SAN ANTONIO (AP) Tim Duncan didn't re-sign for three more years just to start over. In fact, the San Antonio Spurs are back with nearly the entire roster that dominated the NBA for most of last season.
``We were right on the verge of the Finals,'' Duncan said. ``Hopefully we can build on that.''
For that to happen, something has to change.
Otherwise, the league's winningest team the past two seasons - without a championship to show for it - risks winding up back where the Spurs found themselves in the Western Conference finals: a perennial contender still among the elite, but unable to reach another title.
So far starters, All-Star Tony Parker arrived at training camp with one idea - keep up what coach Gregg Popovich memorably implored the Spurs to do against Oklahoma City, before their season ended in an astonishing collapse.
Keep showing their nasty side.
``A lot of people see us as the nice Spurs. We need to play like we're hungry, like we want it,'' Parker said. ``We have to stop saying, `Oh, we won a lot of championships, we'll come back next year.' We have to play with more attitude.''
There's little fault to find in San Antonio's decision to keep the team intact. On May 29, the Spurs were an invincible combination of champion-forged savvy and depth who hadn't lost in 50 days, rolling on a 20-game winning streak and up 2-0 on Oklahoma City. Their first NBA Finals trip since 2007 seemed inevitable.
Their season was over less than a week later.
The unraveling was swift, accelerated by an eroding defense, an offense that went from the NBA's second highest-scoring to sputtering, and their celebrated bench wilting. And that's to say nothing of the Thunder, whose superstar core of early twentysomethings appear poised to dominate the West, as the Spurs' now 30-and-older Big Three did the previous decade.
Throw in the Los Angeles Lakers restocking with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and the Spurs' chances look bleaker than what the West's top seed the last two years might otherwise command. Even Popovich, sizing up the new landscape of the conference, said: ``There are others, but (the Thunder and Lakers) hit you in the face pretty quickly.''
Literally hit in the face this summer was Parker, who nearly lost his left eye that he says was cut by glass during a New York nightclub fight before the Olympics. Parker said he was just trying to get out of the way; Duncan joked it's just what they need.
``That's what this summer was all about. Trying to get street cred,'' Duncan said.
Like last season, the Spurs will only go as far as Parker carries them. Popovich, who is also team president, eagerly signed the 36-year-old Duncan to a new deal this summer and will face a similar situation when Manu Ginobili's contract expires after this year. But the Big Three era is now steered by Parker.
He averaged 18.3 points and a career-best 7.7 assists in the most complete season of his 12-year career. Duncan (15.9 points, 9.0 rebounds) will be his usual steady presence in his 16th NBA season, while the Spurs showed last season they finally had the depth to avoid catastrophe should the 35-year-old Ginobili become injured again.
Boris Diaw (4.7 points, 4.3 rebounds) is back at center and guard Danny Green (9.1 points, 3.5 rebounds) seems likely to reclaim the starting job he lost during the Thunder series after a miserable shooting stretch.
But short of attitude giving the Spurs a boost, who they might be really counting is second-year swingman Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs regard Leonard, their highest draft pick (No. 15) since Duncan in 1997, as their next star - someone to bridge the gap as the Big Three continues their decline.
Leonard averaged 7.9 points and 5.1 rebounds while playing in a system that didn't demand much of him besides guarding the opposing team's star player. This year, Popovich has already said the 21-year-old will handle the ball more, and Duncan wants to see if Leonard is ready to carry a bigger burden.
It's championship-or-bust as always for the Spurs. Yet with June still seven months away, Popovich set a more modest goal after coming back to work in October.
``If we can become a good defensive team,'' Popovich said, ``I'll be happy with our season.''
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