A little past 11 a.m. last Friday morning, San Antonio Spurs
guard Derek Anderson fished the remote control from amidst the
detritus of the previous night's room service, clicked on the
television in his Miami hotel room and recognized all too well
what he saw. Against a backdrop of bricks, bad passes and bungled
defensive assignments, an ESPN announcer was narrating a segment
on the NBA's most inept teams. Perched on the edge of the bed,
Anderson tried hard to contain his glee as he watched the parade
of lowlights that included his old team. "Man, am I glad to be
gone from the Clippers," he said with the smile of a man recently
released from hoops purgatory. "I took a gamble by coming here,
but it's great to be somewhere where guys are serious about
This is an article from the April 2, 2001 issue
By signing a one-year, $2.25 million contract with San Antonio
last summer, rather than agreeing to a more lucrative multiyear
deal with the L.A. Clippers or one of a dozen other suitors, the
26-year-old guard bolstered a team that was only a year removed
from its first NBA championship. Now, after a half season spent
getting acquainted with each other, Anderson and the Spurs are on
a roll. From Jan. 23 through last Sunday, San Antonio had won 26
of 32 games, many in blowout fashion, and had pushed its record
to an NBA-best 49-21.
During that span, Anderson put up All-Star numbers, averaging
17.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists. His decidedly
un-Clippersesque play, combined with a deep bench, a stingy
defense and the reemergence of a healthy Tim Duncan has made San
Antonio the league's most-feared squad as the playoffs approach.
As Celtics coach Jim O'Brien put it after Boston lost to the
Spurs 99-77 last week, "Right now, you have to play a perfect
game to beat that team."
The statistics back him up. Despite losing two starters, point
guard Avery Johnson (sore hamstring) and forward Sean Elliott
(rotator cuff tear of the right shoulder), for a good chunk of
the season, the Spurs were first in scoring differential (8.0
points per game) at week's end and second in defensive field goal
percentage (.419), having won 36 of the 41 games in which they'd
held opponents under 90 points.
With 14 feet of Duncan and David Robinson clogging the lane, San
Antonio has always been able to play interior defense. What sets
the Spurs apart this year is that for the first time since George
Gervin laced them up, the franchise boasts an athletic guard who
can Roto-Rooter his way through the opposition and finish at the
rim. "It took a while for me to get used to Derek and for him to
learn our system," says Spurs coach and general manager Gregg
Popovich. "But by January, when he had committed mentally to us
and understood what we were doing on the court, he became our
next option after Tim. Now you see him playing his butt off at
both ends of the floor, and that has made us a heck of a team."
Soft-spoken and laid-back, Anderson is a fitting inheritor of
the Iceman's mantle, off the court as well as on it. With his
impeccably trimmed goatee, Ginsu-sharp sideburns and taste in
clothes--if he's wearing powder-blue slacks, you can bet there
will be matching powder-blue shoes--Anderson is as smooth as
they come. In uniform he appears rarely to break a sweat and
always seems in control. "If you don't already know how hard
Derek is hustling, it can look as if he isn't trying sometimes,"
says assistant coach Mike Budenholzer. "But it's just that he
has absolutely no wasted motion in his game."
Now if he can just stay healthy. Anderson has battled injuries
ever since tearing the ACL in his right knee during his senior
year at Kentucky. Before this season the fourth-year guard, who
has been nagged by three other knee injuries as a pro, had never
played more than 66 games in a season. At week's end, however,
he had started all 70 games as a Spur and seemed to be getting
stronger. He credits his stamina to the first serious
weight-training and conditioning program of his life, which he
began upon arriving in San Antonio last September. "Shoulders,
triceps, legs, a million abs exercises," Anderson says, rattling
off his workout. "My wind is better and my balance is better. I
used to go to the hole and get knocked down. Now I stay in the
The newly toned Anderson has turned into something of a
SportsCenter staple with his emphatic,
call-your-friends-in-for-the-replay dunks. "Last year I would go
to the rim, but I would probably pass it out or do an
oop-de-oop," says the 6'5" Anderson while pantomiming a twirling
scoop layup. "But this year," he breaks into a smile, "I'm
punching it." His punching bags have included the 6'11" Vin
Baker, the 7-foot Zan Tabak and the 7'6" Shawn Bradley. After
the vicious one-handed, windmill jam over Bradley, Anderson
received a stream of congratulatory calls, including one from
Allen Iverson, who said, "Man, that s--- was unbelievable."
