Tim Duncan, Spurs begin possibly last title quest
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SAN ANTONIO -- If this really is Tim Duncan's final season, a perfect ending won't come easy.
The four-time NBA champion has won just one playoff series in the last three years. Tony Parker himself called the San Antonio Spurs finished as contenders in May, before later walking back that blunt assessment of his own team.
That leaves Duncan, entering his 15th season and the end of his contract, making perhaps his last try for a fifth title with largely the same group that hasn't come close lately.
"This is basically the same team," Duncan said. "We have as good an opportunity as anyone else. We have that experience a lot of people are going to work for."
Duncan arrived at training camp insisting he's not yet thinking about retirement. He'll be 36 when the playoffs roll around and will make $21 million this season, behind only Kobe Bryant ($25 million) and Rashard Lewis ($22 million).
The big payday is Duncan's reward for making the Spurs the winningest franchise in major professional sports the past 14 years, surpassing even the New England Patriots or New York Yankees in winning percentage. Even last year, against all expectations, the Spurs won 61 games and reclaimed the Western Conference's top seed.
It still wasn't good enough.
It was easy to read into San Antonio's first-round loss as more than an upset. The Memphis Grizzlies, quick and big, made the Spurs look slow and small.
Weeks after losing to Memphis in six games, Parker was in Paris telling French journalists that was the last chance for the aging Spurs, whose last title was in 2007. "We will always have a good team but can no longer say we're playing for a championship," he said.
Parker later backed away from those remarks, and returned to San Antonio this month with a cheerier outlook.
"A lot of young teams are coming up, so we just have to make sure we can keep up and be competitive," Parker said. "You have to be positive and you have to believe in your team. I definitely believe in my team. Hopefully we can stay healthy and not have those little bumps like last year."
If San Antonio does have another run left in them, it'll be up to mostly the same cast. That includes Jefferson, who survived last week's amnesty deadline after the Spurs had a chance to part ways with the underachieving swingman who is due $9.2 million this season.
The Spurs courted free agents Caron Butler and Josh Howard. Though after it became apparent Jefferson would make it to opening day, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich defended his starting small forward as an improving defender and reliable 3-point shooter.
"It's kind of interesting. Everybody always asked about amnesty, and I always wondered why Richard, Richard, Richard," Popovich said. "As if we didn't advance in the playoffs because of Richard. I don't think anybody played great."
Be that as it may, the Spurs may have landed Jefferson's eventual replacement in rookie Kawhi Leonard. Selected 15th overall by Indiana, the 6-foot-7 forward was dealt in a draft-day trade for guard George Hill, who was Parker's backup and a budding star in the Popovich's eyes.
Yet it was a price Popovich says he was willing to pay. The 20-year-old Leonard brings not only youth and size but a knack for defense, which Popovich is reprioritizing after the Spurs were — rather atypically — better known for outscoring teams than stopping them last season.
Parker (17.5 points per game) and 34-year-old Ginobili (17.4 points) will again drive San Antonio's offense from the backcourt, and veteran T.J. Ford replaces Hill off the bench. The frontcourt is a larger concern: with McDyess gone, the big men left are 3-point marksman Matt Bonner, undersized 6-foot-7 center DeJuan Blair and 7-footer Tiago Splitter.
Then there's Duncan. The two-time MVP, whose scoring and rebounding (13.4 and 8.9) were career lows last year, is the only Spurs player left from the 1999 team that won the franchise's first championship in that lockout-shortened season.
Duncan draws no comparisons to then and now. He just knows the toll awaiting him in the compressed schedule ahead.
"It wasn't a grind to me then," Duncan recalled of 1999. "I was running like a deer up and down every day. I wanted to play. But this is going to feel different, I know it."