As the San Antonio Spurs coach looked at his roster last April, he saw the same problem many in the league saw.
"We weren't beating the Lakers, even if we were whole," Popovich said.
"If you really wanted to be honest with yourself, you had to think that."
The Spurs had won three championships in the previous six seasons and reached the Western Conference finals just a year earlier. But Popovich didn't need last season's first-round loss to the Dallas Mavericks to tell him something – and it wasn't just the team's health – needed to change. Simply put, these Spurs were no longer good enough, and with Tim Duncan now 33 and entering the final three seasons of his contract, there wasn't much time to get back in the hunt.
So Popovich began the Spurs' reconstruction with a question to the franchise's owner: Are we serious about wanting another championship?
"If so," Popovich said, "it's time to pony up."
Some three months later, the Spurs have pried open their wallets and maybe even their championship window. They traded three players with limited roles (and financial obligations) for swingman Richard Jefferson(notes) and the remaining $29.2 million on his contract. They committed another $15 million to veteran forward Antonio McDyess(notes). They plucked promising forward DeJuan Blair(notes) out of the second round of the draft.
No West team has done more this summer to improve its title prospects, and the Spurs rank almost as favorably in the arms race out East. LeBron James(notes) and the Cleveland Cavaliers were going to contend without or with Shaquille O'Neal(notes). Same for the Boston Celtics and Rasheed Wallace(notes). The Orlando Magic upgraded with Vince Carter(notes), but they're coming off a season in which they reached the NBA Finals.
The Spurs needed to overhaul their roster or risk further slipping from the ranks of the league's elite. They haven't climbed to the Lakers' elevated perch atop the West, but they've at least given themselves another chance to contend.
"By no means are we the best team in the league," Popovich said. "But I think we're back in the ballgame."
The Spurs will pay for that right. For years, the franchise had remained, in Popovich's words, "frugal." In those rare seasons when the Spurs crossed the luxury-tax threshold, they did so only modestly. This season, their $80 million payroll could rank among the five highest in the NBA. If it isn't reduced by season's end, they will pay close to another $10 million in tax – a stunning jump for one of the league's smallest markets.
"We've always wanted to compete, and the environment in the NBA allowed a team like us to do so," Popovich said. "If you wanted to work at having a shot at winning the championship and still be under the tax, it could be done.
"But the way the talent has shifted in the league, it's almost impossible to do that now."
In truth, Spurs chairman Peter Holt and the rest of the franchise's ownership group didn't need much convincing to spend. Ticket sales had begun to lag in recent seasons, even as the Spurs collected their fourth title in 2007. Last season's first-round loss, coupled with the recession, slowed season-ticket renewals considerably more. In a private document charting ticket revenue distributed by the NBA to its 30 teams, the Spurs' renewal rate stood at 69 percent as of July 6, a drop of more than 11 percent as of the same time a year ago.
"Our renewals just died after the first round," Holt said, "and they stayed dead for a while."
This wasn't a dilemma for Holt as much as it was a clear sign of what needed to be done: To make money – or, as will likely be the case, lose less – the Spurs needed to add talent. NBA sources say Holt was more adamant than ever that Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford find some younger legs for the league's oldest roster. After the Spurs couldn't coax Carter from the New Jersey Nets, they shipped Bruce Bowen(notes), Fabricio Oberto(notes) and Kurt Thomas(notes) to the Milwaukee Bucks for Jefferson in a deal the two teams had discussed as far back as February.
The Spurs immediately saw a spike in ticket sales after the trade was announced two days before the draft, and the number has continued to grow with the addition of Blair and McDyess. The 69 percent renewal rate was a healthy bump from June and Holt says sales are now only about a month behind last year. According to the NBA document, the Spurs had pulled in $33.3 million in revenue by July 6, down from $36.4 million a year ago – a modest 8.7 percent drop compared to the 20 teams with larger decreases.
San Antonio, like most teams, had planned to save its money for the summer of 2010, when James, Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) are scheduled to hit the free-agent market. But Popovich and Buford knew they likely weren't attracting a big-name star, and the recession was already widening the gulf between the NBA's haves and have-nots. With several teams looking to unload big contracts and cut costs, there were deals to make this summer.
The Spurs' owners, who don't rely on the franchise's bottom line to shape their personal fortunes, had money to spend. The debt for the team's share of the AT&T Center's construction costs had been paid down, and a new regional TV contract – along with the tax rebate check from the league – had given the franchise an influx of cash to help offset the rise in player payroll.
"The timing was positive," Holt said.
Perhaps more than anything, Duncan himself unknowingly convinced Holt now was the time to reload. During an interview with Bill Russell last season, Duncan told the legendary center he wasn't satisfied with four titles, and his sincerity struck Holt. Watching Duncan labor through the second half of last season also reminded the Spurs they can't afford to waste the remaining years they have with him.
The Spurs had downplayed questions about their advancing age in recent seasons, but no longer could they hide from the truth: They needed to get more athletic.
Jefferson should qualify as such. Yes, he's spent the summer making headlines for his relationship endeavors. (Who was the last Spur to accept an invite from Howard Stern? Dennis Rodman?) But he still trails Eva Longoria's husband in tabloid covers. And, yes, he's also overpaid for someone who will be the fourth option. Still, the Spurs have been searching for a player who can make the regular season less of a grind for their triumvirate of stars – and Jefferson has the ability to do that on both ends of the floor.
McDyess gives Duncan a tough, heady frontline partner. Assuming the NBA doesn't suddenly implement an ACL minimum, Blair could also become a valued member of the rotation. Add Mason – a dependable shooter before fading in the 2009 playoffs – and second-year guard George Hill(notes), and the Spurs have a nice blend of youth and experience.
This, of course, assumes the Spurs can better preserve the health of their three stars. Duncan, Ginobili and Parker played together in only 41 games last season.
Parker was recently called back to San Antonio after suffering a mild ankle sprain during France's preparation for the European Championships qualifying. He has since returned, but the Spurs could be forgiven for wanting to ship him back in bubble wrap.
But Parker is the least of the team's worries. Ginobili has been injured in each of the past two postseasons, and didn't suit up for a single game during the Spurs' loss to Dallas. The stress fracture in his right leg has since benefited from the rest, and Popovich is "cautiously optimistic" Ginobili will stay healthy in what will be a contract year for him. Even with their new additions, the Spurs are nothing but first-round fodder if Ginobili isn't on the court.
"I'd be disingenuous if I said I didn't worry because he does have some miles," Popovich said. "But I don't think it's a Grant Hill(notes) situation or [Zydrunas] Ilgauskas or Yao Ming(notes) thing. I don't think it's that kind of thing, where his foot is kind of brittle."
Popovich also is hopeful Duncan can regain the All-Star form he showed during the first half of last season before his sore knees slowed him. In past summers, Duncan would already be working out in earnest, tossing tractor tires and scrimmaging full-court. This summer, he's been confined to the weight room, where he's strengthened his legs and further slimmed down. Popovich said Duncan has lost 15 pounds and now weighs 240, a noticeable drop for someone who alternates between power forward and center. In comparison, the Cavaliers said LeBron James played at 270 last season.
To keep Duncan as fresh as possible for the playoffs, the Spurs want to reduce his court time in the summer and limit the pounding he absorbs in the post during the season.
"My goal," Popovich said, "is for him to start the season out of shape."
The Spurs can live with that. Holt thinks the summer has recharged not only Duncan, but the entire franchise. Four months ago, Popovich had his doubts about whether his team could compete with the Lakers. Now?
The Spurs are wagering big that the answer has changed.