May 10, 2010
With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs are not going anywhere. This much was evident before the postseason, and this much will be evident after the team does whatever it does with Tiago Splitter(notes) this offseason. This team still has too many players too close to their respective primes, though San Antonio will fully submit that each of the team's prominent players are on the other side of Prime Mountain. Hardly matters. The top-heavy depth and relative greatness will stand in the way of the Spurs spiraling toward .500.
But beyond that? This is going to be some hard work.
Hard work from the players, who will be in their 30s save for Tony Parker(notes) to start next season, and TP certainly looked the plus-30 part for the majority of the regular season. Every game is a grind for Tim Duncan(notes) at this point, having to drag around that leg. Every part of Manu Ginobili's(notes) lower half has gone wrong at some point. Richard Jefferson(notes) seemed to forget how to jump on jump shots sometime last fall. Tony Parker's speed seemed quite diminished this season.
And yet, more often than not in 2009-10, the Spurs reminded of their past brilliance more than they drove home the idea that they've lost a step. Duncan had a sterling offensive year, and still had his moments rotating defensively. For a month-long stretch in early spring, Ginobili was at the very least the second best player in his conference. Parker got it together in the playoffs, and Jefferson ... well, Jefferson can't help but get better in his second year in coach Gregg Popovich's system.
Moving forward, each of the players who ran double figure minutes in Sunday night's loss to the Suns will be back next season, with the possible exception of free agent Matt Bonner(notes). Bonner could be brought back on the cheap, but he had one of the worst 5-6 shooting/14-point nights I've ever seen in the fourth game.
I don't know what happened to Bonner in this postseason, but he compounded his already-poor defensive abilities with bad decisions on that end (things that weren't in place before; managing to hide his poor individual skills), and he made costly decisions with the ball against the Mavs and Suns. This is supposed to be a low-risk player, and with his skill set, he can't be forcing Coach Pop to slam the scorer's table in frustration.
DaJuan Blair is guaranteed for next year, so that's at least a six-man rotation in place. The problem with that is that this six (without Bonner) already makes about $66 million in 2010-11. That's two-thirds of your rotation, no worries, but 40 percent of your total team. Spurs owner Peter Holt is going to take another hard hit, next season.
The savior, apparently, is Splitter. He's often referred to as a Anderson Varejao(notes)-type, but his offensive skills fly well beyond that of the Cavalier big man. Tim Duncan's had a lot of "the best thing to ever happen to him"'s in his career - what with his first six seasons spent alongside David Robinson, and the acquisitions of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to start this decade - and Splitter would be another in the long line. He's that good, and would fit in perfectly.
Can San Antonio sign him? They're confident, but Tiago is essentially a free agent that the Spurs have the first, legal, crack at. And because they're over the cap, the most the Spurs could offer Splitter is the Mid Level Exception, and that's not exactly a prize to jump at, if you're Splitter. It has to happen this offseason, as well, as the big man has an opt-out clause this summer, but a four-year deal overall with Cabo Laborol that he's halfway through.
San Antonio doesn't have much wiggle room. Even if the hated Mavericks were to do the Spurs a solid, and trade Erick Dampier(notes) and Eduardo Najera's(notes) unguaranteed deals for Richard Jefferson, San Antonio would still be about an MLE-level first year under the projected salary cap. And that's with everything going right. They'd better hope Tiago really, really wants to play in the NBA.
Or, they could get creative. Sign and trades are a possibility, someone like Chris Bosh(notes) could be worked into things, but that would get quite complicated, and it would be yet another huge hit to Holt's pocketbook. A scenario like that would then leave the Spurs playing five players double-figure salaries, with no guarantee of a championship (and all those home playoff games to draw revenue from) in place.
Trading Tony Parker? It's worth exploring. Technically, Parker should be in his prime, but his status may have taken a dip with a flat 2009-10. He has a year left on his contract and could be perfect for a veteran team trying to get over the hump offensively, like the Spurs, but the returns would have to be perfect. "The returns" also involve George Hill(notes) playing full time point guard, and two seasons in, I just don't know if he has that in him.
Beyond that, internal development is a must. Hill improved considerably in his second year, especially defensively, but he took a step backwards on both ends during the Phoenix series. Consistency has to be a key with this guy. Ginobili, honestly, has to be counted on for the sort of white-hot play that we saw over the last couple of months of the season. Not as a rule, but for what he's making and what San Antonio needs, he'll have to spend at least half the season playing at an All-Star level, per-minute.
Duncan has to come close to sustaining, Parker has to improve quite a bit on his regular season showing, as does Jefferson. And that's just what has to happen for the team to grab 50 wins again.
The trouble is, I believe that they can.
I believe that so much can go right with this team. We have no idea how the rotation will flesh out, who will be brought in to earn those eighth and ninth man minutes, but you can't help but trust this front office. Splitter's situation might be the worst possible timing, payroll-wise; but in basketball terms his timing is absolutely impeccable. And they'll play for that coach of theirs. Who wouldn't? Besides Jackie Butler(notes), of course.
So don't get maudlin with your goodbyes. They'll be back next year, pretending to be perturbed about the age questions, probably showing their age, probably winning about five out of every eight games. Possibly more, if they pick up yet another 7-foot stud.
Don't worry about the Spurs. They'll be just fine.