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Talk about Spurs is getting repetitious

Everyone loves the Spurs. Except, perhaps, new Spur Nick Van Exel.

''I went up to him a few days ago and asked him if he'd ever been on a worse team," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. ''And he looked at me and said, 'Nope. Never have.' "

It was, of course, a situation in which Popovich and Van Exel had tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. San Antonio sleepwalked through a 1-7 exhibition season, even as everyone and anyone who is charged with making predictions has the Spurs penciled in as the putative 2005-06 NBA champions.

Hey, it's not just us ignorant writers who like Pop's gang. Seventy-seven percent of the league's general managers -- 23 of 30 -- picked the Spurs to repeat, which sort of makes you wonder what the other seven were thinking. It's the largest percentage in the four-year history of the survey, which is conducted by

Popovich has been in this position before. The 1999 Spurs won the NBA title and failed to repeat. The 2003 Spurs won the NBA title and failed to repeat. Is the third time going to be the difference?

''If it isn't, they'll know who to blame," Popovich cracked. ''But in all seriousness, the first time around, Timmy [Duncan] got hurt, so there was no way we were going to repeat. The second time, we did well during the regular season, but there was the Derek Fisher shot and we couldn't make any outside shots [in losing to the Lakers in the conference semifinals]. But that, too, was a different team than the one that won it the year before, because [Steve] Kerr retired and [Danny] Ferry retired and we didn't bring back Stephen Jackson [who was a big part of their 2003 title team]."

This time around, everyone is back -- and then some. The starting five are back. Two of the key subs, Beno Udrih and Robert Horry are back. And to pile on, the Spurs brought in Van Exel, Michael Finley, and Argentine Fabricio Oberto to make them ridiculously deep.

Popovich said the players have fallen in love with Oberto, one of the key guys on the Argentina national team, a unit Popovich said ''plays the game the way it's supposed to be played and is the one team I enjoy watching as much as any." Oberto was a scramble replacement for his Argentine teammate Luis Scola -- yes, the Spurs own his rights, too -- when Scola couldn't extricate himself from his European deal.

''Oberto is the ugliest-looking good player I have ever seen," Popovich said. ''On one hand, he's stiff, he has no moves, he can't shoot -- and our guys love him because he sets good picks and rolls to the basket and makes excellent passes out of the post."

Oberto will be a regular part of the rotation, one that is in a bit of flux because Nazr Mohammad has been away tending to family issues. Ideally, Popovich would start Mohammad and then bring in Oberto, leaving Rasho Nesterovic as the No. 3 center (an expensive and available one, at that). But Mohammad is not expected to be in game shape for the season opener, which likely means that Nesterovic will start and Oberto will come off the pine.

It's an impressive lineup that, unfortunately, the fans of Boston see only once a year. The Spurs come through early, Nov. 11, and we all know how long it's been since the Celtics have beaten the Spurs. It almost seems that a Celtics victory will happen only when Duncan decides he'd rather nurse a pina colada under a mango tree in St. Croix than play another season.

Unfortunately for Boston, and everyone else, Duncan is on the books for five more years. That doesn't automatically translate to five more titles, but, for now, the Spurs are clearly the team to beat.

No saving Banks

I never believed Danny Ainge's public comments that exercising the fourth-year option on Marcus Banks was, as he put it, ''a no-brainer." (He used the same term when he extended Kedrick Brown for a fourth year; Brown is now out of the league.) It was a no-brainer -- not to do it. I wrote three weeks ago that it made little sense to exercise the option. And that was when Banks was the No. 3 point guard in the rotation. Now he's No. 4 -- and injured. He can do one thing really well -- pressure the ball -- but he has shown no ability to run a team on a consistent basis, and there have been issues with the coaches. Why even keep him around? ''I think Marcus is an NBA player and will have a long career," said Ainge, using what is known in the trade as the ''Keep His Value Alive" vernacular. It isn't often that a team cuts a 7-footer -- Curtis Borchardt -- who clearly has NBA skills (albeit a history of injuries) in favor of a 5-11, fourth-string point guard. Banks is on the books for $1.7 million this season, and if the Celtics had exercised the option, it would have been for around $2.46 million next season . . . Desmond Mason took a page out of the Antoine Walker epithet lexicon upon hearing of his trade last week from Milwaukee to New Orleans/Oklahoma City. Mason took dead aim at Bucks general manager Larry Harris, who pulled the trigger on a Mason-Jamaal Magloire deal that also sent Milwaukee's 2006 first-round pick (unprotected) to the Hornets. ''It's hard for me to say this about somebody," Mason said in a radio interview in Milwaukee, ''but Larry's a snake. He's a snake in the grass. I thought my situation with Seattle [where he was prior to Milwaukee] was tough. The magnitude of things that Larry Harris told me this summer, this season, all those things. I mean, he told me a lie to my face." Needless to say, Harris, who has done a terrific job reconfiguring the Bucks, had a different take. ''Obviously, he's a very emotional young man," Harris said. ''It's the nature of the beast and we move on." You may recall that Walker called Ainge a snake after Ainge traded him to Dallas . . . With the players being confronted with a fashion edict from the league, bear in mind that the per diem for this season under the new CBA is $102. It will increase yearly based on a cost-of-living adjustment. And when teams fly out the night before and arrive around dinnertime, the players get an extra $55 to get them through the night. Last season, per diem was $99.

