No dreaming on this team

Despite less glamorous signings, the Spurs aren't losing any sleep over the rest of the West elite's dream teams.

Updated: October 22, 2003, 9:22 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN.com once again visited all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour concludes with a report on the champion San Antonio Spurs.

Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan remains the sole star in the Spurs' universe.
SAN ANTONIO -- By now it's pretty much common knowledge: The Spurs don't do trendy. They're not going to be moved by peer pressure. They won't even try to keep up with the rest of the wheeling, dealing West.

Doesn't matter to the champs that Everybody's Doin' It. The feeling down here, from the land of Mr. Lone Star, is to go ahead and let the Lakers ... and the Mavericks ... and the Timberwolves ... let them all load up on big names and big salaries.

Down here, as it quietly prepares for the defense of the NBA crown, Team Duncan still thinks it can take out anyone's Dream Team.

"I think we're solid," Tim Duncan announced the other day. "We added a couple components, but, honestly, we kept a lot of our core together -- except for David (Robinson), of course. I think we can build on that. Having that (title) experience, and having added the new guys, I think we can really make something out of it.

"We're not as superstar-loaded as a lot of other teams," Duncan added, "but we'll be right in the mix."

Because that's as loquacious as Duncan gets -- remember that he doesn't do bold or trendy -- it was left to his pal Malik Rose to say it a little more succinctly.

"We're really, really good," Rose said.

The veteran Spurs believe it even though they're starting a season without Robinson for the first time since 1988. They believe it even though their perfectionist coach, Gregg Popovich, thinks it'll be months before the new-look Spurs simply make it to really good. If you've been following these guys at all over the years, you know that you won't get a "really, really" out of Pop unless San Antonio does manage to repeat.

Yet even from the coach comes a calmness and self-assuredness that hasn't been shaken by Jason Kidd's decision to stay in New Jersey. Going into the offseason, it seemed as though San Antonio was positioned better than any team out West to put a superstar next to Duncan, with ample cash to spend after Robinson's retirement. Not surprisingly, they targeted a franchise guy as low-key and unselfish as Duncan, seeing Kidd as a tailor-made Spur.

To their dismay, though, it didn't happen. Kidd decided he belonged more with a Nets team he keeps taking to the Finals, saying it was his job to finish the job in Jersey. The jilted Spurs then watched as L.A. (Gary Payton and Karl Malone), Sacramento (Brad Miller) and Minnesota (Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell and Michael Olowokandi) made major acquisitions. It's a movement that continued as recently as Monday, when Dallas -- having already swapped Nick Van Exel for Antawn Jamison -- added Antoine Walker.

The Spurs' reaction?

"I don't think it really bothers Tim," Rose said. "He was a little upset that we didn't get Jason because he loves playing with Jason. It would make his life a lot easier. But Tim is man enough to step up to the plate and lead us to another championship. It was a letdown, but we're over it now. We're going ahead.

"I was thinking about this the other day -- we're two-deep at every position. There's some talented guys on this team."

After the Kidd bid crumbled, the Spurs did flirt with the idea of trading for Sprewell, but ultimately decided to move forward in the manner they always have, seeking complementary pieces to snap in around Duncan like Legos. They signed a Pop favorite, Rasho Nesterovic, to play center. They traded for Hedo Turkoglu and Ron Mercer to replace free-agent defector Stephen Jackson. They signed Anthony Carter to back up Tony Parker. They also stole Robert Horry from the Lakers for reconnaissance and to supply the late-game defensive help and know-how Duncan will no longer get from Admiral Dave.

We have a longer road to go this year than we did last year, actually. But it feels right for me. I just enjoy coaching this way rather than (coaching) a lot of superstars.
Gregg Popovich
Like everyone in the West elite, the Spurs do face lots of new challenges. There is already a suspicion that, no matter how well Nesterovic adapts, San Antonio cannot be the defensive force it was last season. "We're making mistakes all over the place," Popovich said, pointing to the weakside and transition D. "To be as good as we were last year, an awful lot of things would have to happen. Personally, I'd be thrilled if we got close."

There are other question marks. No one the Spurs have added can be classified as a pure shooter, and San Antonio will be trying to build continuity on the fly in the same manner as L.A., Dallas and Minnesota. There are also fresh worries about Parker's ankle sprain, which could force him to miss the first few games of the regular season. So make that two areas of concern with regard to Parker, who still must prove that there will be no hangover from his loud protest of the Kidd pursuit.

"He's going to have to let it go," Rose said. "This is a good lesson for him to learn early in his career. I love Tony to death, but I told him, 'You're going to be the best point guard in the game, but we had an opportunity to get the best point guard in the game right now.' It was a little hard at the beginning, but Tony understands that now."

Said swingman Bruce Bowen: "No one's mourning in this locker room because we didn't get him."

Popovich, too, insists that the whole Jason vs. Tony story is a memory. Given Pop's history of stamping out disruptions quickly, you tend to believe him.

You also sense pretty quickly that, without Kidd, Popovich and Spurs general manager R.C. Buford still came away with the kind of roster they like to work with. The brain trust also derives some comfort from the knowledge they had to introduce newcomers at key positions last season (Manu Ginobili, Jackson and Speedy Claxton, specifically) and did OK.

"We made the decision (post-Kidd) that we're going to start from scratch again and see if we can put it together similarly," Popovich said.

"I think we're more talented than we were last season, but that's just on paper. But it's not hard (to be patient) because there's no choice. You can't expect guys to understand your system immediately. It does take the whole season. I don't think we took off last year until the All-Star break. If this group does the same thing, fine, but there's no guarantee of that.

"We have a longer road to go this year than we did last year, actually. But it feels right for me. I just enjoy coaching this way rather than (coaching) a lot of superstars."

That won't be a problem this season. As stated above, it'll be Team Duncan, anchored by its Lone Star, trying to hold off all those Dream Team assemblages in the West.

One caution, though: At least one Spurs newbie suggests that this might be the last season Pop can coach this way. Ginobili is a starter now, and looks sensational in his new role. Parker should only get better. And Duncan? Never trendy, perhaps, but he's the undisputed best player in the game at present.

Which has Horry believing that his new crew is plenty dreamy, developing its own superstars.

"Those three guys right there ...," Horry said. "Man, you can just add anybody to that."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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