- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Finally, a common ground has been found to link No. 1 in the West and No. 1 in the East. Turns out that the playoffs are starting the same way for both teams.
Home-court advantage against anyone else in the conference. Check.
Legitimate shot to reach the NBA Finals. Check.
A future even sunnier than the present. Check mate.
That's not how it usually happens, but it's happening in two cities today. San Antonio and Detroit could actually wind up facing each other in the Finals and then proceed to an offseason where both clubs are positioned, financially or otherwise, to be among the most active in the league when it's time to upgrade rosters.
San Antonio, especially, is in an unprecedented position, as legit title contenders who also happen to have a ton of salary-cap room forthcoming. The pending retirement of David Robinson and masterful cap management by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford will enable Pop and R.C. to pursue Jason Kidd or Jermaine O'Neal this summer to be Tim Duncan's new All-Star sidekick. Or the Spurs can try to sign two or more quality free agents, from the Lamar Odom class. Or the Spurs can save their cap space and wait for the future free agency of, say, Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant.
Any way they go, it's an unfathomable luxury, since the Spurs are also capable of winning a championship right now. They're not the deepest team out there, especially with Robinson hobbling, but Duncan has meshed beautifully with the unheralded group around him: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Malik Rose, Stephen Jackson and Bruce Bowen. He lifts them, and they lift him.
All of which elicits a chuckle when you remember that Spurs owner Peter Holt, when Parker was still a rookie last season, called the whole project "a rebuild mode."
Safe to say, if rebuilding was really like this, Scott Layden and the Knicks would have signed up years ago.
"Give Pop and R.C. the credit," Holt said. "We started talking about this three or four years ago. I was still fairly new (as an owner) and I was like, 'Why the hell are we talking about this now?' But by timing some contracts right, I learned that you can keep winning and then be well-placed for the future.
"Everybody gets on me now about saying 'rebuilding,' but they have been planning on this for a long time. And let's face it -- you need some luck, too. Out of 14 years with David, we only had one year out of the playoffs because of his back, and out of that we get Tim Duncan in the draft. I wish I could say that was skill, but it was luck."
The skill was Buford's selections of Parker and Ginobili with low picks, along with the signing of Robinson to one last two-year contract timed to end the same year Duncan was eligible to opt-out and return to free agency. Steve Smith, acquired from Portland when Derek Anderson forced a sign-and-trade to the Blazers, carries another big salary that will be dropping off the books in July. Throw in the Spurs' new arena and practice facility to add to the buzz and it's clear that Popovich and Buford have to considered strongly by their peers for Executive of the Year honors.
Of course, so does Pistons president Joe Dumars. With even less hoopla than the understated Spurs, Dumars brought in a new backcourt after all of last season's successes, which saw the Pistons win 50 games and a slew of individual awards: Rick Carlisle as Coach of the Year, Ben Wallace as Defensive Player of the Year and Corliss Williamson as the Sixth Man Award recipient.
Dumars has made a string of fine trades in his tenure, which doesn't even include a very bold swipe -- nearly acquiring Allen Iverson from Philadelphia -- that came unstuck when Matt Geiger refused to waive a trade kicker in his contract.
The most notable of the deals that did materialize, obviously, brought Wallace and Chucky Atkins to Detroit in a celebrated sign-and-trade with Orlando for Grant Hill. Wallace and Atkins had actually already committed to signing with the Pistons as free agents, but the trade made more money for Hill in Orlando -- money Hill hasn't been able to justify because of a career-threatening ankle injury -- and computed beneficially for the Pistons' cap.
Dumars is also the guy who hired Carlisle while also adding Williamson and Clifford Robinson, both without giving up an impact player in return. After a second-round exit, and with Jerry Stackhouse entering a contract year, Dumars dealt Stackhouse to Washington for Rip Hamilton. Slippage was expected, but Hamilton -- who is expected to re-sign with the Pistons for less than Stackhouse would have cost them -- and free-agent signee Chauncey Billups quickly formed one of the East's best guard tandems. Billups, in particular, has emerged as a go-to guy in crunch time, sinking a string of game-winning shots and averaging nearly 23 points per game over a 20-game stretch from March through the season's final week.
As with the Spurs, though, the Pistons can also claim some good fortune. Unless Memphis wins the No. 1 overall pick in the May 22 draft lottery, the Grizzlies' first-round pick must be sent to the Pistons as part of a long-ago trade that sent Otis Thorpe from Detroit to Vancouver. That means the Pistons, if they're really lucky, might actually have the chance to add Darko Milicic or Carmelo Anthony to their roster, if the pick falls as high as No. 2 or No. 3.
If it's doesn't, it'll still be a much higher pick than a No. 1 playoff seed has a right to expect. Plus, with multiple first-round picks and a payroll that still falls well below the luxury-tax threshold, Dumars has the latitude to be aggressive in trades this summer, even though the Pistons won't have Spurs-like cap room this summer as they originally hoped.
Dumars doesn't deny that his team will eventually need another All-Star who provides All-Star offensive punch. As great as Wallace is defensively, with largely unnoticed assistance from Uncle Cliffy, the Pistons' only current All-Star averages seven points a game.
"Whether it be one of those draft picks, if we could find somebody who could do that, or whether it's taking those draft picks and turning them into an already established player ... I'm open to either, one," Dumars said.
"It's not often that you have the chance to make a strong playoff run and have a chance at a top pick in the upcoming draft as well. We hope to take advantage of both situations."
They better, and ditto for the Spurs. The chance to be big now and later, at the same time, comes around way less than often.
How do you build a better team and still contend for a title? Ask the Spurs and Pistons.