This is a most peculiar time of year in the NBA. We've spent the last month praising each team that advances in this protracted postseason, but, at the point when one team is eliminated, we begin to talk only of vulnerability and inevitable change.
"So when you lose, you have to make changes," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (requisite sarcasm understood) in response to the inevitable question about next year. "But if we won, we wouldn't have to do a damn thing? That's too superficial an analysis."
Well, Pop, superficial analysis is what we do. And, so, in the wake of the Spurs' 100-92 elimination-game defeat to the Lakers Thursday night at the Staples Center, the focus was on the future. Through late April and much of May, we talked of the Spurs' experience, resiliency AND championship character. But in this five-game series, experience became aging, resiliency became fighting off the inevitable and championship character became it ain't like last year.
Though the Spurs were understandably crusty about perceived weaknesses in their roster, it's a mortal lock that, in the coming weeks, they will be talking about the same thing. They are one of the few franchises that truly subscribes to the idea that winning a championship is an annual goal. So, yes, they will do some tweaking and tinkering -- "We always do," says Popovich -- to see if they can find the formula to continue their every-other-year pattern, having won titles in '03, '05 and '07.
San Antonio is, famously, one of the most fiscally responsible franchises in pro sports. Though they have a championship-caliber team, the Spurs have only the 12th highest payroll (about $70 million). So to compare their offseason efforts to rejigger the roster with, say, what the New York Knicks have to do is absurd. But in Alamo City there will be, if not blood, then at least change.
The key thing to remember, though, is that it will not be cataclysmic change. There are no doubt morons in the general populace who will suggest that, given Manu Ginobili's struggles in these conference finals -- he was a near non-factor again in Game 5 with nine points on just nine shots, prompting team comedian Brent Barry to say, "We had Ma but we were missing Nu" -- the Big Three will not be broken up.
Don't even think about it. At this time of year, we tend to think about players who have been together for a while as ancient. But Tim Duncan (32), Ginobili (30) and Tony Parker (who turned 26 two weeks ago) have at least two more seasons together, barring some blockbuster trade that I can't see happening. That brings them to the end of the 2009-10 season, the last year for which Ginobili is under contract. (Parker is signed through 2011, Duncan through '12.)
The perennial fourth spoke in the Spurs' wheel, Bruce Bowen, will be back, too. No matter how small a factor he might be on offense (he had just four points in Game 5), his Edward Scissorhands play is mandatory on a team that stresses defense. During the series Lakers coach Phil Jackson wryly described Bowen as an "illusionist," able to dip his hands into a pile to mess up a play, then withdraw them before a foul can be called.
Token fifth starter Fabricio Oberto, whom Popovich considers the "best worst player I've ever seen," got an extension before the season. Count on him. Count on Barry, too, who has a year at his option and would have no reason not to return. And though forward Ime Udoka didn't play on Thursday -- Barry's sharp-shooting squeezed him out of the rotation -- the Spurs like his toughness and three-point stroke. Count on Kurt Thomas, too, whose solid play in Game 5 (11 points, seven rebounds) only reinforced what he means to this team -- a mature veteran who brings it every night and who can alternate with Oberto at the oft-forgotten center position.
So that's a damn solid nine. The hardest decision for the Spurs will be whether to re-sign swingman Michael Finley, even at a modest price. Robert Horry, he of the seven rings, will probably be gone, and so, perhaps, will be backup point guard Jacque Vaughn. His minutes alternated wildly throughout the season but he is a consummate pro who will find a job somewhere, perhaps even back in San Antonio
In summary, then, the Spurs will be looking to get a little more athletic on the perimeter and maybe pick up a back-to-the-basket scorer to complement Duncan. But what team doesn't want those kinds of additions? Yes, the West will be tougher than ever, particularly with the addition of Greg Oden to the Trail Blazers. But you know which team will be in the thick of the fight again?
Yes, you do.