Champs spur also-ran changes

Contenders open new season copying San Antonio recipe

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Robert Horry knows something about what it takes to win an NBA championship. In his 13 years in the league, Horry has been part of six teams and three different franchises that have finished the season popping champagne corks and, a few months later, putting on the diamond-laden rings that go to the world champions.

No current NBA player has more championship bling than "Big Shot Bob."

Now in his third year with the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs, Horry also knows what's coming next. The pressure of repeating that will follow the Spurs as it did when Horry played for the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets. The challenge from the league's legitimate contenders to combat, and even mimic, the Spurs.

"You can't copy a style," Horry said before an exhibition game in Indianapolis last month. "When I first got traded to Phoenix [from Houston before the 1996-97 season], we tried to copy the [Chicago] Bulls' style. Every system is not good for every team. You have certain matchups that work with certain people's abilities."

The style that worked for the Spurs last season might not be as successful this season, which begins tonight with a ring ceremony and a game against the Denver Nuggets. The Spurs are considered nearly as big a favorite to repeat as the Lakers or Bulls were during their years of dominance.

Like other recent championship teams, including the 2002-03 Spurs, San Antonio didn't stand still, adding veteran free agents Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel to a team that revolves around the inside presence of All-NBA forward Tim Duncan and the perimeter game of All-Star guard Manu Ginobili and point guard Tony Parker.

Though the playing style of the Spurs differs from that of the Lakers or Bulls, the blueprint is pretty much the same.

"I think the model has been there for years. You have your main players, you have role players, you have role players accept their roles and your star players play the right way and you go from there," Duncan said. "I think you can find that in every team that's won it, from the Lakers when they were winning it, to the old Lakers when they were winning it, to the Celtics when they were winning. It's all the same."

What has changed the landscape is the NBA salary cap, trying to figure out a way to compensate a team's stars without compromising its chances to win. That doesn't differ whether you're being chased or doing the chasing.

"I think whatever position you're in, the goal is the same for everybody; everybody wants to win an NBA championship," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has won three. "The most important thing is that whatever a team does these days has to be done in relation to the [salary] cap and to the salary restrictions, because if a mistake is made in that area, it can be three to six years before a team recovers from it.

"Whatever gets done, if a mistake is made, like overpaying someone who's not really a franchise player and you're stuck with that guy for X number of years, then you're not going anywhere, because you don't have the money to add the pieces. Having said that, one can only fit the pieces together around who the stars are as wisely as possible, knowing full well that good fortune has something to do with it."

Sometimes, bad luck can turn into dumb luck, as happened when David Robinson was injured during the 1996-97 season and the Spurs fell into the lottery, then won the lottery and drafted Duncan with the top pick. But after winning titles in 1998-99 and 2002-03, the Spurs were forced to redo much of their roster when veteran reserves Steve Kerr and Danny Ferry retired and Stephen Jackson signed with the Atlantia Hawks.

That season, the Spurs started giving a more prominent role to a second-year player named Ginobili.

"With us, when we drafted Manu [in the second round in 1999], we didn't know he was going to be the Manu that you see today," Popovich said. "The pieces have to fit around the stars."

That's what other teams are trying to do this year in order to supplant the Spurs.

The Miami Heat, which came within a game of reaching the NBA Finals last season, overhauled its roster more radically than any other team in the league. Miami brought in veterans Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, James Posey and Jason Williams through trades and free agency with hopes that they play as well as the supporting cast did with Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade last season.

The Phoenix Suns, who lost to the Spurs in the Western Conference finals after having the best regular-season record in the league, traded Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson, deepened its frontcourt with Kurt Thomas, Brian Grant and James Jones and will now play without All-Star forward Amare Stoudemire for the first four months after knee surgery.

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