by Greg Melikov - 11/07/2005
Entering last season, the San Antonio Spurs were considered one of the main contenders to make it to the NBA Finals. They not only didn't disappoint, the team captured its third title in seven years.
Now many experts expect the NBA champion to repeat and the oddsmakers agree.
Charles Barkley, the outstanding rebounder turned TV broadcaster for TNT, has been in the team's corner for several years. On 2005 opening week, he observed: "They don't have to play this season. You might as well give it to the Spurs right now. They're going to win anyway."
The main reason the Spurs are favored: They always play great defense and the roster is stronger than last year's. Naturally, Tim Duncan is the low-key star that was the most valuable player in all three-championship finals.
The power forward, who averaged 19 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists, played a career low 33.4 minutes per game since becoming a Spur in '97 because of a nagging ankle injury. But that worked to the team's advantage because he was fresher in the playoffs.
Perennial All-Star Duncan, called the best basketball player on the planet by Barkley, is the heart and soul of the Spurs.
Tony Parker, the feisty guard who has been inconsistent at times, is working with new shooting coach Chip Engelland. Parker showed improvement over four previous openers in the season's first game against Denver, Engelland's old team, head coach Gregg Popovich observed.
Parker, who averaged 26 points, 2 rebounds and 3 assists last season, hit all seven shots in the final quarter, scoring the game high 26 points in the 102-91 victory.
In the 102-76 victory against Cleveland, a notably more aggressive Parker played only 29 minutes and scored 18 points and had 8 assists. All 12 Spurs played against the Cavaliers, with 10 players on the court at least 15 minutes.
Manu Ginobili, another All-Star, is considered one of the most dangerous scorers in the league because he has more moves than a chess master. After coming off the bench in '03 to spark the team, he was so valuable that Popovich started him as shooting guard last season.
Ginobili averaged 10 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists during the regular season, but scored when points were needed more often than not. In addition, his average jumps nearly 5 points in playoffs.
Bruce Bowen, who has made the NBA all-defensive team since '01, usually guards the opponent's scoring leader. He also averaged 4 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists a game.
"We know Bruce is always going to do what he has to do," Ginobili said after the Cleveland rout. "That's something many teams don't have, when you have to guard guys like LeBron (James) and Carmelo (Anthony). We always know we can depend on him."
Nazi Mohammed missed training camp last season because he didn't arrive from the New York Knicks until late February in a trade for crowd favorite Malik Rose. By the playoffs, he established himself as the starting center, displacing Rasho Nestervic, who still averaged 5.9 points and 6.6 rebounds in a backup role.
San Antonio's bench should be the strongest in years, mainly because of three signings, including Michael Finley, second leading scorer in 2004-05 with Dallas.
Finley averaged 15.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 64 games for the Mavs. During his 10-year career, he has averaged 17.8 points and 5.2 rebounds in playoffs.
The acquisition will strengthen a perimeter that includes Ginobili, small forward Bowen and shooting guard Brent Barry. Finley adds a dimension that Bowen lacks -- the ability to score off the dribble.
To help relieve Duncan, the Spurs acquired Fabricio Oberto, Ginobili's teammate on the Argentine national team that won the last Olympic basketball gold medal. Oberto, considered one of best pivots in European basketball, averaged 14.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in Spain last season.
While Nick Van Exel's career is on the down side, he should be an excellent backup for Parker. Although hampered by sore knees, he decided to play another year. Last season at Portland, he averaged 11.1 points, 4.3 assists and 3 rebounds in 53 games. His playoff statistics: 15.7 points, 5.1 assists and 3.3 rebounds.
There's one part of the game the Spurs need to improve on: free-throw showing. The league's 30 teams averaged 76 percent last year. San Antonio hasn't shot that high in a dozen years. Last season, they did hit 72 percent.
Ginobili was the best starter: 80 percent. Coming off the bench, Barry exceeded 83 percent from the line and Robert Horry was 79 percent.
"If we don't win a championship this year, it won't be because we took it for granted or thought we already arrive," Popovich told The San Antonio Express-News. "It will be because somebody else plays better or somebody is healthier or a combination thereof."