Sunday, July 13, 2008

Express News: Spurs: Replacing old guard with new blood

Spurs: Replacing old guard with new blood
By Mike Monroe

We're older than dirt. — Gregg Popovich

Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children. — George Bernard Shaw

LAS VEGAS — The 13 players who suited up for the Spurs in their playoff run last season averaged 32.46 years old. That made them, if not quite as ancient as dirt, the oldest team in the NBA.

Depending, in part, on what Popovich and his assistants see from first-round draft pick George Hill, who is 22, and a group of equally young players who will put their skills on display in summer league games in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City over the next nine days, the Spurs figure to be significantly younger when the 2008-09 regular season begins.

Simply plugging free agent signee Roger Mason Jr., 27, in the guard spot once occupied by Brent Barry, who is 36, instantly drops the average age to 31.76. It will drop more before next season's opener, perhaps dramatically, depending on which players make the roster.

Fans and media critics who have been calling for the Spurs to get younger and more athletic may finally be getting their wish.

Hill, the combination guard from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) almost certainly will be on the opening night roster. In a rare show of confidence, Popovich asserted that Hill will be Tony Parker's primary backup and make the Spurs better, at both ends of the court, “right off the bat.”

Like Hill, Spurs second-round picks Malik Hairston and James Gist are 22. Popovich says he thinks both players are good enough to make the Spurs' 15-man roster.

Ian Mahinimi, 18 when the Spurs made him the 28th pick of the 2004 draft, also will be in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Entering the second season of the contract he signed last summer, Mahinmi spent most of last season with the Spurs' D-League team, the Austin Toros. His goal this summer: Convince the Spurs' coaches his game has developed to the point he merits a spot in the team's big man rotation, along with Tim Duncan, Fabricio Oberto, Matt Bonner and Kurt Thomas, should the Spurs re-sign him.

Don't make the mistake of calling next season the beginning of a transition period for a team that has won four championships since 1999. The Spurs don't mind being among the oldest teams in the league. NBA history suggests those teams are best suited for extended playoff runs.

“That's the popular thing to say or write,” said assistant coach Mike Budenholzer, Popovich's top assistant and head coach of the summer league team. “But we didn't lose (to the Lakers, in the 2008 Western Conference finals) because we were too old. If you were inside the walls, you'd know we don't believe we lost because we were too old.”

Budenholzer said summer league play is much more important for Hill, Hairston, Gist and Mahinmi than it is for the Spurs, who know they will remain among the league's best teams as long as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are healthy.

The youngsters know what they must do. Flattered by Popovich's draft night praise, Hill takes nothing for granted about a spot in the team's backcourt rotation.

“It's a great opportunity to play with Tony Parker,” Hill said. “He's a great player, but you've got a great vet, also, in Jacque Vaughn. You can't count anyone out. There's two players at that position I can learn so much from, just from the standpoint of Vaughn being in the NBA for so many years and Parker just being a great point guard.

“I have the best end of it right now, learning from two great players.”

Budenholzer won't place unreasonable expectations on Hill when summer league play begins Monday night with a game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Thomas and Mack Arena.

“I do think it's going to happen,” Budenholzer said of Hill's development into a rotation player, “but it's hard to put that kind of pressure on him. He might even struggle in summer league. But he's got all of August and training camp to learn.

“I want to slow it down a little bit and not judge him just on the next two weeks. But he has a lot of things we believe in. I think he's going to be good, but it might take a while to evolve. He's a great competitor, one of those kids who is going to find a way.”

Hairston, a former McDonald's high school All-American, has a simple goal for summer league: win.

“That's the big thing,” Hairston said, “and I think that's why I might be a great fit in San Antonio, because they love to win and do everything that it takes. I just want to show them I'll work hard every possession to try to make my team better and do whatever my team needs me to do.”

What the Spurs most want to see from all their summer leaguers is commitment to the Spurs' philosophy of team play.

“We have the same message for all of these summer league guys: Show us you can play defense and are willing to play team basketball,” Budenholzer said. “Be unselfish, make the little plays, get guys open, feed the post.”

And if they do?

On opening night, the Spurs could suit up a lineup with an average age under 30.

Then it will be Spurs 1, Dirt 0.

Spurs Roster

Matt Bonner, F, 28

Bruce Bowen, F, 37

Tim Duncan, F, 32

* Michael Finley, G, 35

Manu Ginobili, G, 30

James Gist, F, 21

Malik Hairston, G, 21

George Hill, G, 22

* Robert Horry, F, 37

Ian Mahinmi, F, 21

Roger Mason, G, 27

Fabricio Oberto, C, 33

Tony Parker, G, 26

* Kurt Thomas, C, 35

Ime Udoka, F, 30

Jacque Vaughn, G, 33

The average age of the current Spurs roster is 29.3.

Note: The Spurs must start the season with 12 active players and can carry up to three on the inactive list.

* — Unrestricted free agent

Hard to believe the Spurs might end up being one of the younger teams in the league, depending upon how the rookies pan out.

As sad as I am to see some really great players go, I think it's time for the changing of the guard (pun intended).

I'm not sure what series Monroe was watching, but the Spurs definitely lost to the Lakers because they were younger, faster, and more athletic. San Antonio was worn down by the Conference Finals. Something about that has to change.

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