The San Antonio Spurs have to hear it all again. Before and after Friday's game against what's left of their fiercest rivals, they will inevitably be asked repeatedly to answer what Tim Duncan calls "that fricking question."
It's the question Duncan, Gregg Popovich and any other Spur who dares to venture into public has been hearing, in various forms, since mid-July: How weird will it be to play against the Los Angeles Lakers and not have to deal with Shaquille O'Neal?
Actually playing a game against the Lakers guarantees that they'll all be expected to repeat their well-worn lines about how much they miss Shaq and Phil (Pop) ... or how sick they are of the subject (Teemy, as Tony calls him) ... or how they're feeling "50-50" about the whole breakup (Tony).
Perhaps then we can proceed to a much fresher question that should be asked on this night, directed this time at the home team.
How envious are you seeing the Spurs cooperate like the Lakers never did, even at your three-peating best?
To be fair, it's not just the Lakers. There had to be envy in lots of front offices this week, when the Spurs -- at a time money is being splashed around leaguewide in record amounts -- reached terms with Parker on a six-year contract extension at the relatively reasonable price of $66 million . . . after Duncan flung himself into negotiations to help Popovich convince owner Peter Holt that the little Frenchman had to be paid. Now.
Parker's signing completed a flurry of annoyingly shrewd business in the Alamo City since the Spurs lost four straight games to the Lakers in Round 2 after taking a 2-0 series lead. He becomes the fourth key member of Team Duncan in recent months to take less money than he's probably worth, mainly because Parker can't imagine leaving a situation he describes thusly: "It's, like, perfect."
The spirit of sacrifice started with Bruce Bowen, who opted out of his contract -- with one season left at $4 million -- to take a new four-year deal starting at $3 million. That might not sound like a big deal, but the $1 million pay cut to start his new contract not only drops one of the league's finest defenders to $2 million under the league's average salary . . . it also enabled San Antonio to create enough cap room to re-sign Manu Ginobili and bring in sharpshooter Brent Barry.
Those guys took lesser deals, too. Barry sacrificed a few extra million from Golden State or Portland so he could have a shot at a championship. Ginobili, meanwhile, re-signed for what looks like a paltry sum when compared to the $80-plus million deals awarded in the past month to Memphis' Pau Gasol, Utah's Andrei Kirilenko and Portland's Zach Randolph.
Fifty-two million over six years?
For a ball magnet who, on many nights, is the second-best player on the team favored by NBA general managers to win the title next June?
"Those guys put their money where their mouths are," Holt said Thursday. "They accepted what some would call less money to stay in San Antonio with Tim Duncan, and I really appreciate it.
"I appreciate the way Tony understood our position. Next year, if Tony had a big (season), he could have maybe gotten a lot more money. But we're in a market where I can pay to a certain level and I just can't pay any more. There's no right or wrong to it -- that's just the reality."
The reality, furthermore, is that this isn't the first time Holt has felt so grateful. As he freely admits, fortune has been kind to his franchise, which has cashed in big-style in its infrequent trips to the lottery. As Holt volunteers, "With David (Robinson), we only had one year out of the playoffs because of his back, and out of that we get Tim Duncan in the draft. I wish I could say that was skill, but it was luck."
What happened in the offseason, mind you, was far more than that. It must be particularly galling to Lakers management (and many others) to see various Spurs tripping over each other to sign contracts that guarantee security but also enable general manager R.C. Buford to keep adding to the club's core. Kobe Bryant's desire to lead his own team is an undeniably huge factor in L.A.'s messy breakup, but Shaq's demands for another $30 million-per-season contract extension -- along with Jackson's desire for a $12 million-per-season coaching salary -- convinced Lakers owner Jerry Buss to disassemble his fading dynasty as much as anything else.
