Ah yes, the picture of a model small-market franchise operating to perfection. There seemed to be no better time to write this post; it is exactly 8:30 pm on the dot, on Friday, April 29th when I write this. The game between the old guard San Antonio Spurs and the upstart Memphis Grizzlies is just tipping off, and a win or loss for the Spurs could be the difference between San Antonio turning a page and beginning from square one after nearly 13 seasons of restoring the fundamentals of basketball to a league that at the time, seem to be bereft of the grace of Tim Duncan, the class of David Robinson and Popovich's genius. One loss could end 13 seasons of absolute domination, the likes of which have only been colored in green, purple and gold for the entirety of our beloved NBA. One loss would put the cap on Timmy tying Kobe's 5 rings and toppling Shaquille's claim as the only Big with 4 championships. Then of course, a win means...well, nothing really. It just means all these questions have to be asked again on Sunday night.
I am going to operate under the assumption that Memphis will prevail tonight, as I feel the Grizz are too big and most importantly, too confident to lose. Since I am writing this with no knowledge of how the Spurs will fare, it's far too early to eulogize, as a Lakers fan, our classiest and most respected opponent of the Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant era. It seems funny that I have any critiques of a team that won 61 games during the regular season, but like many teams that focus on offense, there is much to be fixed. I never thought I'd write that about a Duncan and Popovich team.
The Spurs ended up losing that game, and as I re-read what I would do if I were their GM, none of my opinions have changed. Here are the Spurs' financial commitments for the 2011-2012 seasons:
Tim Duncan: 21.3 million
Tony Parker: 12.5 million (the terms have not been disclosed by the team)
Manu Ginobili: 12.9 million
Richard Jefferson: 9.2 million
Antonio McDyess: 5.2 million
Matt Bonner: 3.3 million
Tiago Splitter: Terms not disclosed by the team, but let's work with roughly 3 million
James Anderson: 1.4 million
George Hill: 2.08 million
DeJuan Blair: 986,000
Gary Neal: 788,872
Total: 60 million
No expiring contracts of consequence
1). Do not disgrace yourselves
...by trading Tim Duncan. I understand that the Spurs will not do this - of course they won't. They're the Spurs. They're the classiest franchise in all of basketball, and one of the classiest in the entire American sporting world. But I can understand the mechanics of it - you've got a big man with rapidly declining skills who won't be in the league in 4 years (maybe less) AND he makes 21.3 million dollars on an expiring contract. This is in combination with all these newly found young, somewhat promising player the Spurs have - George Hill, Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter and even Tony Parker, to name a few. An alchemy of all those things means that the Spurs have the perfect combination to deal for someone like a Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, or even to a lesser extent, Josh Smith, Andre Iguodala, Al Jefferson or Chris Kaman.
But it would take absolutely extraordinary circumstances to do this. I would not sully the legacy of the Spurs and Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward ever, never mind him being the greatest player in franchise history.
2). Stick with the core for one more season
Keep the Duncan, Ginobili and Parker core together for one more year and build around them. It seems that RC Buford and Gregg Popovich decided this before last season when they gave both Tony and Manu contract extensions that last well beyond 2012. Plus, as has just been noted, Duncan only has one more year on his contract. It seems too perfectly timed. These three have worked pretty comfortably for the last 8 seasons, including 2010-2011. I would say ride it out and give your fans one more 50 win season before a lengthy rebuilding process that will hurt all the much more after the close of the most glorious run in Texas basketball history. The fans deserve it.
3). Get. Some. Size.
The biggest weakness of San Antonio's game without question is their lack of size. McDyess is a great reserve big, but he is in his late 30's on bad knees and borrowed time. DeJuan Blair is an absolute gamer, but there is a reason that 29 other teams passed on him in the draft - and 7 of them did that twice. Despite his 7' wingspan, he is 6'7" with a 7' waistline and has (seriously) no ACLs. He was born without them. "The Red Rocket" Matt Bonner has hilarious hair, a ridiculous looking three point shot, excellent accuracy and no inside toughness to speak of. There is a reason that Pau's brother and Zach Randolph are absolutely abusing the Spurs inside. They need a tough rebounder and shot blocker - not a Craig Smith redux with Blair and a Bizarro Rasheed Wallace in Matt Bonner.
The Spurs have always been an inside-out team, both on the offensive and defensive end. They've had inside scoring in Duncan and David Robinson for over two decades , with defensive dominance to match. These Spurs have always been good defensive teams because it started with their big mean - and you can rarely have a great defensive team if you don't start with the middle (see Garnett, Kevin; Noah, Joakim; Bynum, Andrew; Perkins, Kendrick).
As the Spurs are right up against the cap, they will have to operate their acquisitions through trade, the midlevel exception or the draft. I'd definitely use the midlevel first, and try to sign a guy like Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin or Samuel Dalembert. Then, I would use that crack San Antonio scouting team to find me another gem with the 30th pick.
Also, the Spurs have an in house option with Thiago Splitter. He showed flashes of competency this season, though it was widely considered a disappointing rookie campaign. With another year of NBA ball (and maybe a long summer to work on skills), I think he could be a useful rotation player for the Spurs next year.
I almost just wrote "try trading for Fran Vazquez's rights (he impressed me this past summer in the FIBA games as a rebounder and shot blocker) from Orlando and use an envoy of Splitter, Manu and Tony Parker to try to get him to play for the Spurs next season." But then I realized that I would be sending a Brazilian, an Argentinian and a Frenchman to go try and recruit a Spaniard. And that I am an ignorant American.
4). Try not to trade George Hill, Gary Neal or Tiago Splitter
Even if they lose Duncan after next season (or he declines at the same rate he has now - so sad to say, but Timmy looks like he has the half-life of play dough under a Texas sun in July), the Spurs are well equipped for the future. Ginobili won't last much longer, but Tony Parker even though I feel like Tony Parker has been 31 since 2004, he's actually only 28 (and virile, I hear). On his best days, George Hill does a poor, but not completely terrible impression of Monta Ellis and as I've noted, I believe in Tiago Splitter. Gary Neal has ice in his veins, and anyone that shows zero expression after hitting a game-tying shot at home like that is someone I want to keep around. Either that, or Pop went Catholic Nun on him and beat him with a ruler after he did that at some point during the season.
I would resist most overtures towards trading any of these guys this season, unless it's a slam dunk trade, like a Joel Przybilla for Gerald Wallace-type heist. The Duncan Era is on its last leg, and I wouldn't gamble away their future for a cap-crippling move, especially in a small market like San Antonio. On the other hand, with the Spurs having one of the best coaches of all-time, a great young core to build around in Hill, Parker, Splitter, Blair and Manu, and some decent Texas weather, I think they'd have an easier time attracting bigger name free agents than say Memphis, Tennessee, Sacramento, California or Milwaukee, Wisconsin (which means "The Good Land" in Algonquin).
The Spurs will look great in the short term and have a couple of pieces moving forward if they make the right moves this summer, but almost everything predicates on getting another shot-blocker/rebounder and hoping that Timmy's decline doesn't accelerate faster than it already has.