The San Antonio Spurs suffered an early exit in the 2010-11 playoffs after posting the best regular-season record of any team in the Western Conference.
The Spurs rode a red-hot start to 61 victories this season, earning themselves the No. 1 seed in the West. They held off the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks in the last few weeks, but they weren't welcomed kindly to the playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies.
As the Lakers and Mavericks got by their first-round opponents in six games each, the Spurs fell to the Grizzlies in six games. It could have easily been a five-game stint if it weren't for a heroic, game-tying three by Gary Neal that kept hope alive for the Spurs in Game 5.
Zach Randolph was too much to handle for the veteran Spurs, as the younger, more energetic Grizzlies pulled off a rare No. 8 over No. 1 upset. The last bottom seed to beat a top seed was in 2007, when the Golden State Warriors beat the Mavericks. It was also the only other time a No. 1 seed lost in the first round in a seven-game format.
The Spurs are left to think back on how a team that was so dominant during the better part of the regular season looked like the underdog when the playoffs started up.
Have the Spurs seen their last chance to make a championship run with this squad pass them by?
Here's a handful of reasons why the Spurs need to start planning for the future.
Tim Duncan failed to reach 30 points in any game this season. This marks the first time in his 14-year career that he's failed to do so.
It wouldn't be a big deal if the Spurs were cruising through the playoffs, and Duncan was just resting. But he was unable to play at his highest level with the Spurs playoff lives on the line. Instead, Duncan was reduced to watching the guards of San Antonio fall short against the stifling Grizzlies defense.
This firmly proves that Duncan can no longer be the savior for the Spurs. This is the first series where Duncan has been helpless against another team pushing past the Spurs. Even last year when the Phoenix Suns swept San Antonio, Duncan put up a legitimate individual fight.
His highest scoring output against the Grizzlies was 16 points on two occasions. He even had a six-point outing in a loss, and never attempted more than 13 shots in a contest.
It's funny that critics of Kobe Bryant are all over him for looking older, but Duncan doesn't see much press in his decline. Even Tracy McGrady seems to get more noise for losing his edge.
Duncan is officially a role player.
This is not an attack on either George Hill or DeJuan Blair. Both players have turned out to be excellent selections for the San Antonio Spurs, despite how low they were taken in the NBA Draft.
However, the Spurs haven't been able to select an elite player from the draft in quite some time. A 14-year stretch of playoff appearances has kept the Spurs out of the NBA Draft Lottery. Not only that, the Spurs are also finishing regularly in the top three of the Western Conference.
The last time the Spurs had a lottery pick, they earned the first selection. They chose none other than Tim Duncan.
With no young stars to relieve Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili, the Spurs have had to rely on the same three players for almost a decade now. Teams like the Boston Celtics and Lakers have had some off years, making it possible for them to add more quality players to solid rosters.
Weird as it may seem, the Spurs amazing consistency has worked against them.
Manu Ginobili is a good player to have when the game is on the line.
The problem with the way the Spurs play him is a matter of overuse. They drain his energy during the early parts of the game and he doesn't have the boosters left for the closing minutes. Most players can handle the minutes Manu's been getting, but he seems to thrive with somewhere around 30 a game.
Also, late in games he seems to be the only reliable source of offense. With that in the mind of the opposition, Ginobili has seen some skin-tight defense. He's unable to get anything going, and seemingly has no one to pass to.
If the Spurs want to get the most out of Ginobili, they need to bring in some help in the clutch.
Since David Robinson retired after the Spurs won the championship in 2002-03, San Antonio has yet to find his true replacement.
He and Duncan—known as the Twin Towers—were a hard-to-stop duo in the paint that dominated the West. This was back in the day when whoever won the Western Conference was almost guaranteed the title.
A bunch of temporary fixes have graced the court in the AT&T Center, formerly known as the SBC Center, but none have come close to the presence of "The Admiral." As the quality of big men in the NBA is slipping, the Spurs are taking a huge hit. They've yet to land a notable center in any of the drafts, and not too many have hit the free-agent market.
If the Spurs want to get back to the top, they need to go back to their roots. San Antonio is too big of a city to be run by guards.
Arguably the biggest free-agent acquisition of the last decade for San Antonio was Richard Jefferson.
Unfortunately for the Spurs, Jefferson is not quite the player they thought they'd added. His scoring is way down and his ability to play above the rim seems to be dissipating with age. Some may say that he's scoring less because there's more quality scorers in San Antonio, but I'm not sold.
There are shots to be had in the decline of Duncan; Jefferson's just not taking them. He didn't take double-digit shots in any of the playoff games against the Grizzlies, despite seeing lots of minutes.
Jefferson was supposed to take some of the scoring load off Duncan. Instead, Duncan is trailing off and no one is there to pick up the slack.
The Spurs don't have to give up on Jefferson yet. They just need to find a way to bring his charisma back.
Tony Parker used to be able to beat people with speed alone. However, recently it seems like that's not in his arsenal anymore.
Parker seems to be limited to craftiness and shooting over people. He shows brief glimpses of his old self, but it doesn't seem to last for a game. The level of athleticism around him could be increasing, causing him to look slower when he hasn't actually lost a step.
Either way, that facet of the Spurs game plan can't be relied upon anymore. Combined with the loss of Duncan's dominance, the Spurs' offensive identity is in sure crisis from time to time. This caused the players of San Antonio to hoist an abnormal amount of threes this season.
During the regular season they fell, but the postseason was a different story with a quick ending.
Give DeJuan Blair about four more inches of height, and he'd be one of the premier centers in the entire league.
Sadly for the Spurs, there's no male enhancement pills that increase vertical height. Blair is never going to be the center the Spurs so desperately need. As Duncan's minutes continue to take visible hits, Blair can continue to relieve the all-time great power forward, but he shouldn't play alongside him.
Against teams like the Lakers, the frontcourt of Duncan and Blair would be demolished. Blair is one of the hardest working rebounders in the league, making it seem viable to put him at the No. 5 slot. In this case, physical gifts trump work ethic.
Blair can be a starting power forward for years to come in San Antonio. He just needs a seven-footer to team up with.
After a couple years of decline, the West seems to be back on the rise.
Teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers and Grizzlies are closing in on the Lakers. The West has some recognizable post presences again and the shift East seems to be over for the most part. Now the Spurs have to try and stop the bleeding while the other teams are thriving.
Many people, including myself, think that the Spurs were over-matched in their first-round series. Crazy to think a team that finished just outside the top half of the conference could beat a 60-win team. That truly shows the depth of the West.
Can the Spurs turn it around with their current unit?
I don't think so. They're too old to contend with the young challengers in the conference, or even a more talented Lakers team. The Spurs need to take a serious look at the future.
Maybe it's about time to make a risky trade. Even if it doesn't pay off with wins, there could be a lottery pick that comes out of it.