Spurs don’t want just anybody at center

By Jeff McDonald

When Spurs coach Gregg Popovich looks at his roster as constituted, he sees what most analysts, scouts and fans in the stands do.

A giant question mark in the middle where the starting center should be.

Unlike many of those armchair pundits, however, Popovich seems to differ on the urgency with which that deficiency need be addressed.

“We probably could use another big in the rotation,” Popovich said. “But I don’t want to put someone there just to have a body there.”

Popovich has called the hunt for a reliable big man to plug next to an aging Tim Duncan the team’s No. 1 personnel goal.

Ten days into training camp, that search is still ongoing.

With the free-agent market for budget big men reduced to crumbs, and the trade market soft, the Spurs have so far been unable to lure outside reinforcements.

With the Dec. 26 opener against Memphis fast approaching, the Spurs appear prepared to start the season with the same frontline last seen getting skid-marked by the Grizzlies in April’s playoffs — minus Antonio McDyess, who appears intent on retirement.

The roll call of available free-agent centers who might fit the Spurs’ price range doesn’t exactly have the front office fumbling for its checkbook. As luxury tax payers, the most the Spurs can offer is a deal starting at $3 million.

That list, highlighted by the likes of Utah’s Kyrylo Fesenko and Toronto’s Alexis Ajinca, “won’t keep you up reading at night, like a good book,” Popovich said.

“I want that person to at least be able to help us when we put him in the game, instead of just take up minutes.”

Instead of rushing to fill a void with a player they don’t really want, the Spurs appear content to see what shakes out during the season, up until the March 15 trade deadline.

McDyess’ contract — worth $5.22 million but guaranteed for only $2.64 million until the end of the day today — appears to be the team’s most worthwhile trade chip.

Even at full price, McDyess’ expiring deal would likely interest a team looking to shed salary to chase a bumper crop of free agents this summer.

“We’re going to be patient and just take our time and see what develops,” Popovich said.

In the meantime, the Spurs’ search for a center will cycle through a familiar list of in-house candidates, each of them incomplete in some way.

Matt Bonner was the NBA’s leading 3-point shooter last season at 45.7 percent, but will never be confused with Bill Russell on defense. DeJuan Blair is undersized at 6-foot-7, has battled weight issues and, at 22, is still developing.

Tiago Splitter is a Brazilian mystery, limited to 60 games of mostly mop-up duty during an injury-speckled rookie year. In a sense, Popovich views Splitter as this season’s de facto free-agent signee.

“We haven’t really seen Tiago much, so he’s kind of a new player this year,” Popovich said. “He’s going to give us a lot of minutes we have to have, because of the quick schedule.”

With Duncan held out of Saturday’s preseason-opening loss at Houston, Splitter started at center next to Blair and scored 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting.

“I want to grow my game,” Splitter said. “I know how to play. I just want to help the team win games.”

Once upon a time, with Duncan in his two-time MVP prime, the Spurs were able to win championships with the likes of Rasho Nesterovic and Fabricio Oberto flanking him.

With Duncan’s 36th birthday approaching, the Spurs now require more from their starting center than to just be tall and ambulatory.

Popovich believes the Spurs can afford to remain patient in finding that person. For now, at least.

Leave a Reply