Diaw back in Phoenix with ‘loading up’ Spurs

PHOENIX — Boris Diaw will take the floor at the U.S. Airways Center tonight, and at times it will feel like a homecoming.

Diaw spent the most productive seasons of his career here from 2005 until being traded to Charlotte in December 2008. He still owns a house in the area.

And like most other prominent members of the Phoenix Suns from that era, Diaw also occasionally experiences flashbacks of fruitless playoff trips against the Spurs.

“They were the team to beat, and we never could get past them,” said Diaw, a 6-foot-8 forward acquired by the Spurs last week. “That was a long time ago. It’s in the past.”

Much has changed since Diaw left Phoenix.

For starters, he is on the other side of the Spurs-Suns divide, his “we” and “them” having been transposed when he signed a free-agent deal in San Antonio last week.

When Diaw returns to his former home court tonight, to face his former team, he will literally be wearing black, a symbol of his changed place in the rivalry. As far as Phoenix fans are concerned, he might as well embrace the change fully and don a Darth Vader mask.

“It feels different,” Diaw said of switching allegiances. “But it’s the same goal of going as far as possible.”

Diaw’s arrival marks the latest step in a midseason makeover unprecedented in San Antonio, designed to turbo-charge the Spurs’ pursuit of a fifth NBA championship before franchise cornerstone Tim Duncan retires.

In a span of eight days, the Spurs potentially added three new rotation players to a roster already good enough to post the second-best record in the Western Conference.

First, the front office swapped Richard Jefferson — the Spurs’ starter at small forward for 192 games — to Golden State for Stephen Jackson, a clutch-shooting ghost from the team’s championship past.

Then, the Spurs signed Diaw, two days after his contract was bought out in Charlotte.

The team has one more move still in the hopper, awaiting backup point guard Patty Mills to resolve visa issues so he can begin spelling Tony Parker.

For Spurs players who have been here a while, and have never witnessed a shake-up quite so bold, the point was undeniable.

“We knew we were going all-in,” guard Manu Ginobili said.

The flurry of roster moves sent a clear signal to the Spurs’ top competitors as well.

“They are loading up for a run,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “They are like a lot of us. They see this thing is pretty wide-open, and they have a great shot.”

In the 33-year-old Jackson, the Spurs have a battle-tested swingman who arrived touting his ability to “make love to pressure.”

Rescued from Milwaukee, where he clashed with coach Scott Skiles, Jackson brings an edge and sense of swagger to the Spurs’ bench.

A skilled and versatile forward, Diaw affords the Spurs another ample posterior to set screens and defend the paint against the West’s top big men.

For the remade Spurs, the biggest challenge going forward will be finding time to get the new pieces accustomed to playing with the old ones. The compact lockout schedule leaves little time to practice, and the playoffs are a little more than a month away.

“You just hope the guys can absorb as much as they can,” coach Gregg Popovich said.

For Diaw, simply slipping into a silver and black jersey seems surreal.

The Spurs knocked him from the playoffs three times when he was with Phoenix. By the time Phoenix finally broke through, sweeping the Spurs in the 2010 second round, Diaw was already in Charlotte.

The Suns’ closest call during Diaw’s tenure came in 2007. Phoenix had evened the conference semifinals at 2-2 with a Game 4 victory in San Antonio, only to have Diaw and Amare Stoudemire suspended for Game 5 for leaving the bench area after the Spurs’ Robert Horry bounced Steve Nash into the scorers table.

The Spurs won Game 5, and ultimately the series, en route to their fourth NBA title.

“We were in good position,” Diaw said. “We know how close we were. It was heartbreaking.”

Having been unable to beat the Spurs while with the Suns, Diaw is content enough to join them.


Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

Spurs’ Project Get Young continues

By Jeff McDonald

Kawhi Leonard can’t say for certain if he was watching the NBA draft that night in 1997, when the Spurs made Tim Duncan the No. 1 overall pick and set the stage for a four-championship dynasty.

Back then, Leonard wasn’t allowed to stay up that late.

“I was 6 years old,” Leonard said.

On another June night some 14 years later, the Spurs made Leonard their highest-drafted rookie since Duncan, sending popular guard George Hill to Indiana in a trade that brought, among other baubles, the player the Pacers had taken with the 15th pick.

Stakes are high for Leonard, a 20-year-old small forward fresh off two college seasons at San Diego State. They are equally as high for the Spurs, who would not have gambled a key rotation piece such as Hill to acquire a player they did not think could readily contribute.

“I’m just happy they wanted me on their team,” Leonard said.

Though still the team of Duncan (35), Manu Ginobili (34) and Tony Parker (29), if the Spurs are to beat the odds and get back to the NBA mountaintop this season, they will rely on younger legs to help carry them.

Fresh off a paradoxical campaign in which they finished with the best record in the Western Conference (61-21), then were promptly ushered from the playoffs in the first round by Memphis, the Spurs have dipped their roster in the Fountain of Youth, hoping for a reboot.

Leonard’s arrival marks another chapter in a silver-and-black sea change that has been ongoing since the Spurs’ most recent NBA championship in 2007.

The 2007-08 roster — which coach Gregg Popovich once laughingly derided as “older than dirt” — featured Robert Horry (37), Brent Barry (36), Bruce Bowen (36) and Michael Finley (34).

This season, in addition to Leonard, the Spurs expect significant contributions from each of their previous two top draft picks, 22-year-olds James Anderson and DeJuan Blair, as well as from 26-year-old center Tiago Splitter and 27-year-old reserve guard Gary Neal.

In a lockout-condensed, 66-game season, in which back-to-backs are plentiful and rest for old, tired bodies is not, young depth will be crucial now more than ever.

