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Roundtable: Spurs' outlook, Shaq's lighter schedule, hot Hawks, Sloan

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1. Given their poor start and with Tony Parker joining Manu Ginobili on the sideline, is it premature to think that the Spurs will struggle just to make the playoffs?

Ian Thomsen: They need to find some way to remain relevant over the next month, or else I'm going to look irrelevant myself for picking them to win the championship. (Because it's all about me.) Somehow, they need to turn this disaster into a positive by forcing bigger demands on their role players and tightening the defense, which has been awful.

Denver -- which looked like a playoff outsider heading into the season -- needs to win at least 45 games to press San Antonio in the Western Conference. This is going to be an entirely new regular-season experience for the Spurs, let's put it that way. It will be interesting to see how they adapt.

Marty Burns: It's way too early to count out the Spurs. San Antonio will be OK if Ginobili and Parker make it back in December. The Spurs are catching a break in that the Mavs, Warriors and Clippers are also struggling. Right now, it doesn't look like any of those three will be able to build a big cushion on them. Even if the Suns and Nuggets get too far ahead of them (joining the Lakers, Jazz, Hornets, Rockets and Trail Blazers) in the West, the Spurs should be able to get back in the race for the No. 8 spot simply by default.

Jack McCallum: Yes, such thoughts are premature. The Spurs will absolutely, positively make the playoffs and will continue to do so as long as Tim Duncan remains upright and engaged. But where will they finish considering this year's spate of misfortune? In the loaded West, they could be as low as sixth.

Chris Mannix: Even a weakened lineup should be enough to get them into the postseason. Parker's injury is debilitating and will probably cost them some wins in the regular season. But if I have learned anything from coach Gregg Popovich in the last few years, it is that a) he doesn't care about the regular season, just so long as he makes the playoffs, and b) once he is in, the most important thing is that his team is healthy. Word around the league is that the Spurs could get Ginobili back by the end of the month. And Parker's injury is unlikely to hamper him long term. Popovich should have his wish down the stretch: a healthy, rested unit ready to chase San Antonio's fifth title in 11 years.

Steve Aschburner: I don't think they're at the point yet where chasing down the eighth spot is a real worry. Even if it takes 50 victories again to qualify, winning 49 out of their final 77 (or, say, even 47 of their final 67) doesn't seem too great a task for the savvy Spurs if they do get going. But I do think they're at the point where nailing down a top-four berth is unlikely. And that could mean no home-court advantage, sticking them with a harder road in the playoffs.

2. What do you think about Suns coach Terry Porter's decision to rest Shaquille O'Neal or severely limit his minutes in certain back-to-back situations? Do the Suns "owe it" to visiting fans to play Shaq if he's healthy?

Thomsen: They have a $20 million investment in Shaq this year, and their goal is to convert his presence into a championship. When he was leading the Lakers to championships as a younger man, Shaq was pacing himself through the regular season. The Spurs have always limited the minutes of their key players to keep them fresh for the playoffs. It's standard operating procedure for a league whose season is far too long.

Burns: The Diesel has been breaking down in recent years, so it makes perfect sense for his "Porter" to keep him in the shed every now and then. The Suns are trying to win a championship, and they're going to need a healthy Shaq down the stretch. As for ticket-buying fans, Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire will make sure they get their money's worth.

McCallum: No-brainer correct decision on Shaq's playing time. He has been pretty much a 65-game-a-season player since 2001, and it's not like he suddenly got himself into such great shape that he's ready to play 80. At 36, limiting his minutes or availability is all that will keep him at the elite level, and, to this point at least, he looks rested and refreshed. I feel for the fans, but a coach can't dictate his strategy to please them. Hey, Nathan Lane missed the performance the night I saw The Producers, and I didn't get a refund.

Mannix: The Suns owe it to their fans to make a strong run in the postseason, and if that means resting O'Neal more, that's exactly what they should do. Look, O'Neal is no longer the Diesel: He has played just 51 games in each of the last two seasons. But when healthy and rested, O'Neal is still capable of a dominant performance. In a conference loaded with talented big men (Andrew Bynum, Tyson Chandler, Yao Ming), the Suns will need O'Neal at his very best to be a factor come April.

Aschburner: There is an Eighth Wonder of the World aspect to Shaq, a novelty that loses a lot when he's in street clothes (no matter how dapper). It would be like making a pilgrimage to the Colossus of Rhodes, only to find the big guy draped in scaffolding and tarpaulins. He has become something of a specialty player at this point, the long snapper or left-handed reliever of the Suns, but that doesn't stop people from purchasing tickets specifically to see him or parents from circling a date on their calendars based on his marquee power alone. (It doesn't make it any easier for Phoenix to adapt to his absences, as you can read about here.)

