Spurs' Biggest Draft Mistake Gives Them Hell Again

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IApril 19, 2009

SAN ANTONIO - APRIL 18:  Forward Josh Howard #5 of the Dallas Mavericks takes a shot against Bruce Bowen #12, Tim Duncan #21 and Michael Finley #4 of the San Antonio Spurs in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 18, 2009 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Picture him in a Spurs uniform slashing to the basket and making defenses pay for open perimeter looks.

Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford should think about it.

They imagined it in 2003 and passed because they wanted somebody else.

Months after Tony Parker stumbled badly in the 2003 Finals, the Spurs went after the point guard they had just beaten. The goal was simple: get Jason Kidd in a San Antonio uniform.

Popovich did not believe Parker would become what he is today. The coach lacked that critical trust factor and pined for a veteran who would not fold in the clutch.

Hindsight shows the Spurs' failed pursuit of Kidd to be a moronic blessing. Had they landed Kidd, Parker might be somewhere else. The luxury-tax allergic Peter Holt would not have paid for both.

The 2007 and 2005 championship runs might never have materialized. Parker's indefensible drives to the hoop would make some other home crowd gasp and roar.

Parker made the Spurs forget about Kidd's "no thanks"—until 2006 and now. 

San Antonio's brass will tell you they were thrilled to keep the speedy Frenchman as a consolation prize, but that leaves out an important part of the story.

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To save up for Kidd, Buford passed on a promising, athletic forward from Wake Forest. Saturday night, that low 20s draft pick made the Spurs suffer again in ways even Luis Scola cannot.

Josh Howard should be in a Spurs uniform. Instead, he scored 25 points for the visiting Dallas Mavericks and pushed the ailing and aging Spurs one game closer to their first, first-round elimination since 2000.

Duncan did not play then. He's playing now and it doesn't matter.

Howard took advantage of openings created by the Spurs' hard defensive shows at Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki. The more Bruce Bowen crowded Nowitzki and Terry, the less he could pay attention to the rolling Howard.

Unfortunately for the Manu Ginobili-less Spurs, Howard was not doobie rolling.

Howard fell to the bottom of the first round in 2003 because many scouts and team executives considered him an average, all-around player.

Would he specialize in anything? Would he be spectacular enough in one area to succeed on the pro level?

His quickness and "all-around" game gave the Spurs fits in 2006. Now, in 2009, it gives them hell.

Late in the second quarter, with the Spurs threatening to blow open the contest, Howard calmly stepped back, caught the pass from a doubled Nowitzki and sank a three-pointer. On the next play, he drove past Michael Finley and scored at the hoop.

Ginobili answered Howard in that semifinals series. Ginobili will spend this series in street clothes.

In a matchup that could be decided by two ankles, Howard will make the difference.

The Spurs will not panic. In 2005 and 2007, they lost the first game of the playoffs, then stormed back and won a championship.

Though a title does not seem in the offing, the Spurs can at least advance to the second round. The Spurs can and should still win this series.

Pesky J.J. Barea will not average 13 points a game. Brandon Bass's jumpers will eventually miss. Antoine Wright's playoff inexperience will show.

Howard, however, will not slow down, and that should both alarm and haunt Buford and Popovich.

The pair have enjoyed a reputation as basketball minds who draft well and pick up solid, bargain free agents. Finding Parker and Ginobili late in the first and second round, respectively, earned them a perception as the smartest guys in the room.

Consider 2003 a stupid moment. A bad one.

Would the Spurs have lost in the 2004 and 2006 playoffs with Howard? Would the forward's string of public relations mishaps this summer have happened under Popovich's stern watch?

There are many adjustments Popovich can make to turn this series in the Spurs favor. Reneging his reluctance to play rookies in the playoffs is one. George Hill's long arms and athleticism would boost the Spurs bench.

The Mavs reserves outscored their counterparts 39 to 14. If Parker can glide to the rim against these guys, so can Hill.

Ime Udoka deserves a longer look than 50 seconds in the first half. A few more minutes of Duncan and Gooden as dual post-up options would manufacture points.

Michael Finley and Roger Mason Jr. can be expected to shoot well and produce if they are left open.

There are many things that can change, and many of them should go the Spurs' way.

The glaring one that cannot might kill them. After all that fuss about Kidd in 2003, he showed up at the AT&T Center years later for a Saturday playoff opener and wasn't the best point guard on the floor—not even on his own team.

Howard was the best forward not named Duncan or Nowitzki. He made it obvious.

"Sometimes you make mistakes," Popovich likes to say after tough losses.

If Howard scores 30 points in game two and the Spurs lose again? Oh, they'll have an answer.

Oops.