By Mike Monroe
It’s hard to remember the first time Gregg Popovich declared one of his Spurs teams older than dirt.
An archive search brings up references as far back as 2006, when Tim Duncan was near his prime and Manu Ginobili was still in his 20s.
The assertion was more accurate when he made it before the start of the 2008-09 season, but the context was more instructive than the declaration.
Then, a visiting columnist asked Popovich why his team was being dismissed as a legitimate title contender by so many experts.
After all, the previous spring the team had returned for a second straight season to the Western Conference finals. But misfortune had struck the Spurs in Game 3 of their conference semifinals series against the Hornets when Manu Ginobili twisted his right ankle. Ginobili gutted out the final four games of that series, but by the time the Spurs got to Los Angeles to begin the conference finals, he was far from full effectiveness.
At the conclusion of a 4-1 ouster by the Lakers, Brent Barry famously avowed: “We had ‘Ma,’ but we didn’t have ‘Nu.’?”
It didn’t matter to the team’s critics. L.A.’s domination became reason to declare the Spurs’ long run as championship contenders had ended.
So the following fall, when a Houston columnist asked about this pervasive belief, Popovich explained the lack of faith: “That’s because we’re older than dirt. When we won it all in ’07, we were called a really experienced, savvy team. If you lose, you’re too old.”
Ginobili is 34 now, and by season’s end Tony Parker will be just three weeks shy of his 30th birthday, the last of the Big Three to hit the Big 3-0.
Tim Duncan, the three-time NBA Finals MVP, is 35.
But even as the Spurs stars reach ages that prompt comparisons to well-turned loam, they remain vital to the team’s chances of making another title run.
Ginobili is fresh off a performance at the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament that proved his game remains among the best in the world as long as both arms are fully functional.
He is happy to see players such as DeJuan Blair, 22, James Anderson, 22, Kawhi Leonard, 20, and Tiago Splitter, 27 on Jan. 1, available for significant court time that will help the team’s veterans make it through a 66-game schedule compressed into 121 days.
Yet he is hardly ready to concede that the team has begun the transition to a team with a youthful core.
“It is probably early to talk about that,” he said. “Probably next year, when T.D.’s contract is up and, the following year, mine is up we’re probably going to see a change. I don’t think until then it’s going to be something noticeable. I think the go-to guys are still going to be the same ones.
“Of course, when you start adding guys — Kawhi and James, who has been playing really well, and DeJuan and Tiago — well, it’s not something that happens overnight. You have to wait a little.”
Indeed, Duncan is in the final year of his contract, shrugging off any suggestion it may be his last season in silver and black. He has vowed to play as long as the game remains enjoyable or “until the wheels fall off.”
A contract extension before season’s end would be no shock.
Ginobili is under contract through 2012-13. He hasn’t allowed himself to think seriously about a career beyond that season, but admits there are days when he can’t imagine not continuing for another season or two.
“No, I haven’t thought yet about what I will do after next season,” he said, “and I don’t think I will until the moment comes. There are some days I’m tired and everything hurts, and I say to myself, ‘These two years, and that’s probably it.’
“Some other days, I’m scrimmaging, and I’m going crazy because I love it, and I want to win and I want to challenge my opponent, and I know, once I make the decision (to retire) I am going to miss it, because at that age, that high the pregame gives you is different.
“I don’t know how, or who, is going to win next year, so I will wait.”
Whether Splitter, Leonard and Anderson have shown the potential to be a new Big Three by the end of the 2012-13 season won’t factor into Ginobili’s thinking about where he will play if, in fact, he opts to keep playing.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I am almost 100 percent sure that if I keep playing, it is going to be here.
“If I had to start all over again in a different place I would call it a day. But here I went through so many things and appreciate everybody so much, if I decide I want to keep playing and want to keep feeling what I feel on the court, it doesn’t matter if we are the best team, but not the worst. And if I keep playing here, probably we are not going to be the worst team.”
Of that, Popovich has no doubt. In a moment of candor while discussing that disappointing Western Conference finals with the Lakers, the Spurs coach made clear Ginboili’s continuing role in the Spurs’ championship dreams.
“If Manu wasn’t out there playing hurt against the Lakers; if we have him able to play the way he has played in the past, then that’s probably a whole different series,” he said three years ago. “You have to have your horses. If Manu’s not whole, we’re not going to win. That’s all there is to it.”
It is a truth that applied in 2008, and it applied in April in Memphis, just as it will this season.
As long as Ginobili is healthy, at any age, he will remain one of the Spurs’ lead horses, pulling his weight and a whole lot more.
AS MANU GOES . . .
… so go the Spurs. It’s a familiar tune, although Manu Ginobili, who played on three Spurs NBA championship teams in his first five seasons, would be the first to say he’s but a part of that success. However, the games he has missed shows the value that once had Spurs coach Gregg Popovich saying, “If Manu’s not whole, we’re not going to win.”
In games where Ginobili sat because of injury or to protect his health in nine seasons, that statement bears some truth.
Overall: 66-45 (.594 winning percentage, translates to a 49-win team in an 82-game schedule)
Since last title: 32-29 (.525, translates to a 43-win team in an 82-game schedule)
With Manu: In 755 career games, including playoffs, the Spurs are 529-266 for a .701 percentage, which translates to a 58-win team over 82 games.
– Source: Douglas Pils, Express-News research