The Kings have the 2002 screw job. The Mavericks have Dirk's 2003 injury, the 2006 Finals, and whatever the hell happened in 2007. The Wolves have Cassell's injury. The Suns have Joe Johnson's injury and Amar'e's suspension. The Thunder have Russell Westbrook's knee injury. The Rockets have Yao's 2009 injury. But among Western Conference contenders not named Los Angeles, the Spurs, despite four titles and a few lucky shots of their own, have had more tough breaks than anyone in recent playoffs. Tim Duncan's injury in 2000, Derek Fisher's .04 shot in 2004, Dirk's three point play in 2006, the Perkins/Ibaka game in 2012, and maybe most painfully of all, last week's excruciatingly narrow defeat in the 2013 Finals to the Miami Heat.
That the Spurs have won four titles in this time period despite these tough breaks is a tribute to their consistent excellence. They have been legitimate title contenders in most of the past sixteen years, and each time, have taken the kind of pain that destroyed lesser teams, and used it to fuel the next year's successful evolution. After the humiliating sweep at the hands of the last Nash-Amar'e team in 2010, the "little brother" the Spurs had controlled for years, San Antonio used that experience to completely retool their offense, focusing the team around Tony Parker and incorporating Seven Seconds or Less principles into the team's identity. After the team's collapses in the 2011 and 2012 playoffs, the Spurs spent the past season workshopping the Tim Duncan-Tiago Splitter pairing, a duo which rendered Western Conference playoff offenses impotent. That lineup allowed the Spurs to pair the newly elite 2011-2012 offense with a similarly elite defense, positioning the team as a true playoff juggernaut.
Of course, the best laid plans of men and Popovich often go awry, and the Heat were the one team, and one of the few in NBA history, with the athletes and shooting to eventually move Splitter, the team's fourth most valuable player, off the court entirely by the end of the series. Tony Parker's mid series injury also hamstrung the offense. With Parker unable to consistently get to the middle of the floor and subsequently break down the defense, the Spurs were unable to generate the easy looks that devastated so much of the NBA, and even the Heat over the first part of the series. After the spate of columns declaring the Spurs championship window closed after the 2012 loss to the Thunder, I am loath to predict that the Spurs will not be just as good next year, yet again pursuing the franchise's fifth championship. Instead, the team will probably use the pain and disappointment of this loss to push itself even farther, like it has each of the past three seasons, and as it will as long as Tim Duncan remains patrolling the paint.
Duncan, signed for two more seasons, had his best season in several years. Probably the second best center in the league this year after Marc Gasol, he scored, rebounded, and blocked shots like the Duncan of old, albeit in fewer minutes in order to keep fresh for the playoffs, a strategy that was vindicated by his performance in Games 6 & 7 of the Finals. Duncan was recognized for his performance with spots on the 2nd team All-Defense and 1st team All-NBA at age 37. His decline has been heralded with more reliability than the sighting of the first robin each spring, but he continues to age in a manner that would put Kareem to shame. I certainly would not bet against another 2000 minutes of elite production and a besting of his personal mark, surely a world record, for times referred to as "spry".
The straw that stirs the drink on offense is now Tony Parker, who cemented his status as a top ten player. At 31 and coming off a career year, I expect Popovich to begin resting him even more aggressively than he has done in the past. Parker has nothing left to "prove", and dealt with a variety of nagging injuries down the stretch and in the playoffs that were likely exacerbated by his "Lapin Energizer" style of play. His backcourt partner in crime had a much more uneven season, and postseason, and is currently a 50/50 proposition to come back next season at a reduced rate. Manu doesn't have the athleticism to finish his spectacular plays every night, and while he was always a player with insane highs and frustrating lows, the highs are coming farther apart, and the mind boggling turnovers are becoming more common. If he is gone, then I would like to remember him as the player for whom no pass, no shot, no defensive gamble was ever impossible. Here's a highlight mix. There are plenty of others for one of the most creative and entertaining players in NBA history.
With our incipient recency bias, you may be forgiven for thinking Kawhi Leonard is already a Hall of Famer. The 21 year old forward spent his sophomore campaign improving all of the little things that don't show up in the box score, like learning how to dribble, and making great strides as a lockdown defender. He is a good shooter from the corners and possesses nascent posting and driving ability, which could translate into a larger offensive role beginning next year, growing out of his current role as a safety valve par excellence. A two way star is incredibly valuable, and a combo forward that can score in the post and the three point line, while playing elite defense, is easily a max player in today's NBA. The much maligned Tiago Splitter, who averages about four quietly good plays to one hilariously bad one, was another part of the Spurs' defensive renaissance. He can be bothered by elite athleticism, as was seen in the Miami series, and is generally horrible as a post player. On the other hand, his awkward pick and roll finishes are among the most efficient in the league, and his defense is limited, but mostly effective. He is a free agent, and will probably command 8-11 million per season.
