Normally, the San Antonio Spurs would be gearing up to make a championship run at this time of this year. However, this has not been a normal season for the Spurs.
The Spurs are 33-24 and would be just the seventh seed in the Western Conference if the playoffs started today. They are not a lock to make the playoffs--which they have done 12 consecutive seasons and 19 times in the last 20 years--as they hold just a three-game lead over the ninth-place Hornets.
"It's really hard to imagine us not being in the playoffs but we can't take anything for granted," shooting guard Manu Ginobili said. "We've got to take of business when we have the opportunity."
San Antonio certainly hasn't looked like a championship contender for much of this season. The Spurs haven't been able to string together more than two victories in a row since a five-game winning streak from Dec. 26-Jan. 2.
Veteran center Tim Duncan has played on all four of the Spurs' championship teams. He knows the work that goes into being a title contender and believes the Spurs can reach that status this season.
"It's not hard to keep plugging along," Duncan said. "It's hard with the results, post-games and looking back at the ones we let slip away. To get back to work and to keep plugging away isn't hard because I know we want to get it right. I know we want to play the right way and we want to start moving in the right direction."
Ilgauskas Making His Decision
Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas is now officially a free agent after having his contract bought out by the Washington Wizards. The question now is where he will wind up.
The Cleveland Cavaliers would like to bring Ilgauskas back after trading him to the Wizards for Antawn Jamison. However, NBA rules prohibit a traded player from returning to his team for one month, which means the Cavaliers can't re-sign Ilgauskas, their all-time leader in games played, until March 22.
"Any playoff team would love to have his services," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. "We'd be just as eager as anybody else."
However, the Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz are also said to be interested. Herb Rudoy, Ilgauskas' agent, said he intends to speak with at least a "half-dozen teams in the league, including the Cavaliers."
Hawks center Al Horford makes no secret of his team's desire for Ilgauskas.
"We need a guy like that," Horford said. "I hope our people can make that happen because he would be a big key for us. He's a guy that is good with shooting on the pick-and-pop. He's a big body. We already have some of those but you need as many as you can get for the playoffs, especially an experienced guy like that."
Veteran guard Larry Hughes is also a free agent after negotiating a buyout with the Kings. Hughes appears headed for the Charlotte Bobcats. Larry Brown coached him with the 76ers and Hughes would cost only $240,000 for the remainder of the season.
The Bobcats are looking for backcourt depth after trading Flip Murray and Acie Law to the Bulls for Tyrus Thomas last month.
Wizards Not Ruling Out Arenas Return
The zero in the nickname Agent Zero may not necessarily mean the number of games suspended point guard Gilbert Arenas has left with the Wizards. Robert Pollin, the Wizards' chief operating officer and son of former owner Abe Pollin, said that he his family was "crushed" and "devastated" by Arenas' locker room gun incident in December that led to his suspension for the remainder of the season but not rule out a return next season.
"Gilbert is a fabulous basketball player, an incredibly exciting player," Pollin said. "We wouldn't have signed him to the contract we did if we didn't feel that way. We have high expectations for Gilbert. The best thing would be if he can be a great player again for us on this floor. That remains to be seen. He's got to show some maturity. We'll see in about a month."
Arenas will be sentenced on March 26. Pollin said that he contacted the NBA the morning after Arenas mocked what had happened when he acted as if he were firing guns in a pre-game huddle.
"I called David Stern and we talked," Pollin said. "I told him that we were going to suspend Gilbert. The commissioner said, 'Don't worry about it, I'm going to suspend him.'"
Del Negro Back on Solid Ground
It appears that Chicago Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro will likely return next season after reportedly almost being fired at the end of December. The Bulls are 31-28 and sixth in the Eastern Conference.
Point guard Derrick Rose, the face of the franchise, said he supports his coach.
"Oh, definitely, if he comes back, I'll be happy," Rose said. "If not, that's not really up to me. It's up to the front office. He's doing a good job with us. The coaching staff is doing a good job with us. He usually lets me go out there and play and lets me make the best of my mistakes. No matter what, he always tells me I'm doing a good job, and he's always showing me video. I don't have anything to complain about."
Rose was asked if he felt that, despite being in just his second season, he might be in a position to approach management and give his opinion about coach or team personnel. He gave an open-ended response.
"Hopefully one day, it will come into play," Rose said. "But I'm just waiting. They're being patient with me. I'm being patient with them. Hopefully, one day I can help them make a decision. It will probably come soon. But right now, I'm just trying to get the groove of the NBA and just play my role."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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