Here's a tip for the upcoming season: Don't count out the San Antonio Spurs. Aside from their tradition of winning a title every other year this team still has one of the most underrated operations running. They've got Tim Duncan, the best player of his generation as well as the most decorated. They've got Gregg Popovich, one of the greatest and most respected NBA coaches ever.
They've got Manu Ginobili, the most dominant international player ever (sorry Dirk). They've got Tony Parker, one of the most dominant point guards in the NBA today who significantly ups his effectiveness in the post-season. They've basically got every reason to think that they can nab one more title before Duncan and co. are put out to pasture and they may ride their under-the-radar status to just that goal.
Of course, here is where the chorus chimes in insisting that the team is too old, too slow and too underpowered to go against the Hornets, Lakers or Rockets. Of course, the devil's advocate could argue that this team has more experience and Championship pedigree than all of those teams put together. This team has never opted to pattern themselves after the fleeting trends of the NBA. Popovich has always had this team playing in a way that is most effective for them. He plays to his player's strengths and doesn't try to make this unit into something its not. They were two wins away from the NBA Finals last season and they have shown no reason why they can't surpass that hurdle this season like they have so many times before.
The first reason why that isn't such a stretch in thinking is the presence of Duncan. People have been looking to write him off for years now as being a step slower and unable to match-up with the best power forwards in the NBA. The thing is, Duncan never played a speed game, never relied on any athleticism to win, and as a result there is no reason to think he can't play deep into his thirties and still be more effective than many of the jumping-jack power forwards currently playing the game. He simply uses his alarmingly high basketball I.Q. to beat his opponents mentally as well as physically. He paces himself throughout the season so that he is at his best for the Playoffs, and last season he played 95 of a possible 99 games (including the Playoffs) and shows no signs of letting age impede his productivity. He's averaged 79.3 games per regular season the last three years and looks as durable as ever. People may try to insist that he can't do it like he did anymore and yet all he does is keep on winning. The death-watch is starting to get really tired in San Antonio.
Of course, if people aren't talking about the age of Duncan they are talking about the age of the rest of his team. With guys like Michael Finley (35), Bruce Bowen (37), Kurt Thomas (36) and Jacque Vaughn (33) playing significant roles for this team people are quick to dismiss this collection as too old to compete in today's NBA. Well, aside from the fact that the last four NBA Champs have hardly been the spring chickens of the league (San Antonio twice, Miami and Boston), San Antonio is slowly but surely bolstering their lineup with carefully selected youths.
This summer they drafted George Hill out of IUPUI, a heady point guard who'll tutor under Parker and Vaughn to eventually become Parker's full time backup. They signed Roger Mason Jr. in free agency after he had a mini-breakout year in Washington in Agent Zero's absence. He'll be brought on to eventually replace Finley as the backup two-guard on this team. He'll be joined on the wing by the young Ime Udoka, the four-year pro the team signed last summer to tutor under defensive stalwart Bruce Bowen. While none of these guys are looked at as future stars, this team is far more interested in keeping its bench fresh while it still has three All-Star players on its starting lineup. When those stars start to wither the team will look to replace them. For now all the team needs is a piece here and there to keep the second-unit fresh.
While powers rise and fall throughout the Western Conference the Spurs have remained a force since the day Tim Duncan arrived in the 1997 NBA Draft. Their star has never faded and their Championship pedigree has never dulled. If falling two wins short of the NBA Finals one year after winning it all is a failure to some eyes then it is probably time to get those eyes checked. This team may one day have to suffer through the trials of rebuilding, but that day is not today.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG - Tony Parker
Despite going into his eighth professional season in the NBA, Parker is still only 26 years old. He is a big reason why when this team has to go about reimagining itself after Tim Duncan retires it won't have to fall into obscurity to do so. Parker may not be the statistical beast that Chris Paul or Deron Williams is, but he knows how to play his game and he knows how to use it to beat his opponent. He's made a career of torching Hall of Fame point guards in the post-season, from Gary Payton in 2002 to Steve Nash in 2008 and he's showing no signs that he'll stop anytime soon. He's already knocked Paul and Williams out of the Playoffs in their short careers and has also made quick work of Mike Bibby, Andre Miller and Stephon Marbury. He may not garner the same celebrity of the other big-name point guards in the NBA, but his collection of rings and trophies will no doubt provide him with an easy night's sleep as recompense.
SG - Manu Ginobili
Everyone knows the recipe by now: start the season with Ginobili, move him to the bench, start him again mid-way through the Playoffs. This year, however, the team must start the season without their Argentine star while he recovers from left ankle surgery. In his place Michael Finley will hold down the fort but for all intents and purposes Ginobili is the starter here, even if he only starts half of his games. That, though, could be the cause for concern - if there is one - in San Antonio this season. While much of the negativity surrounding this team is bluster, an injured Ginobili is never a welcome sight. That fact is amplified when one considers that he has become the most productive regular-season player on this team. He is generally instrumental in keeping this team in the race until they make their annual late-season surge towards the top of the Conference. Perhaps the rest afforded him at the start of the season will keep him fresh for the end run, but if he can't come back at full strength it could force this team to re-think it's strategy for the 82-game marathon.
SF - Bruce Bowen
Has he lost a step defensively? Sure, making him a top-five man-on defender instead of the number one in the league. Bowen is the league's consummate role player, filling a very narrowly defined role (lock-up your man, hit threes) to perfection for years. Udoka, his heir-apparent, will probably never be able to so sublimely blend into what it is that the Spurs do but for right now the team is just going to keep riding Bowen until he has nothing left. He's the perfect model of a player who keeps his career going by learning the game as well as playing it. He's a tactician (some argue in the dirtiest ways possible) and he's more-or-less floor bound, but he's been more instrumental to several Championship runs that most of today's superstars ever will be.
PF - Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan has won one more title and one less MVP than Larry Bird. He's won two more titles and two less MVP awards than Wilt Chamberlain. He's nabbed two more titles than Walt Frazier and Hakeem Olajuwon. When talking about Duncan, confining him to the era in which he played no longer suffices. Duncan is a player that exists purely within the realm of "All-Time". He's made a career out of winning. While he may not have received the attention that Shaquille O'Neal or Kevin Garnett did, he never had the valleys that their careers have had, either. He's the greatest power forward of all time and it behooves anyone who loves the game of basketball to absorb every game they can see him play because it isn't often that one gets to see true greatness in this generation.
C - Kurt Thomas
Nabbing Thomas last year from the Sonics was a wonderful move to fortify this team's frontcourt. Resigning him on the cheap this year was even better. Thomas is one of the few NBA big men that can still play post defense without relying solely on shot blocking. He fits this team and their approach to the game like a glove. By splitting time with Fabricio Oberto it keeps his body from taking the physical toll that would render him less effective during the Playoffs because like so many of the components on this team, that is where he's really meant to shine. At this point in his career he couldn't be in a better place to maximize his talents.