Will Tony Parker's Injuries and Stars' Age Spell End of Spurs' Title Run?

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterApril 6, 2013

Apr 4, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) discusses a call with NBA official Haywoode Workman in action against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second half in Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

It's happening...again.

Father Time and Mother Nature are coming to call on the San Antonio Spurs, to bring them back down to Earth before they can even ready themselves for a run at a fourth NBA title.

Manu Ginobili's back on the shelf, this time with a strained hamstring that could keep him out of action into the postseason. Tony Parker's mysterious leg injury has Gregg Popovich "very concerned" about his All-Star point guard. Even Stephen Jackson is day-to-day with a bum ankle.

And that's without so much as touching on Tim Duncan, who, at the age of 36, is playing like a man 10 years his junior.

For all the work that Pop and general manager R.C. Buford have done to refresh the roster with cheap, young contributors like Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills and Nando de Colo (among others), the Spurs' championship hopes will ultimately rest on the fitness of their long-time triumvirate of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.

Granted, the Spurs have fared just fine even as age and injuries have kept those three apart for much of the season. According to NBA.com, San Antonio has outscored the opposition by 14.2 points per 100 possessions during the 487 minutes of game time those three have shared, but that group is just one of 24 to have played at least 200 minutes together and racked up a double-digit net rating in that time.

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In truth, the Spurs' stars don't all dominate the team's proceedings quite like they used to. Manu's role and impact have diminished considerably this season as his productivity and efficiency, at the age of 35, have continued to plummet. Kawhi Leonard's development into a tantalizingly talented rotation player in just his second season has helped to mask Ginobili's decline.

San Antonio has seen a similar uptick up front from Tiago Splitter, who's (finally) added a hefty helping of touch, skill and confidence to a game that had long been lacking in anything other than size. Of course, Splitter's hardly a budding star on par with Leonard, and Tim Duncan, Splitter's partner up front, appears to have avoided whatever it is that keeps getting after Ginobili.

But there is plenty of fragility inherent in both situations. Ginobili is the leader of the Spurs' uber-productive bench and is the only one of San Antonio's reserves who can create shots for himself and others with any reliability. As phenomenally well as Timmy has played this season, Pop would be loath to crank up his minutes too much.

Lest he risk wearing out his Hall of Famer and relying on a hodgepodge of Splitter, Boris Diaw and either Matt Bonner or Aron Baynes as a result.

The biggest concern of all, though, rests with Tony Parker. He'd played phenomenally well upon returning from a major ankle injury in late March. Whether that setback has anything to do with the shin problems currently plaguing Parker remains a mystery.

Albeit one on which San Antonio's postseason hopes are hinging particularly heavily. The Spurs' 10-3 record without Parker this season belies just how important he is to what this team does. He's replaced Duncan as the focal point of an offense that's been retooled to better fit Tony's skill set. Rather than have Timmy orchestrate their offense out of the post, the Spurs now rely on Parker's ability to slash to the basket, drive-and-kick to teammates, run the spread pick-and-roll and generally push the pace alongside San Antonio's emerging crop of younger athletes on the wings.

Without Tony, much of the onus for operating the offense and creating for the team's role players falls to Manu. And with both of them out, the pressure is redistributed either to an aging Duncan or relatively inexperienced (and, in some cases, ill-equipped) players like Leonard, Nando de Colo and Patty Mills to keep things moving.

The Spurs can survive off as much during the regular season, thanks to Pop's well-developed system and the brilliant way in which he empowers all of his players to operate within it. Trust in themselves, in each other and in the system has allowed the Spurs to persevere through all manner of adversity during the 2012-13 campaign.

But the playoffs are a different animal entirely. Depth and system play becomes less and less important as the pace of play slows down, benches shorten and individual talent takes center stage. As solid a facsimile of the Big Three, and Parker in particular, as the rest of San Antonio's roster can provide, there's no replacing what those central stars provide.

Not to the extent of competing for a title, anyway.

A first-round series against the limping Los Angeles Lakers or the defenseless Utah Jazz would grant the Spurs a bit of a reprieve as they attempt to get their act together. However, San Antonio may not have such a luxury at its disposal if the Oklahoma City Thunder do, indeed, catch them in the race for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

Should the Spurs fall to No. 2, they'd be matched up against either the Houston Rockets or the Golden State Warriors, both of whom could ostensibly push San Antonio to the brink.

As such, it's imperative that the Spurs gather as many "get well" cards as they can for Tony and Manu. Otherwise, another spectacular regular season might once again go for naught and the Spurs' pursuit of a twilight title for Tim Duncan will be over before it ever truly began.

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