Spurs Hope to Keep Championship Window Open for One More Season
SAN ANTONIO -- The San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets have more in common than their state these days.
Uniquely-talented big men who are the centerpieces of their championship formula but must be handled with extreme physical care (Tim Duncan and Yao Ming). Dynamic Argentines who head the respective supporting casts and recently-signed long-term extensions (Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola). Point guards who almost always win the footrace and provide offensive punch (Tony Parker and Aaron Brooks). Coaches who have earned immense respect around the league -- albeit with far-different styles and playoff histories -- and who are always subtle with their success (Gregg Popovich and Rick Adelman) .
While most of the media world was descending on Miami Heat training camp in Hurlburt Field in Florida, I made the "Decision" to check in on a couple of less-heralded title contenders whose respective window of opportunity isn't quite so wide open.
That meant a flight to Austin, Texas, where a Rockets team that is both underrated and unpredictable was inching closer to the return of Yao Ming (FanHouse story to come) during their camp. But it also involved a short trip down Interstate 35 to catch up with the resident experts of all things unassuming: the Spurs.
Go ahead and forget about them -- again. After all, it's been a relative eternity since they won a title (three years), and there's just no way the oldies-but-goodies like Duncan and Ginobili can do it alone (Never mind that the arrival of 25-year-old, 7-foot rookie Brazilian Tiago Splitter and the emergence of 24-year-old guard George Hill qualify as a serious infusion of young talent to go with Parker).
I caught up with three key members of the organization's core -- general manager R.C. Buford, Popovich and Ginobili -- to discuss the upcoming season. The three-time champion coach spoke to the media masses (all five of us) about how Splitter should help fortify the frontline and how they're paying no mind to LeBron James & Co. In separate sitdowns with FanHouse, Buford and Ginobili discussed -- among other things -- Parker's uncertain future with the only team he has ever known.
The 10-year veteran is entering the final season of his contract (worth $13.5 million) and -- a la Denver's Carmelo Anthony -- is surrounded by speculation that he wants to continue his career elsewhere and would be just fine with a trade to the New York Knicks. Yet Parker, who is reportedly seeking a deal either at or near maximum contract value, said on San Antonio's media day that he wants to remain a Spur.
Buford has been discussing a possible extension with Parker's representatives, but Ginobili will be heard along the way as well. One of Parker's best friends on the team entered last season with one year left on his contract and facing identical questions about his situation, then surprisingly signed a three-year, $38.9 million extension in April.
With Parker leading this latest break, these Spurs still have enough to remain in the championship conversation -- especially with Ginobili determined to quiet those critics who say he won't stay on the floor long enough to help. After going 50-32 last season, they were swept by Phoenix in the Western Conference Semifinals. It was the sort of finish that left us guessing as to what to expect the next time around, as they had impressively disposed of Dallas in six games in the first round before folding in four to the Suns. One thing is almost certain once again in San Antonio, though: they're not done yet.
On his Spurs, version 2010-11:
"We're learning. We've added some significant new pieces to the group, so that takes a learning curve and a comfort level. How quickly they assimilate will be important. I think everybody's excited, but apprehensive in a lot of different ways."
On what causes his apprehension:
"It's just how your group will fit. You make decisions that you think are important for your club, but you never know until you get (the new players) on the floor. And we'll see how that goes.
"Tiago has had terrific international experience and played at a very high level, so there's excitement about the success he's had. But you never know how it will translate or convert until you see how he plays. You don't always make the right decisions. Obviously (Houston forward and 2002 Spurs second-round draft pick) Luis (Scola) has been a pretty significant contributor in Houston. There are miscalculations for everybody. (Buford traded Scola to the Rockets in 2007 for Vassilis Spanoulis -- who is now playing in Greece -- a future second-round draft pick, and cash considerations.)"
On whether Tim Duncan is still Tim Duncan as he enters his 14th season:
"I think you guys have to ask him about that. He is still what we're built around, and if we're good it will be because he's good. We need to be fortunate with his health. He and Pop are very consistent with the way they work together and managing his playing time and his recovery. I don't anticipate that much of that will change."
On his chosen approach to handling Parker's situation:
"I think with all our guys, one of our goals from Pop and the organization is to be communicative with our guys, and that won't be any different in any circumstance. I was actively discussing Manu's (eventual extension) with his representatives long before we were able to come to an agreement for both parties and it will continue to be the same with Tony."
On whether Parker had made it as clear privately that he wanted to remain with San Antonio as he did publicly:
"I wouldn't discuss what's said privately, but there's no reason why we wouldn't want Tony to be a part of our organization. He's been a great contributor to our success, and it's a circumstance that I think organizationally our history has been to provide continuity both from the ownership and the coach and the players. We'll continue to talk, and if there's a point in time where there's an agreement to be had that works for everybody, then there will be some kind of an announcement. If we don't, then we'll continue to talk and approach things in free agency (next summer)."
