What's Next for San Antonio Spurs and Their Big Three?
No one will feel too sorry for the San Antonio Spurs—not for a team that's been as successful as any since its first title in 1999. Not for a team that's set the bar across professional sports, modeling a way of competitive life premised on all the right things.
Nor will the Spurs feel too sorry for themselves. The 2013 NBA Finals will sting and they'll sting for a long time to come. If Tim Duncan never claims that fifth ring, they'll sting all the more. And even if he does, it'll be hard not to think how close he was to having another one.
San Antonio had LeBron James and the Miami Heat beat in Game 6...at least, before they didn't. They handed the eventual champions the third-most devastating defeat in finals history in Game 3. They forced Ray Allen to watch as his individual record for three-pointers in the finals was stolen by the formerly anonymous Danny Green.
Sometimes even historic greatness isn't great enough.
That's what next season is for. The rest of the world now knows better than to write the Spurs off as too soft, too boring, too old. The authors of conventional wisdom will continue writing as much to be sure, but now they'll have to do so with pause. These aren't your grandparents' Spurs—even if they look and feel much the same.
With renewed urgency and a score to settle, what can we expect from them next season?
You could hardly blame 64-year-old Gregg Popovich if he finally decided it was time for that extended vacation from the NBA rat race. A race that can apparently yield the most heartbreaking of photo finishes.
There might not be much left of his extensive wine collection after the next week or two, but a guy like this won't have too much trouble living life after basketball. He had a life before it, and he'll adapt just fine to whatever comes next.
Whenever it comes next.
For now, the man widely considered the best in his business insists he'll stick with this whole coaching thing so long as Tim Duncan continues to play. If Duncan's thoughts on retirement after Game 7 are any indication, chances are we'll see both Popovich and Duncan go at it again for another year at least.
Needless to say, they have some unfinished business.
If Tim Duncan's storied career is missing anything—an arguable premise in its own right—that fifth championship ring is it.
Even had he won it this time around, he may well have continued fighting the good fight. Having come so close and gone so empty-handed, let's just say the fight he'll be fighting won't just be a good one—it could be one for the ages.
The 37-year-old has at least one more season on his contract and a player option for the 2014-15 season after that. If he continues to defy every scientific law outside of gravity, there's really no telling how long he could stay at it.
This was Duncan's best season in years. He averaged around 18 points a game in both the regular season and playoffs alike, rebounding and defending as well as he ever has. No, he's no longer a dominant force capable of taking many games over, but—as he proved in his 30-point Game 6 outing—the Big Fundamental can still create big problems for the NBA's best.
From San Antonio's perspective, he's also the best interior defender they'll get their hands on anytime soon. Though the Spurs will continue to tweak their remarkable formula for success, there's no doubt Duncan will remain that formula's principal ingredient for the time being.
Tony Parker and his banged-up hamstring didn't leave a postseason legacy worthy of another Finals MVP award, but he remains the engine that keeps San Antonio's offense running.
Still in his prime as a scorer and distributor alike, don't be surprised to see the All-Star point guard starting in the Spurs backcourt for another half-decade. He only has two more seasons on his contract, but he won't be easily replaced.
Parker understands the club's system as well as anyone. Like so many franchise-caliber floor generals, he's become an on-court coach. Almost certainly the organization's best trade chip, he's also an invaluable component of a system that privileges ball movement and pace on the offensive end. He's not going anywhere.
The only question plaguing Parker from here out is how long his quickness holds up, enabling him to drive and kick to his supporting cast's delight. Even as he loses a step, though, Parker's much-improved mid-range game and savvy decision-making will keep him in the discussion of the NBA's very best point guards.
He could keep San Antonio in the discussion of the NBA's best teams as well.
The San Antonio Spurs might still have a Big Three to speak of, but that doesn't mean Manu Ginobili's part of it.
Sidetracked by injuries from one year to the next, Ginobili has become a seasonal flavor. He still has his moments (e.g. Game 5, when he posted 24 points and 10 assists), but he hasn't been able to summon those moments with any kind of consistency.
The famed sixth man is a free agent now, fresh off a season that paid him over $14 million. A season in which he was probably worth half that. Spurs fans won't begrudge the expenditure, not after what he's done for the franchise. But nor will they be inclined to pay him anywhere close to that this time around, not after a hit-or-miss postseason and eight turnovers in Game 6.
How much he makes in an encore performance, of course, presupposes such a performance is to be had. Almost 36, Manu may be done.
If he doesn't hang 'em up just yet, though, he could quietly remain one the league's most dangerous role players, contributing 20 minutes when the Spurs need some energy, creativity and questionable decision-making on the floor. And if he decides to do it for a veteran's minimum salary—or a similarly generous discount—Spurs fans will love him all the more.
The Supporting Cast
The Spurs have impressed us on so many levels, but their depth and commitment to a truly ensemble cast of contributors remains one of their finest feats. It's too soon to declare an official changing of the guard in San Antonio, but it's certainly not too soon to infuse that core with new blood.
Indeed, the franchise has slowly but surely been doing just that before our very eyes—at least for those of us who've been watching.
For all intents and purposes, Kawhi Leonard has already laid claim to the third spot in San Antonio's Big Three.
