The Spurs were the best regular-season team for most of the year and led the West with a 61-21 record. How do you explain their first-round loss to 46-win Memphis?
IAN THOMSEN: Three things stand out. The Grizzlies are the NBA's top-scoring team in the paint and they attacked inside at the end of a season in which San Antonio transitioned to become a perimeter-based team. Second was the Spurs' weakened defense: They used to diminish an opponent's strength and force the second option, but they were no longer able to dictate defensively. Then there was the difference in energy: The Spurs looked simply flat against Memphis, just as they lacked juice last year in their stunning postseason sweep by Phoenix.
LEE JENKINS: The Spurs' age really showed against a young and athletic team. Just as important, their lack of size down low showed against Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Grizzles were a terrible matchup for the Spurs, who had a great regular season, but were clearly worn down at the end.
SAM AMICK: Injuries and matchups. Not having Manu Ginobili for Game 1 was the worst kind of tone-setter, as he is widely seen by rival teams as the Spurs' best player by a large margin at this point. His Game 2 heroics were short-lived, though, and the fact of the matter is that Duncan and Antonio McDyess got pulverized in the frontcourt by Gasol and Randolph.
San Antonio's drastic change in offensive style this season (more running, fewer half-court sets) meant Duncan didn't carry the lion's share of the load as he had in years past, and you have to wonder now if the move was perhaps made because coach Gregg Popovich was well aware that the future Hall of Famer couldn't do it all like he had before.
CHRIS MANNIX: It was a bad matchup, for sure. Besides Duncan, San Antonio didn't have a reliable big man (sorry, McDyess) and the Grizzlies sent out skilled power players in waves. Ginobili's banged up elbow didn't help, either. But I think the Spurs were a little exposed in this series. They were way too reliant on Ginobili and Tony Parker's dribble penetration, and when Memphis clogged the lane, they couldn't knock down open jumpers. And when that happened, the confidence was drained out of them on both ends of the floor.
How would you assess the chances of this team's core ever competing for a championship again?
THOMSEN: They would need to find another Ginobili or Parker, most likely in the draft. Remember how the arrival of Duncan extended David Robinson's championship window? Now Duncan needs someone new to come along and extend his career. I'm not going to say they can't find that next great player, because they've done it before. But it's probably asking too much for them to find another star at the back of the first round. The Spurs are capped out, so if they don't discover a prodigy in the draft, then it's hard to fathom a trade that will help them in a major way.
JENKINS: Veteran teams in the NBA are often dismissed too quickly (see the Celtics). The Western Conference is still very deep, but not as strong at the top as it once was, with the Lakers showing cracks as well. The Spurs were dismissed last season and then they went 61-21. If they make some solid moves this offseason, they are still contenders.
AMICK: While it's always foolhardy to doubt the Spurs, this feels like the horror movie where the zombie's hand raises up one last time before it finally croaks. They were a huge surprise this season, with Popovich's tinkering having everything to do with them landing the No. 1 seed. But their program depends on having an All-Star level frontcourt, and Duncan simply wasn't one this season even if he was on that roster. Parker, Ginobili, and Richard Jefferson are all locked up long-term and qualify as formidable. But in the absence of a David Robinson or Duncan-esque addition, the years of pushing for the trophy may be over.
MANNIX: Well, the core will be back -- Duncan, Ginobili and Parker are all under contract through next season -- but this team needs to make some changes. They need a legitimate big man to take the pressure off of Duncan. McDyess is a nice player and Matt Bonner is a matchup problem, but Duncan needs some real help in the paint. Tiago Splitter struggled this season but there is a chance he could develop into a starter next year. They will need to upgrade the bench, too. The Bonners and Gary Neals of the world are nice but they could use an established veteran, a Shane Battier-type, who can come off the pine, defend multiple positions and knock down open shots.
