Friday May 30th, 2008

Flash back to February, when phone lines were buzzing and NBA fire sales were in full swing. The Suns picked up a three-time Finals MVP (Shaquille O'Neal), the Mavericks procured one of the league's top point guards (Jason Kidd) and the Lakers finally gave Kobe Bryant the dominating post presence (Pau Gasol) he had been craving.

The Spurs? While the rest of the Western Conference was shopping on Rodeo Drive, San Antonio was perusing the clearance rack at Macy's. The defending champions loaded up for the postseason by signing a 34-year-old backup point guard (Damon Stoudamire) and dealing for a 35-year-old backup power forward (Kurt Thomas), not that they needed to do any major tinkering with their lineup.

"If we were going to make a trade of that magnitude," Spurs president and coach Gregg Popovich said, "people would want Manu [Ginobili], Tim [Duncan] or Tony [Parker]. That's not going to happen."

The Spurs' five-game dismantling at the hands of the Finals-bound Lakers notwithstanding, it's fair to say that Popovich's attitude of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" has merit. San Antonio has been the class of the NBA for the past decade, compiling the best winning percentage in the league during that span and winning four championships. As Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson and David Robinson retired, the Spurs replaced them with the likes of Parker, Ginobili and center Fabricio Oberto.

Granted, winning is a lot easier when you have a superstar like Duncan ("Tim makes all of our jobs easier," general manager R.C. Buford said), but the Spurs have been able to retool their championship roster on the fly, replacing key players from the 1999 and 2003 title teams (Johnson, Elliott, Robinson) by tapping the international market. Parker (the 28th pick in 2001), Ginobili (57th in 1999) and Oberto (an undrafted free agent signed in 2005) could have been had by nearly any other NBA team. Twice by some.

If you think finding that kind of talent is easy, consider the situation in Miami. The Heat won it all in 2006, but finished the 2007-2008 season with the worst record in the league, in no small part because recent draft picks (Dorell Wright, Wayne Simien and Daequan Cook) have been unable to fill the void left by departing veterans.

"We try to do our work early and prepare for down the road," Popovich said. "Thinking out of the box while you're doing well is important."

And make no mistake, San Antonio will continue to do well, with help waiting in the wings. Power forward Ian Mahinmi, San Antonio's top pick in the 2005 draft, came over from France before the season and averaged 16.8 points and 8.0 rebounds with the Austin Toros, San Antonio's D-League affiliate. Still overseas is Tiago Splitter, a lottery talent who slid to the bottom of the first round in the '07 draft due to a hefty buyout in his Spanish League contract. The 6-foot-11, 232-pound Brazilian averaged 14 points and five rebounds this season with Spanish power Tau Ceramica.

"Mahinmi has the potential to be an All-Star," an Eastern Conference executive said. "He needs to get a little stronger, but he has the skill set to play inside and outside. I can see him being a very good player on a contending team."

Splitter may require a little patience: He is reportedly leaning toward signing a two-year extension with his Spanish team.

If you're looking for a chink in the armor, there is a small dent forming at the wing positions, where the Spurs have a trio of thirtysomethings (Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley and Brent Barry) playing significant minutes. San Antonio auditioned several young perimeter players during the regular season, including DerMarr Johnson, Jeremy Richardson, Ime Udoka and rookie Marcus Williams.

"We really need to find guys on the perimeter," Popovich said. "We talk about it all the time. It's something of a special emphasis right now."

With the season now over, the Spurs will look to address that need in the draft, where they will have a first- and two second-round picks. Expect at least one of those selections to be spent on an unheralded international player. And expect, at some point, for that player to be a contributor.

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