Standing pat is just fine with Popovich

LAS VEGAS — To hear Spurs coach Gregg Popovich tell it, negotiating a new contract with franchise big man Tim Duncan this summer was a lot like negotiating with the mob.

“He was just as big a pain in the neck as he was when he almost went to Orlando,” Popovich joked, referring to Duncan’s free-agent flirtation with the Magic in 2000.

“He toyed with me. He lied to me. He intimidated me. He threatened me. In the end, it worked out. But I had to take much abuse to get it done.”

Having last week secured Duncan’s autograph on a three-year deal believed to be worth $39 million — one that could carry the 36-year-old future Hall of Famer to the conclusion of his career — the Spurs’ front office commenced on an offseason signing spree that went quickly, quietly and by design produced little in the way of roster turnover.

With guard Danny Green (three years, $12 million), center Boris Diaw (two years, $9.2 million) and backup point guard Patty Mills back in the fold, the team the Spurs trot out on opening day 2012 will look remarkably like the one last seen slumping off the court at Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals.

“We had a very good year, went a pretty long ways,” Popovich said earlier this week from NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. “We would have liked to have gone further, but we want to keep that group together.”

Since the start of free agency July 1, the Los Angeles Lakers added a two-time MVP in Steve Nash, Dallas almost completely revamped around Dirk Nowitzki, Phoenix remade itself for the post-Nash era, and Houston cashed out Luis Scola for a dose of Jeremy Lin-sanity.

In the face of such a shifting landscape in the Western Conference, the Spurs opted to make like the Grand Canyon and hardly change at all.

The only new addition so far is Nando de Colo, a 25-year-old French guard drafted 53rd overall in 2009, who Popovich likens to “a poor-man’s Danny Ainge.”

“He’s a good basketball player, fits in well with the group, makes good decisions, finishes on the break,” Popovich said. “He’s going to be fun to watch.”

For the 16th consecutive season, the Spurs will build around Duncan, who enjoyed a resurgent campaign (15.4 points, nine rebounds in 28.2 minutes per game) in 2011-12.

Once Duncan’s new deal sapped any shot the Spurs had at salary cap room, doubling down on a roster that won 50 of 66 games last season and came within two wins of the NBA Finals became the only sensible play for Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford.

In a turn of events that should please team chairman Peter Holt, the Spurs were able to do it without crossing the luxury-tax line of $70.307 million.

“Lots of times you don’t have a choice (but to stand pat), because of contracts or numbers or whatever,” Popovich said. “This year, we were able to do everything and stay under the tax at the same time. That was a goal, to stay under the tax. We weren’t sure we were going to be able to do it.”

Between now and the start of training camp in October, Popovich and Buford will keep an eye on the waiver wire for opportunities to upgrade the roster.

The bulk of the front office’s summertime work, however, is already done.

The Spurs already have 14 players under contract for next season, one less than the league maximum, though they could create an extra space if needed by waiving DeJuan Blair’s non-guaranteed $1.504 million deal.

Popovich acknowledges the challenge of running down the young and hungry Oklahoma City Thunder — much less the NBA champion Miami Heat — with a roster nearly identical to the one that could not get it done last season.

He also sees room for internal improvement, particularly in Green, second-year small forward Kawhi Leonard and Diaw, who did not join the team until March.

“I think we can get better,” Popovich said. “We’re going to stick with the group and see how it goes.”

No Leonard, no win: Leonard’s summer league is over.

Having apparently seen enough in two dominant games from their second-year small forward, the Spurs allowed Leonard to leave Las Vegas for good Wednesday.

Leonard will not play in either of the Spurs’ remaining two games, ending his summer stint sporting a healthy 25-point per game scoring average.

Without their leading scorer, the Spurs lost 86-80 to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night. Cory Joseph continued a strong summer league with 22 points and six assists.

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

Spurs’ summer schedule

The Spurs’ Summer League team has two games remaining in Las Vegas:

Friday: vs. Heat, Cox Pavilion, 7 p.m.

Saturday: vs. Mavericks, Cox Pavilion, 5 p.m.

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