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Spurs have it all together

Pieces are in place for even more titles

Gregg Popovich recently bought 47 acres of land in Vermont, where he plans to build a home. He's not happy the news got out; credit the Bennington Banner for that. But it's not as if he's going to turn into Bob Newhart overnight. Suffice it to say that the first shovel will hit the ground when Tim Duncan walks out that door, never to return.

And that won't be for a while, which is good news for Popovich and the folks in San Antonio, and bad news for everyone else.

The Spurs not only have won three of the last five NBA titles, they could easily have won the other two, losing to the Lakers in 2004 (the series-turning play being Derek Fisher's Game 5 heroics at the end) and to the Mavericks last year (the series-turning play being Manu Ginobili's foul on Dirk Nowitzki near the end of regulation in Game 7). They haven't even repeated yet, but you have to figure they will be in the mix for several years.

The reason? Duncan, of course. Tony Parker was the Finals MVP but that was like giving the 1981 MVP to Cedric Maxwell or the 1988 award to James Worthy. Yes, the award winners played great. But everyone knows who the real MVP was (including, by the way, Parker, Worthy, and Maxwell).

"Guys want to come play here," said Spurs general manager R.C. Buford during the Finals. "People are willing to sacrifice to do that. We've had a long list of guys do that: [Steve] Kerr, [Danny] Ferry, [Terry] Porter, Mario [Elie], and now [Michael] Finley and [Fabricio] Oberto.

"A lot of those guys had better offers. Tim allows this to happen. I think they have an appreciation playing for Pop and knowing that it's going to be fair and reasonable. But it starts with Tim. You got the honey, the bees will come."

Indeed. And Duncan isn't going anywhere or, presumably, losing any of his "honey." So the "bees" should continue to come. Duncan is signed for three more years (at roughly the same amount the Celtics decided to pay Paul Pierce) and is still only 31. The other key guys, Parker (25) and Ginobili (30 next month), aren't going anywhere, either. Ginobili is signed through 2010 and Parker through 2011.

The Spurs will basically return the same group next year with minor tweaks. (We're not sure of Matt Bonner's fate, sadly. The pride of Concord will be a free agent.) Veterans Finley, Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen, and Brent Barry are all signed through 2008. Oberto has a player option; can't see him deciding to pass on a possible repeat. If San Antonio does not bring back Jacque Vaughn, it'll have at least one space available. (Bonner would be another.) The Spurs have the rights to several bodies playing in Europe, including menacing Argentine Luis Scola.

The Spurs used their mid-level exception -- attention Celtics, you can use yours, too, if you wish -- to sign Francisco Elson and Jackie Butler last summer. Elson was a useful presence in the playoffs. Butler played only 103 minutes all year, but that was 38 more than midseason acquisition Melvin Ely, a onetime lottery pick (2002).

They'll also have Popovich, and that cannot be understated. He has formed a bond with Duncan (who has not played for anyone else in the NBA, unless you count his hated USA Basketball appearances) and has, as Buford noted, made San Antonio a place where veterans want to play. He's fair but uncompromising. He's blunt but flexible.

Popovich's 2005 team became the first in NBA history to win a title without a player averaging 35 minutes a game. His 2007 team became the second -- and Duncan barely averaged more than 34. He is not going to wear people out, and he understands the nature of an NBA season as well as anyone. The Spurs are terrific second-half finishers every year.

And they have an owner who stays out of the way. (What a concept!) Popovich said during the Finals that owner Peter Holt has never, not even once, questioned a basketball decision. The Spurs have no serious luxury tax concerns, despite having three players who will earn close to $40 million next season. Players take less to go there. They take less to stay there.

It's a system that has worked and will continue to work as long as Pop and Duncan stay around. But when the Big Fundamental hangs 'em up, the folks in Southern Vermont can get ready to greet a new neighbor. And if one of them also happens to be in the wine business, even better, for there will be an eager and discerning new customer.

A no-look pass for Presti


Sam Presti said he watched part of the third quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals. That was it for the former Spurs assistant general manager. (I'm guessing he missed the last episode of "The Sopranos," too.)

Presti has been working nonstop in Seattle, where he was named general manager, and has, as he put it, "a lot of work to do." He needs a new coach. He has the second, 31st, and 35th picks in the draft. (We all know who No. 2 will be. The others are what's taking up his time.) He has one of his top players, Rashard Lewis, entering free agency.

But the 30-year-old Presti, who hails from Concord, Mass., and was a hoops star at Emerson, feels he made the right move in leaving the protective cover of R.C. Buford, Gregg Popovich, and the Spurs organization.

"It's never easy to leave a place like that," he said. "But I was drawn to this situation after getting to know the owner and looking at all the opportunities. And once we had the news conference [June 7], I packed what I could in San Antonio and came out here."

Presti said he is not working on a timetable to get a coach, feeling it's more important that he do his due diligence. Among the names you will see are P.J. Carlesimo and Rick Carlisle, both of whom have a relationship with Presti. There have been others calling as well, looking for jobs.

"I don't know why it is, but all of a sudden, I've become a lot more popular," cracked Presti.

And while he didn't witness Title No. 4 for the Spurs, he had a big hand in it, having put together the video package that convinced Popovich to take a second look at a young French guard named Tony Parker. Will he get a ring?

"That's up to the Spurs," Presti said. "But they've always been good to me in the past."

An ACC pedigree is no guarantee

Ex-Boston College star Jared Dudley is making the workout rounds and, at least in the eyes of his agent, Mark Bartelstein, has elevated himself into the discussion for being a first-round pick.

