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1 San Antonio Spurs Despite their shopping failures, the champs still have the goods to repeat

Nov. 01, 1999
Nov. 01, 1999

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Nov. 1, 1999

NBA Preview 1999-2000

1 San Antonio Spurs Despite their shopping failures, the champs still have the goods to repeat

While in Italy last summer on an NBA promotional trip, Spurs
7-footer Tim Duncan toured the Ferrari factory in Maranello.
Duncan saw how the sleek, high-performance sports cars are built,
visited with engineers and even got to take a test-drive on the
facility's track. Not wanting to leave empty-handed, he purchased
a 1999 silver 360 Modena (base price: $138,225). "I'd wanted one
for a long time," Duncan says. "I saw one I liked, so I bought
it."

This is an article from the Nov. 1, 1999 issue Original Layout

San Antonio general manager-coach Gregg Popovich only wishes his
summer shopping had been so pleasurable. Desperate to find a
replacement for small forward Sean Elliott, who underwent a
kidney transplant on Aug. 16 and may have to retire, Popovich
worked the phones like a madman. Armed with a $2.7 million
medical salary-cap exception that the Spurs had received for
Elliott, he pitched and pitched but got nowhere. Jazz free agent
Shandon Anderson, his first choice, signed with the Rockets.
Sonics free agent Detlef Schrempf opted for the Trail Blazers.
Clippers free agent Lamond Murray first agreed to come to San
Antonio, but chose instead to have Los Angeles work out a
sign-and-trade with the Cavaliers. Tyrone Nesby of the Clippers
then took the bait, but as a restricted free agent he was forced
to re-sign with L.A. when it matched San Antonio's offer.

The best Popovich could do was journeyman Chucky Brown, who
accepted the $1 million veteran's minimum. A starter on Houston's
1994-95 NBA champions, Brown will be one of five players--along
with Jaren Jackson, Malik Rose, Mario Elie and, at times, even
Duncan--who'll try to fill in for Elliott. "We're not going to
find one guy who can do what Sean did," Popovich says, "but we've
got several guys who do different things well, so we'll go with
the best matchup at the time."

If this posse can somehow replace Elliott's many
contributions--ball handling, perimeter defense and clutch
three-point shooting--the Spurs stand a Texas-sized chance of
repeating as champs. Jackson is a tenacious defender and a
sometimes deadly long-range shooter, but at 6'6" he'll often be
at a height disadvantage. The 6'8" Brown can handle the league's
bigger three-men, but he's a career 23.8% shooter from beyond the
arc. Rose, a gifted rebounder, has few offensive moves to the
basket. "Where we're really going to miss Sean is hitting that
weakside three," says point guard Avery Johnson, referring to the
many open long-distance looks that result from San Antonio's
inside-out offense. "We've got guys who can make the backside
two, but other than Jaren, they're not three-point shooters."

Popovich will probably alternate Jackson and Rose early, until
Brown learns the Spurs' system. Duncan, who played some small
forward as part of the Triple Towers with David Robinson and Will
Perdue two years ago, is expected to pitch in. Elie, who says he
got worn out while playing small forward for the Rockets in
1996-97 and wants to avoid playing a lot of minutes there, will
also take an occasional turn at the spot. "We've got a lot of
flexibility," Elie says. "If we're playing big threes, like a
Rasheed Wallace, we can put Chucky Brown in there. If we're
playing a smaller three, like an Allan Houston or a Latrell
Sprewell, we can put Jaren there. We're going to lose a bit
offensively going to the basket, but in other areas I think we're
going to be O.K."

All the other key players from last season's juggernaut are back,
including Finals MVP Duncan, Robinson and floor leader Johnson.
In addition Popovich signed Terry Porter to a three-year, $6.6
million deal and 6'9" Samaki Walker to a three-year, $8.9 million
deal. Porter is a reliable perimeter defender and three-point
shooter who can play both guard positions, while Walker will back
up Duncan and Robinson.

The main reason San Antonio has such a good shot at another River
Walk title celebration, however, is Duncan, who last year
blossomed into the game's top performer. He finished the season
as the only player to rank in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding,
field goal percentage and blocked shots. Along with Robinson, he
helped the Spurs form a wall around the basket that denied
opponents easy shots and led to numerous fast break
opportunities. After leading the U.S. team to victory at the
Olympic qualifying tournament in July, Duncan figures to put his
game into an even higher gear as he enters the third and final
year of his rookie contract.

