Crown rests uneasily on Spurs

NBA: From an arena vote, to Sean Elliott's health, to Tim Duncan's contract, distractions abound for champs.

Pro Basketball

October 31, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Since claiming their first NBA championship little more than four months ago, the San Antonio Spurs have experienced distractions that would cause less-experienced teams to lose focus and coaches less confident than Gregg Popovich to lose sleep.

It began in August, when starting small forward Sean Elliott underwent a kidney transplant that left his career in doubt. It continued earlier this month, when the Oct. 1 deadline to lock up NBA Finals MVP Tim Duncan to a long-term contract passed without any attempt to re-sign the third-year center.

And hours before the Spurs are scheduled to open the 1999-2000 season at home against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night, San Antonians will go to the polls to vote on a referendum that, if passed, will build a $175 million arena to displace the sterile Alamodome as the team's home court.

Elliott's health aside, the Spurs and Popovich are treating these events with the same insouciance they did their Western Conference playoff opponents last spring. They simply flick them to the side as they prepare for the season.

Put it this way: The New York Knicks, the team San Antonio beat in five games for the title last season, seemed more troubled by Latrell Sprewell's cross-country car trek that kept him out of training camp and led to a barrage of stories in the tabloids and angry calls to the talk shows.

"We've been talking about the arena for the past four or five years," Popovich said a few weeks ago. "And I knew when Tim Duncan signed that he would likely test the waters [of free agency]. If I were Tim, I'd do the same thing. Our fans and the media are talking about these things, but we're not. We have no control over them."

Yet this much is clear: The franchise's continued success, if not its outright future, revolves around Duncan and the new arena. The former Wake Forest star hasn't issued any ultimatums that he'd go elsewhere if it isn't built, or made any guarantees to stay if one is, but the two issues are tied together.

"I'm not worried about it," Duncan said after the Spurs opened the preseason with a one-point win over the 76ers in Philadelphia on Oct. 10. "But there might be some people [in San Antonio] who are."

Duncan and his teammates seem more concerned with another piece of business -- repeating as NBA champions. It will not be as automatic as it appeared with their predecessors, the Chicago Bulls. The Western Conference is typically loaded, with challenges expected from the usual suspects.

The Utah Jazz is a veteran team looking to avenge last season's playoff disappointment. The Los Angeles Lakers are hoping to harness their immense talent under new coach Phil Jackson. The Portland Trail Blazers, with the recent addition of Scottie Pippen, are trying to reverse last year's sweep by the Spurs in the conference finals.

"Every one of those teams have improved themselves," said Spurs center David Robinson, whose numbers declined markedly last season with Duncan's ascension to stardom but who is still expected to play a significant role going into his 13th season in San Antonio. "After we won, I looked at our team and said, `We have a lot of room to improve.' "

Robinson's assessment was made before Elliott's disclosure that he was suffering from a kidney disease that required getting a healthy kidney from his older brother, Noel. Elliott has received clearance to begin running and play some light games of one-on-one, but he is not expected back until January at the earliest.

In his place, the Spurs signed Samaki Walker, a former No. 1 draft pick who spent his first three seasons with the hapless Dallas Mavericks. After trying power forwards Walker and Malik Rose at small forward with little success, Popovich has been rotating Chucky Brown, who was signed as a free agent on Oct. 1, and Jaren Jackson.

San Antonio also signed veteran guard Terry Porter to back up Avery Johnson at the point.

"We couldn't replace Sean with one guy because he's such a terrific all-around player," said Popovich, who also doubles as the team's general manager. "But we wanted to see if we could replace some of those talents. That's what Samaki Walker does, and that's what Terry Porter will do."

In truth, it all revolves around Duncan. A year ago, he was merely looked at as the best young player in the NBA and, because of that, the Spurs were considered an outside threat to win the championship. Now Duncan is widely viewed to be the best player in the league, and the Spurs are given a legitimate shot to repeat.

"Tim is one of those guys that transcends age," said veteran guard Steve Kerr, who was an important member of the past three Bulls championship teams but is now little more than a spare part in San Antonio. "Both teams were very professional, but the Bulls were very arrogant because of Michael [Jordan]. Teams weren't going to beat us in Chicago. Teams don't fear this team yet."

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