San Antonio Spurs Need Plan B and Healthy Manu Ginobili, Not a Eulogy

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IApril 29, 2009

SAN ANTONIO - APRIL 28:  Forward Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs takes a shot against Erick Dampier #25 of the Dallas Mavericks in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 28, 2009 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

In the end, what once made the Spurs mighty doomed them against a team too hot at the right time.

Now, with the basketball universe in chaos, spectators must chew on the possibility of the Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets advancing farther in the playoffs than the Spurs.

How far will the Dallas Mavericks go? If they surrender the number of wide-open looks they did in this series against a Denver team that will bag them, not far at all.

That's what made the Spurs' fatal flaw insurmountable.

In one final, desperate push to extend the season, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker showed up like proud Hall of Famers. No one else in silver and black did.

Manu Ginobili sat out this Texas tussle with a stress fracture in his right ankle. Maybe with their Argentine ace, the Spurs win in five or six. Isn't that the problem?

What left them vulnerable to first-round defeat for the first time since 2000 is the reason they can no longer avoid Plan B.

The Spurs bowed out in 2000 because Duncan wore a sports coat instead of a uniform. The defending champions had played too well and won too many contests to miss the playoffs or fall to a lower seed.

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Instead, they won just enough that a debilitating injury to the young franchise forward meant certain death vs. the Phoenix Suns.

You could argue that summer was much worse than this one. Duncan nearly left via free agency for Orlando, Sean Elliott exited with more health concerns than a bankrupt HMO, and the talent pipeline appeared razor-thin.

A pair of late-round diamonds from Argentina and France, respectively, saved them then.

Now, three championships and a series of bum ankle setbacks to Ginobili later, the Spurs need someone new to wear salvation's cape.

They escaped Plan B in 2007 and went farther than most expected in 2008 because the "big three" delivered, and the role players were special.

With one-third of their triumvirate sidelined, Parker and Duncan combined for 58 points in an elimination game, and the Spurs still lost 106-93.

Gregg Popovich needed one of his role players to drill a few open shots for the Spurs to drag this matchup to a sixth fight. Only rookie George Hill, whom Popovich said would not play at the outset of the series, could land any punches.

He scored nine points, including a fast-break dunk to energize the crowd, and looked like a rare bright spot for a team in the depths of basketball hell.

The deadly shooters who turned the Spurs into title contenders this year failed them when it mattered most. All told, they missed seven free throws and bricked 13-of-16 three-pointers.

It doesn't have to come to this. If the Spurs want to climb back to the NBA's pinnacle for a fifth time, they will need the answer that has befuddled them for years.

Duncan is 33, Ginobili 32. With injuries borne from age sure to derail the "big three" again, who besides Parker can get them back on track?

That is Plan B—the plan the Spurs need, but don't have.

Maybe that means Rasheed Wallace and Andres Nocioni. General Manager R.C. Buford and Popovich would be blockheaded not to throw both players a serious pitch.

Why would two impact players—one in search of his second ring, the other looking for his first—not sign for less money to play with the NBA's best championship starter kit?

With the sagging economy likely to hammer the free agent market this summer, Nocioni and Wallace will want expensive deals no one will want to give them. If they must settle, why not do it for the decade's winningest team?

Can you call yourself a winner if you pass up the chance to play with the greatest power forward ever?

The Spurs need something. Now they know why Corey Maggette is not it.

In an ironic and dejecting twist, the difference in this first-round series was the player the Spurs passed on to make a run at Jason Kidd in 2003.

How fitting that both Kidd and Josh Howard played large roles Tuesday night in sending the Spurs home early.

If the Rockets hang on and best the Portland Trailblazers in their joust, Luis Scola will be a primary reason.

Tiago Splitter will be lending his post talents and basketball IQ to his Spanish team for at least one more year. Sans a crinkle or update in the rookie pay scale, the Spurs will struggle to ever bring him to San Antonio.

Even with Europe's economy in ruins, Splitter can still make three times there what he could here as a Duncan understudy. Popovich said last year that he might have done the same thing.

When the finest teams botch drafts and blow chance after chance, they must respond. The Spurs cannot hop in the DeLorean and redo 2003. They cannot take back Scola's donation to the Rockets.

Instead of pouting about misfortune, the Spurs must produce as they did in the 2008 draft.

Where would they be without the sunshine ray that is Hill?

