These are teachable moments, these NBA playoffs, and the eldest amongst us can't stop learnin' us real, real good lessons. Yes, the San Antonio Spurs fell two games short of the NBA Finals, and they're about to enter their second half-decade since the team's last trip to the Finals in 2007. Doesn't matter. If the Spurs, and last year's Dallas Mavericks, and this year's Boston Celtics have taught us anything, it's that hanging around and working around a veteran core can often result in an unexpected run. If the matchups are good, and the legs are lively in May and into June, patience wears off.
Of course, those older outfits can also bow out in the second or even first round. Something about these matchups not being all that right, we reckon. These are the chances you take.
Plus, it's not as if the Spurs have any choice. There is a possibility that the team could blow it all up. Tim Duncan, an unrestricted free agent, could retire. Manu Ginobili's, in the last year of a deal that is set to pay him over $14 million in 2012-13, could be sent elsewhere. Tony Parker, with his trade value at its absolute highest, could be sent packing. The Spurs could decide that they've reached the end of their particular rope with this crew. Or, they could come to the same conclusion that we have regarding this team's potential, and not embark on any massive overhaul.
If this feels like cop-out analysis, then you're directed towards San Antonio's door. They make the easy columns so, so easy.
Every summer, by refusing to shake up the team's core, San Antonio has aligned itself with the varying fortunes of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. And this year, with Duncan in fantastic shape, Ginobili healthy through the playoff turn, and Parker possibly enjoying a career year, the team put together the best offense in the NBA. It even won, including the playoffs, 60 of its first 76 games before surprisingly falling in four straight contests to an Oklahoma City Team that is improving with each game it plays.
There is no guarantee that this run of well-deserved good fortune will play out 12 months from now, but that's the nagging downside of having Duncan, Ginobili and Parker on your roster alongside an ever-evolving cast of helpers. And though San Antonio's on-court system isn't exactly unique in its creation, nor potentially stifling to any would-be addition, the free-flowing nature of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker's games is probably best suited better for San Antonio's roster than any other. Not to take anything away from their brilliance, but the Spurs are probably the only team that should be paying Manu and Tony over $26.5 million combined to play basketball next year. Along with whatever they decide to pay Duncan.
You don't get the feeling that Duncan seems ready to walk away, even if we all can acknowledge that his comeback year of sorts in 2011-12 is going to be more the exception than the norm for the 36-year-old legend. You also don't get the feeling that, swell guy though he may be, Duncan will be giving the Spurs front office a hometown discount to return to the only pro team he's ever suited up for. Not that it would matter much, anyway; because even cutting Duncan's 2011-12 take of over $21 million in half, as the starting salary on a new deal, would eat up the rest of San Antonio's cap space.
There is your blowup option. Duncan could walk away from the game, which would leave the team potentially $20 million under the salary cap if the group decides to use the amnesty clause on the last year of Stephen Jackson's deal. Even with Ginobili and Parker's massive deals on the books, the Spurs would still have a litany of solid starter-level players (Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, DaJuan Blair, Danny Green, Manu, Parker and Kawhi Leonard) and a significant chunk of change needed to find any wings or bigs to fill out roster. It is on the table, if Duncan decides to walk away from that same proverbial table.
We doubt this will be the case, though, because even as judicious as Duncan usually is with his words the Spurs center would have probably made more noise about a potential retirement just after the end of San Antonio's week gone terribly wrong, as is the case with most athletes that are considering the option. We fully concede that Tim is completely unlike "most athletes," in several significant ways, but even as faraway observers the early guess that Tim returns looks like a sound one.
Which mean the Spurs, about as presently constructed (with Jackson and his potentially alluring contract still on board, and a potential addition by way of the mid-level exception), should return again for one last try. Safely away from the luxury tax, should Duncan halve his last contract as he re-signs, ready for another batch of "Nobody's Paying Attention to the Spurs, Again"-stories when they go on that eventual 18-4 run.
All for a chance to be all right, again, ready to pounce for four wins in seven attempts in a series when somebody takes them lightly. Ready to make up for what, frankly, was a pretty shocking turnaround between the glory of May 29th's Game 2, and June 6th's season-ending Game 6.
Even gifted two Hall of Famers in Duncan and David Robinson, the Spurs have never been afraid to take chances; even if some of those chances (stashed low-round draft picks like Ginobili, Splitter and potentially Erazem Lorbek) aren't exactly franchise-tilters should they go wrong. Once these chances pay off, though, you've earned the right to not have to take any chances. And though Spurs fans might think that they're one player away, short of turning Duncan's 2012 defensive acumen into Duncan's 2005 defensive acumen, that player probably isn't out there even if price or asset reimbursement wasn't an issue.
It leaves you a little nervous, Spurs fans, but it's also a wonderful luxury to have.
Now, to just watch the Finals without grimacing …