Gregg Popovich looked at the cadre of 20-somethings in his huddle and needed one of those moments fit for a candy bar commercial. "Who are these guys?"
Tim Duncan, ever the timely comedian, introduced himself. "I'm Tim Duncan." On that dreadful 2008 night against the Miami Heat, Popovich, already coping with Manu Ginobili in street clothes, lost Tony Parker for several weeks. That forced the Spurs' sideline chief to trot out a lineup that resembled a collection of D-League All-Stars.
Roger Mason Jr. and Duncan were the lone regulars who played major minutes. Anthony Tolliver, Desmon Farmer, and several other youngsters auditioned for roster spots that night, and Jeff Van Gundy called the forced mix of developmental players and supporting cast members the "least talented in the league."
If the Spurs appeared destined for the lottery, given their cursed injury luck, a humorous crack from the two mainstays provided a nice breeze.
When Popovich sees his entire roster together today for the first time since May, he might ask the question again. "Who are these guys?" This time, it won't be a joke.
In a page straight out of the "be careful what you wish for" book, the Spurs morphed from "older than dirt" to younger than Justin Bieber. The team's average age, 26.9, requires a second glance and maybe a pinch or a polite face slap. No longer the oldest bunch on the block, the new-look Spurs will cause a few observers to do some double-takes.
Duncan is 34. Antonio McDyess is 35. Manu Ginobili is 33. Matt Bonner and Richard Jefferson turned 30 this year. Tony Parker is 28. Many of the remaining rotation cogs might need an ID to enter an R-rated flick or a drinking establishment. A look at the roster, courtesy of ESPN.com, offers proof.
|NO.||NAME||POS||AGE||HT||WT||COLLEGE||2010 - 2011 SALARY|
|25||James Anderson||SG||21||6-6||215||Oklahoma State||$1,361,400|
|21||Tim Duncan||C||34||6-11||260||Wake Forest||$18,835,381|
One player not on that list, James Gist, 23, will get every chance in training camp to secure a rotation spot, perhaps as Jefferson's chief backup.
Two of the Spurs' three best players are closer to retirement, but does it matter? Popovich will need Duncan's routine excellence to advance in the playoffs. San Antonio is not special when Ginobili cannot deliver fireworks.
With a slimmer, younger, trimmer, and more athletic squad, Popovich has to like his chances of keeping Duncan and Ginobili fresh enough to make a difference when the postseason arrives.
Of the players listed above, only Baylor University product Jerrells seems like a longshot to make the team. Gist could replace him, keeping the average age stationary.
GM R.C. Buford committed guaranteed money to Neal after his explosive shooting performance in the Las Vegas Summer League. The Spurs brass hopes Neal can shore up the team's slipping three-point accuracy.
Buford and Popovich hired another 30-year-old sharpshooter to give him some camp competition. New Zealand's Kirk Penney, the second-leading scorer in the 2010 FIBA World Championship, must cover up his matador defense and sub-par athleticism with a flawless application of his sweet stroke.
Anderson, selected with the 20th pick, figures to gobble up some significant shooting guard minutes behind Ginobili and Hill. Gee and Neal, maybe Penney, will split the rest of the time at the position.
If Temple beats out Jerrells, he will become the third-string point guard, and on some nights, the second-string one. Shooting coach Chip Engelland and others helped Dejuan Blair prepare to slide to power forward. Blair tweaked his defense and his jumpshot.
Hill may start at shooting guard. His adhesive, stingy defense will help the Spurs flex a more consistent muscle on that end of the floor. The guess here is that Popovich elects to use Splitter as a reserve while he decides where and how the Brazilian forward-center fits in his new silver-and-black duds.
Many of these youngsters can jump higher, but they lack something that defined previous Spur outfits: experience.
McDyess is the closest approximation of Robert Horry, though his clutch shot curriculum vitae pales in comparison. Neal and Anderson can only dream of accumulating Michael Finley's mileage.
Jacque Vaughn will coach from the bench instead of on the floor. Fabricio Oberto remains an NBA free agent, and the Spurs have not expressed any public interest in bringing him back. Buford traded Oberto, Kurt Thomas, and Bruce Bowen for Jefferson in a ballyhooed June 2009 transaction.
Those veterans, when called upon in pressure-packed moments, knew how and when to play. These kiddos could use a history book or two.
Popovich might have quipped a few years ago that his regulars used to hang out with Davy Crockett. A mention of the legendary Texas name might draw a few blank stares from this crowd. Dave Crockett? They know David Guetta. Bowie or Gilmour might be a stretch for some.
Popovich, then, should not suffer from boredom. Some will test his mistake threshold. Others will try his patience. If it works, Popovich might make Duncan, Ginobili, and McDyess look younger. If the Spurs flop, the result might resemble toddlers circling an elderly group at a nursing home.
The stakes are as high as ever. The goal—contending for a title—is familiar. How and if the team, which convenes today, can get there remains unknown.
Who are these guys?
Popovich, and the rest of us, will find out soon enough.
A Look at Some Other Contenders' Average Ages
Boston Celtics: 27.4
Dallas Mavericks: 28.2
Miami Heat: 27.9
Orlando Magic: 27.2
Houston Rockets: 25.7
Chicago Bulls: 26.5
A Look at How Their Projected Starting Lineups on Opening Night Compare
Spurs: Tony Parker (28), George Hill (24), Richard Jefferson (30), Tim Duncan (34), Antonio McDyess (35)
Lakers: Derek Fisher (36), Kobe Bryant (32), Ron Artest (30), Pau Gasol (30), Lamar Odom (30)
Mavericks: Jason Kidd (37), TBD, Caron Butler (30), Dirk Nowitzki (32), Brendan Haywood (30)
Magic: Jameer Nelson (28), Vince Carter (33), Quentin Richardson (30), Rashard Lewis (31), Dwight Howard (24)
Rockets: Aaron Brooks (25), Kevin Martin (27), Shane Battier (32), Luis Scola (30), Yao Ming (30)
Bulls: Derrick Rose (21), Kyle Korver (29), Luol Deng (25), Carlos Boozer (28), Joakim Noah (25)