|Thursday, April 12
Updated: April 14, 2:04 PM ET
Anderson's emergence makes Spurs team to beat
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
His given name is Derek Anderson.
I think I will refer to him from now on as Derek X.
He is not planning any type of religious conversion.
He is Derek X because everyone refers to him as the Spurs' X factor, the missing piece to a team that needed a pick-me-up. But the Spurs have picked Anderson up as much as he has they. They rescued him from a career rapidly approaching mediocrity.
So what is an X?
"A guy who's an unknown, all of a sudden gets everything that you've ever wanted done," Anderson says. "When I first came, the second game of the season, (Kevin) Garnett said it, 'he's the X factor that they've always missed.' A two guard, a slasher, a scorer, a basketball player. I've been called X Man all year long. Because they don't know. When I was with the Clippers, everyone was saying I was a one-on-one (player). And then you see a guy who passes and does other things that helps the team. It's a compliment, because I'm doing something right."
Anderson signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the Spurs when separate proposed sign-and-trade deals between the Clippers and Portland and Denver fell through last summer. He took out a $50 million insurance policy with Lloyd's of London in case of catastrophic injury. But the gamble looks like it's going to pay off. He's played in every game this season, and he has his legs because he doesn't have to swoop and dive to the hoop here, and he isn't shipping all his clothes and cars back home to Kentucky like he has the last three years, and he's going to be able to showcase his soon-to-be free agent self on the playoff stage in a couple of weeks.
He is a better passer than the Spurs thought he would be willing or able to be. He has taken the defensive stopper role from Sean Elliott most nights. Anderson's 16 a night helped keep the Spurs going until Tim Duncan's knee came around a couple of months ago, and freed up David Robinson to once again wreak havoc at the defensive end.
"He gambles a little more," Duncan says of Anderson. "Derek's perimeter defense is a little different from Sean's. He's a little smaller. So a guy wants to take him to the post a whole lot more. We still rely on Sean a whole lot to come in there when we have a tough three man, come in there and really give us some good minutes, because he's still one of our best perimeter defenders."
And after the Spurs felt their way around in November and December, they've made their move and roared to the top of the Western Conference at the head of the stretch. Entering play Thursday, they were 33-7 in their last 40 games. Over that same stretch, they've held opponents to 41 percent shooting and 86 points a game. It sounds an awful lot like two years ago, when San Antonio put the clamps on the whole league and won the whole thing.
"This is the most pleasant attitude I've ever played basketball with, since I was six years old, when I first touched the ball," Anderson says. "I haven't had one doubt. I've been so happy. It was very close (in Portland). I might have been an X factor on that team. But this situation happened. A lot of other things fell into place. Character, establishing a foundation, and the commitment. The commitment, I didn't think it was always going to be a problem here."
But the transformation didn't occur immediately, for the team or for Anderson. After all, he'd spent the first three years of his career playing on bad Cleveland teams and a worse Clippers squad.
"There were some mannerisms, practice habits," Avery Johnson says. "He never was really unprofessional. You just had to break him out of coming from a losing situation. There's a certain way we like to practice. There's a certain way, when we travel, everyone needs to be on time. There's a certain way we need to pay attention in huddles during timeouts. So there was a lot of different areas that he was good in already, but there was some areas we needed to clean up."
Plus, Anderson had to get in line when it came to sacrificing. Robinson gave up his go-to status to Duncan a couple of years ago. Duncan gave up around $60 million in potential free agent dollars to stay in San Antonio. Johnson and Elliott both lost their starting jobs to injury, and since Terry Porter and Danny Ferry stepped into the lineup, have had next to nothing to say about it publicly.
"We've got egos," Robinson says. "It's just a matter of understanding who the leadership is and how you're supposed to carry yourself. If I can do that, if I can keep my ego in check, if Avery can keep his ego in check, if Tim can keep his ego in check, then nobody else on the bench can say anything. Derek Anderson better not be coming up to me saying 'I only got eight shots tonight.' Sit down and shut up and don't worry about it."
After the Spurs lost four straight in January at the end of an eastern road swing, they had a two-hour practice in San Antonio.
"We knew we were a better team than we were showing," Duncan said. "It was just about putting it on the floor. We did have a practice and we straightened out a couple of things. We changed our offense just a little bit. Everybody was starting to feel good. I was starting to feel healthy. And it all just kind of fell together at just the right time."
"We put more motion into the offense," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says, "and we obviously put in some things to take advantage of Derek Anderson a little bit more. Because with Sean's problems the last few years, he hasn't really had that much time on the court, and we haven't had a perimeter guy to break down defenses at the end of shot clocks, or to go to off of picks for shots. So we had to change some of those things. And I had to learn about him as the year went on. I didn't really know what he was capable of, or what his strengths would be."
Now, everyone does. And everyone knows that the Spurs are, once again, bigger than the sum of their considerable parts.
"Coach doesn't smile a lot," Anderson says. "A lot of us giggle and play a lot. It's a different demeanor. But that's good. You have a break-even point. It's toughness, it's happiness, and it's getting in between, a median somewhere where we can collaborate together. It's the character of this team. You have to have character as a human being, and you have to have character in the NBA. And I think we have it."
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