Wasn’t it three years ago that the Spurs were considered a franchise on the decline because their core players were aging? The other 29 NBA teams, who are eagerly awaiting San Antonio’s demise, have yet to figure out how to consistently outsmart the ageless Spurs, who are likely the primary threats to the Thunder in the Western Conference.
With a center past his prime, a crabby coach, and an often-injured shooting guard, the Spurs right now are the No. 2 seed in the West, a team no one wants to play in the postseason.
Like the Celtics, the Spurs are defying the odds despite the advanced age of one-time franchise player Tim Duncan, who has slowed down but remains effective. Tony Parker is hardly a name uttered when people list the NBA’s top five point guards, but he is having an outstanding season, and Manu Ginobili is still fooling defenders with those vintage Euro-tricks.
Add to that core some younger players who have fit nicely into the team’s system, and the Spurs have recovered from their shocking first-round elimination at the hands of the Grizzlies last season. Staying relevant in the increasingly youthful NBA is difficult for older teams, but the Spurs appear to have the antidote.
“I’m not sure what our expectations even were,’’ said San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford. “We started the season - especially with Manu going down [for 22 games with a broken left hand] - just wanting to go to work to try to get better. From that perspective, this team has done a good job of that.’’
The Celtics and Mavericks were two veteran teams badly damaged in the early going by the lockout. The Spurs started slowly (12-9 through 21 games) but had won 23 of 28 after Wednesday’s 117-112 win at Sacramento. The key to their success has been depth. Ten players average 7 or more points per game, and they added Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw over the past two weeks for veteran depth.
As usual, the Spurs found younger players who blended into coach Gregg Popovich’s system, trading away George Hill to get San Diego State rookie Kawhi Leonard and picking up former North Carolina standout Danny Green, who has developed into a capable contributor.
“We’ve had guys who have been given an opportunity and stepped up and played well,’’ Buford said. “I think our ownership has given us an opportunity through longevity to know what works and what doesn’t work.
“There’s a clarity in that, that I think we all operate from as we build our group. I don’t think you can take anything for granted in way the Tony has played this year.
“I think our coaches do a good job in the clarity of establishing roles and I think Pop takes the time that’s necessary with players to make sure they know what their role is.’’
Buford and Popovich implemented a salary structure that would allow the club to keep Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili and make the other players interchangeable. The rosters on their four title teams over the past 13 years have changed significantly besides their Big Three.
Duncan is in the final year of a contract that pays him $21 million, while Parker and Ginobili each make $12 million this season. The Spurs essentially replaced the contract of Richard Jefferson for Jackson, who will earn $9 million this season and $10 million in 2012-13.
The remainder of the Spurs earn $3.6 million and below, meaning the organization has avoided those $7 million-$8 million contracts that become anchors in many cases. The Spurs pay their superstars handsomely, then fill out the roster with players willing to take less money to win or who remain in their rookie contracts.
That allows the Spurs to continue their Western Conference dominance without exceeding the luxury tax. Team owner Peter Holt was one of the main participants in the recent labor talks, fighting for smaller- and medium-market teams.
“The skill sets of Tim, Tony, and Manu have set a course for our franchise for a while,’’ Buford said. “And before that it was David [Robinson], Avery [Johnson], and Sean [Elliott]. I think we’ve been very fortunate that those are guys people want to play with, and so the Robert Horrys, the Danny Ferrys, and the Steve Kerrs and Terry Porters before them, we were able to attract people that wanted to play for our coach and with those guys.
“That’s as much a reason as any for the way we have been able to build teams with the quality of the people who have played here.’’
Buford and Popovich have been one of the league’s premier coach/GM tandems, and the Spurs’ workmanlike approach is a reflection of their personalities.
“We’ve been together for 22 of the last 24 years,’’ said Buford, “so if I’m paying attention at all, I’ll be able to anticipate what he thinks and what he is looking for.
“He’s been very clear in establishing a vision that provides clarity organizationally about how we build our team.’’
A NEW FRONTIER
Teams adjust to NCAA rule
The decision college players face about entering the NBA draft early has taken a new turn since the NCAA set an April 10 deadline to decide whether they will return to school. That renders the NBA’s April 29 deadline to drop out of the draft meaningless.
NBA teams cannot work out or evaluate prospects until April 29, so players who decide to enter the draft have little time to get any feedback before they have to decide whether to remain available. So players such as Duke’s Austin Rivers and North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, and John Henson are almost guaranteed to remain in the draft.
The NCAA moved up its eligibility deadline after coaches complained that they had no time to replace prospects who left school after the late signing period, which ends in mid-April. The first day for high school prospects to sign late this year happens to be April 11, one day after college players officially have to decide whether to leave school.
How this will affect the crop of current draft prospects is a source of debate, as this draft has been considered one of the deepest in years. When Barnes, Jared Sullinger, and Perry Jones returned to school for their sophomore years last year, this draft became even more intriguing.
And with the emergence of Kentucky big man Anthony Davis and swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the previously mentioned quartet may not even produce the top pick. Rivers, son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, is considered a top-five to top-15 pick, but he could drop because of the draft’s depth.
Highly touted high school prospect Shabazz Muhammad, expected to be a top pick in 2013, is paying close attention to the early entries.
“When you have these new one-and-outs - Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist - it pushes everybody down farther,’’ said an Eastern Conference executive. “What this draft is going to do is, we’re going to know way, way, way sooner than we normally would who’s in and who’s out.