San Antonio is an old team. By season's end Porter will be 37,
Elie 36, Johnson 35 and Robinson 34. Each keeps himself in
terrific shape, however, and should have no difficulty summoning
the hunger necessary for the Spurs to repeat as champs. Elie,
Jackson and Johnson are fiery vets who made it to the NBA the
hard way, and Porter, who has been in the league for 15 years,
desperately wants to earn a ring before he retires. The new
rules, which limit hand checking and prevent post-up players from
interminably backing in, should have little impact on San
Antonio. "We have two great shot blockers," says Johnson of
Duncan and Robinson, who can largely negate any advantage
opponents might get by driving to the hole. "And on the other end
our big guys can face the basket. They don't need to back up and
hold the ball for five seconds."

The Spurs could also benefit from a huge emotional lift if
Elliott makes it back onto the court this season. Elliott, who
received a kidney from his brother Noel, says he feels better
than he has in years and has been talking about returning to
action as early as midseason. Though doctors say there's a
six-month window in which his body could reject the kidney, he
might be able to play before then by wearing a protective device
around his lower back.

Whether Elliott rejoins San Antonio or not, it's a threat to join
the Lakers, Pistons, Rockets and Bulls as repeat champions; the
last team not to repeat was the Celtics in 1986-87. The Spurs may
not leave foes sucking their fumes as they did last year in
speeding to the title, but with Duncan at the wheel they'll be
hard to beat.

--Marty Burns

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH LONG REACH Even though he's the reigning Finals MVP, Duncan has nowhere to go but up.

FAST BREAKDOWN

STARTING FIVE [4 stars]
BENCH [4 1/2 stars]
COACH [4 stars]
FRONT OFFICE [4 stars]
CHEMISTRY [5 stars]

We've rated the vital components of each NBA team. The highest
mark is five stars (*****).

By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 37-13 (tied for first in Western Conference)
Coach: Gregg Popovich (fourth season with Spurs)

1998-99 PER GAME POINTS FG % REBOUNDS TURNOVERS
AVERAGES (rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)

SPURS 92.8 (13) 45.6 (5) 44.0 (4) 15.2 (12)
OPPONENTS 84.7 (3) 40.2 (1) 42.1 (16) 14.6 (22)

In Fact

For the second consecutive season San Antonio set a record for
lowest opponents' field goal percentage since that stat has been
kept. In 1997-98 Spurs' opponents shot 41.1%; last year they shot
40.2%.

Projected Lineup

STARTERS PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

SF Chucky Brown[#] 249 8.5 ppg 3.6 rpg 1.2 apg 47.2 FG%
Now can list all three Texas clubs on his 11-team NBA resume

PF Tim Duncan 1 21.7 ppg 11.4 rpg 2.4 apg 2.52 bpg
Averaged 27.4 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in '99 Finals

C David Robinson 18 15.8 ppg 10.0 rpg 2.1 apg 50.9 FG%
First full year with sub-20-point average; led team in scoring
just 13 times

SG Mario Elie 189 9.7 ppg 2.9 rpg 1.9 apg 37.4 3FG%
Either he or Michael Jordan has been on NBA champion each year
since '91

PG Avery Johnson 83 9.7 ppg 2.4 rpg 7.4 apg 47.3 FG%
Worst free throw shooter among starting guards last season (56.8%)

BENCH PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

F Malik Rose 167 6.0 ppg 3.9 rpg 0.6 apg 46.3 FG%
Only member of draft class of 1996 (44th pick) with a
championship ring

G Terry Porter[#] 195 10.5 ppg 2.8 rpg 2.9 apg 46.5 FG%
Eliminated in first round in 10 of 13 seasons he made the playoffs

F-C Samaki Walker[#]200 5.9 ppg 3.7 rpg 0.2 apg 46.3 FG%
After promising second season, numbers fell across the board
last year

G-F Jaren Jackson 221 6.4 ppg 2.1 rpg 1.0 apg 36.1 3FG%
Higher career playoff scoring average (7.1 ppg) than regular
season (5.5)

G Antonio Daniels 239 4.7 ppg 1.1 rpg 2.3 apg 45.4 FG%
Started 50 games for Grizzlies as a rookie in 1997-98

[#]New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 102)