Tim Duncan, who turned 35 this week, has a $21 million player option for next season. What is the most likely scenario for him?A) Play out his contractB) Opt out and sign a longer deal with San AntonioC) Opt out and sign with another teamD) Retire
THOMSEN: I would think he'd play out his contract and then make a decision after next season. He averaged fewer than 30 minutes this year and he said he felt good, and it's not like this wasn't an enjoyable regular season, so why wouldn't he come back?
JENKINS: The Spurs are on the verge of a makeover and they might not be able to do it with Duncan on the books, but they also aren't a big free-agent destination. At this point in Duncan's career, I can't envision him leaving, or the Spurs letting him.
AMICK: The precedent is there to rework his deal for the betterment of the group, as Jefferson did just that last summer. But this would be an entirely different scenario, with Jefferson's struggles in his first season with the Spurs paving the way for the negotiations that were mutually beneficial. Duncan is in a different Spurs social class, and the notion of him getting anything less than the $21.17 million he would be owed if he doesn't exercise his option is unlikely -- unless he starts that conversation. Duncan has never put on airs about his place in the universe, and I could certainly see him approaching Spurs management about signing on for a few more years at a cheaper number. What I can't see is him playing for anyone that doesn't wear silver and black.
The likely lockout could come into play here, too. If it's not a shortened season, maybe Duncan plays one, full final campaign before riding off into the Texas sunset. An abbreviated schedule, however, might inspire him to take advantage of the added rest and play two more seasons.
MANNIX: I doubt Duncan would opt out. I doubt he's looking for another long-term deal right now, either. The feeling in San Antonio is that next season might be Duncan's last. He's 35 with balky knees and has played nearly three extra seasons in playoff games. It's why the Spurs are so worried about a season-killing lockout because there's a feeling Duncan might just take his knee brace and go home. If there is a season next fall, I think it might be Duncan's last hurrah.
Assuming Duncan returns, what can the Spurs do to improve?
THOMSEN: They can plan on a stronger second season from Splitter and continued improvement from young players like George Hill, Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair. There aren't a lot of equal-value trades being made anymore, and the uncertainty of the new collective bargaining agreement will make it more difficult than ever to make a constructive deal.
JENKINS: They need help inside. Maybe it comes from Splitter, who finished his first season, or maybe they have to go look for a big man. The problem, of course, is how few of them are out there. But it's tough to win with a 6-8 center, especially against teams like the Grizzlies and Lakers.
AMICK: They need an infusion of young talent that goes beyond Hill and Blair. Both are quality pieces, but the torch that was passed from Robinson to Duncan must go onto the next franchise player. The trade market is the most likely avenue for that approach, as they won't be finding that sort of player at the bottom of a remarkably weak draft.
MANNIX: Add a big man, pump up the bench and hope an extended offseason is good for Duncan's knees. Those things come together, this team can still contend.
Gregg Popovich is the NBA's longest-tenured coach, with 15 seasons in San Antonio. How much longer do you see the 62-year-old Popovich coaching the Spurs?
THOMSEN: He has talked about the long-term, but let's be realistic. If he should lose his inspiration in a year or two, how could anyone complain? He has kept his program at the highest level year after year, it's simply impossible to predict his future.
JENKINS: I think it's fair to assume that Popovich won't want to go through a massive rebuilding project, but it really shouldn't come to that in San Antonio. The Spurs have enough talent, and their front office is so savvy, they could be the rare organization that rebuilds on the fly, stays competitive, and keeps Popovich engaged.
AMICK: You certainly hear that Popovich and Duncan plan to go out together, so that timeline would appear to fall between one and three more seasons.
MANNIX: Popovich isn't easy to read, so nothing would surprise me. But I don't get the vibe that he's thinking about stepping down anytime soon, not with so many more-than-competent people in the front office (general manager R.C. Buford, vice president of basketball operations, Danny Ferry) and on the bench (assistant coach Mike Budenholzer). One theory is that Pop coaches a few more years, perhaps until Ginobili's contract expires in 2013, then hands the reins to Budenholzer, a quality young assistant who has been a candidate for several other coaching jobs in the past.