Always an unselfish player and a solid rebounder, Anderson has
added three-point range to his arsenal. At week's end his
percentage behind the arc stood at 41.7%, more than eight
percentage points above his career average. As San Antonio's
leader in threes made this season, Anderson has kept things
lively for the team's Spanish-language radio broadcaster, Paul
Castro, who punctuates each Spurs bomb that goes in with an
emphatic exclamation of, "Uno, dos...TRES!!!" Last week when
Anderson nailed 5 of 6 from deep against the Atlanta Hawks,
Castro nearly fell out of his courtside chair counting all those
San Antonio leads the league in three-point accuracy (41.5%).
Besides Anderson--who credits his long-range success to his
increased leg strength--five other Spurs (Elliott, Antonio
Daniels, Danny Ferry, Steve Kerr and Terry Porter) are converting
threes at better than a 40% rate. For opposing defenses, this
presents quite a problem: Play Duncan and Robinson straight up
and the Spurs will kill you inside, but double in the post and
you leave open one of the deadeye shooters camped beyond the arc.
"We make them choose one monster or the other," says Porter.
One potential obstacle facing San Antonio: too many guys, not
enough minutes. So far, there has been no griping--voluble
co-captain Johnson has been particularly understanding about
losing his starting role to the 37-year-old Porter--but it's
obvious that, as Popovich puts it, "somebody will have to be left
out of the equation." In Elliott's first game back, an 88-83 loss
to the Miami Heat on Sunday, the odd man out was Malik Rose, the
team's sparkplug forward, who logged only two minutes.
The one guy who certainly won't lose minutes is Duncan, who has
returned from the season-ending lateral meniscus tear he suffered
in his left knee last April to put up a league-leading 58 double
doubles this season. After feeling his way through the first two
months of the campaign, he's giving Iverson a run for the MVP
award. Duncan has shed not only the protective sleeve on his knee
but also any doubts about his mobility. "Around January, you
could see it happen," says Popovich. "He wouldn't worry about
making certain moves, and he was more fluid and dynamic driving
to the basket and springing for rebounds."
Despite his stellar play, Duncan may also be the Spurs' Achilles'
heel as they head into the playoffs. A career 71.0% free throw
shooter, he's converting only 58.3% this season. The slump has
gotten so bad that Duncan, after missing six of his first 10
against the Celtics last week, was heckled by a pair of very
loud, very drunk courtside fans at the FleetCenter, who brought
up the dread s word. "C'mon Shaq," one of them yelled. "Miss it!"
Some teams have tried the Hack-a-Tim strategy, most notably the
Dallas Mavericks--it would have to be a Don Nelson team, of
course--in a Feb. 13 loss to the Spurs in which Duncan hit 14 of
24 from the line. Asked if he's sick of all the advice being
offered to remedy his woes, Duncan nods wearily. "But the way I'm
shooting, I guess I deserve it," he says, "I've brought it upon
myself. I just hope my touch resurfaces at the right time."
If Duncan doesn't improve, look for San Antonio to go to
Anderson, a career 86.7% free throw shooter, at the end of close
games in much the same way that the Los Angeles Lakers go to Kobe
Bryant. "That's the whole point of having me, having Danny,
having guys who can step up," says Anderson. "Tim is going to
keep the game close no matter what. He doesn't have to win every
game on his shot. If it comes to that, I'm not afraid to take
that last shot."
No matter what happens over the next two months--and the Spurs,
to a man, believe they can regain the title--it's obvious the
team's prime off-season objective will be to re-sign Anderson,
who recently got engaged and is building his dream house in
Prospect, Ky., a suburb of his hometown of Louisville. San
Antonio won't be able to offer Anderson the maximum, but it
could pony up something in the $7 million range if, as expected,
Robinson and other veterans agree to restructure their contracts.
Though Anderson says he hopes to retire as a Spur, he also won't
rule out going somewhere else if things don't work out. As long
as he can play for a winning team. One season on the bloopers
tapes, it seems, was enough to last a lifetime.
Roto-Rooter his way through the opposition and finish at the rim.