On what intrigues him most about the upcoming NBA season:
"I think there are going to be a lot of teams that have been who they are for a long time and may not be who they were (anymore). It will be interesting to see how those play out. I think we're still pretty much who we are. It's still Tim, Tony, Manu and Pop who have been the driving force for the last decade, and until that group changes I don't know that we'll be all that different than who we hope to be."
On his outlook for the season and whether this group belongs in the championship conversation:
"I'm feeling good. Optimistic. It's really hard to be the last team standing, but since I got here (in 2002) there was not one time that I didn't really believe we could make it. I don't think we're the favorites, that we're No. 1, of course. The Lakers won it twice in a row. They have the same team. They're younger than us, super-talented. Everybody knows what Miami has accomplished (in the summer by joining James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh), there's Boston, a lot of teams. But I believe in our strengths and believe we can make it.
"But we've got to be healthy, and make the shots that we've got to make when it counts. We've got a lot of young guys now who are hungry who want to prove themselves to the team. We've got a core of players who have now played together for a while in Tony, Tim and me, J (Richard Jefferson) is in his second year (with the Spurs), George Hill -- who has been amazing. I think we have a good mix of experienced players with young ones and great coaching and front office. I always believe."
On whether he hears the many critics who say he's nearing his end:
"I usually try to ignore or avoid those kinds of comments and the media, but last year was hard because people were coming at me and asking me if I still had it, if I was going to be healthy. I still hear a lot of people doubting my health, and I have had only one (expletive) season that I missed 40 games and the playoffs (2008-09). It was tough. It was really hard on me, but all the other seasons have been sixty or seventy games (that he has played). I'm not the kind of player who's going to play 82 (games), especially the way Pop coaches me and he wants me to take it easy and somewhere in there I'm going to sit a couple games. And that's fine. I don't mind.
"But when people started saying that I was so injury prone and I couldn't stay on the court for long and stuff like that, it kind of got me upset, so I was very happy in the regular season to see that I played more than 70 games, that I did well, especially down the stretch of the playoffs. I felt good."
On Parker's situation and whether it will be a distraction:
"Hopefully I'm not going to be asked all season long about it. Media day was all about Tony. I understand that, at the beginning, that everybody wants to know what we think and what he's thinking, There's nothing we can do about it."
On whether he'll attempt to convince Parker to stay:
"I've been through that, and for the player it's kind of tough because he's been here nine years and I bet he wants to stay and win championships and do good, but it's his life, his career. He wants to be compensated. He wants a long-term deal. I know that, and I don't know what the Spurs are thinking about that. But what I'm positive is that he's a great player, he's young, and he really worked hard this summer and he's in great shape and he's an All-Star caliber. You can't go wrong.
"(He and Parker) talked last year when I was in that situation. I think it's too early to talk now. There's really nothing we can do. But later last year, when everybody knew that I was starting to talk again to the Spurs, we talked a few times. But it's nothing where you can convince me to do anything or I can convince him to stay. We've been in the NBA for a while, and I'm positive that he's going to put so many things on the table and he's going to take the decision that works for him. At the end of the day, you have to take care of your family and go where you want to go. And if he wants to stay here, he'll do it. I'm almost sure that the Spurs will want him when the time comes."
On the annual optimism that comes with the start of training camp:
"It's natural to be excited about your group, and we certainly are. We've been excited before and won championships, and we've been excited before and not won them, so it's all the same to me. We've added some young players, have some good battles from young players for positions, and that always makes it an interesting time."
On Splitter and how he plans to use him:
"I think (Splitter) gives us a big presence at that position that we haven't had. He's a solid, professional, blue-collar rebounder -- a defender at seven feet, and we really haven't had that. Theoretically, it will be easier not to overplay Timmy. We generally haven't over his career ... but I think it makes it easier for us to be careful with Tiago here."
On whether his professional experience overseas makes him ready to contribute now and how he projects as a player:
"I'm not sure we've done enough things to show that, but I'm confident that that's what we will see once we get down to playing, putting more offense on the court and getting more sophisticated defensively. I'm sure he's not going to have a problem.
"Tiago has been playing a while. We're not going to try to turn him into Larry Bird or Karl Malone. He does what he does. He's a defender. He's a rebounder. He runs the floor well. He's a heck of a passer, but he's never going to be a 20-point a game scorer. So we want to take advantage of the things he can do and has done well to be the player he has become, so his time will be spent figuring out our system and doing what he does to the best of his ability. We're not going to worry about adding this move or this shot to his game or anything like that.
On whether the unprecedented hype around the Heat might inspire anyone in silver and black:
"We don't think about whether you're being respected or disrespected or forgotten about or thought about, because I think everybody is very mature and realizes that that's all irrelevant. All that matters is if you win or not, so we pretty much have concentrated on that for a long, long time now. That will just continue. We don't really care."
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