But Robinson, 29, has never won an NBA championship. In his five previous seasons the Spurs' best playoff showing has been a seventh-game loss in the second round, and he knows that the can't-win-the-big-one label is ready and waiting. "I don't worry about what's going to be said about me but about what's going to be said about the team," he says. "This team has the discipline and maturity to go a long way, which we haven't always had in the past."
Last year, with then coach John Lucas keeping a loose rein on the Spurs—particularly on Rodman—San Antonio won 55 games before unraveling in a first-round playoff loss to Utah. Rodman was ejected from one game, then suspended from the next as the Spurs crumbled. The group that had purchased the team from Red McCombs in 1993 didn't like what it saw in the postseason, and a month later Lucas and general manager Bob Bass were gone. "The loose approach worked for a while," says Haley, "but in the end we didn't have the kind of discipline we needed. We let too many things get in the way, like whether Dennis and Madonna were going out, or trying to win David the MVP. This year it's a more businesslike approach."
That would be expected with Popovich and Hill in control. Popovich, a former assistant with Golden State and San Antonio, has a military background, having played and coached at the Air Force Academy; Hill is a stickler for organization and detail. "Bob's the kind of guy whose clay might be messed up if his desk blotter is crooked," says Popovich. "He combines that need for discipline and organization with a flexibility you usually don't find in that kind of person."
Any coach would have to be flexible to deal well with Rodman, the league leader in rebounds and tattoos. Hill has allowed Rodman enough room to be himself but not enough for his behavior to hurt the Spurs. Rodman has been suspended twice and took a leave of absence in November, but he appears determined to make up for his part in last season's playoff debacle. "This team won't have to worry about how Dennis Rodman is going to act in the playoffs," he says. "The only thing they'll have to worry about is how to count up all my rebounds."
Rodman's teammates have also done a better job of keeping him in line than they did last year. "We had a talk early in the year in which we basically told Dennis that we wanted him with us—but only if he was prepared to stay within the team rules," says Robinson. "I think he knew that we were prepared to do it without him if we had to."
But despite its late-season success while Rodman recuperated, San Antonio cannot win the title without his rebounding, even with a talented cast that includes Elliott, 27, whose 18.1 scoring average is second among the Spurs. Elliott's comeback may be the most significant on a team full of them. After being an All-Star in 1992-93, he was devastated by being sent to Detroit for Rodman before the start of last season, and it showed in his play. He dropped to an average of 12.1 points and a career-low .455 field goal percentage, which didn't even begin to reflect how miserable he was. A kidney ailment, which came to light when he failed a physical required to finalize his trade from the Pistons to the Rockets, was part of his problem but not the biggest part. "I was completely unhappy," Elliott says. "It got to the point where I was thinking about life after basketball, and I'm talking about in the very near future, like maybe one or two years down the line."
In Detroit, Elliott found himself on a bad team, with players who, for the most part, put individual statistics ahead of winning, and that made him uncomfortable. "Sean is a team player, and I don't think there was much of a team feeling in Detroit," says Robinson.
Now that he has returned to San Antonio, Elliott has no plans to buy back his house, which he sold to Rodman after the trade. "Knowing Dennis, I have a feeling I probably don't want it back," he says. So Elliott is building a place that will be equipped to house his collection of exotic reptiles, fish and birds. "Sean is a class act," says Hill. "He does his job and goes home and hugs a snake or something."
On this team of revitalized retreads, Rivers was a perfect fit as a third guard. After he was released by the Knicks, several formidable teams expressed interest in him, including Indiana, Orlando, the Atlanta Hawks and the Charlotte Hornets, but he chose San Antonio. "I told [Popovich] that I want to be a general manager someday, and this should prove I'm a good judge of talent," Rivers says. Rivers also has been good at shutting down opponents' key backcourt scorers late in games and giving his teammates an attitude tune-up for the playoffs. "I try to remind them that we're not a hot team—we're an awfully good team," he says. "Hot teams cool off. Good teams are just good."
Rivers has combined with Johnson and starting shooting guard Vinny Del Negro, who are both having their best years, to make sure San Antonio isn't as vulnerable in the backcourt as it used to be. "I think Avery and Vinny are good enough to get them to the Finals," Chancy says of the Spurs. "Avery is not a great scorer, but he will score. And he gets everybody involved." The Spurs are convinced: In July they signed Johnson to the first multiyear contract of his career, a four-year deal.