Wednesday May 12th, 2010

SAN ANTONIO -- As he climbed the dais and settled into a metal chair to face reporters after Sunday night's conference semifinals-clinching loss to Phoenix, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wore the look of a man who's endured a difficult season.

"This season was rough for us," he said.

Indeed, the 2009-10 campaign was the most challenging of Popovich's 14 years on the bench. Expectations were high when a productive -- and expensive -- offseason yielded two new starters in Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess, acquisitions that pushed the team's payroll to nearly $80 million. But despite an 11th straight 50-win season, the Spurs slipped into the playoffs as a No. 7 seed and, last weekend, were swept out of the postseason for the first time since 2001.

"Everybody could tell it wasn't enough," Manu Ginobili said. "That we were not ever, probably, a championship-caliber team. We were close. But we never made it to that level."

The knee-jerk reaction, of course, is an overhaul. Tim Duncan, Ginobili and McDyess are 32 or older and Jefferson will join them in the over-30 club next season. But breaking up the core of a team that has won four championships since 1999 may be premature.

For starters, dismantling this group is no easy task. Duncan is untouchable. Ginobili signed a three-year, $38.9 million contract extension last month. McDyess, 35, has little trade value. Jefferson's contract expires after next season, but many NBA executives believe the looming lockout in 2011 will cool the rush of teams looking to collect expiring contracts. And you can forget about Jefferson's exercising his opt-out this summer, not with $15 million coming to him and no guarantee he will make a cent in 2011-12.

Certainly, Tony Parker has value. The 27-year-old point guard battled injuries this season, but is a consistent 16-point, six-assist, high-40s-percent shooter who is in the prime of his career. And is there a comparably talented power forward/center on the market who could be more valuable to the Spurs than Parker? Carlos Boozer? Josh Smith? David Lee? A sign-and-trade scenario with the Raptors for Chris Bosh is interesting, but San Antonio would have to persuade Bosh to ignore the lure of Miami or New York before it could get him.

Besides, despite an 11-year low of 50 wins this season ... the Spurs still won 50 games. And they did it without Parker for 26 games because of injury. They did it after having to simplify the offense to accommodate Jefferson, who never looked comfortable in their read-and-react system. And they did it after pairing Duncan with a perimeter-oriented frontcourt mate (McDyess) for the first time in his career.

A complete overhaul might be unnecessary; a few minor tweaks could do. Several general managers believe the 2010 draft will be the deepest in years, and with the 20th pick -- the highest San Antonio has selected since it landed Duncan at No. 1 in 1997 -- the Spurs will be in position to get a quality big man. DraftExpress.com projects the Spurs to pick Connecticut forward Stanley Robinson, while NBAdraft.net has them scooping up Kentucky center Daniel Orton. The Spurs also have a pick in the second round (No. 49 overall) where they have been successful in the past, landing Ginobili (1999) and DeJuan Blair (2009).

They also have a former first-round pick marinating overseas. Since the Spurs drafted Tiago Splitter in 2007, the 7-foot, 245-pound Brazilian has developed into the top center in Europe. International scouts praise Splitter's footwork and post moves and project him to be a pure back-to-the-basket center. Team sources say the Spurs will make a hard push to sign Splitter this summer. If they do, they would fill a void with the most skilled Duncan sidekick since David Robinson.

Past success has created a high standard in San Antonio, one that is measured only in championships. A few smart moves and the Spurs could still live up to those expectations.

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