Denver liked Ginobili almost as much as it liked Kenyon Martin and contemplated making a bigger off than the Spurs' $52 million. Ginobili told the Nuggets from the jump that he really didn't want to leave the Spurs, so Denver abandoned its pursuit, fearful of offering something bigger knowing that (a) San Antonio figured to match it anyway after tying up the Nuggets and (b) Ginobili's ambivalence made his signing a risk.
Parker could have followed Ginobili's path this season and played his way into an even more lucrative offseason in 2005. The 22-year-old would have been a restricted free agent next summer and fairly certain to attract something in the max-contract neighborhood, which would have forced Holt into a matching situation.
Yet Parker didn't press his team for Gasol money, as Kirilenko and Randolph did to theirs. And it was ultimately Duncan who convinced Holt that committing $66 million to Parker today was better business, even though the boss was inclined to wait to see if changes in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement indeed shorten the length of guaranteed contracts to a maximum of four seasons, as NBA owners hope. Given Parker's age, and the fact he has already helped San Antonio win a championship, the resulting deal looks like a steal from here.
For a quick comparison, look at the prices for lead guards in the greater New York area. Jamal Crawford, yet to achieve a fraction of what Parker has, landed a seven-year deal from the Knicks in the $55 million range, and it likely would have been more had Isiah Thomas possessed the cap flexibility to pay more. Then there's New Jersey's Jason Kidd, whom the Spurs chased so hard in the summer of 2003. If San Antonio wanted to trade for Kidd now, it would have to absorb $90 million for the rest of this season and the next four. Parker isn't at Kidd's level yet, and he might never get there, but his age and price allow the Spurs to feel more than comfortable with their future at the point.
"Tim was a big factor (in the Spurs' signing of Parker)," Holt said. "When Tim speaks, it's because he's really thought things through, and it makes an impression when Tim steps up and says not only how much he loves Tony, but how important overall he feels this will be for our team for the next four, five, six years.
"When Tim speaks," Holt added, "everyone listens."
Said Buford, when asked to explain all this sappy team spirit: "I'd like to think that we've created an environment where players like to be."
Annoying, isn't it?
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There's no visible panic from Chris Webber in the wake of Sacramento's 0-2 start, even though he's well aware the Kings are a popular pick to splinter in the wake of Vlade Divac's departure to the Lakers and Peja Stojakovic's off-season trade demand. "Please don't believe everything you hear, because you know how things can get overblown," Webber said. He's among those who will tell you that Sacramento is struggling more with its crazy schedule (five of six on the road to start the season after a mid-October China trip) and the injury absence of Doug Christie than the dissipation of the Kings' famed chemistry. "I think experience is going to mean a lot this year," Webber said, insisting the Kings remain a title contender. "Experience really means a lot in the playoffs. It's not just a chemistry; we have a past with each other. We know everything about each other on the court." . . . NBA commissioner David Stern says the aforementioned China trip demonstrates to the players "how good it can be," referring to the relationship between management and labor in this final season of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. "And looking at where the NHL is, how bad it can be," Stern said. "We know the difference." Thursday was the 50th day of the NHL lockout; some of us are gullible enough to believe that both sides in the NBA are too smart to even come close to starting a count next fall. . . . The first real upset of the season? Kobe Bryant didn't come close to cracking the NBA's list of most points scored on Election Day, with his 25 points in Tuesday's season-opening victory over Denver. Pistol Pete Maravich holds the record, with 43 points for New Orleans on Nov. 2, 1976. As recently as 1996, Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon and Toronto's Walt Williams scored 34 points each on Election Day. . . . After a month with his new team, Kenyon Martin admits that "it's still hard to believe" he's no longer in New Jersey. Yet Martin also admits that matching up more regularly with the West's bevy of accomplished power forwards made him eager to switch conferences. "Definitely," said Martin, who helped the Nuggets rally to beat Kevin Garnett's Timberwolves on Thursday after their Laker debacle. "It's a new challenge. I'm curious to see how I play and how we play as a team." . . . Says Tony "50-50" Parker, when pressed about the Shaq and Kobe divorce: "If I had to choose, I think I'm going to miss them."