LOS ANGELES – For eight days the San Antonio Spurs could feel Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers gaining on them. Even in that oh-so-fleeting moment when they announced their return to the Western Conference finals by surging to a 20-point lead, they knew. These Lakers weren't going away. They were younger, faster, fresher, and, as the Spurs were forced to finally admit, better.
Their championship reign over, their attempts at winning that long-elusive repeat title again dismissed, the Spurs trudged to their locker room late Thursday. The Lakers had overtaken them again, this time roaring back from a 17-point deficit to end the series in five games, and, deep down, the Spurs knew something else.
They might never get this close again.
The Spurs' championship window hasn't closed just yet. Tim Duncan likely won't lose a step because he's never had one. Tony Parker is young and driven enough to get better. Manu Ginobili ended this series the same way he began it, exhausted and hurt, but he's also coming off the best season of his career. With Gregg Popovich guiding them, the Spurs' core should again rank as one of the league's best.
"We're going to have to face that reality," Spurs owner Peter Holt said.
The Spurs will face it the way they always do. They learn from their mistakes and they move forward. After losing the first two games of their conference semifinal series with the Hornets, Popovich and his staff debated how they could have improved their roster during the season. Should they have made a harder push to sign Sam Cassell instead of Damon Stoudamire? They could have acquired Delonte West from Seattle for a first-round pick, but passed after watching West play poorly in a game against them. Was that a mistake?
What's done is done, Popovich told his staff. They made the decisions with the best information they had. They probably weren't going to get Cassell and trading for West likely would have prevented them from landing Kurt Thomas later in the season. Second-guessing wasn't going to help now, so they better focus on finding a way to get past the Hornets.
The Spurs rallied to beat New Orleans in seven games, but that left them spent for the conference finals. They lost a night of rest to airline problems then lost a game when their old nemesis, Joey Crawford, swallowed his whistle on the final play of Game 4. Popovich publicly downplayed the impact of the non-call, but privately he wasn't too happy Crawford was allowed to officiate the game. League officials can expect to hear from the Spurs at some point this summer.
Still, Popovich also knows bad luck is not why the Spurs lost. The Spurs, he said, “just played a team that was better.”
Popovich downplayed the need for the Spurs to "wholesale change things." Duncan also said he did “love what we had this year.” Both, however, know the team is headed for a bigger transition this summer than last. Robert Horry hasn't decided whether to retire, but his stay with the Spurs is likely over. Same for Michael Finley and Stoudamire. Thomas also will be a free agent, but the Spurs want to re-sign him.
There will be pressure on San Antonio GM R.C. Buford to rediscover some of his draft-night magic. Finding an athletic and a backup point guard are the priorities. The Spurs also will have their $5 million midlevel exception to spend. Corey Maggette figures to be out of their reach, so they might resort to trying to pry away a restricted free agent. The Spurs have had previous interest in Toronto's Carlos Delfino, but the most likely target was standing across from them on Thursday.
Sasha Vujacic impressed Spurs officials throughout the series. He isn't well-liked among other international players, which might not work considering the Spurs have a couple of them, but he's an active defender and he can shoot – two traits Popovich covets. The Lakers don't figure to let Vujacic leave, particularly if he goes on to help them win a championship. At the least, though, the Spurs will try to drive up his price.
Even before the Lakers ran past them, the Spurs knew they needed younger legs. They were short on energy from the start of the conference finals, and not all of it can be blamed on the night they spent on a New Orleans tarmac. The short turnaround between series didn't work in their favor, but there's no guarantee they won't run into the same situation next season.
"That's got to be in the back of our minds going forward," Holt said. "We had a good regular season injury-wise, but we were tired. Is it an age factor? Was it just the timing of everything? I don't know yet."
Ginobili particularly struggled with the every-other-day schedule of the conference finals, and it didn't help that he was playing on a bad left ankle. He lacked his usual explosiveness, scoring more than 10 points in only one of the five games. Not surprisingly, that was the only game the Spurs won.
"I never felt like this in a postseason since I've been here," Ginobili said. "It was kind of hard for me to fight through it and try to forget it."
Ginobili will now spend part of his summer playing for Argentina in the Beijing Olympics, which naturally has Holt "very worried." He will have September to recover and Popovich won't hesitate to rest him early in the season, if needed. Still, the Spurs will need to strengthen their bench, and Thursday's news from Spain won't help.
The Spurs had hoped to bring over last year's first-round pick, Tiago Splitter, to improve their frontline next season, but the Brazilian forward reportedly has decided to sign a larger contract to remain in Spain. With the U.S. dollar weakening against the Euro and Russia's big-money teams inflating the Euroleague market, Splitter figures to receive millions more than he would get from the Spurs. Spurs officials, who haven't received official word from Splitter’s representative about the contract, could have to wait another two years to sign him.
One coach said Splitter's decision could be a "blessing in disguise" for the Spurs because it would force them to take a longer look at their 2005 first-round pick, 21-year-old French forward Ian Mahinmi. But even that's wishful thinking. A number of NBA scouts predicted Splitter to become a productive rotation member, if not a starter, while Mahinmi, despite his tremendous athleticism, is still learning the game.
The Spurs still hold the rights to another international big man, Lithuania’s Robertas Javtokas. But not getting Splitter makes the team’s decision to trade Argentine forward Luis Scola to the Houston Rockets appear that much more regrettable. One of the reasons the Spurs said they traded Scola was that Splitter would be a better fit alongside Duncan. Popovich, however, simmered over the Scola deal throughout the season because it violated one of his long-held edicts: Never help a rival.
Unless he had a spare ankle to lend Ginobili, there's no guarantee Scola would have helped the Spurs beat the Lakers. But he'll likely be starting for the Rockets again next season, and if Yao Ming finally stays healthy? The West will be that much tougher.
Deep down, the Spurs know all of this. That's why Ginobili looked so frustrated as he finally left the locker room late Thursday.
"We feel," he said, "like we let another opportunity get away."
- the Spurs
- Gregg Popovich