All good things must come to an end—right? That conventional wisdom hasn't proven especially true for the San Antonio Spurs, at least not yet. But alas, it's time for the annual ritual of wondering whether the time has finally come for San Antonio's Big Three to succumb to some combination of age, gravity and inertia—the laws of physics that they've defied for far longer than anyone expected.
Laws they've defied in playoff fashion for 17 consecutive seasons.
That's a testament to a lot of good things—Gregg Popovich's system, Tim Duncan's longevity, general manager R.C. Buford's team-building. The Spurs do a lot of things the right way. This we know.
But what we don't know is how much longer they'll be able to do so as currently constituted.
The future in San Antonio looks surprisingly bright, perhaps enough so that the franchise can avoid an especially long rebuilding process when Duncan retires. Tony Parker could well stick around for another five or six seasons. Kawhi Leonard is proving to be a lethal two-way player. And relatively young complementary pieces like Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills could fill in the gaps for years to come.
However, it goes without saying that contending in the post-Duncan era will be significantly more difficult. The organization is well-positioned financially to reload via free agency, but that may not happen overnight.
Duncan recently said that he's taking the retirement question on a "game-by-game" basis. That could mean anything, but an educated guess is that he might stick around for another season or two if he comes up empty in pursuit of his fifth ring this season.
That's good enough to extend San Antonio's window beyond this season, even if Duncan's declining numbers seemingly suggest otherwise. We've seen those number decline before, only to spike to nearly 18 points per game in 2012-13.
It's hard to think of a case in which statistics have been as misleading as Duncan's. The Spurs simply don't need him to produce like they once did. The system has changed, emphasizing ball movement and plenty of perimeter shooting. Moreover, the Spurs have been blowing teams out more often than not, affording Popovich the opportunity to give Duncan all the rest he needs.
The team's recent winning streak stands as a definitive rebuttal to the notion that the Spurs go as Duncan goes.
.@Spurs 14-gm win streak is its longest since '95-96 (17). Over teams' last 14, SAS is 1st in Offensive Rating (112.2), 2nd in DefRtg (97.5)— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) March 25, 2014
Meanwhile, Duncan's scoring average has sunk to just 12.5 points in 28.3 minutes per game in March. He's still rebounding, passing and playing defense at a remarkably efficient pace—he just isn't shooting anymore than he has to.
That's not a sign of a player in decline. It's a testament to Duncan's willingness to play within the system. It also suggests that he'll be able to do so until he's 40. He's not just part of the supporting cast, not with a PER over 21.
But what about 36-year-old Manu Ginobili? Didn't his apparent collapse in last season's NBA Finals signal an end to his brilliance? With another season left on his contract, the Spurs need production from their longtime sixth man—especially on a bench that's been instrumental in breaking games wide open all season long.
Ginobili is actually playing more efficiently than he did last season while again averaging in the neighborhood of 23 minutes a game. It's nearly a carbon copy of last season's performance but for the fact that he's actually shooting at a 47 percent clip (as compared to just under 43 percent last season).
Should he stay healthy, there's no reason to believe next season will be any different.
But the real reason for optimism in San Antonio has little to do with its Big Three. Leonard has blossomed into a wing with a nice in-between game, expanding his scoring ability beyond spotting up in the corner. Mills has developed into a legitimate spark plug off the bench, giving Parker some peace of mind when he takes a breather.
The Spurs have options they didn't have this time last year, which is a scary thought. What's stopping them from taking another step forward in 2014-15?
Certainly not physics.
We'll still hear media talking points about why the Spurs fortunes will come to an end sooner than later, but the empirical data just doesn't support the assertion that the Big Three are too old to contend. A time will come when they can no longer play central roles, and when that time comes, they may not want to play at all.
There's no need for ring chasing here. But it's hard to imagine Duncan or Ginobili departing from form at season's end. They make a significant impact without playing 35 minutes a game, and that impact is enough to keep this team in contention—this season and beyond.
As NBA.com's Sekou Smith points out, "The Spurs are the only ones heading into the playoffs that actually look the part of a true champion on a nightly basis." Technically, that shouldn't be happening given the especially elder status of San Antonio's statesmen.
And technically, it shouldn't happen a year from now—but we should know better.