If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and the four championship banners and the best record in professional sports over the last 13 years would seem to indicate that things in San Antonio have been humming along just fine. Apparently not to Gregg Popovich. This season, his 15th as the Spurs' coach, he has ditched his grind-it-out offense in favor of a faster-paced attack, one that has propelled San Antonio to a league-best 17--3 start. "We're never going to be Phoenix or New York," says Popovich. "But we thought we could get better with a little more early offense."
Asking the Spurs to go up-tempo is like expecting a tortoise to race like a hare. Consider: Since Tim Duncan's arrival in 1997--98 the team has never been higher than 19th in possessions per 48 minutes; at week's end they ranked 10th. The Spurs' 106.7 points per game rank fourth in the NBA; the previous high for a Popovich-coached team is 10th. They have done it by moving away from Duncan—he was averaging career lows in points (14.0) and field goal attempts (11.5) through Sunday—and empowering the guards to create off the dribble. As a result Manu Ginobili is averaging a career-high 20.6 points and Tony Parker a career-best 7.0 assists.
The changes that Popovich emphasized in training camp (cross-court passing, more look-aheads, quicker shots) have been fully embraced. "They're pushing the ball better than any team in the league," says a Western Conference scout. "They're unselfish, and the ball moves fluidly. It's like they were built to play like this."
Balance has been the key. Five Spurs are averaging at least 11 points, and at least four have cracked double figures in each win. Undrafted rookie guard Gary Neal from Towson hit three three-pointers in a three-minute span of the fourth quarter in a win over the Bobcats; veteran forward Matt Bonner knocked down all seven of his treys to help beat the Thunder. At week's end San Antonio was shooting 40.4% from beyond the arc, the best in the NBA. "It's like every night we have a new hero," says forward Richard Jefferson, who has bounced back from a nightmarish first season in San Antonio to raise his three-point shooting from 31.6% to 43.4%.
Uncharacteristically, it's the Spurs' defense that needs work. After finishing in the top three in points allowed in 14 of the last 15 years, they ranked 12th through Sunday, with 97.8 per game. And they were just 17th in opponents' field goal percentage (46.2%), an ugly number for a team that's routinely in the top 10. Popovich calls the defense "average," and players say establishing a top-notch D is still his No. 1 priority. "We might score 55 points in the first half," says Jefferson. "But if we give up 52, he's going to be pissed."
Maybe playing a little zone would help. Popovich has been reluctant to use one, but if this season proves anything, it's that it can't hurt to try new things.
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LAYNE MURDOCH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (PARKER)
GETTING PUSHY With Parker running the up-tempo show, the Spurs are scoring at a rate not seen in San Antonio in 16 years.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (GRIFFIN)