Spurs fans couldn't ask for a better fit. The 21-year-old improved his numbers across the board in the postseason, proving he could pick up some of the scoring load late in the finals as Parker slowed down. His solid three-point stroke, improving mid-range game and tenacity around the basket aren't even the main selling points.
This guy played valiant defense on LeBron James, proving every bit as capable as Paul George was a series earlier.
After missing a late Game 6 free throw that would have helped seal the deal and get Duncan his fifth ring, Leonard could be scary-good next season. He was already a gym rat of epic proportions and now he has some motivation.
Leonard isn't the only reason for San Antonio's optimism.
Though Danny Green's three-point heroics came to an end late in the finals, he still set a record for most three-pointers in the NBA Finals—a record previously held by Ray Allen. With two more affordable years left on his contract, Green will remain an integral part of the Spurs' plans.
That said, he also has his work cut out for him. Green's ability to make things happen off the dribble is limited, and he's about as explosive as a cherry bomb. Should the Spurs get their hands on an all-star caliber swingman (Andre Iguodala?), Green could very well settle in as the Spurs' spot-shooting sixth-man.
If not, he'll keep doing what got him here, working throughout the summer to expand his game. After an anticlimactic disappearance late in the Finals, he just might hit the gym with a little extra intensity.
Boris Diaw & Co.
Boris Diaw has a player-option at about $5 million for next season, and he'd be crazy to turn it down at this point in his career—unless he lands a lucrative marketing deal with Weight Watchers, Chuck-style. The Spurs will take it. Diaw can start, come off the bench, spread the floor, make passes and do all kinds of weird things in the paint that sometimes result in two points.
San Antonio will also bring back an up-and-coming crew of guards just waiting for their opportunities. Texas product Cory Joseph showed some flashes in his sophomore season, demonstrating a much-improved confidence and absolutely tenacious perimeter defense.
Nando De Colo and Patty Mills add some international flavor to the backcourt and some promising talent along with it. The former has a lot of Ginobili in his game, especially when it comes to making plays and passes no one saw coming. The latter was born to shoot—from anywhere.
If the youngsters don't get a chance with San Antonio, they will somewhere.
The Spurs have some decisions to make this summer.
Having taken a team as dominant as Miami seven games in the Finals, there's nothing so broken here that major fixing is in order. All the same, this roster could be better. As far as it's gotten on account of all that rock-pounding, the thought of San Antonio adding some talent has to have the rest of the league a bit concerned—especially given the money with which it has to do so.
No, GM R.C. Buford hasn't been all that inclined to make splashy offseason moves historically, but if there were ever a time for a splash, this may be it. If there were ever a time for an organization that's eschewed star power to sell out and pay up, Spurs fans will gladly trade their admirable history of small-market team building for a legitimate difference-maker.
Landing such a name, however, could mean parting ways with several members of the Spurs' status quo. DeJuan Blair has had one foot out the door for some time, and the other foot will almost certainly follow suit now that he's a free agent. Despite his obvious talent, the undersized power forward just hasn't been able to stick in a rotation that desperately needs size and spacing.
Will Blair be the only Spur moving on, or could we have a minor exodus on our hands?
If Ginobili retires or otherwise returns on the cheap, the Spurs' most expensive in-house question automatically becomes Splitter. Though the 28-year-old Brazillian easily had the best of his three NBA campaigns in San Antonio, there are some good reasons to believe he won't return.
More importantly, Splitter leaves something to be desired in at least a couple of key respects. His scoring ability is limited primarily to converting pick-and-roll opportunities and tossing in baby-hooks from around the paint. His defense is sound, but not particularly impactful. Without a midrange game to speak of or a penchant for rim protection, Splitter is a second-rate center sometimes made to look like more thanks to San Antonio's system.
Making Splitter a restricted free agent (and retaining the right to match other teams' offer) would require the organization to extend him a qualifying offer worth nearly $6 million, an offer it would automatically owe him in the event another team doesn't present a better deal.
That kind of money would put a serious crimp in San Antonio's ability to import premium free-agent talent, especially if it's committing anything more than $5 million to Ginobili. Unless Buford & Co. are convinced those first-tier free agents will sign elsewhere, they'll save their money and wish Splitter all the best.
If San Antonio decides the price is right for Neal, it could have a lot to do with Ginobili's decision. If Manu retires, Neal reasons to be an affordable sixth-man solution. The consummate marksman had his moments in the Finals, and he's steadily diversified his game to include a knack for off-balance mid-range shots and floaters that'd make Tony Parker proud.
Like Splitter, the Spurs will owe Neal a qualifying offer if they want to maintain his restricted free agent status. Unlike Splitter, though, Neal's qualifying offer is just a little over a million bucks, a wise investment in the midst of uncertainty.
That said, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Neal command a three-year deal in the neighborhood of $10-12 million (total). Beyond the Ginobili variable, willingness to pay up will depend on whether San Antonio shows any interest in pricier alternatives like J.J. Redick.
Life without the Red Mamba? Say it ain't so.
San Antonio could bring Bonner back for about $4 million, but it's hard to imagine them doing so if it comes at the expense of adding more important pieces to the rotation. The sharp-shooting spread-four faded in and out of that rotation throughout the playoffs, making valuable but isolated contributions.
Spurs games wouldn't be the same without Bonner's Pop-worthy sense of humor, but it just might be time for the organization to find another fitting role for him on the bench—one involving a suit and a clipboard.