Last week, folks in Chicago missed their only opportunity this season to see O'Neal play; he sat out the game at United Center on Nov. 7 to be fresh and available at Milwaukee on Nov. 8. Based on the Suns' scheduled back-to-backs, he could skip similar lone appearances in Toronto or Boston (January), Detroit or Philadelphia (February) and Orlando or Miami (March). There are 12 other situations in which he might sit out a road game against a Western foe, limiting his appearances to one or none in those cities, too. Shaq plans to play next season, so -- good health and scheduling permitted -- he likely will appear at least once more in each town. But losing a last chance to see him play, because he needs rest, would be as big a cheat as missing a final glimpse in person of Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, David Robinson or other greats. It's a compliment to Shaq that we say, in all earnestness: Sit your butt down at home games.

3. Assuming Josh Smith misses only a few weeks with his ankle injury, are you buying the Hawks (who were 5-0 entering Tuesday night's game at Chicago)?

Thomsen: Yes, because they have talent and they're beginning to believe in themselves. They needed a strong start and now that they've evaded early questions about coach Mike Woodson's future, they can be aggressive. All teams (even the Spurs) are fragile, but the Hawks have a lot of scoring and Joe Johnson, especially, has been terrific.

Burns: Buyer beware. This is the Hawks we're talking about here. I love the way they are defending as a team and sharing the ball, but they have gone off on these little runs before (just not at the beginning of the season) only to revert back to bad habits. With guys like Flip Murray and Solomon Jones playing key roles, I'm going to need to see more.

McCallum: I am buying the Hawks for this reason: They are in the East. They gained a world of confidence with last season's seven-game playoff loss to the Celtics, and, really, who are we asking them to be better than? Orlando? Philadelphia? No big deal. They will contest for first-round home-court advantage.

Mannix: The Hawks have beaten probable playoff teams Orlando, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Toronto, and they have been outstanding at making opponents pay for committing turnovers. But I'm still not buying it. The bench took a body blow when it lost Josh Childress, and as well as Flip Murray has played in his absence (12.4 points in 23.4 minutes), I don't see it holding up for an entire season. Plus, I still think the Smith-Woodson relationship is a powder keg waiting to explode. Smith thinks he is an All-Star; Woodson is not convinced. How those two manage the season will be critical to the Hawks' success.

Aschburner: No. Way back when I actually had a few dollars in my IRA to move around, I learned to buy on the dips. This terrific start is no dip for the Hawks, who reportedly have been a coach's dream through the season's first two weeks, embracing defensive chores and everything for Woodson. Again, though, it's the first two weeks. Staying relentless enough over a full season to lock down opponents -- they are allowing 85.8 points and 40 percent shooting through five games -- requires tons of work, focus and discipline. I don't think the young Hawks have that in them yet. Besides, they need another shooter.

4. Jerry Sloan just won his 1,000th game with the Jazz. What comes to mind when you consider the career of the longest-tenured coach in major pro sports? Overlooked? Underrated? Hasn't won the big one? Greg Ostertag's worst nightmare? Something else?

Thomsen: A couple of years ago, Sloan told me that he has 50 or 60 tractors on his farm in Illinois. It takes a lot of years to accumulate that many tractors; New Jersey's Lawrence Frank is the second-longest tenured coach in the East and I bet he doesn't have more than one or two.

The NBA has changed around Sloan. It has become younger, richer, more talented athletically and less skilled. But he persists. His values have stood like a mast against the storms.

Burns: Forget the wins and losses, the pick-and-roll mastery of Karl Malone and John Stockton, or the inexplicable fact that he has yet to win a Coach of the Year award. Sloan will be remembered most for his lasting 20 years (and counting) with one team. In this day of quick-trigger firings, it's just amazing that one guy could survive so long.

The interesting thing will be what happens to Sloan in the future. The Jazz are a title contender, and fair or not, some locals still grumble a bit about the old coach's inability to win it all. If Sloan were to be pushed out at some point and wind up finishing his career with another NBA team (he has never ruled it out), it would be like throwing paint on the Mona Lisa.

McCallum: Old school. That's it. Old school. Besides cleaning up his drinking, which he did several years ago before his first wife, Bobbye, died of cancer, he has never changed. Same candor. Same refusal to get caught up in hype. Same city. Same offense. Same dourness that hides the softie inside. I always feel better after spending a little time with the man.

Mannix: To me, Sloan will always be regarded as a coaching genius overlooked because of the geography of his franchise. If Sloan had racked up his record in, say, New York or Los Angeles, he would be fitted for immortality. As it stands now, he continues to be content to doff his John Deere cap after practice and do what he has always done with little fanfare: win games.

Aschburner: More amazing than the fact that Sloan has lasted this long in his job is the realization that he has wanted to. The NBA of today resembles the league Sloan played in about as much as iPods resemble jukeboxes. At some point, you'd have figured this would get old for him and embarrassing for onlookers, like Frank Sinatra working his way through the Radiohead songbook. At the very least, Sloan seemed a candidate to flatten one knucklehead or another along the way (how Ostertag or Chris Morris avoided it is beyond me). But by having such authority over his roster -- the Jazz don't tempt fate by bringing in the league's likeliest sparring partners -- this guy has aged like Clint Eastwood rather than John Wayne.

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