Tim Duncan(notes) carries about 15 fewer pounds these days, which helps make up for the knee brace he now accessorizes. He still looks a little slow on some nights and he can't jump that high, and he'll be the first to say he never did anyway. After he beat the Indiana Pacers on a dunk, of all things, someone asked when he'd last seen the rim so close.
"I think that would be '64, '65," he cracked.
Thirty-three years old and 13 seasons into his NBA career, Duncan still carries these San Antonio Spurs through so many nights. Knee problems made the final couple months of last season a torturous grind, but the tendinitis is manageable now. The difference, he says, is "night and day – definitely night and day." His minutes are down and his production is up. He's even making free throws.
"With everything he's done for us, if our record was better, you'd hear people talking about him for MVP," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "And that sounds sort of strange because we thought those years had passed."
Such is the state of the Spurs these days. The guy everyone fretted over eight months ago is once again the guy everyone leans on. No, the years haven't passed Tim Duncan. But nearly everyone else in silver-and-black better pick up the pace.
On more than a few nights this season, the Spurs have had reason to ask themselves the toughest of questions: Has our time come and gone?
Most teams would love such problems. Over the past few weeks, the Spurs have been hailed in different corners of the Internet for having the best player, coach, general manager, draft pick and franchise of the decade. They enter the new year having won 10 of their past 12 games and only two Western Conference teams – the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks – have fewer than their 11 losses.
But the Spurs also know they're fortunate the BCS isn't handing out playoff seeds. They're tied for the fewest games of any West team, and 19 of those 30 games have been at home. They've also beaten just three teams with winning records: the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets, and Duncan and Thursday's rout of the Miami Heat.
As 2010 arrives, the Spurs have seen signs of progress, and that's why most league observers have been wise to reserve judgment. The Spurs typically start slow then shift into a higher gear shortly before the All-Star break. Isn't this simply more of the same? Aren't the Spurs headed for another strong finish?
"With this group," one team official said, "I wouldn't assume anything."
The truth: Until the Spurs start facing – and as would be their preference, start beating – elite teams, they just won't know what they have. The Lakers visit on Jan. 12, but until then the Spurs can take some solace in blowing out the Heat. The Heat are 16-14 and were playing the second game of a back to back, but everyone has to start somewhere, right?
The Spurs naturally thought they wouldn't have had to wait this long to gain some traction. After losing in the first round for the first time since 2000, they overhauled their roster by trading for Richard Jefferson(notes), signing veterans Antonio McDyess(notes), Keith Bogans(notes) and Theo Ratliff(notes) and plucking DeJuan Blair(notes) out of the draft's second round. Spurs chairman Peter Holt agreed to pay a hefty luxury-tax bill to pursue a fifth title for the franchise as the team's player payroll climbed above $80 million.
In the league's annual preseason survey of GMs, more than 70 percent of the respondents said San Antonio had improved itself more than any other team. "They won the press conference," one rival executive recently said of the Spurs.
The GM said this with more than a hint of sarcasm because the Spurs haven't won much of substance since. And while it's easy to point to the team's new additions as a source of their struggles, the trouble starts, as it usually does, at the top. Or, in this case, under Duncan's chin.
On too many nights, San Antonio's Big Three has been downsized to Uno Grande. Duncan has played like an All-Star, but the Spurs aren't going anywhere if Tony Parker(notes) and Manu Ginobili(notes) don't also play near that level. Both have battled issues of consistency and health, and that's why Thursday's win meant something: For one of the first times this season, Parker and Ginobili both played like stars in the same game.
"There's definitely concerns," Duncan said. "We're a third of the way into the season and this isn't the record we wanted. There's concerns all over the place. But this is the team we're going to roll with, these are the guys we're going to count on.
"We're just going to have to have people step up and have people start playing the right way."
Duncan said this moments after a recent win over the Milwaukee Bucks, and he's since seen one significant development: Ginobili has finally begun to look like his frenetic, game-changing self. During the Spurs' win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Ginobili totaled 14 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds and showed an explosiveness that has been missing much of the season. On one play, he stripped T'wolves forward Al Jefferson(notes) from behind, streaked down court to catch a lob from Jefferson and then threaded a behind-the-back pass – as he was running out of bounds – between two defenders to Blair. It said something that the Spurs couldn't agree whether that was even Ginobili's best assist of the night.
Yes, it came against the Timberwolves, who have made more than a few opponents look Herculean, but the Spurs were still thrilled to see it and even happier to see him follow it with an 18-point, four-steal performance against the Heat. This hasn't been an easy season for Ginobili. He missed last season's playoffs because of a stress fracture in his right ankle – which followed the surgery he had on the other ankle the previous summer – and has been slow to recapture the form that made him one of the league's most exciting players.
Ginobili said he feels good, and he hasn't relied on his jump shot as much the past two games. He's trying to rebuild his confidence, but he also admits his struggles extend beyond the court. For once, the most fearless Spur ever feels some pressure. Ginobili's contract ends after the season and he admits the uncertainty of his free agency, of his future, has weighed on him.
"That's because I never thought I'd be in this position," he said.
Ginobili figured he'd be in San Antonio for the duration of his NBA career. Now he can't be sure. This is business, but it's also an unexpected turn of events for someone who has become one of the most revered – and loved – players in the franchise's history. Parker might be the Spurs' motor, but Ginobili has always carried the fuel. The Spurs had discussed beginning negotiations on a contract extension in the summer of 2008, but those talks never really picked up after Ginobili returned from the Olympics with his injured ankle.
