The San Antonio Spurs looked tired and physically beaten by the time the Los Angeles Lakers eliminated them during the Western Conference Finals last summer. It was the furthest the Spurs had travelled in their quest for a repeat title, but it wasn’t enough.
Combined with a lack of rest, a key injury to Manu Ginobili, and an infamous no-call foul against Brent Barry in the closing seconds of Game Four, the “old and tired” Spurs were dispatched in five games.
“It was tough because we always want to win championships,” says Tony Parker, “We had a couple of injuries so we weren’t able to finish like we wanted to, but that’s sports.”
By the time the regular season had come to an end, the Spurs had fought hard to finish with a 56-26 record—tied with the New Orleans Hornets.
They had some opportunities to clinch the top spot in the West, but instead had to settle for the third seed heading into the playoffs. It was with that ranking that they were forced to face the rugged Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs. That classic battle of a series was followed with a face-off against the young, hungry, and very dangerous New Orleans Hornets, who it took seven games to fend off.
The Spurs, the NBA's oldest team, definitely looked a year older. During the summer, the front office decided to infuse some younger talent into the roster. But time and again, they were turned down by both free-agents—Corey Maggette and Jannero Pargo among them—and draft picks like Tiago Splitter, who decided that better paychecks were waiting for them elsewhere.
As usual, the Spurs surprised everyone on draft day with their first-round selection of George Hill, a 6’2” shooter who wasn’t projected to go until the middle of the second-round. Spurs scouts had been keeping an eye on him at IUPUI in Indianapolis, and are convinced the former Summit League Player of the Year can contribute right away.
No doubt, Hill can score in bunches—but he must adapt his game to the point position. This is the very thing that Spurs fans fear could be his demise. Coach Gregg Popovich, after all, has an ill-famed reputation for patience with point guards who don’t pick up the nuances of his game quickly or adequately enough. Just ask Beno Udrih or Damon Stoudamire.
Interestingly, Stoudamire’s departure after a very brief stint in San Antonio has opened the door for his cousin, Salim—who found himself frustrated, angry, yet quite productive as a shooter during his first three seasons with the lowly Atlanta Hawks.
If the younger Stoudamire can bring some of his sniper-like shooting to San Antonio and crack a roster spot, he would be a welcomed pick-up-- especially when one considers that Ginobili will be sitting out the start of the regular season (perhaps until December) following his post-Olympic Games ankle surgery.
Roger Mason, a proven catch-and-shoot scorer who the Spurs tried to sign last season, flies in to help from Washington. He joins Michael Finley, another catch-and-shoot specialist, who re-upped with the Spurs for a lot less than he had been making on Mark Cuban’s payroll the last few years.
Gone are Brent Barry (signed as a free agent with Houston) and Robert Horry (signed at a retirement home).
The Spurs are hoping young French big man Ian Mahinmi—who made his impression on scouts at the 2004 Under-18 European Championships—is finally ready to contribute in the paint after developing his game with San Antonio’s NBDL club, the Austin Toros.
6’9” power forward Anthony Tolliver picked up a two-year contract from the club after some impressive play at the summer league. Tolliver brings with him good rebounding, sound defense, good floor intelligence—and may wind up surprising a few folks if he can fight for some minutes in Pop’s rotation.
Tim Duncan and Tony Parker will continue to lead the squad offensively until everyone gels and picks up the team’s “corporate knowledge.”
Greg Popovich has the team where he most likes them. Every time they’ve won a championship, they've been positioned as the underdog. He is one of those coaches who can take the right mix of players and go further than most expect—especially if he has them firing on all cylinders by April.
"The beginning of the season is always wonderful," says Popovich. "You look forward to all the competitive situations in camp. You get to look at the young guys. You put in new ideas, things you thought about all summer. It's always a fun time of year, without a doubt."
Something better work, because these Spurs aren’t getting any younger. Just ask Bruce Bowen.
"I think it's going to be the last year with the same team—with the same core," says Tony Parker. "I think coach Pop wants to give it one more chance with that team and I think we deserve it. We won three championships in the last six years, so we'll give it one more time. After this year, we're definitely gonna have to go younger. I think for this year, I'm confident that we can do it again."
The predicted starting line-up:
C - Fabricio Oberto
PF - Tim Duncan
SF - Bruce Bowen
SG – Roger Mason, Jr.
PG - Tony Parker
The bench: Jacque Vaughn, Roger Mason, Kurt Thomas, Ime Udoka, Michael Finley, George Hill, Ian Mahimni, and Matt Bonner.
Fighting to land a spot on the roster: Salim Stoudamire, Desmon Farmer, Daryl Watkins, Devin Green, Malik Hairston, and Brian Morrison.