Pop's special op: secretly reload Spurs
By Ric Bucher
ESPN The Magazine
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich can dismiss talk about his reputed past as a military spy all he wants, but only an expert in covert operations could, in plain view, take a championship team and make it measurably better -- and have almost no one notice.
The best part is that Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford utilized the movement of several vaunted rivals as cover. The Lakers added a pair of Hall of Famers to their starting lineup, Kevin Garnett's supporting cast is now as notorious as it previously was anonymous and last year's favorites, the Kings, grabbed the last notable free agent. But if there's a roster that should give the rest of the league reason to worry the 2004 title already is locked up, it's the one in San Antonio. None of the Spurs' additions made headlines, but combine the additions with three of their top four players from the 2003 title-winning squad and it's hard to imagine a roster with more postseason experience or overall intelligence and versatility.
In any case, only David Copperfield would attempt deception on such a grand scale. If I didn't know exactly how fervently the Spurs wanted Jason Kidd, I'd be inclined to think it was one big smokescreen now. That, at least, is how they ended up using it. For in the immediate wake of Kidd's decision to stay in New Jersey and excitement over Alonzo Mourning joining him, San Antonio quickly filled their biggest hole by signing Timberwolves center Rasho Nesterovic to succeed retiree David Robinson. Even though Nesterovic was Popovich and Tim Duncan's first choice to replace the Admiral, it came across as a consolation prize in light of Kidd's snub. Whatever notice it might've warranted was lost in the stampede created by Gary Payton and Karl Malone agreeing to join Shaq and Kobe in L.A.
The Spurs' next two moves were equally surreptitious. Under the buzz raised by Scottie Pippen returning to the Bulls, the Spurs quietly beat out the Lakers and Mavericks for Robert Horry. The announcement barely raised a murmur, but don't underestimate what Horry has left simply because he ran out of gas with the Lakers last season. Any 30-something natural small forward would have been in similar shape after playing power forward in the Western Conference, the league's stronghold of strength, size and talent these days. Let Big Shot Rob play 20 minutes off the bench as a "three" -- as he did on the Lakers' three championship teams -- and the legs that launched those back-breaking treys are a good bet to recover.
They then acquired a Euro version of Robert Horry 10 years ago in the Kings' Hedo Turkoglu while celebratory cow bells clanged in Sacramento over Brad Miller's arrival. Miller is a nice fit and a decided upgrade over Scot Pollard, presuming Chris Webber continues his development as a low-post threat, and the Kings still have enough to get past just about everyone else. But take note of how Miller played knowing he was going to be a free agent. Turkoglu, who has five times the talent and plays everything except center, will have the same motivation this season.
Now, granted, the Spurs' 2003 template for success might not be quite the same. Their defense, in particular, could slide a notch. Nesterovic is not the on-ball defender, rebounder or shotblocker that Robinson was. Nor does he get opposing big men in foul trouble the way Robinson did -- Robinson averaging a free throw every 7.8 minutes while Nesterovic last season took one every 24.6 minutes.
The absence of Stephen Jackson's perimeter D also could be felt. Horry is at his best in the post and Turkoglu lost his spot in the Kings' rotation largely because of his defensive inconsistencies.
But few coaches are better at instilling a defensive mindset than Popovich, and Turkoglu has the requisite size and athleticism to be as good as Jackson without all the pouting and sideline antics. He also penetrates-and-kicks almost as well as Manu Ginobili. So make no mistake -- the Spurs have improved, quietly but dramatically. The only way Popovich and Buford top this trick is if they have the team vanish into thin air right after NBA commissioner David Stern hands them the trophy. As it stands, don't be surprised if they get the chance.