Spurs' future hazy after Thunderous flameout

Spurs' future hazy after Thunderous flameout

Published Jun. 7, 2012 11:06 a.m. ET

With the steak now matching the considerable sizzle in Oklahoma City, we move our attention to another section of the NBA grill.

Thanks to a four-in-a-row flameout against the Thunder, league observers are wondering if the San Antonio Spurs are done.

Despite the obvious variables to consider, there's probably little need to stick a fork in a team that preceded the aforementioned fall with a 20-game winning streak. The Spurs' organization remains splendidly rare.

Is it rare enough to promise an uprising in the near Western Conference future? Well, the potential powerhouse over in OKC makes that notion seem impossible to lob at any team. The Spurs, however, have been on the Goner Watch List for several years and continue to cause the doomsday chorus to choke.

The crucial variable in judging their immediate future, once again, is Tim Duncan.

While the Hall of Fame waits to include the now-36-year-old low-post superstar, we're all wondering how much Timmy will be able to produce in another year. Between now and then, the NBA will be back to 82 regular-season games.

The Thunder won't have to reconcile the contractual futures of James Harden and Serge Ibaka until then, the Los Angeles Clippers can improve through maturation, and the Los Angeles Lakers have potential trade assets that could generate another highly competitive turn.

The Memphis Grizzlies reportedly could spin Rudy Gay for whatever upgrade they feel is necessary, while the Utah Jazz have youth and depth. And let's not forget that progressive-thinking owner in Dallas.

Anyway, simply claiming another chance to compete with the Thunder in June seems like a daunting task.

As the mileage increases, Duncan no longer is able to punish the entire league when allowed to work one-on-one. Almost every team referenced earlier has at least one ox-sized defender capable of at least preventing Duncan from obliterating their defense.

Duncan's ability to inspire double-team tactics has, for years, been a staple of the Spurs' offense. With coach Gregg Popovich and personnel guy R.C. Buford surrounding him with wise, team-oriented snipers, the opposition has been obliged to choose between high-potency poisons. Ball movement and intelligence have carried the Spurs for years.

But they also had the individual greatness that's still required to flourish in this league. In addition to Duncan on the post and 3-point threats all over, San Antonio has maintained its level of excellence with the slashing exploits of legitimate superstars Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

While Duncan is a free agent with little inclination to seek employment elsewhere, Parker — who's contractually locked in for a while — recently turned 30. He should be playing at a high level until further notice. The soon-to-be-35 Ginobili has just one more season on the Spurs' books, though, and his fearless approach often leads to the training room.
In the just-completed scrum with the Thunder, Popovich lost a bit of the essential trust he had in certain role players. Games 5 and 6 featured big minutes for the aforementioned Big Three, who didn't have enough left to overcome the skill, youth and bounce of OKC.

"There's not much to complain about," Ginobili told reporters in the Game 6 aftermath. "We had a great run. We just couldn't beat these guys."

These guys from Oklahoma City — and some Western Conference peers — don't figure to be any worse next season. That means the Spurs — assuming their Big Three can avoid injury and approach this season's productivity — would require upgrades in the supporting cast.

Stephen Jackson, another old war horse, has one more season remaining on his contract and should retain enough gusto to provide Pop with scoring punch off the bench. But the trade-deadline acquisition of Jackson required the Spurs to ship their 2012 first-round draft pick (and Richard Jefferson) to the Golden State Warriors.

No real problem, right? What could Buford and Pop do with a pick at the end of the first round anyway? Anyone asking that question has spent little time following San Antonio's draft history. Besides the Spurs' previous picks that occurred either late in the first round or in the second (Parker, Ginobili, DeJuan Blair), this year's draft pool has several talented prospects with real or perceived baggage that could allow a late-selecting organization to strike gold.

For a talented player with baggage, San Antonio could be the perfect landing spot. And while the Spurs have a habit of hiring solid characters, their coaches and veteran leadership enable the team to successfully rehabilitate the perception of players such as Jackson.

So having no picks (for now) might hurt.

But they do have some growth potential in rookie winger Kawhi Leonard, a beyond-his-years competitor whose ceiling seems fairly towering. Unfortunately, claiming Leonard — a post-lottery selection — in last year's draft-night trade with the Indiana Pacers cost the Spurs the services of guard George Hill.

Hill, a reported Popovich favorite, could function at a high level alongside Parker or keep the offense percolating when Parker was taking a break. With Hill a goner, the Spurs were unable to find someone capable of running the show with Parker down, although the multi-tasking Ginobili spent much of that time as the go-to scorer.

It should be noted that the trade of Hill also delivered Erazem Lorbek's NBA employment rights to San Antonio. Lorbek, who stands 6-foot-10 and is 28 years old, played one season at Michigan State and is one of the top frontcourt players in Europe.

He represents the top-ranked prospect in the Spurs' current Euro Stash, a crowd that also includes French guard Nando De Colo, English center prospect Ryan Richards (a personnel source said "prospect" is the key word) and Hungarian small forward Adam Hanga.

While adding Euro Stash to the roster will involve all sorts of contractual machinations (and keep in mind that Duncan, Boris Diaw and Danny Green are free agents), Lorbek would seem like a solid addition. Although Popovich reduced the minutes of young post man Tiago Splitter as the OKC series progressed, the Spurs like his future.

De Colo is said to be pretty advanced as a facilitator, but he isn't exactly a blur. Recent reports insist there's a good chance he ends up in San Antonio next season. We'll see if the Spurs consider that enough reserve clout behind Parker. It's doubtful that any combination of Euro players will be sufficient to elevate the Spurs to their accustomed level.

It also should be noted that the hosannas routinely and justifiably aimed at the San Antonio organization were abetted by one tremendous note of good fortune.

A season-killing injury to the great David Robinson caused the Spurs to be lousy enough to join the lottery pack in 1997. They won that particular lottery, of course, and were able to select Duncan. With Duncan becoming the main cog in the greatness-sustaining machinery, the front office has just had to to fit specific pieces around him ever since.

And although we shouldn't expect any short-term retreat into obscurity, it's tough to figure out just how the Spurs can add enough elite talent to overcome what continues to rise in Oklahoma City.

Even if (David Stern forbid) Duncan were to be injured and miss an entire season, the modern-day Spurs have too much talent, pride and cohesion to approach top-pick standards of losing.

After all, they're not just grilling burgers down there.