SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- By Tony Parker's calculations, this shouldn't be happening.
The days of contending for a championship were supposedly over for the San Antonio Spurs, the old dogs of the West who were slowing down while the young pups in Miami, Oklahoma City and Chicago left them in the playoff dust. Remember that story from last May, when Parker reportedly said what most in the NBA world was thinking after the Spurs' first-round upset to Memphis?
"We will always have a good team," he told the French newspaper,
Even the Spurs were overlooking the Spurs.
But while Parker always claimed that his comments were misconstrued, the only statement that matters is the one he's making with his play.
It's the ultimate mea culpa for the way his words cast doubt from within, with Parker having one of his best seasons and the top-seeded Spurs looking as capable of winning it all as anyone at the moment. Give Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose their due, but the 29-year-old Parker, in his 11th season, is still a senior member of this incredible class of point guards.
He did it again on Wednesday night, when the top-seeded Spurs and their allegedly creaky legs became the first team to sweep two sets of back-to-back-to-backs this season and did so by 20-plus points for the third straight night (the Warriors and Lakers previously). There was an ease of excellence in his latest outing, a 15-point, eight-assist, zero-turnover performance that did nothing to dispel coach Gregg Popovich's pre-game stance about Parker.
"This is his best year," said Popovich, whose team is a half-game ahead of the Thunder for the best record in the league. "At the offensive end, he's always been able to score (18.6 points per game this season), but he's also distributed the ball better than he ever has before (career-high 7.7 assists) and involved other people. So he's done both, which is difficult for a scoring guard to do. At the same time, he's played his best year of defense and his leadership and understanding on the court are his best thus far, so it's been his best year."
To put it in Popovich terms, considering his military background, talk about an about-face.
Just 10 months ago, it looked as if Parker might be on his way out of San Antonio. The Spurs were shopping Richard Jefferson's hefty contract, and Parker had been designated as the enticing reward in any such deal. You could have the four-time All-Star and three-time champion, front-office sources said at the time, but only if Jefferson's deal ($30.4 million combined over three seasons) went with him.
The Parker move that the Spurs' brass didn't do was as effective as the ones they did, from the visionary trade with Indiana for rookie small forward Kawhi Leonard to the triumphant return of Stephen Jackson from Golden State last month, to the signings of Danny Green, Boris Diaw, and Patty Mills. But on this machine of a team that is as deep as any in the league, it's the punchy point guard who had to apply for this job twice who's making it all work.
When Parker came to San Antonio as a 19-year-old from Paris, the lengthy and often painful process of earning his hard-nosed coach's trust began immediately. As Popovich reminisced in a colorful and candid pregame media session on Wednesday, Parker's path to being taken 28th in the 2001 draft included the day he was shown the Spurs' door.
"I was a [jerk] in the beginning," Popovich admitted. "The first time we worked him out, we didn't want him. We sent him away. We just said we weren't interested. I just thought he was unfocused. I just thought he was too cool. I thought he was soft.
"He wanted a second chance, so we brought in some free agents -- frankly, with the idea to beat him up, and we did a workout. The whole workout was on the post. We never put him out on the floor. We did post defense and post offense, and he impressed the hell out of me. He was focused, tough. That was my first indication that he could be coached -- he can learn, he understands, he can take criticism, he's willing to improve and listen. So we drafted him."
But tough love was brutal in those early years.
"'I'm going to just jump on top of you,'" Popovich said he told Parker when he made him a starter early in his rookie season. "'I'm going to get you for every single mistake. We don't have time for you to ease into this.' So he went right in the frying pan."'
In some ways, that's what this season has been about. If the Spurs were going to survive the lockout-shortened season, then Parker would have to lead while the 35-year-old Duncan and 34-year-old Manu Ginobili carried a lighter load. Ginobili's broken hand and strained left oblique meant the rest was forced, and he is still finding his way after missing 31 games in all. Duncan, meanwhile, is on pace to set a career-low in minutes played per game (28.3) and has long since handed the reins of the Spurs' offense to Parker.
Parker set the right tone for this season during the summer, showing a more vocal and confident side in leading the French national team to a silver medal in the FIBA World Championship. His coach issued a challenge to maintain that leadership role in San Antonio, and then came the unforgiving task of wrestling with compressed rigorous schedule.
He's here now, right where no one thought he or they would be. The championship run that not even the Spurs saw coming might be happening after all.
"I like our chances every year," said Parker, who is due at least $28.5 million over the next three seasons (he's guaranteed only $3.5 million in 2013-14, final year of his deal). "To win a championship, you need a little bit of luck, and you need some stuff going your way, to be healthy and fresh.
"It's going to be very tough. Every team is very talented. You know in the West it's going to be tough. We'll try to play our best basketball at the right time."