Roundtable: Spurs' outlook, Shaq's lighter schedule, hot Hawks, Sloan
With Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili out, it's all about survival for the Spurs
The Suns are giving Shaquille O'Neal plenty of rest -- even when he's healthy
More topics: The Hawks' 5-0 start and Jerry Sloan's lasting impact
SI.com NBA writers will analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the league each week. Have a question you'd like answered? E-mail us here.
Ian Thomsen: They need to find some way to remain relevant over the next month, or else I'm going to look irrelevant myself for picking them to win the championship. (Because it's all about me.) Somehow, they need to turn this disaster into a positive by forcing bigger demands on their role players and tightening the defense, which has been awful.
Denver -- which looked like a playoff outsider heading into the season -- needs to win at least 45 games to press San Antonio in the Western Conference. This is going to be an entirely new regular-season experience for the Spurs, let's put it that way. It will be interesting to see how they adapt.
Marty Burns: It's way too early to count out the Spurs. San Antonio will be OK if Ginobili and Parker make it back in December. The Spurs are catching a break in that the Mavs, Warriors and Clippers are also struggling. Right now, it doesn't look like any of those three will be able to build a big cushion on them. Even if the Suns and Nuggets get too far ahead of them (joining the Lakers, Jazz, Hornets, Rockets and Trail Blazers) in the West, the Spurs should be able to get back in the race for the No. 8 spot simply by default.
Jack McCallum: Yes, such thoughts are premature. The Spurs will absolutely, positively make the playoffs and will continue to do so as long as Tim Duncan remains upright and engaged. But where will they finish considering this year's spate of misfortune? In the loaded West, they could be as low as sixth.
Chris Mannix: Even a weakened lineup should be enough to get them into the postseason. Parker's injury is debilitating and will probably cost them some wins in the regular season. But if I have learned anything from coach Gregg Popovich in the last few years, it is that a) he doesn't care about the regular season, just so long as he makes the playoffs, and b) once he is in, the most important thing is that his team is healthy. Word around the league is that the Spurs could get Ginobili back by the end of the month. And Parker's injury is unlikely to hamper him long term. Popovich should have his wish down the stretch: a healthy, rested unit ready to chase San Antonio's fifth title in 11 years.
Steve Aschburner: I don't think they're at the point yet where chasing down the eighth spot is a real worry. Even if it takes 50 victories again to qualify, winning 49 out of their final 77 (or, say, even 47 of their final 67) doesn't seem too great a task for the savvy Spurs if they do get going. But I do think they're at the point where nailing down a top-four berth is unlikely. And that could mean no home-court advantage, sticking them with a harder road in the playoffs.
2. What do you think about Suns coach Terry Porter's decision to rest Shaquille O'Neal or severely limit his minutes in certain back-to-back situations? Do the Suns "owe it" to visiting fans to play Shaq if he's healthy?
Thomsen: They have a $20 million investment in Shaq this year, and their goal is to convert his presence into a championship. When he was leading the Lakers to championships as a younger man, Shaq was pacing himself through the regular season. The Spurs have always limited the minutes of their key players to keep them fresh for the playoffs. It's standard operating procedure for a league whose season is far too long.
Burns: The Diesel has been breaking down in recent years, so it makes perfect sense for his "Porter" to keep him in the shed every now and then. The Suns are trying to win a championship, and they're going to need a healthy Shaq down the stretch. As for ticket-buying fans, Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire will make sure they get their money's worth.
McCallum: No-brainer correct decision on Shaq's playing time. He has been pretty much a 65-game-a-season player since 2001, and it's not like he suddenly got himself into such great shape that he's ready to play 80. At 36, limiting his minutes or availability is all that will keep him at the elite level, and, to this point at least, he looks rested and refreshed. I feel for the fans, but a coach can't dictate his strategy to please them. Hey, Nathan Lane missed the performance the night I saw The Producers, and I didn't get a refund.
Mannix: The Suns owe it to their fans to make a strong run in the postseason, and if that means resting O'Neal more, that's exactly what they should do. Look, O'Neal is no longer the Diesel: He has played just 51 games in each of the last two seasons. But when healthy and rested, O'Neal is still capable of a dominant performance. In a conference loaded with talented big men (Andrew Bynum, Tyson Chandler, Yao Ming), the Suns will need O'Neal at his very best to be a factor come April.
Aschburner: There is an Eighth Wonder of the World aspect to Shaq, a novelty that loses a lot when he's in street clothes (no matter how dapper). It would be like making a pilgrimage to the Colossus of Rhodes, only to find the big guy draped in scaffolding and tarpaulins. He has become something of a specialty player at this point, the long snapper or left-handed reliever of the Suns, but that doesn't stop people from purchasing tickets specifically to see him or parents from circling a date on their calendars based on his marquee power alone. (It doesn't make it any easier for Phoenix to adapt to his absences, as you can read about here.)
Last week, folks in Chicago missed their only opportunity this season to see O'Neal play; he sat out the game at United Center on Nov. 7 to be fresh and available at Milwaukee on Nov. 8. Based on the Suns' scheduled back-to-backs, he could skip similar lone appearances in Toronto or Boston (January), Detroit or Philadelphia (February) and Orlando or Miami (March). There are 12 other situations in which he might sit out a road game against a Western foe, limiting his appearances to one or none in those cities, too. Shaq plans to play next season, so -- good health and scheduling permitted -- he likely will appear at least once more in each town. But losing a last chance to see him play, because he needs rest, would be as big a cheat as missing a final glimpse in person of Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, David Robinson or other greats. It's a compliment to Shaq that we say, in all earnestness: Sit your butt down at home games.
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