Now Ginobili finds himself having to prove his value not only to the Spurs, but the entire NBA. He's had to accept, he said, that he might be playing in another uniform next season. He'll turn 33 in July and with his wife, Many, expecting twins, he's about to become a father for the first time. This will be just his third NBA contract, but also one that takes him to the end of his career. Before his ankle injuries, Ginobili had been one of the league's biggest bargains, playing under a six-year deal that averaged about $9 million annually. He's long been San Antonio's dutiful soldier, talented enough to lead most teams but humble enough to accept a reserve role. Understandably, he'd now like to play well enough to help his bargaining position.
The Spurs realize as much. They also know Ginobili is consumed with winning, and they watched him grow frustrated when he wasn't playing well enough to help them win more. He pressed, forcing a bad pass or driving into a crowd, and the day after their narrow Dec. 18 win over the Pacers, Popovich told Ginobili it was time for a new plan of attack: No longer would the Spurs run any plays for their sixth man. To relax Ginobili, Popovich wanted him to focus on being a role player. Make the sharp pass, the hustle play, do the little things that made him great. Scoring would be the least of their worries.
So far, so good. The Spurs can only hope Parker also is beginning to find his way back.
After carrying San Antonio through much of last season, Parker has seen his scoring fall by nearly six points a game. The Spurs aren't as concerned about their point guard's numbers as they are his aggressiveness. On some nights, it just isn't there. Team officials have a number of theories why, not the least of which is that Parker, like Ginobili, is still recovering from injuries and fatigue. Parker sprained his right ankle in the summer preparing for the European Championships with France's national team, and he missed time early this season after also hurting the left one. Parker won't use the injuries as an excuse, but scouts say it's clear last month he wasn't finishing as well at the rim as he has in the past.
Healthy or not, Parker has also looked disinterested on some nights. Popovich chided him after a poor performance against the Phoenix Suns, then benched him with the Spurs down a point on their final possession against the Pacers. Is it early season boredom? Has he grown too comfortable with his red-carpet Hollywood life? Or is Parker simply frustrated that his body hasn't cooperated as well as he'd like?
The Spurs don't have a clear answer, but this much is true: Parker admits he's struggled with balancing the need to get his new teammates in a flow versus score himself. Pass or shoot? Shoot or pass? For Parker, it's the eternal debate. The Spurs want only for him to be aggressive, and he's vowed to do just that.
"For us, Tony has to be at the top of his game," Popovich said. "It's always been that way and always will be."
Parker, like Ginobili, has played better of late. Against the Heat, he totaled 15 points and nine assists in just 25 minutes. And in defense of both, it's more difficult to find your own game when you're surrounded by three new starters. Of the 15 players on the team's roster, only five have been regular members of the rotation for more than two seasons, and two of those – Matt Bonner(notes) and Michael Finley(notes) – are currently sidelined with injuries. Veteran mainstays Bruce Bowen(notes) and Fabricio Oberto(notes) left in the Jefferson trade, taking with them a good amount of what Popovich likes to call "corporate knowledge." Translation: They knew their roles and they knew the Spurs' system.
"They were part of who we were," Ginobili said.
Popovich admits the transition has gone "more slowly than we thought." He's continued to tinker with the rotation, most recently replacing McDyess in the starting lineup with Blair. The hope is that McDyess will feel more comfortable coming off the bench. Blair's relentless work on the boards has been a boon for the Spurs, but he's also still a rookie. Figuring out what he'll provide on a night-to-night basis remains guesswork.
The same could be said for several of the more experienced Spurs. "You bring in a bunch of older guys," Bogans said, "and sometimes they're set in their ways."
Popovich has given Bogans an opportunity to become their defensive stopper after the team considered trading Roger Mason(notes) to the Golden State Warriors for guard Raja Bell(notes). Bogans isn't as versatile as Bowen, nor as tenacious of an on-the-ball defender, but he's done a passable impersonation, enough so that Popovich mistakenly called him "Bruce Bogans."
The Spurs have also begun to see some progress from Jefferson. If they can drill him out of some of his bad habits – his sloppiness is much more of a concern than any competitiveness issues – they'll have more reason to be pleased. At the least, Popovich thinks Jefferson has the makeup to handle his needling.
After Jefferson blew a play in a recent practice, Popovich told him he was prepared to run it 97 more times until he got it right. Jefferson corrected his mistake. "Now, who loves you RJ?" Popovich asked.
Jefferson shot his coach a sheepish look. "You do, Pop."
"Right," Popovich said. "But it's tenuous."
Popovich laughed, but there's a cloud of uncertainty hanging over most of these Spurs. If another 20 games pass and the team continues to struggle against the league's elite, if it doesn't look like a legitimate contender for the West finals, then the Spurs will have some tough questions to ask. Would they trade Ginobili? Parker? For now, no one has the answers.
To paraphrase the team official: Assume nothing.
Until then, the Spurs will continue to lean on Duncan and hope everyone else catches up. The schedule becomes a bear in March, so they hope to have hit their stride before then.
"What matters," Ginobili said, "is what you do in April."
He's right, of course. It's only January, and the Spurs are still pounding the rock. This season, however, not even they know how much they've chipped away.
- Gregg Popovich