Remember in years past, when one could confidently write the San Antonio Spurs out of the title picture? Actually, chances are you probably can't.
The Spurs have been a perennial playoff fixture since Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997 and have never missed two consecutive berths.
Recently, though, the franchise has seemingly enjoyed the apex of its success. While riding Duncan to the playoffs each year, they amassed four NBA titles and one other Finals appearance.
Success has been abundant and expected with Duncan running the show, but as his inevitable retirement looms overhead, one can't help but wonder whether the next chapter will bring continued prosperity or unprecedented struggle.
The Rest of the Big Three Era
I'm hesitant to label the current epoch as the "Duncan era" because, quite frankly, he's no longer the unquestioned leading man in San Antonio.
That honor he shares with Tony Parker, who, alongside Manu Ginobili, constitutes the famous Big Three—the nucleus that brought glory to the Western Conference powerhouse.
However, the trio is no longer on the rise. Duncan and Ginobili are likely on their final contracts, whereas Parker—though currently in the latter half of his prime—is certainly no longer a budding star.
Yet, Duncan has remained a threat, and while Ginobili's career has been tainted with injury, his recent troubles have been offset by the arrival of Kawhi Leonard. With Leonard on board, the Spurs' current roster is undoubtedly a top title contender, and they'll remain in the top tier of teams until Duncan hangs it up.
The Big Fundamental seemingly rediscovered the fountain of youth last season, defying Father Time with an MVP-caliber season in 2012-13. Most 37-year-olds are struggling to remain relevant. Duncan, on the other hand, is still a top big man.
With the league's best point guard on their side, the Spurs' current roster is a contender now and next year, assuming Duncan finishes out his current contract.
And who knows, the aging power forward may continue to turn in age-defying performances even after his current deal expires, signing on for another season or two. After all, in 2010 he did tell Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News that he wanted to play "until the wheels fall off" and it doesn't appear as though that will happen anytime soon.
When he calls it quits might be up for debate, but as long as he's still anchoring the squad, you can confidently include the Spurs in any championship discussion.
The Age of Tony Parker
Tony Parker has been playing in Tim Duncan's shadow for a long time. Though Parker has always been a quality point guard, it wasn't until Duncan's age forced Parker into a leading role that he was really given the opportunity to show his complete worth.
Speaking on behalf of anyone who has seen the French floor leader in action, I think it's safe to say that he has stepped up quite a bit.
But soon will come the day when Duncan is no longer even in the picture, and Tony Parker is the lone man standing from the original Big Three.
The elite Parker will be the team's sole offensive leader, but without Duncan's assistance, the future remains unclear regarding the Spurs' title chances in the next era.
With Parker on his own, it's unlikely that the team can continue to play at a high level. Alone, he could bring them into the playoffs, but a Finals bid starring Parker in a one-man show would be a stretch.
Luckily, he won't be alone. Just as he provided the Robin to Duncan's Batman, Kawhi Leonard is ready to jump into that sidekick role once the torch is passed to Parker. Leonard, a defensive ace with an improving offensive game, is all the talk in San Antonio. Initially brought onto the squad via the Indiana Pacer's 2011 first-round selection, Leonard has since exceeded his 15th-pick potential and is in place to be the next big thing.
He contained LeBron James in the Finals, which he also used as a stage to showcase his rebounding prowess. Though originally a three-point specialist on offense, he has since expanded his game, which now encompasses a mid-range dagger and a deadly driving attack.
At 22, he's still improving. Once Duncan hangs it up and Leonard becomes the team's second-best player, he'll be a strong enough contributor to ensure that Parker isn't alone.
However, the next chapter will still see some consistency, namely from the coach who has been a fixture in San Antonio since before Duncan. Gregg Popovich is the league's best coach and will assist in making for a seamless transition between eras.
Constantly getting the best out of his team, you can bet that even without Duncan, the Spurs will have the talent, star power—Leonard and Parker—and leadership to keep them relevant as championship contenders. They may not be favorites, but it would be surprising to see the squad excluded from title talks.
The Next, Next Chapter
Even after the next wave of Spurs help to keep the franchise in title contention, a new era—one led by Kawhi Leonard—will emerge.
Though it won't happen until Parker, too, calls it quits, the Spurs' method of rebuilding—which never encompassed bottoming out—will keep them in the playoff picture.
Parker, at 31, isn't old, but he'll certainly begin his decline soon. When that happens, Leonard will be ready to take over—or at least Popovich thinks so, as reported by Dan McCarney of the Spurs Nation blog:
Tony Parker is still young enough to be the star that he is. But he’ll get older too. That’s where Kawhi comes in. He’s been phenomenal. He’s improved more quickly than any player we’ve ever had. His mindset is such that he wants to be great. He has all the reasons to be. We’ve got to put him a position to be a great player.
But unlike the Parker era, too much remains unclear for Leonard's Spurs to be labeled as instant contenders.
The team will continue to rebuild, likely using all of the emerging cap space to find a complement to Leonard. That said, Popovich will be long gone, and unless a master plan has been developed to bring Mike Budenholzer back to San Antonio after getting a few years of head coaching experience elsewhere—don't rule it out—a new coaching scheme will also be present.
Of course, that isn't ruling out the possibility of a Spurs championship under the Leonard dynasty. However, it is so far down the road that little can be predicted in advance.
Still, Spurs fans can sleep easy knowing that until that point, they'll remain supporters of one of the finest squads in the Association. With Duncan aboard, the team will remain a Western Conference powerhouse, and Parker and Leonard should carry on the glory soon after.
The franchise has enjoyed success throughout its entire history, and it doesn't look as though it will run out anytime soon.