"I think he's going to go in the first round," Bartelstein said. "I think he has proven to everybody that he is going to be a very good player in the NBA."

Is that agent-speak? Well, sure it is. What's Bartelstein supposed to say? There have been some comparisons of Dudley's situation to that of Josh Howard. Both were ACC Players of the Year. Howard was taken with the last pick of the first round in 2003 (that's one Danny Ainge, among others, would like to have back) and has blossomed into an All-Star for the Mavericks. Howard also played four years at Wake Forest, as Dudley did at The Heights.

But the recent track record for ACC Players of the Year is not what you might think. The winner in each of the two years before Dudley was Duke's J.J. Redick. He was the 11th pick in 2006 and had an injury-plagued and generally underwhelming rookie year for Orlando. (Brian Hill took some heat for not playing the kid more.)

Of the ACC Players of the Year this decade, three are not even in the NBA (Joe Forte, Julius Hodge, and Chris Carrawell), and a fourth, Juan Dixon, is a sub for the Raptors. The only guys in this decade who have done much in the NBA are Howard and Shane Battier.

Ah, but the last four ACC Player of the Year awards in the 1990s were won by Tim Duncan (twice), Antawn Jamison, and Elton Brand.

Dudley, by the way, has a workout scheduled with the Celtics the day before the draft.

Etc.

Secretary of defense
Bruce Bowen again finished second in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year. He also was runner-up in 2005-06 and 2004-05. After watching him dog people like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James in the playoffs, you realize once again just how important he is to the Spurs' overall scheme. No, he doesn't stop these guys. But he harasses them and, as teammate Brent Barry noted, "He makes it very, very difficult for any star player to get going." Bowen also was the undisputed Spur of the Game in Game 3, when he had 13 points and 9 rebounds while irritating James throughout. "He's the best perimeter defender in the league," Barry said. "I don't know how much longer people have to say things about Bruce in terms of the way he defends. Just look at what he's been able to do the last four to five years, especially at playoff time. It speaks for itself. He guarded me when I was with Seattle, and when he was on me, I couldn't do anything. I think he was guarding me when I got out of my car. LeBron James should be flattered that we put Bruce on him."

Cavalier attitude
The Cavaliers prided themselves on defense as well, but theirs seems to be more of an offshoot of their horrendous offense. In other words, if we can keep the score down by taking our time and squeezing the shot clock, the other guys won't score that many points. Mike Brown's offense has been rightfully condemned as something out of the Stone Age, especially when he has perhaps the best open-court player in the game. Yes, the Cavs desperately need a point guard -- that does not constitute a bulletin -- but when you rebound as well as they do, there's no excuse for playing the plodding, pound-it-to-the-floor style they play. As for defense, well, not a single Cav got a mention in Defensive Player of the Year voting (by media members) or for a spot on the All-Defensive Teams (by the head coaches). The last Cleveland player to get as much as a single vote in the DPY voting was Brevin Knight in 1998, and the last Cav to make an All-Defensive Team was Bobby Phills, a second-teamer in 1996. That still beats the Celtics, whose last player to get even one vote in the DPY voting was Rick Fox (1997) and whose last rep on the All-Defensive Team was Kevin McHale, a second-teamer in 1990.

Suns in taxing situation
Wonder why Shawn Marion is suddenly, as they say, available? Two reasons: He's good and the Suns need to slash payroll unless owner Robert Sarver enjoys writing luxury tax checks made out to David Stern. The Suns are on the books for roughly $77 million in salaries next year, and that figures to be well above the tax threshold (which was $65 million this year). Marion is down to earn $16.44 million next season and $17.18 million in 2008-09. But even by trading Marion, the Suns still will have to take back most of that $16.44 million (unless he's dealt to a team with a lot of cap room, like Charlotte or possibly Orlando). The bigger concern is that the Suns are down to pay more than $21 million next season to Boris Diaw ($9 million), Kurt Thomas ($8.09 million), and, ahem, Marcus Banks ($3.99 million). The signing of Banks (a totally unnecessary and foolish $21 million over five years) and the re-signing of Diaw (from $1.8 million to an is-he-really-worth-it $45 million over five years) hurt the Suns more than the money due Marion, who has some cachet. The Celtics, by the way, probably would have drafted Marion in 1999 had they not traded their pick to Cleveland in the deal for Vitaly Potapenko. The other option, Andre Miller, probably would have been bypassed because the team had acquired Kenny Anderson the year before.

Very iffy
There was a lot of "what if?" stuff written about the Spurs during the NBA Finals; that tends to happen when basically the same guys are in the Finals for the third time in five years. There was the "what if we had signed Jason Kidd after 2003?" story. Said GM R.C. Buford, "Who knows? If we'd gotten Jason, we might have even won five in a row." Then there was the "what if Tim Duncan had signed with Orlando in 2000?" story. (Yup, it's seven years old.) Duncan acknowledged that he came close to signing with the Magic. I asked Doc Rivers this season how close. Said Rivers, "When he got on the plane to go back to San Antonio, he told us he was coming to the Magic." But David Robinson flew in from Hawaii to persuade Duncan to stay, and two other things happened that convinced Duncan he was in the right spot: Coach Gregg Popovich told him to take as much time as he needed to tend to his ill father and then Popovich withheld Duncan from the 2000 playoffs because of a left knee injury and, for the only time since Duncan arrived in San Antonio, the Spurs lost in the first round (to the Suns in four games). Duncan had knee surgery in late May and re-signed with the Spurs in early August.

Peter May can be reached at p_may@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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