Down Hill

Poor Grant Hill continues to get more than his share of bad luck. Tests revealed last week that the Orlando forward, who last year seemed to have put his injured past behind him, has a ''sports hernia." That's a term in vogue to describe a muscle tear in the groin area. Hill will undergo surgery tomorrow in Philadelphia and is expected to miss 3-6 weeks. Hill told the Orlando Sentinel, ''I am as upbeat as I've ever been going into a surgery, and I've had a lot of surgeries." He's right about that. He had five on his left foot and ankle, causing him to miss most of four seasons. This one is being performed by the same surgeon who worked on Nomar Garciaparra and Donovan McNabb . . . All of the major sports magazines have come out with their NBA previews and, well, the Celtics don't fare so well. (ESPN Magazine accurately stated that winning the Atlantic Division title last year was the equivalent of besting Jessica Simpson on ''Jeopardy.") The only one that foresees a playoff berth for Doc Rivers and the fellows is The Sporting News, which picks them sixth in the East and second in the Atlantic behind the Nets. (But that was before Borchardt was waived.) Sports Illustrated picks the Celtics to finish 11th, but that was before Milwaukee, picked to finish 12th, made the deal for Magloire. ESPN The Magazine did picks via division and had the Celtics in fourth in the Atlantic, ahead of only Toronto . . . Commissioner David Stern last Thursday said the league still is uncertain as to when the Hornets will return to New Orleans. ''We don't have a date and we haven't made any deadlines of any kind other than our overall working plan," the commissioner said in his annual before-the-season-starts conference call. ''The Hornets will return to New Orleans as soon as it makes sense. We don't know what the situation is as to when they can return, but [there is] the possibility that it may be longer than the season. I know we have been pushing the one year potential option in Oklahoma City, but we will be making plans for them to return to New Orleans." . . . Stern also told owners at the recent Board of Governors meeting that season-ticket sales are up over last year and that the league will have another record-setting year in attendance. Having said that, the NBA counts tickets sold, not fannies in the seats.

Living legend

For all of you who may have been pining for the latest offering from that noted man of letters, Dennis Rodman, we have good news: If you are in New York Nov. 10, he will be on hand to sign his aptly named ''I Should Be Dead By Now," at Borders bookstore on Broadway. The last time Rodman was pushing a literary effort, he did so in a wedding dress. No word yet on his new attire . . . Rumors continue to swirl that the Knicks are trying to pry Darius Miles away from Portland. The current bait is Malik Rose, but Isiah Thomas is known to be persistent. The Blazers' youth movement is built around Miles and others, and new coach Nate McMillan made it clear he's expecting big things from the former Clipper and Cavalier. ''I hope that he challenges himself," McMillan said. ''With everything that's been said, and everything that went on here, and with his past in Los Angeles and Cleveland, I'm hoping that he will challenge himself. The organization has basically built this team or given this team to him by letting go of all of the veterans and making both he and Zach Randolph the focal point, the core, of this organization. He has an opportunity to try and lead a team. I want to be a part of helping him with that. It is a huge task, a huge challenge for him, and the question is, is he up for it?" Or, perhaps, will he still be there to be up for it? . . . Another new coach, Mike Brown in Cleveland, has nothing but good things to say about his top dog, LeBron James. ''He has made my job so much easier," Brown said. ''He leads the team in sprints. He leads the team in drills. He's made the whole camp easier." Brown indicated that he was torn as to whom he'll designate as his starting point guard, Damon Jones or Eric Snow. ''Both guys play well," he said. ''Both guys bring different things to the table but at different times. I know the decision I make will have an impact on the one who doesn't start." . . . The NBA's Development League will conduct its draft Thursday night. If history is any judge, the No. 1 pick could be playing for an NBA team near you. In previous years, the No. 1 pick (Mikki Moore in 2002 and Chris Anderson in 2001) have made it to the Big Show. Ricky Minard was the first player selected in 2004 and Ken Johnson was No. 1 in 2003. Nine players earned callups last season.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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