“Most of us NBA teams are just sitting back and saying, ‘We’ll just wait and see who’s in.’ There is no reason for us to discuss the decisions because by the time we get to evaluate, they will already have had to make their decision.
“This is no more testing the waters. You can’t hold a workout with an underclassman until he is officially entered in the NBA draft.’’
This draft is not likely to compete with the star power of 2003 (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony) but it should have more depth.
“It’s going to have a lot of impact players,’’ said the executive. “You have Jeremy Lamb, Harrison Barnes, Perry Jones, Jared Sullinger, John Henson - that’s five guys that would have been lottery picks last year that chose to get back to school and will be lottery picks this year.’’
The Celtics will have two first-round picks if they elect to take the one they acquired from the Clippers through Oklahoma City in the Kendrick Perkins trade. The depth of this year’s draft should benefit them in their rebuilding.
“This is a one-time thing that this happened like this,’’ the executive said. “First-round picks are at a big premium. If you are picking five to 30, your player is probably going to be a little bit better than he normally would be.’’
SHIFT IN POWER
Lakers don’t scare Thunder
The Lakers thought they were addressing their issues by dealing away aging Derek Fisher and the anchor-like contract of Luke Walton, but it seems the transition to coach Mike Brown’s system continues to be problematic. They were soundly whipped in the second half by the Thunder Thursday night.
Andrew Bynum, though he is having a career year, is proving too honest for his own good. At All-Star Weekend, he openly ripped the cities of New Orleans and Sacramento, and last week he told reporters he would take another 3-pointer during a game even though he was benched for doing so during Tuesday’s win over the Warriors.
That came two days after Brown benched Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter of a competitive game against the Grizzlies, a game the Lakers eventually lost. Brown said he did not need to explain why he benched Bryant, who was struggling, but for a team that is third in the West and has won 20 of 25 games at home, the Lakers are dealing with turbulence. And Metta World Peace isn’t even involved.
Their edge over Oklahoma City is gone. The Thunder are no longer intimidated by the Lakers; some early Bynum ribbing from Kendrick Perkins demonstrated that. The two began battling from the opening tip and Perkins, obviously still carrying ill feelings from two NBA Finals battles with the Lakers while in Boston, got into another exchange with Pau Gasol.
“They turned it up and we did not,’’ Bynum said. “Are they better than us? No. We can definitely win. We just have to play better defensively.’’
Russell Westbrook appears to take pleasure in every bucket he scores, and he celebrated his 17-point third quarter against the Lakers that helped the Thunder cruise to the 102-93 win.
It’s evident that the Thunder have eclipsed the Lakers in talent, and not even the acquisition of Ramon Sessions by Los Angeles will change that. Like the Celtics, the Lakers used to win a lot of games on intimidation, but they no longer own the mental edge over Oklahoma City, and they know it.
“They have height and they have size, and a lot of opportunities around the rim that are normally easy for us were a lot tougher,’’ Bryant said. “Those shots are contested because they have big bodies. That’s a formidable foe over there.’’
Bryant indicated that he wants to guard Westbrook more if the teams meet in a playoff series. Westbrook torched Sessions.
“He’s one of my favorites,’’ Bryant said. “He’s developed his outside shot a great deal. And [Thursday night] he went to the post a little bit as well. He’s a problem.
“Playing against those types of teams is always exciting because you get a chance to measure yourself and see where you’re at. Against Miami, we passed the test. This one we failed.’’
A glimpse at the future
The Nike Hoop Summit is this week, featuring the nation’s top high school seniors as well as the top international 17- and 18-year-olds. NBA scouts will be converging on Portland, Ore., to see the next generation of one-and-dones. According to NCAA rules, scouts can watch only one practice and the game. The Hoop Summit has produced a series of lottery picks, including John Wall and Tyreke Evans. Nerlens Noel, of Everett and the Tilton School, is the top prospect in the country and will participate.
Test period for Pietrus
It could be weeks before Mickael Pietrus returns to action for the Celtics, because he has yet to begin the tests required to be cleared from his concussion. Not only does Pietrus have to pass motor and neurological tests, but he has to be cleared by an NBA-sanctioned doctor. Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving and the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant also went through such tests, but their concussions appeared to be less severe. Pietrus was injured March 23 at Philadelphia.
Man behaving badly
It’s been a long season for Glen Davis in Orlando, and he has three more seasons to go on his contract. Davis was fined $35,000 for making an obscene gesture in Monday’s win over the Raptors. He also racked up a $25,000 fine for a similar gesture to a fan in Portland, and was suspended for a game for conduct detrimental to the team after a dispute with coach Stan Van Gundy. Davis wanted to stay in Boston but the Celtics were wary about his maturity. He is averaging 7.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, and shooting 38.8 percent. He also is owed $18 million over the next three years.
There may have been a reason why Amar’e Stoudemire seemed to lose his explosiveness this season. He was diagnosed with a bulging disk in his back, the same injury that derailed him in the playoff series against the Celtics last April. Stoudemire, who signed a five-year $100 million deal with the Knicks that was fully guaranteed, has three years left on his contract. The Suns did not want to guarantee the full five years of their offer to him because of his increasing health issues . . . The Cavaliers signed former Celtic Lester Hudson to a 10-day contract. Hudson has played for three teams since Boston selected him 58th overall out of Tennessee-Martin in 2009 . . . The Raptors declared Jerryd Bayless out for the season with a torn left oblique muscle, meaning the impending free agent will have to hope his 91-game stint in Toronto, where he averaged 10.4 points in just over 22 minutes per game, is good enough to earn a multiyear contract.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.