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Spurs, not Carmelo, are true story in NBA

Image: San Antonio Spurs (© Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images)
People in the NBA should listen to what the Spurs have to say.
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Mark Kriegel

Mark Kriegel is the national columnist for FOXSports.com. He is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, which Sports Illustrated called "the best sports biography of the year."

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Carmelo Anthony, widely alleged to be a franchise player, has been to the playoffs in each of his seven previous NBA seasons. Six times his team was eliminated in the first round. Five times the squad he led came away with a single win or less.

Now, it’s not Anthony’s fault he’s merely a great scorer. But with the season now mercifully past its halfway mark, all the ’Melo Mania has obscured the real and meritorious story.

That would be the guys who have won, who continue to win at an alarming rate and might yet win again. That would be the San Antonio Spurs, who, at 46-10, have the best record in the NBA.

In a league that proclaims teamwork as its highest value, the Spurs represent everything ‘Melo does not: the collective as opposed to the individual, experience and know-how over mere talent. Carmelo Anthony doesn’t make anybody better (or at least, hasn’t learned to yet). But the Spurs, even in their aged state, remain bigger than the sum of their parts.

That’s the league’s dirty little secret. It takes a little knowledge and a discerning eye to appreciate the kind of ball Gregg Popovich’s squad is playing. Most fans – not to mention corporate sponsors – would rather see a kid jump over a car. Then again, Blake Griffin’s success in the slam dunk contest was a lot easier to forecast than the season San Antonio is having. The expiration date on the Spurs’ championship chances was widely thought to have arrived a year ago. Maybe even the Spurs themselves believed it.

I asked Duncan the other day if he ever thought back in, say, training camp, that the Spurs would return from the All-Star break with the league’s best record.

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“I’d have been surprised,” he said. “Very surprised.”

“Last year, we had 50 wins,” Manu Ginobili said during the All-Star break. “This year, we already have 46.”

If you like numbers, consider that the Spurs have five guys with double-figure scoring averages, but none at more than 18 a game. Future first-ballot Hall of Famer Tim Duncan is averaging 13.4 points and fewer than 10 rebounds, career lows. But together, the Spurs are averaging five points more than they did in 2006-07, their last championship season.

Through the first half of the season, most of the serious championship prognostication concerns the Lakers, the Celtics and the Heat. Meanwhile, San Antonio has nine fewer losses than Los Angeles, four fewer than Boston, and five fewer than Miami.

“Our players react very well to one another,” Popovich said.

Translation: In a league of huge egos, the Spurs don’t have any.

They’ve also been around for a while. Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker – with 10 championship rings among them – have been playing together for eight years. But outside of Duncan (34), Ginobili (33) and substitute big man Antonio McDyess (36), the Spurs don’t have a significant player over 30.

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And they’re running more than they ever have. “I’m the same person coaching,” Popovich said. “But we’ve emphasized pace this year . . . accelerating the pace.”

Obviously, it has worked. The coach, who attributes his team’s success to “a confluence of circumstances,” cites the running game (the Spurs are tied for seventh in fast-break points), the emergence of players now in their second season with the team (Richard Jefferson and DeJuan Blair) and, most of all, the blessing of good health. Popovich – who had Ginobili come off the bench for a game on account of fatigue – has started the same five players in 55 of 56 games.

There is reason to wonder if the Spurs have the size to make it back to the NBA Finals. Just the same, they like their chances. Experience counts for something during the long playoff grind. And with Duncan averaging only 28.7 minutes a game – 10 minutes less than he did a decade ago – he should be relatively fresh come April.

“It’s easier for us to play in the playoffs,” Ginobili said. “You don’t have four games in five nights.”

If the playoff schedules are more forgiving, playoff defenses are not. Just ask Anthony, whose scoring average drops a bit against the Spurs. He’s 2-8 against San Antonio in the playoffs. And you have to figure the Spurs will return to the finals before the Knicks.

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