SAN ANTONIO – Everyone in this Spurs-loving little city knew the end was nearing, that a team built on aging stars Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili would have difficulty extending a run of five NBA championships in 16 years.
Still, the consensus among basketball fans here and elsewhere was that one more title was quite possible. After all, the defending champs won 11 of their last 12 regular-season games. But in the first round of the playoffs they lost in seven games to a Los Angeles Clippers team that’s younger, faster and healthier.
Point guard Tony Parker was playing at half speed with a strained Achilles, and starting center Tiago Splitter, a key component of San Antonio’s defense, was also hobbled.
In his season-ending media conference on Monday, coach Gregg Popovich said, “We weren’t as healthy as we wanted to be.” But he added, “We needed to get some better performances from three or four people, very frankly.”
Parker and Splitter both hit fewer than 38% of their field goals, though poor health can be blamed for that. There were no excuses, however, for the shooting guards, Danny Green and Ginobili, each firing 34% and averaging a lowly 8 points per game.
With Splitter impaired, Popovich was hoping Aron Baynes, who played well in the final month of the season, could step in and step up. He did not: 30 percent accuracy, 2.3 points per game, and he was lost on defense.
Of the starters, the only Spur who played at his top level was Duncan, who had four games with 20+ points and 10+ rebounds. Though no match in the full-court game for the magnificently ascending Blake Griffin, Duncan averaged 17.9 points, 11.2 boards.
“I continue to be amazed by Tim Duncan,” Popovich said. “He was our most consistent player in the playoffs at 39.”
That’s a subtle dig at small-forward Kawhi Leonard, Defensive Player of the Year and last year’s Finals MVP, who put up a fine line of stats for the series but was inconsistent. His 3-for-15 bricklaying kept his team from closing out in Game 6 at home.
The problem now is that only five of San Antonio’s players are signed for next season: Parker, Splitter, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and rookie Kyle Anderson. That’s a good core, but it won’t go far without Leonard, a restricted free agent, who probably will draw max-contract offers that must be matched.
If Duncan retires, which is not expected, given the quality of his play throughout the season, the team would have enough salary cap space to sign another comparable big man, such as Texas native LaMarcus Aldridge.
But the off-guard position remains troubling. Ginobili, one of the most creative and acrobatic playmakers in the sport, is clearly on his last legs at 37 and has indicated he’s had enough.
Green, who should be in his prime at 27, took a step back this season and another step back in the postseason, when his usually sticky defense was often absent. General manager R.C. Buford, one of the shrewdest judges of talent in the league, will be weighing his options on Green, who earns $3.8 million and even at his best has limited ball skills.
First order of business is to re-sign Leonard long-term and Old Man River Walk for another year and hope Ginobili retires. The Spurs might do well to let Danny Green walk and get by with a less expensive player at his position.