A little past 11 a.m. last Friday morning, San Antonio Spurs guard Derek Anderson fished the remote control from amidst the detritus of the previous night's room service, clicked on the television in his Miami hotel room and recognized all too well what he saw. Against a backdrop of bricks, bad passes and bungled defensive assignments, an ESPN announcer was narrating a segment on the NBA's most inept teams. Perched on the edge of the bed, Anderson tried hard to contain his glee as he watched the parade of lowlights that included his old team. "Man, am I glad to be gone from the Clippers," he said with the smile of a man recently released from hoops purgatory. "I took a gamble by coming here, but it's great to be somewhere where guys are serious about winning."
By signing a one-year, $2.25 million contract with San Antonio last summer, rather than agreeing to a more lucrative multiyear deal with the L.A. Clippers or one of a dozen other suitors, the 26-year-old guard bolstered a team that was only a year removed from its first NBA championship. Now, after a half season spent getting acquainted with each other, Anderson and the Spurs are on a roll. From Jan. 23 through last Sunday, San Antonio had won 26 of 32 games, many in blowout fashion, and had pushed its record to an NBA-best 49-21.
During that span, Anderson put up All-Star numbers, averaging 17.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists. His decidedly un-Clippersesque play, combined with a deep bench, a stingy defense and the reemergence of a healthy Tim Duncan has made San Antonio the league's most-feared squad as the playoffs approach. As Celtics coach Jim O'Brien put it after Boston lost to the Spurs 99-77 last week, "Right now, you have to play a perfect game to beat that team."
The statistics back him up. Despite losing two starters, point guard Avery Johnson (sore hamstring) and forward Sean Elliott (rotator cuff tear of the right shoulder), for a good chunk of the season, the Spurs were first in scoring differential (8.0 points per game) at week's end and second in defensive field goal percentage (.419), having won 36 of the 41 games in which they'd held opponents under 90 points.
With 14 feet of Duncan and David Robinson clogging the lane, San Antonio has always been able to play interior defense. What sets the Spurs apart this year is that for the first time since George Gervin laced them up, the franchise boasts an athletic guard who can Roto-Rooter his way through the opposition and finish at the rim. "It took a while for me to get used to Derek and for him to learn our system," says Spurs coach and general manager Gregg Popovich. "But by January, when he had committed mentally to us and understood what we were doing on the court, he became our next option after Tim. Now you see him playing his butt off at both ends of the floor, and that has made us a heck of a team."
Soft-spoken and laid-back, Anderson is a fitting inheritor of the Iceman's mantle, off the court as well as on it. With his impeccably trimmed goatee, Ginsu-sharp sideburns and taste in clothes—if he's wearing powder-blue slacks, you can bet there will be matching powder-blue shoes—Anderson is as smooth as they come. In uniform he appears rarely to break a sweat and always seems in control. "If you don't already know how hard Derek is hustling, it can look as if he isn't trying sometimes," says assistant coach Mike Budenholzer. "But it's just that he has absolutely no wasted motion in his game."
Now if he can just stay healthy. Anderson has battled injuries ever since tearing the ACL in his right knee during his senior year at Kentucky. Before this season the fourth-year guard, who has been nagged by three other knee injuries as a pro, had never played more than 66 games in a season. At week's end, however, he had started all 70 games as a Spur and seemed to be getting stronger. He credits his stamina to the first serious weight-training and conditioning program of his life, which he began upon arriving in San Antonio last September. "Shoulders, triceps, legs, a million abs exercises," Anderson says, rattling off his workout. "My wind is better and my balance is better. I used to go to the hole and get knocked down. Now I stay in the air."
The newly toned Anderson has turned into something of a SportsCenter staple with his emphatic, call-your-friends-in-for-the-replay dunks. "Last year I would go to the rim, but I would probably pass it out or do an oop-de-oop," says the 6'5" Anderson while pantomiming a twirling scoop layup. "But this year," he breaks into a smile, "I'm punching it." His punching bags have included the 6'11" Vin Baker, the 7-foot Zan Tabak and the 7'6" Shawn Bradley. After the vicious one-handed, windmill jam over Bradley, Anderson received a stream of congratulatory calls, including one from Allen Iverson, who said, "Man, that s—- was unbelievable."
Always an unselfish player and a solid rebounder, Anderson has added three-point range to his arsenal. At week's end his percentage behind the arc stood at 41.7%, more than eight percentage points above his career average. As San Antonio's leader in threes made this season, Anderson has kept things lively for the team's Spanish-language radio broadcaster, Paul Castro, who punctuates each Spurs bomb that goes in with an emphatic exclamation of, "Uno, dos...TRES!!!" Last week when Anderson nailed 5 of 6 from deep against the Atlanta Hawks, Castro nearly fell out of his courtside chair counting all those 1-2-3s.
San Antonio leads the league in three-point accuracy (41.5%). Besides Anderson—who credits his long-range success to his increased leg strength—five other Spurs ( Elliott, Antonio Daniels, Danny Ferry, Steve Kerr and Terry Porter) are converting threes at better than a 40% rate. For opposing defenses, this presents quite a problem: Play Duncan and Robinson straight up and the Spurs will kill you inside, but double in the post and you leave open one of the deadeye shooters camped beyond the arc. "We make them choose one monster or the other," says Porter.