Aging Spurs Aren't Surrendering in Rising West

Spurs play first game Wednesday against Phoenix

The San Antonio Spurs are old. Still.

The NBA's oldest team four seasons running, the Spurs may have finally showed their age in losing to the younger and faster Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

Or maybe they're still Tim Duncan's reliable near-dynasty that wins championships in odd-numbered years.

In which case, the Spurs are due.

"Isn't Tony (Parker) still like 19?" quipped the 32-year-old Duncan before training camp. "We're all right. We're still old. We'll stay old."

By now, the Spurs are used to being labeled as either tested champions with unshakable experience (2005, 2007) or aging All-Stars who broke down before reaching the finals (2006, 2008).

But this season -- stop if you've heard this one before -- might be telling for a franchise that has the best regular-season winning percentage (.708) and more championships (four) than anyone since 1999.

Manu Ginobili's surgically repaired ankle, injured in the playoffs and aggravated in the Olympics, isn't expected to sideline him past December. That much is a relief for the Spurs, who are coming off their best title defense yet in reaching the conference finals last May.

But it's a Western Conference getting stronger.

Shaquille O'Neal is starting his first full season in Phoenix. Ron Artest is bringing sorely needed toughness alongside Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady in Houston. New Dallas coach Rick Carlisle may finally solve how to piece the Mavericks' talented cast into a championship.

The Lakers made the Spurs look tired in advancing to the finals in just five games, and they did it without center Andrew Bynum, who is back from a knee injury.

Before that, New Orleans took the Spurs to seven games, and the Hornets have one of the most dynamic young players in the league in point guard Chris Paul.

The best-of-the-West reputation built by the Spurs spans 11 straight playoff appearances, the longest in the league. But even some in the NBA wonder what the Spurs have left.

In the annual preseason survey of the league's general managers, San Antonio wasn't picked as the finals favorite for the first time in five years.

The Spurs instead finished fourth -- behind the Lakers, Celtics and Hornets.

"Every year (the conference) seems to get tougher, but I don't know how it can," Duncan said. "Teams have gotten better. Teams have changed. ... But in the same light, they still got to play the games. They got to figure it out themselves, too."

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dismissed suggestions last year that age doomed third-seeded San Antonio against Los Angeles. It was a series marked by San Antonio blowing big leads and struggling as Ginobili, its leading scorer, played through the ankle injury.

But the fact remains that Parker, at 26, is still the only player in the starting five younger than 30. Not even losing Robert Horry (38) and Brent Barry (36) kept the Spurs from retaining the distinction as the NBA's oldest team.

"I don't think anyone would say age has caught up with him as a player," forward Bruce Bowen said. "But it is life. It's something you all will see from here on out. I'll be 37. I won't go back the other way to 36."

The Spurs got younger legs in signing Roger Mason Jr., the fifth-year guard from Washington who San Antonio picked up after failing to lure Corey Maggette, who instead went to Golden State. Rookie guard George Hill, the Spurs' top draft pick, struggled with his shot this summer but improved in the preseason.

Both will have little time to get the hang of things. The Spurs will need all the help they can get to pick up the slack for Ginobili, who had surgery in September after again hurting his left ankle playing for Argentina in the Olympics.

Popovich had advised the NBA's reigning Sixth Man of the Year not to play in Beijing. But both seem to agree the surgery was better now then a perhaps inevitable operation during the season.

"They told me sooner or later it was going to happen," said Ginobili, 31, who averaged 19.5 points a game last season. "So, at the end, I guess it's a win-win situation for everybody."

The Spurs hoisted their championships in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007. Popovich, starting his 13th season as coach, said he puts as much credence in the stock market as he does San Antonio's every-other-year run.

Still ...

"We have a proven system. We have a proven bunch of guys," Duncan said. "And we like our chances."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us