After Playoff Ouster, Spurs' Search to Rediscover Hunger Top Offseason Priority

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterMay 3, 2015

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Sometimes who wants it more doesn't matter. Talent and chemistry and injuries decide plenty of games and playoff series, but how much you want it does matter.

For the individual and the team, desire is part of the basic equation.

And this year, Chris Paul wanted it more than the San Antonio Spurs.

This is no condemnation of the Spurs. They rose in the face of adversity last season, seizing an NBA championship after falling just short the year before.

But it's human nature to let down after accomplishment.

And the Spurs' lack of a repeat title in the Tim Duncan era affirms that reality.

What remains unknown now is whether the core group of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili yearns to win again the way you must in order to outhustle so many unsatisfied customers in this league.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he had "no clue" about his old hands' futures but half-joked after the Los Angeles Clippers' 111-109 Game 7 victory that he, Duncan and Ginobili might not retire because the "paycheck is pretty good."

As Popovich well knows, there must be a flame burning underneath them that is less comfortable than a huge stack of dollar bills.

By all indications, restricted free agent Kawhi Leonard will re-sign with the Spurs this summer, and he is an awesome talent—but he is, by even more indications, not nearly ready to be the fire to feed this franchise.

"We had the lead at the end," Leonard said about Game 7. "It was just both teams fighting. It is just basketball. You're not going to make every shot. It just doesn't go your way sometimes."

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 02: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs and Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers battle for a loose ball during Game Seven of the Western Conference quarterfinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 2, 20
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In time, Leonard might find his leadership style. But it's a long way off, unsurprisingly, considering he has been the baby brother to men who have fought and conquered so often.

The question with the Spurs now is how they rediscover a blend of that wanting-it-more ingredient to go with the legitimate element of confidence Popovich has instilled.

If Duncan, 39, retires, then maybe they court fresh blood such as free agent LaMarcus Aldridge, whose lack of playoff success (and thus thirst for such an accomplishment) isn't all that dissimilar to one staining Paul's resume.

After bringing back basically the whole roster from last season, the Spurs need at least some new spark to go for stuff reflexively instead of waiting for the backs to hit the wall.

It was appropriate Saturday night not just how Paul willed his way to success on the Clippers' last two possessions, but also how Duncan came up just short on both with his defense.

Duncan's effort was absolutely there in the desperate moments…just too late.

And that should stand as symbolic of the Spurs' season.

Paul's perseverance on his strained left hamstring was the lead story for the winning team—and his side of it is all the more noticeable as a contrast to the Spurs.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Paul took the proper steps during this season, and he was rewarded. It's not really karma; it's life. You position yourself as best you can for an opportunity to succeed.

Early in this Game 7, Paul looked like he was going to be burned for his extra efforts. While the Spurs' model of resting otherwise healthy players during the regular season was embraced league-wide this season, Paul played all 82 games—and brought it with astounding consistency.

This was a guy massively disappointed in himself for letting the Clippers' second-round series against Oklahoma City slip away last season. He was so eager for redemption (a feeling the Spurs had sink in even deeper after blowing the 2013 NBA Finals) that Paul admitted the day the Clippers convened for training camp, "It would be nice if we could just start the playoffs tomorrow. But we've got a lot of work to do before that."

Instead of skipping steps, Paul pushed all season long—to the point that in a year where Blake Griffin was supposed to assume more of the team's face, Paul earned the third spot on my official NBA MVP ballot.

Paul won this series with his huge plays on a bum leg, but also because he carried his team through the regular season to home-court advantage.   

That home comfort helped his team make 14 three-point shots Saturday night. And it was relevant down to the final second, when a clock malfunction that would have been hard to imagine occurring in San Antonio gave Matt Barnes and the Clippers a free preview of Gregg Popovich's final play.

Popovich was furious, but again, it was too late for emotional pleas. Maybe it wouldn't have been as recently as the second quarter, when we were reminded of a Spurs injury that obviously isn't on the same scale as the Clippers missing Paul but still speaks volumes.

LOS ANGELES, CA - May 2:  Glen Davis #0 of the Los Angeles Clippers grabs the rebound against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Seven of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 2, 2015 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, Califor
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Popovich used intentional fouling of DeAndre Jordan shrewdly to maximize possessions before halftime, but the Clippers' Glen Davis powered through Duncan and Boris Diaw on the left side of the lane to collect the offensive rebound of Jordan's miss.

The result of the regained possession was the Clippers' Jamal Crawford nailing a three-point shot, leaving Popovich so gut-punched that he literally brought his hands to his knees, doubled over in anguish.

Then he went over on the bench to Tiago Splitter, who has been troubled by calf and back problems all season, and appeared to mention how much Splitter is needed as a big body and rebounder. Yet that body had just been subbed out before Davis' huge rebound.

Splitter has often found himself off the floor this season, hampered by an inability to remain healthy or consistent.

Leonard's growth aside, Splitter was the kind of guy the Spurs hoped could take another step forward to evolve this group.

But you often see players on defending champions miss more time, whether it's being outright fat-catty or selfishly individualistic or just feeling worn down from the previous effort.

NBA insiders all agreed Splitter would be key in this series because of Griffin and Jordan up front. And indeed, in Game 7, despite playing just 22 minutes with more soreness, Splitter had the Spurs' best plus/minus rating by double (plus-10)—while Diaw had the worst (minus-nine).

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 02:  Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs gestures against the Los Angeles Clippers during Game Seven of the Western Conference quarterfinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 2, 2015 in Los Angeles, Cal
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

But Davis' bull rush for that offensive rebound was a visual representation of the Spurs' off-and-on hunger this season, including Splitter not taking that step forward in his fifth NBA season.

This was a game Saturday that could have very easily been played on the Spurs' home court if Splitter had offered more this season, or if Popovich had pushed his top guys the way Paul went for it…or if they had just won their regular-season finale in New Orleans.

Yet time after time they put off taking care of business for another day, as happens amid complacency.

The Spurs made plenty of plays in a back-and-forth series, but from the start it was clearly about the Clippers trying to use their hunger to stay a step ahead of the Spurs' execution.

Game 6 of this series, a Spurs home loss despite their potential to clinch, felt a lot like Game 1, a lackadaisical Spurs offering that was followed by tightened focus to win Game 2 at Staples Center.

San Antonio came close to redeeming Game 6 also with a great Game 7, but even with a victory, the Spurs would have been pushing uphill again in the next round, starting without home-court advantage against Houston.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 02:  Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers puts up the game winning shot over Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs with one second remaining in Game Seven of the Western Conference quarterfinals the 2015 NBA Playoffs as Clippe
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Even though this was far more intense and better played than almost any first-round series in NBA history, let's not mistake the reality that the Spurs were eliminated almost as far from the championship as can be.

And it was apparent even back in January that a first-round playoff exit would not be a surprise

Ginobili rarely is anything more than a smooth backup point guard who knows the system, Parker's body has shown all sorts of signs of breaking down, and who knows if Duncan can tote this level of play to age 40.

Last summer, people swore they would never count out the old Spurs again.

This summer, it's time to go back on those promises.

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @KevinDing.