Danny Green went from hero to goat as quickly as any player I can remember, especially odd for a player with such a well defined, limited identity. He's a very good 3 & D player, who needs to take dribbling lessons from Kawhi Leonard this summer. Game 7 meltdown aside, the Wolves would love to have him at his current $3.8 million salary. Boris Diaw remains Boris Diaw, giving hope to lazy, out of shape savants everywhere, and likely bringing his beautiful passes and stout defense to the Spurs one more time ($4.7 million player option). Gary Neal is a free agent, and will be bringing his JJ Barea impression to a NBA city near you. In his stead, the Spurs will depend on Cory Joseph for backup point guard minutes, in the hope of continuing to develop him into a serviceable NBA player just because they can.
DeJuan Blair remains an effective offensive player, but not one that can be depended on defensively in the final couple rounds of the playoffs. He is a free agent, and should garner more playing time and offensive rebounds for a team closer to the bottom of the standings. Matt Bonner has a team option. He's turned into an effective post defender, and the Spurs can be very effective using him against a team with a bruising, but unathletic, power forward like Zach Randolph or Carlos Boozer. Asking him to defend against an athletic team like Miami or OKC is another matter. The Spurs' decision on his contract will have more to do with their other free agent options than as a referendum on his value. Nando De Colo put up intriguing, if wildly inefficient, numbers during his rookie season, and fell out of the rotation by the end of the playoffs. That doesn't preclude him becoming an important piece on next year's team, if he can improve his shooting and cut down his turnovers.
Aron Baynes and Patty Mills round out the bench because the Spurs like Aussies. Anyway, I love Patrick Mills, and you should too. Mills was squeezed out of the rotation by the multitude of reserve combo guards, but there is little reason to think he can't be as effective as Neal. Baynes is the "break glass in case of emergency" big that every team likes to have at the end of their bench. Stephen Jackson and Tracy McGrady were on this team at various points this season as well, just in case you were still laboring under the misapprehension that the Spurs are boring.
If they bring the band back together, the Spurs will be a little above the salary cap, depending on Manu, Tiago, and Neal's new salaries. If they renounce everyone, they could have about 20 million in cap space, while still controlling Duncan, Parker, Diaw (player option), Leonard, Green, De Colo, Mills (player option), Joseph, and Baynes. Josh Smith or Andre Iguodala could make the defense terrifying, at the cost of cramping the team's spacing. A lower priced veteran like Millsap or Kirilenko could also fit in the team's space, while allowing them to bring back one of Tiago or Manu (or both if Manu is renounced, then signed through the room exception). If they bring back Splitter, Ginobili, and Bonner, they will have the full mid level to bring in a veteran like Kirilenko, Shawn Marion, or, optimistically, a bought out Paul Pierce.
A Ginobili retirement would also allow the Spurs to absorb Marion in a deal for the #13 pick, who would inevitably become the best player in the draft (Dennis Schroeder!). San Antonio also possesses the 28th pick in the upcoming draft. Most mock drafts have them taking an international prospect. Lucas Nogueira seems to be the popular pick, as G-Man Alphabethands and Sergey Karasev have seen their stock rise in recent weeks. Mike Muscala would be a near perfect fit considering his intelligence and potential. If Gorgui Dieng were to somehow fall to #28, he could be a useful "win now" addition, inasmuch as such a thing exists that late in the draft.
Ultimately, the Spurs exist as Tim Duncan exists. Tony Parker is brilliant. Kawhi Leonard is awesome. The system is as good as a system can be. The front office has brilliantly retooled the bench around young and international players. There is no substitute, however, for what Duncan continues to provide on both ends of the floor. As long as he remains great, the Spurs will end each season with a championship or a crushing defeat. And that is as good a reason as any to embrace the pain of so many recent Junes. When Duncan goes, it will be less painful to be a Spurs fan, but only because those defeats will become conclusive first round knockouts. For the rest of us, we should take the rest of his time to appreciate some of the most beautiful basketball the league has ever seen.
Thanks to Sham Sports for salary details.