Faith still exists on this planet, and it matters. Consider this column's title "Exhibit A."
I believe that those who celebrate and embrace it earn substantial rewards. Those who harbor high expectations and do things the right way often find serendipity on their side. So, even after Pat Riley's historic South Beach coup, the Boston Celtics' O'Neal shopping spree, the L.A. Lakers recent title haul, and the Oklahoma City Thunder's metamorphosis from relocated (another word for maligned) lottery losers to the NBA's latest poster children, I think the San Antonio Spurs deserve mention in the serious championship chatter.
No one practiced more patience last year than the brain trust that includes Owner Peter Holt, GM R.C. Buford, a full front office staff, and Head Coach Gregg Popovich. Their reward: a first-round triumph against their despised North Texas nemesis, the Dallas Mavericks. This year, the Spurs are due the biggest payoff for the fifth time in the Tim Duncan era. No one can say that the organization has not earned another banner to hang in the rafters of the AT&T Center.
The Lakers will carry the two-time defending champion tag until someone rips it from them in the 2011 postseason. Mere weeks after a champagne bath and a parade down Figueroa Street, the team's brass managed several roster upgrades. Steve Blake ranks as an enormous improvement over the wildly inconsistent Jordan Farmar. He runs the triangle like he learned the complex offensive scheme at birth. Theo Ratliff provides stable, veteran insurance behind Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom. Matt Barnes adds another menacing defensive presence behind Ron Artest.
The reigning Eastern Conference champs filled the void that Kendrick Perkins' ACL injury created with a pair of O'Neals—Shaq and Jermaine. Do not ignore the potential reserve impact of rookies Luke Harangody and Semih Erden. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen seem primed for one more title run, ailment and age questions be damned. Starting point guard Rajon Rondo does not need a reliable jump shot to qualify as one of the best at his position. His imprint on the Celtics success speaks for itself.
The neophyte Thunder traded for an impact interior defender in Cole Aldrich. Mark my words: those who projected him as an NBA stiff will soon apologize. James Harden figures to take a giant leap in his sophomore campaign on both ends. I am penciling him in as an early Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Locking up Kevin Durant with an $80 million, max deal was another Sam Presti masterstroke.
The Orlando Magic have reason to stew and grumble after the Heat hosted a celebration that was fit for a four-peat just by signing Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh. No one should dare underestimate the trey-bombing Magic, especially after a preseason in which the rotation cogs wiped the hardwood with their opponents, winning by an average of 25 points. Even without a dependable jump shot, Dwight Howard can still terrorize at least 70 percent of the NBA's frontlines with his athleticism, shot blocking, and physical brawn.
The Chicago Bulls, Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, Atlanta Hawks, and Denver Nuggets all hope to factor into the trophy conversation, even if such gab sounds facetious for a few of those franchises. The Phoenix Suns insist Amar'e Stoudemire's departure does not spell doom. The Golden State Warriors, L.A. Clippers, Memphis Grizzles, and New Orleans, Secaucus participants from a season ago, expect to at least challenge for a playoff spot.
The Spurs will take special care in sizing up their Texas neighbors. They bested the Mavericks in a grueling six-game slog this spring and have plenty of nail biters against the Houston Rockets from which to draw conclusions. Courtney Lee and Tyson Chandler will boost both squads on the defensive side of the ball, and both title hopefuls sagged on that end last season. When Dirk Nowitzki and Yao Ming reach for hardware, they cannot pull out four championship rings like Tim Duncan. Their determination to advance in the playoffs again will matter.
San Antonio's four-time champion must also address some glaring roster holes in house, such as the absence of a proven wing defender. What non-Big Three member takes the last-second clutch shots that Michael Finley and Robert Horry once drained? Will lackluster wing depth become a crippling trait?
The justifiable queries might also make a fifth title run seem doubtful. Can Tony Parker, Duncan, and Manu Ginobili avoid the injured list when it counts? Will Richard Jefferson coalesce with his silver and black teammates on a more consistent basis? Can Tiago Splitter stay upright and live up to his billing as the squad's best pick-and-roll defender? Can the youngsters exude poise and nonchalance in crunch-time?
Yet, questions and deficiencies aside, the Spurs seem as capable of 16 playoff victories as any of the above foes. Faith, my brothers and sisters, is alive.
Popovich and Duncan continue to pound the rock. Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili perfected the 2000s art of the star trio chemistry the Three Me-Egos in Miami hope to develop. They provided Garnett, Pierce, and Allen with a more recent template for how to mesh world-class talents in an operation worthy of late June cheers. They grew up together on the court, and they do not want to end this remarkable era with another dubious, early exit.