“It’s probably mandatory,” Popovich said. “Those games — five in six nights and three in a row, that sort of thing — is not going to be conducive to playing older players too many minutes.”

In short order, the Spurs’ roster has gone from too old to go out to the club to young enough to be carded when they get there. Their recipe for success this season is simple, yet difficult.

They need Leonard, a 6-foot-7 defensive menace and rebounding machine, to defy the normal rookie learning curve in a short training camp. They need Anderson, the 2010 Big 12 Player of the Year at Oklahoma State, to stay on the floor after injuries short-circuited his rookie year.

They need Splitter to rise to a bigger role and play more like the Spanish League MVP he once was. They need the 6-7 Blair to sprout a couple inches, or at least not grow a couple pant sizes.

They need Neal to pick up where he left off after an All-Rookie campaign.

If all that happens, the no-longer-older-than-dirt Spurs can expect to once again be a force in the Western Conference.

“This was always a veteran team,” Blair said. “Now we’ve gone young, and everybody is running around like a chicken with their head cut off.”

Parker, the only member of the Spurs’ so-called Big Three still shy of the big 3-0, compares the team’s situation now to the early 2000s, when he and Ginobili arrived to inject life into an aging roster.

In 2002-03, Ginobili’s rookie season, the Spurs won their second championship.

“It’s a little bit like when I came or Manu came, we had to contribute right away,” Parker said. “All of our young guys this season have to do the same thing.”

With the influx of youth is sure to come growing pains.

Ginobili recalls his inaugural NBA season, when it seemed as if more of his fancy passes wound up in the seats than his teammates’ hands.

“I’ve always said making mistakes is huge,” Ginobili said. “In my first two seasons, Pop wanted to kill me. But it helped me to understand the game.”

How long will Popovich be able to tolerate the mistakes of youth? The answer may be irrelevant.

The Spurs’ young bucks will play this season, and play a lot, because there is no other alternative.


Spurs coach Gregg Popovich referred to the team that followed his last NBA championship in 2007 as “older than dirt.” It brought about the desired laughter, and that 2007-08 team made the Western Conference finals.

But since then, Popovich and the Spurs’ front office have been busy securing fresh legs in hopes of getting younger. Here’s a look at the 13 guys who played and lost to the Lakers in five games in 2008 and the ones who step up Monday to face the Grizzlies in the 2011-12 season opener.

Source: Douglas Pils, Express-News research

Reason Popovich deserves amnesty

The Spurs had used economic smoke to trade for a smart, genial, talented man. No one knew at the time little fire would come in return.

They were thrilled about Richard Jefferson.

R.C. Buford called the trade “an exciting day in our franchise’s evolution,” and Gregg Popovich gushed similarly.

“He’s got a toughness to him,” Popovich said then of Jefferson. “He’s a competitor. He gives us that added quality, which is important when trying to get a championship.”

Franchises say such things after trades. But these words are stunning in review, and not just because Popovich was wrong. He was wrong as he rarely has been. He was wrong about the one trait he values above all others.

It’s an aberration, and history supports that.

Such as?

The last time Popovich faced a shortened season.

Before this one, Popovich and Buford face a few decisions. Whether to amnesty Jefferson and his contract is at the top of the list.

These things are often just business. Dallas used the amnesty clause on Michael Finley, for example, and he won a ring with the Spurs while still receiving a paycheck from Mark Cuban.

But Finley’s story isn’t the same. The Mavericks had rewarded him in his prime, then later found his contract too pricey for his declining ability.

The Spurs, in contrast, accepted Jefferson’s contract as part of the deal. There have been times when he’s been effective, especially when he lined up his 3-point stroke last season. But mostly he’s been, well, odd.

“You know, in football, when there’s a pile and the runner is tackled?” a Spurs coach said not long ago. “Richard is the guy who runs in when the play is over and jumps into the pile.”

Popovich surely had some idea Jefferson might underperform. The two had been together during the summer of 2004 for the Olympics.

But Popovich liked Jefferson, and maybe he thought a reasonable person could be reached through reason. The summer of 2010, when Popovich did one-on-one work with Jefferson and made some headway, was an extension of that.

Maybe, too, Popovich had grown tired of cobbling together wins without traditional NBA scoring. Popovich wanted to believe, both in himself and in a seemingly well-intentioned player.

But in trading for Jefferson, Popovich had gone against his instincts. He doesn’t want guys he has to talk into competing; he wants those who are built for it.

He addressed that directly in the previous post-lockout world. Then, in January of 1999, he would be on the phone with one agent, with Buford on another line with another agent, changing their franchise one call at a time.

It was a free-agent scramble, as this one will be. And when the papers settled, the Spurs had added either physical toughness (Jerome Kersey) or mental toughness (Steve Kerr) or both (Mario Elie).

The Spurs had similar personalities already on the roster, such as Avery Johnson. But when Popovich sprinkled like-minded veterans around Tim Duncan, David Robinson and Sean Elliott, he reset the Spurs’ locker room.

Elliott felt that from the first day. “I’m gonna push him in practice,” Elie announced before a game had been played. “I’m gonna beat him up. I’m gonna make him tough.”

If Elliott rolled his eyes — and Duncan did at times — the impact was real. Popovich had created a theme that would last through the next decade, from Bruce Bowen to Robert Horry to Antonio McDyess.

Jefferson doesn’t fit with that group, and he never did. That’s why the trade wasn’t his fault.

That’s also why the term amnesty isn’t meant for him. Jefferson wouldn’t be getting a reprieve or a pardon if the Spurs buy him out. He would just be getting money.

The amnesty, instead, is for Popovich.