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November 01, 1999
Despite their shopping failures, the champs still have the goods to repeat
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November 01, 1999

Midwest: 1 San Antonio Spurs

Despite their shopping failures, the champs still have the goods to repeat

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By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 37-13 (tied for first in Western Conference) Coach: Gregg Popovich (fourth season with Spurs)


POINTS (rank)

FG% (rank)




92.8 (13)

45.6 (5)

44.0 (4)

15.2 (12)


84.7 (3)

40.2 (1)

42.1 (16)

14.6 (22)

While in Italy last summer on an NBA promotional trip, Spurs 7-footer Tim Duncan toured the Ferrari factory in Maranello. Duncan saw how the sleek, high-performance sports cars are built, visited with engineers and even got to take a test-drive on the facility's track. Not wanting to leave empty-handed, he purchased a 1999 silver 360 Modena (base price: $138,225). "I'd wanted one for a long time," Duncan says. "I saw one I liked, so I bought it."

San Antonio general manager-coach Gregg Popovich only wishes his summer shopping had been so pleasurable. Desperate to find a replacement for small forward Sean Elliott, who underwent a kidney transplant on Aug. 16 and may have to retire, Popovich worked the phones like a madman. Armed with a $2.7 million medical salary-cap exception that the Spurs had received for Elliott, he pitched and pitched but got nowhere. Jazz free agent Shandon Anderson, his first choice, signed with the Rockets. Sonics free agent Detlef Schrempf opted for the Trail Blazers. Clippers free agent Lamond Murray first agreed to come to San Antonio, but chose instead to have Los Angeles work out a sign-and-trade with the Cavaliers. Tyrone Nesby of the Clippers then took the bait, but as a restricted free agent he was forced to re-sign with L.A. when it matched San Antonio's offer.

The best Popovich could do was journeyman Chucky Brown, who accepted the $1 million veteran's minimum. A starter on Houston's 1994-95 NBA champions, Brown will be one of five players—along with Jaren Jackson, Malik Rose, Mario Elie and, at times, even Duncan—who'll try to fill in for Elliott. "We're not going to find one guy who can do what Sean did," Popovich says, "but we've got several guys who do different things well, so well go with the best matchup at the time."

If this posse can somehow replace Elliott's many contributions—ball handling, perimeter defense and clutch three-point shooting—the Spurs stand a Texas-sized chance of repeating as champs. Jackson is a tenacious defender and a sometimes deadly long-range shooter, but at 6'6" he'll often be at a height disadvantage. The 6'8" Brown can handle the league's bigger three-men, but he's a career 23.8% shooter from beyond the arc. Rose, a gifted rebounder, has few offensive moves to the basket. "Where we're really going to miss Sean is hitting that weakside three," says point guard Avery Johnson, referring to the many open long-distance looks that result from San Antonio's inside-out offense. "We've got guys who can make the backside two, but other than Jaren, they're not three-point shooters."

Popovich will probably alternate Jackson and Rose early, until Brown learns the Spurs' system. Duncan, who played some small forward as part of the Triple Towers with David Robinson and Will Perdue two years ago, is expected to pitch in. Elie, who says he got worn out while playing small forward for the Rockets in 1996-97 and wants to avoid playing a lot of minutes there, will also take an occasional turn at the spot. "We've got a lot of flexibility," Elie says. "If we're playing big threes, like a Rasheed Wallace, we can put Chucky Brown in there. If we're playing a smaller three, like an Allan Houston or a Latrell Sprewell, we can put Jaren there. We're going to lose a bit offensively going to the basket, but in other areas I think we're going to be O.K."

All the other key players from last season's juggernaut are back, including Finals MVP Duncan, Robinson and floor leader Johnson. In addition Popovich signed Terry Porter to a three-year, $6.6 million deal and 6'9" Samaki Walker to a three-year, $8.9 million deal. Porter is a reliable perimeter defender and three-point shooter who can play both guard positions, while Walker will back up Duncan and Robinson. The main reason San Antonio has such a good shot at another River Walk title celebration, however, is Duncan, who last year blossomed into the game's top performer. He finished the season as the only player to rank in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and blocked shots. Along with Robinson, he helped the Spurs form a wall around the basket that denied opponents easy shots and led to numerous fast break opportunities. After leading the U.S. team to victory at the Olympic qualifying tournament in July, Duncan figures to put his game into an even higher gear as he enters the third and final year of his rookie contract.

San Antonio is an old team. By season's end Porter will be 37, Elie 36, Johnson 35 and Robinson 34. Each keeps himself in terrific shape, however, and should have no difficulty summoning the hunger necessary for the Spurs to repeat as champs. Elie, Jackson and Johnson are fiery vets who made it to the NBA the hard way, and Porter, who has been in the league for 15 years, desperately wants to earn a ring before he retires. The new rules, which limit hand checking and prevent post-up players from interminably backing in, should have little impact on San Antonio. "We have two great shot blockers," says Johnson of Duncan and Robinson, who can largely negate any advantage opponents might get by driving to the hole. "And on the other end our big guys can face the basket. They don't need to back up and hold the ball for five seconds."

The Spurs could also benefit from a huge emotional lift if Elliott makes it back onto the court this season. Elliott, who received a kidney from his brother Noel, says he feels better than he has in years and has been talking about returning to action as early as midseason. Though doctors say there's a six-month window in which his body could reject the kidney, he might be able to play before then by wearing a protective device around his lower back.

Whether Elliott rejoins San Antonio or not, it's a threat to join the Lakers, Pistons, Rockets and Bulls as repeat champions; the last team not to repeat was the Celtics in 1986-87. The Spurs may not leave foes sucking their fumes as they did last year in speeding to the title, but with Duncan at the wheel they'll be hard to beat.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]