Spurs have cast for repeat performance

10/22/2003 - San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio won the 2003 NBA championship mainly because of the MVP performance of Tim Duncan, tough team defense, some clutch shooting by Steve Kerr and the coaching resourcefulness of Gregg Popovich. They have a repeat on their minds, but this year's competition in the West is even stronger and the Spurs have six new players on their roster. Both TD and Pop must be at the top of their games to bring another title to the Alamo City.

A high-level performance from Duncan is a given. He continues to work on his already considerable skills, trying to ratchet them up yet another notch, and he'll do whatever it takes on the court and in the locker room to lead the Spurs to another title. He's as reliable a player as a coach could hope for and has an excellent rapport with Popovich.

Only two other starters and three reserves return from the championship team. Tony Parker, who had nice averages of 15.5 points and 5.3 assists last season, continues to handle the point guard duties, and hard-working defensive specialist, Bruce Bowen, will again hog-tie his small forward matchups. Among last year's reserves, explosive swingman Manu Ginobili, strong, tough four/five man Malik Rose and the amazingly fit 41-year old Kevin Willis are ready for whatever the team needs whenever Popovich calls.

The Spurs' first priority was to fill the shoes of retired center, David Robinson. They targeted Minnesota's 7-foot free agent Rasho Nesterovic, and Popovich traveled to Slovenia last summer and signed the five-year veteran. Nesterovic inched his game forward in each season, and last season, he played in 77 games averaging a career-high 11.2 points and 6.5 rebounds a game. Popovich is confident Nesterovic will score at least at that level for the Spurs. (Robinson averaged 8.9 points and 7.5 rebounds in 64 games in 2003.) Spurs coaches work daily to improve Nesterovic's team defense and rebounding, while Duncan provides quiet direction and encouragement. Nesterovic's basket defense is a key factor in the Spurs' quest to repeat.

Ginobili is ready and anxious to start at the two-guard spot vacated by Stephen Jackson (now with Atlanta). There's a general feeling among Spurs coaches that Ginobili is due for a breakout season and will become much more productive than the 7.6 points, two rebounds and two assists he registered per game as a rookie. He might also get minutes as a backup to Parker at the point.

But the principal replacement for backup point guard Speedy Claxton (now at Golden State) appears to be Anthony Carter, a free agent because of a contract mixup at Miami. Carter gradually won Popovich over with his defensive intensity and his ability to find open teammates on offense. With Parker out with a sprained ankle in a recent game against Dallas, Carter started and dished out six assists without a turnover. Coaches love that kind of an assist/turnover ratio.

Brazilian Alex Garcia is another point-guard prospect whom the Spurs might keep around for the future. He's 6-3, a very good defender and playmaker, but he lacks communication skills in English and a shooting touch from the perimeter.

Robert Horry has been the most impressive of the other new faces. Horry is running well, says that he's pain-free and can't believe how unselfish his new teammates are. "They actually keep telling me to shoot the ball," he said.

Popovich likes Horry's defense in particular. "He can defend four positions, and do it well," Popovich said.

Horry, with a history of making pressure shots everywhere he's played, also might be the heir apparent for Kerr's OK Corrall, hired-gun role. That wouldn't hurt the Spurs chances of hanging another championship banner, either.

Ron Mercer has surprised Spurs coaches with his ability to handle and pass, making them wonder if he might also be able to handle some backup point guard minutes. But Mercer is essentially a two guard who shoots well from the edges, a quality Popovich says he can't have too much of.

Hedo Turkoglu came into camp about 30 pounds overweight and a low level of confidence. The Spurs are trying to reverse those characteristics. So far, he's dropped most of the extra weight and is starting to play better.

Two players from Down Under, Sean Marks from New Zealand and Shane Heal, from Australia, are scuffling for the 12th roster spot. Both have skills.

I like a lot of things about this Spurs team. They practice hard -- Popovich makes certain of that. They work with purpose in everything they do, and there's good direction from the coaches. There's also a nice togetherness among the players, even though there are more new players than holdovers in the training camp.

Popovich and his coaches are fully aware that it often takes time for a team with so many new players to jell, but the Spurs have had few injuries in the preseason and are getting their game together quickly.

Team defense is the top priority. If the Spurs get it to last season's level -- third best in the league in both points allowed and opponents' field-goal percentage -- they may very well be celebrating on the Riverwalk again in June 2004.

Dr. Jack Ramsay, who coached the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA title, is an NBA analyst for ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.