Duncan works as hard and as often to stay in proper shape, whether that means gaining or losing weight, like Kobe Bryant. Is Bryant more deserving of another ring because he plays in a tourist and celebrity hot spot that also doubles as the nation's second largest city and media market?
The Spurs brass swung and missed with the awful Luis Scola donation, but they saw something special in Richard Jefferson, and I refuse to prematurely accept that acquisition in the basketball history books as a failure. Increased efficiency and better corporate knowledge will make him valuable as a pesky defender and a scorer. An emphasis on pushing the ball, all too absent in previous years, will maximize his skill set.
Dejuan Blair will nudge his way into the Most Improved Player discussion, just as he has always found a way to succeed when faced with long odds. George Hill's frigid preseason shooting will approach the level that became customary in his breakout campaign. Splitter won at the highest levels in Europe, and his acumen should translate from the overseas leagues to the NBA. He will not approximate an All-Star, but his muscular and brutish defense and willingness to bang will help minimize Duncan's wear and tear.
Antonio McDyess, who wept when the realization of his title fantasy was stolen from him in a 2005 Game Seven on the AT&T Center floor, joined the evil South Texas empire for one final shot at glory last year. He proved his mettle in the 2010 Playoffs.
Buford and Popovich also took a Vegas-sized risk by offering Summer League standout Gary Neal guaranteed money. Many who impress under the dim lights of the Thomas and Mack Center and Cox Pavillion often fail under the bright ones come late October. Neal, though, seems ready to ditch an abysmal preseason brickfest to become San Antonio's newest surprise contributor.
James Anderson plays with a concerning timidity given his necessary shift from college star to pro role player, but his earnest demeanor and eagerness to improve gives him the look of a long-term keeper.
Then there's Garrett Temple, the undrafted free agent who arrived in San Antonio as a stop-gap bandage thanks to Parker's broken hand and Hill's sprained ankle, and stuck after some gutsy, commendable turns as an emergency starting point guard. The 6'6" LSU product does not figure to see the court much, but his ability to defend three positions makes him an attractive spot player.
Alonzo Gee and Bobby Simmons appear to have survived the final roster cuts, for now, and both will do everything possible in practice to demonstrate to Popovich they merit a few minutes of court action.
Most of America's basketball watching public has handed the Larry O'Brien Trophy to the Lakers or Heat, and the talent that populates both outfits makes it obvious why. A few analysts remembered that the Celtics won the Eastern Conference. Boston grabbed a few nods.
One scout, polled by Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen, ranks as the lone expert to pick the Spurs to snatch the 2011 crown. Is he crazy, or does the rest of the crowd know what the San Antonio faithful cannot bear to accept? Oh, I'm not done dropping F-bombs. Unlike the ones Richard Pryor used to scream in his sleep, the editors here need not censor these.
It does not take a leap of faith, or a modicum of courage to suggest the Lakers or Heat as potential 2011 Finalists. Those titans, plus the angry and stubborn Celtics, must answer as many questions as the Spurs.
A lot must go right for San Antonio to even sniff the golden ball again, but what if Dwyane Wade's hamstring becomes a continued nuisance? What if Pau Gasol suffers a freak injury? Is it reasonable to describe Parker and Ginobili's ailments as anything but unfortunate accidents?
These Spurs will not cruise to 50 wins, but the truth is, they were never worlds better than their chief title competition. Popovich molded those winners through hard work and some painstaking stretches. He used the lowest moments as teaching tools. The 2006-2007 edition lost at home, in November, to the then woeful Charlotte Bobcats. Defenseless reject Adam Morrison poured 27 points on Bruce Bowen, then the league's fiercest man-to-man defender, that night.
Last fall, I penned a satirical ode to the Spurs' maddening underachievement. Some misconstrued my humor as hypocrisy, or worse, fatuity. I promise not to publish another Houston Chronicle-like Tombstone motivational piece.
A lot must go right, but Popovich and Duncan have earned that good fortune. Parker is correct when he says 10 other teams dream of the same luck. He also knows nothing lasts forever, and his accomplished partnership with Duncan and Ginobili is on its last legs. Will it last one more season? Two more at most?
Buford reloaded with enough young guns to keep the stars fresh when postseason pressure beckons. Popovich, as voted by the GMs in an annual NBA.com survey, makes superb in-game adjustments.
Most of all, if a probable lockout does indeed mean this is the last ride, Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili will want to make it one to remember. This trio has been there and won that. If they ever require extra circumstantial fuel, they will recall blowing a Game Seven at home against the Mavericks, and the Lakers' sickening 20-point 2008 conference finals rally in the series opener.
For every troublesome question—and Parker's murky future remains chief among them—there is a reason to believe fans in the nation's seventh largest city will party like it's 1999 again.
Faith, my brothers and sisters, still lives. Does a person without it have anything at all?