Popovich pronounced after the pick that Hill would immediately improve the roster. After an appalling Summer League performance, he saved the season when Parker missed a few weeks with an ankle sprain.

Roger Mason Jr. was a smashing summer signing in lieu of Maggette. He no-showed against the Mavs, but there were too many positives to call for his job this early.

He ruined Christmas for Phoenix fans, beat the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers with gutsy shots, and staved off furious Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors rallies with game winners.

With Ginobili and that elusive Plan B, Mason could become the special addition Buford and Popovich thought he would be.

He needs to spend this summer practicing his dribble technique and shot creation faculty, but that is a different story.

While Hill and Mason can improve, Matt Bonner, Bruce Bowen, Kurt Thomas, Ime Udoka, Fabricio Oberto, Michael Finley and Jacque Vaughn cannot.

The nice guys finished last because they ran out of gas at the most inopportune times. Finley came up clutch in the final game that clinched the division and a 54-win season.

His trey sent a barn burner with New Orleans into overtime. It also set up the series that ended in miserable and emphatic fashion Tuesday night.

Buford and Popovich know the team needs another infusion of athleticism. To get it, they may have to part with some classy, savvy veterans who Popovich admires.

He prefers non-egotist players with something to prove over idiots who can dunk with ferocity. The Spurs need Josh Smith with the brains of Thomas and Duncan.

Does such a player exist?

Bowen may have played his last game in a San Antonio uniform. Finley, too.

Both players have said they will seek employment elsewhere if the Spurs do not want them.

Ditching Bowen's partially-guaranteed contract would give the Spurs in the neighborhood of $2-to-3 million to spend on Plan B. They will also have the mid-level exception, regardless of who stays and goes.

Would Portland take back the gritty Udoka and a first round draft pick for Nicolas Batum?

Bonner, now the timid, "aw shucks" spokesman for Planet Fitness, may need to find new digs this summer. He worked his tail off to become an adequate defender and spaced the floor the way Robert Horry used to do.

However, the Spurs quickly realized the error of counting on him for major playoff production. The Mavericks smothered him and took away his one dimension.

With few open looks, he could not give them much.

After a blistering 11-of-14 outing from behind the arc in game one, the Spurs shooting face-planted. The open looks were there. The execution was not.

No one in San Antonio should feign shock at this early exit.

The Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Spurs twice in March, including a 96-95 win at the AT&T Center. The team's 9-8 March record was the worst of the Duncan era.

The season's apex was also foretelling. A Duncan-led team lost an opening night game for the first time and began three games under .500.

Signs of a silver-and-black apocalypse lined the path to futility. The Spurs string of stalwart defensive efforts in March compounded with offensive ineptitude spelled necrosis.

One such loss came against the defending champion Celtics at the AT&T Center. Bowen, Hill, and others harassed Paul Pierce into a pained 3-of-16 night.

The Celtics shot 41 percent and scored a measly 80 points.

The Spurs scored 77 points because they shot 23 percent from behind the arc and clanged six straight free throws that would have won the game.

The championship level defense could not overcome the sickly offense.

A month earlier in New York, the Spurs lost 112-107 in overtime when they could not defend Nate Robinson.

The porous defense sunk the adequate offense.

The Spurs need a better balance, and that's why Plan B means so much.

The common thread in most of the team's tough losses was the absence of Ginobili. They were 32-12 with him. They lost 16 more games without him. You can do the math.

As long as the Spurs rely on Duncan, Parker and Ginobili for 75-80 points a night in the playoffs, they will be susceptible to losing to losers.

The Mavericks had lost 10 straight road playoff games before stealing the opener. Those road chokers, logic says, will bite them in the next round.

Maybe Rick Carlisle finally has figured out how to get this team going the way Mark Cuban wanted.

The Spurs should watch in agony as a team most predicted they would be at dances farther than they do in May.

Calling this exit the end of the Spurs as title contenders would be as absurd as picking Roseanne Barr's "Star Spangled Banner" rendition as the all-time best.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili will always give them a chance.

Still, too many supposed experts will bury them and label this a "changing of the guard."

With Parker still in his 20s and indefensible around the basket, the only changing of the guard will be the one the other team makes to try and stop him.

This rosy prognosis after such heartbreak comes with a caveat.

It is clear the Spurs cannot trust long-range shooting alone to help them beat the defensive attention paid to the "big three."

Plan B.

Can they find it?

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