Spurs' early exit presents long list of off-season questions
The San Antonio Spurs ended the 2013-14 season on cloud nine. Gregg Popovich and Co. had won their fifth championship by avenging a gut-wrenching NBA Finals loss against the Miami Heat. Most impressive of all, though, was that Tim Duncan—in an astonishing feat of longevity—led the Spurs' to their latest Larry O’Brien trophy 15 years after his first title with the franchise back in 1999.
Fast forward to 2015, where the Spurs were ousted by the Clippers via a Game 7 loss in a series that will go down as one of the greatest ever. San Antonio has nothing to be ashamed of, as it took a Herculean effort from Chris Paul and an otherworldly series from Blake Griffin to get the job done. But where do the Spurs go from here? There are a number of questions facing the organization this off-season, chief of which is what the future holds for Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili.
The Big Three
“Over the past couple of years, I’ve thought about it a lot, how much I’ll miss it when they’re all gone,” Popovich said of his elite but aging Big Three. “Sure, I reflect on it quite often, and think about when they’re not there.”
Duncan and Ginobili both enter the off-season as unrestricted free agents. At 39 and 37, respectively, neither player has anything left to prove out on the hardwood. The question will be whether they want to continue playing.
For Duncan, there should be no qualms about whether or not he can still play at an elite level. Although the big man's minutes have been managed in recent years, his efficiency has remained top notch. This much becomes obvious when you delve into Duncan's production as a 28 year old in his prime years and compare that with his numbers from this season.
During the 2004-05 season, a 28-year-old Duncan's stats per 36 minutes were 21.9 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 2.9 APG, 2.8 BPG, and 49.6% field goal shooting. Duncan's numbers remained mostly unchanged at age 38: 17.3 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 3.7 APG, 2.4 BPG, and 51.2% field goal shooting. What Duncan has accomplished at his age is nothing short of incredible. Duncan never depended on his athleticism, so perhaps that’s made for an easy adjustment as he aged, but it’s still difficult not to marvel at his production.
You probably didn’t need more proof that “The Big Fundamental" still plays the game at a star-caliber level, but it’s still worth noting that his player efficiency rating of 22.6 this past season is identical to the figure he posted as a dominant rookie. As for Ginobili and Parker, well, the same narrative hasn’t played itself out. In fact, both guards have experienced drastic declines in recent years.
Aside from the left baseline extended out to three-point territory, the Argentinian two-guard struggled throughout the 2014-15 campaign. He was below league average when shooting three-pointers above the break and when attempting shots from inside the restricted area. He shot 42.6% from the field and 34.5% from beyond the arc in limited minutes, scoring just 10.5 points per game (the lowest since his rookie year). To no one’s surprise, Ginobili’s PER fell to a pedestrian 16.2. As with his scoring output, that was the lowest since his first year in the NBA.
When Ginobili signed a two-year, $14 million deal in 2013 to stay in San Antonio, it was viewed as a sign of loyalty on the part of the Spurs organization. It’s tough to envision the same scenario playing out this time around, but he could very well stick in San Antonio if he takes a modest pay cut.
The bigger concerns are tied to Parker, who had a disastrous postseason that prompted fans to question whether Popovich would be better off embracing the three-point firepower of Patty Mills in lieu of the sputtering French floor general.
In seven postseason starts against L.A. in 2015, Parker shot a paltry 36.3% from the floor (missing all nine of his three-point attempts) to accompany averages of 10.9 points and 3.6 assists per game. He played banged up all season long, but it was still alarming to see the former Finals MVP struggle so badly.
“Tony didn’t have the year he wanted to have,” Popovich said of his veteran point guard. “He’s had a lot of good ones. I can tell you he’s already thinking about what he wants to do with his body for next season. So I’m thrilled about his outlook already after a tough loss.”
While Popovich's positive outlook may create a silver lining, Parker’s contract lingers like a dark cloud following years of unsatisfying production. He’s signed through the 2017-18 season and will make between $13 and $15 million over the course of that three-year span. If Parker can get healthy and return to the peak form he showed as recently as 2012-13, San Antonio will see no repercussions with that deal. If his steady downward spiral continues, his contract will rightfully be viewed as one of the worst in basketball.
Will Green Get Paid?
Danny Green is the prototypical three-and-D wing player. He knocked down 41.8% of his triples in 2014-15 while playing great perimeter defense on the less glamorous end of the court. Due to both factors, he could be due for a big payday via free agency. As is the case with Duncan and Ginobili, Green will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. His skill set makes him a sought-after commodity, which should worry the Spurs as they enter an off-season full of uncertainty.
After notable wings like Chandler Parsons and Trevor Ariza received hefty paydays a year ago, it makes sense that Green would be grouped into a similar pool. If another team swoops in with a great offer, Green may have played his last game in Spurs colors.
The Kawhi Question
All signs point toward reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard returning to the Spurs on a max contract as he prepares for restricted free agency. San Antonio can’t afford to lose “The Claw,” who will no doubt become the new face of the franchise when Duncan retires (either this summer or the near future).
Still, even Leonard is poised to face some uphill battles. Popovich was extremely candid when discussing his young star by saying, “As Kawhi progresses now, it’s a matter of understanding that it will be expected night after night after night, both at the defensive and offensive end. Good solid, consistent plays that leads his team in those categories. Time will tell if he can do it. I’m confident that he can, but we still have to see.”
Leonard was tremendous in Game 3 against the Clippers. He scored 32 points on just 18 shot attempts and added three steals and two blocks to the box score. In the final three games of the series, however, he didn’t play up to his lofty standards and shot a disappointing 29.5% from the floor combined. As Popovich alluded to, consistency will be the biggest barometer of Leonard’s alpha dog status in the years to come. If nothing else, his upward trajectory hints that he can keep improving as a dominant force.
San Antonio has a lot of questions to answer moving toward the off-season. The Spurs’ core can’t stay together forever. Perhaps we’ve already witnessed the end of an era. But even if that’s the case, this group will leave behind a sterling legacy.
More from Ben Leibowitz:
PointAfter is part of the FindTheBest network, a research website that’s collected all the information about Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs and put it all in one place so you don’t have to go searching for it. Join FindTheBest to get all the information about NBA Players, NBA Teams and thousands of other topics.