The more the merrier, say Spurs, for now
ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands -- The homecoming king has returned to his Caribbean roots with a bit of big-league wisdom to dispense after three NBA championships in seven seasons.
Tim Duncan's message to his fawning fellow islanders?
"The year after the championship is usually the toughest."
That is what Duncan announced to the locals at his first media session this week, and that theory helps explain why the San Antonio Spurs are doing things so differently than they did when we last saw them.
Taking training camp to Duncan's native Virgin Islands is just a surface example of the need San Antonio felt to start the new season like never before. Greater evidence is found on the list of names in the team's traveling party at the opulent St. Thomas Ritz-Carlton.
The champs, having always preferred a less-is-more mind-set when assembling their roster, are trying a more-is-more approach for the first time.
Reason being: The Spurs believe it's the approach that can bring them back-to-back championships for the first time, after barely scraping past Detroit in last spring's NBA Finals.
"If given a choice, a coach is always going to vote for more -- as long as it doesn't go over the line," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said.
"With less, there's a point where it's too less. And with more there's a point where it's too more. But as long as it's within those boundaries, it can work, and I depend on [players'] character a lot. If you have X amount of talent but you're a little weak on the character side, it's much more likely you're going to have problems with people not being satisfied."
It's far too early, granted, to know how problematic Pop's new world will be. The Spurs look pretty giddy at the moment, but who would expect otherwise after some five practices at a camp site known more for honeymoons and vacations than basketball?
Truth is, for a team as conservative and regimented as the Spurs, undertaking this challenge rivals the Miami Heat's summer makeover. Popovich and front-office ace R.C. Buford have added two former All-Stars (Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel) and one of Europe's best big men (Fabricio Oberto) to their bench, and the new additions aren't the only ones who have to scale their games back.
Van Exel's presence means Tony Parker isn't guaranteed crunch-time minutes, which could cause some strife. Bruce Bowen might likewise be asked to cede the most important minutes to his old rival Finley, depending on whether Popovich needs offense or defense at the time. It's no secret, furthermore, that the Spurs have already shopped (and will continue to shop) Rasho Nesterovic, with a similar fate possibly looming for Brent Barry, last summer's marquee free-agent addition.
"I feel very welcome," Van Exel insists, dismissing the notion of a cool reception from Parker and scoffing at the idea that a franchise famed for its egoless aura could suddenly be infected by locker-room selfishness.
"At this point, what I did to get from Denver to Dallas by giving up my seventh year [and waiving a guarantee of nearly $13 million], it's all for the opportunity to win. I want to win a ring. That's all I want. That's all Mike wants. I think both of us have proven over the years that we're unselfish players, no matter what other people say."
Said Robert Horry, who knows how it feels to transition from longtime Spurs playoff foil to key Spurs cog: "It's going to be interesting. It's going to be hard on Pop, because Nick can start for anybody and Mike can start for anybody. Brent can probably start for anybody and Rasho can probably start for anybody.
"But when you think about the guys we have, nobody on this team is really a ball hog. That's the only time you really get in trouble, when you get those guys who are ball hogs and who don't want to play any D. This team loves to play D and we don't have any ball hogs."
This team also has Popovich and Duncan, who have won their three rings with three distinctly different squads, establishing the most envied culture in the league along the way. Tension and in-fighting are undeniable possibilities on a team this deep, but the Spurs have heard considerably more praise and envy than skepticism in the wake of their roster gambles.
It's the Spurs. No one expects the sort of in-house volatility here that Miami's Stan Van Gundy could well see.
"I think the reason why people say it's going to be easier on us is that we just had additions," said All-Star guard Manu Ginobili, Duncan's co-leader. "It's basically the same team plus three new players. Miami changed a lot more than us.
"I think last year we were pretty deep, but this year is just special. Not many teams ever have been [as] deep as we are this year. Everything is going to depend on how smart we are to use that."
That translates to Popovich's knowing he'll "be checking minutes more than I've ever checked before." That could translate to Popovich's taking the bold step of, say, sitting Ginobili or Parker on the second night of a back-to-back, in the quest for long-term freshness.
The coach, though, relishes the possibilities far more than he dreads them. One of his longstanding challenges -- getting messages through to the inconsistent Parker -- is bound to be eased by the newfound ability to yank the Frenchman and make him watch Van Exel run the team.
The option of playing a stopper like Bowen or a scorer like Finley at the finish likewise boosts the Spurs' versatility quotient significantly.
"It's not very often that the starting team is on the court at the end of the game," Popovich notes. "We usually have somebody else on the court for some reason, because of matchups or who's playing well that night."
Don't forget foul trouble and injuries.
"It's a long season, as we've found out in years past," Duncan said. "It'll be great having those [new] guys here. God willing we won't have injury problems, but it happens."
Yet no one likes the more-is-more concept more than Duncan's playoff savior.
"I'm happy to see them here myself," Horry said of Finley and Van Exel, unable to muffle a laugh as he prepared to reference his own reputation for sauntering through the regular season as if he were relaxing on an island somewhere.
"Less work for me."