Monday, everybody is expecting he'll be back.
That might not be all that bad.
"I think history shows that guys often play better in their second year here than in their first,'' Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said of the intricacies of learning Popovich's system. "Hopefully, Richard will build on this year.''
Popovich believes the same thing. Few think David Copperfield has made the game of the small forward, who twice has had seasons averaging 22 or more or more points, suddenly disappear at the age of 29.
"I think it's going to help him a great deal,'' Popovich said of Jefferson having a season with the Spurs under his belt. "Richard wasn't as consistent as he wanted to be or we wanted him to be, but a lot of that is getting used to a system.''
Parker, San Antonio's starting point guard for nine years, certainly is used to the system. But he was never himself this season, and his scoring average dropping from 22.0 to 16.0.
Parker battled nagging injuries. He missed a month late in the regular season with a broken right hand.
"Nobody likes to be hurt, that's for sure,'' said Parker, who indicated he's "leaning'' toward taking the summer off and not playing for France in the World Championships and will make that decision in about a week. "I've been very lucky never to have had a big injury and won three championships. It's hard to get mad. If you look at everybody's career, there's always one or two years you're hurt. ... It was a little bit of a down year because I was hurt so the percentages are with me for next year.''
The percentages also are that Parker, entering the final season of his contract, will stay with the Spurs for a while. He indicated Monday he wants to remain with the team beyond his current deal, saying, "My heart is in San Antonio.''
There have been some rumblings the Spurs could look to trade Parker. But Buford said they aren't coming from his team.
"The speculation on Tony is placed outside of our organization and not internally,'' said Buford, who said he wouldn't have to even answer questions about Parker's future had he not had injuries and that the Spurs "would be crazy not to want a player like (Parker) in our program for a long time.''
Perhaps another reason for speculation has been due to the play of Hill, who increased his scoring average from 5.7 to 12.4 in his second NBA season and was tied for second in voting for the NBA's Most Improved Player. Hill filled in admirably at the point when Parker was out and also started at times alongside him.
It's expected Hill, 24, will continue to get better and better, and one day might lead to San Antonio's trio of stars being expanded to a foursome. Hill was fourth on the team in scoring and could become the first player other Duncan, Parker or Ginobili to finish in the top three on the team in scoring average since 2002-03.
"Age was not a factor,'' Ginobili, who will be 33 in July while Duncan is 34, said about the Spurs. "We just didn't play together long enough as a team. We got younger. George played a big role on this team. Richard is 29, and he's very athletic and he helped us.''
There were no complaints about Ginobili, who averaged 16.5 points, and Duncan, who averaged 17.9 points and 10.1 rebounds while squeezing out an All-NBA third-team berth. That's his 13th time on one of the All-NBA teams in 13 tries.
So what does Ginobili believe the Spurs must do to get back to being championship caliber?
"Decent tweaks, of course,'' said Ginobili, who didn't want to be specific.
Neither Ginobili nor anybody else with the Spurs on Monday mentioned anything about dynamite.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson