aNewDomain — When Chris Paul hit a fading, twisting bank shot with one second remaining Saturday night, he did more than push his Los Angeles Clippers into the second round of the NBA Western Conference Playoffs with a 111-109 win over the San Antonio Spurs.
He also might have ended one of the greatest eras in sports history.
Paul’s shot sent the defending champion Spurs home from the postseason after a 4-3 series victory by the Clippers. The Spurs have been to the playoffs every year since the 1997-’98 season, Tim Duncan’s rookie campaign. So far, Duncan has won five titles, four of which came with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker at his side.
Duncan, Ginobili and Parker comprise the Spurs’ “Big Three,” a combination the likes of which pro basketball has rarely seen.
They have combined to put up a league-record 120 playoff victories.
Duncan is the organization’s all-time leader in scoring, rebounds and minutes played. He’s second, by just 13, in blocks and third in assists. Parker is fourth on the team’s list in scoring and tops the assists chart. Ginobili is the fifth leading scorer, second in steals and fifth in assists.
These guys have played a lot of games in Spurs black and silver. But they enter a season of uncertainty that could spell the end of their time together and at least a moderate retooling of the model franchise.
Parker is signed for the next three seasons, so he isn’t going anywhere. But neither Duncan, who turned 39 last month, nor Ginobili, 37 and with heavy wear on the tires, has a contract for next season. One or both could decide to call it a career, although Coach Gregg Popovich was dismissive about speculation Saturday night.
“We’ll probably come back. The paycheck’s pretty good,” he said jokingly when asked about whether he believed the world has seen the last of him as coach and Duncan and Ginobili as players.
Duncan and Ginobili are among seven free agents the Spurs have on their roster, meaning next year’s roster could be markedly different from the team that won 55 games but wound up seeded sixth in the Western Conference. Their record would have been good enough for second in the far weaker Eastern Conference.
The champs could have ended up as high as the No. 2 seed in the West. A loss in the regular-season finale at New Orleans dropped them all the way to sixth. Further proving the point that every regular season game counts, San Antonio’s inexplicable loss at the woeful New York Knicks on March 17 made a negative difference.
If Duncan and Ginobili do choose to retire, those moves would clear up salary cap room to go after LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trailblazers. Aldridge is a free agent and Texas native, two factors that could lead to him signing with the Spurs or their in-state rivals, the Dallas Mavericks. Aldridge is a 6-foot-11 difference-maker who could be Duncan’s heir apparent.
For now, all Spurs fans can do is think about what could have been. Had their team held and built on a 10-point lead in Game 6 of the Clippers series, they would have advanced to take on the Houston Rockets, a team San Antonio defeated twice in the last week of the season.
On the other side of the Western Conference bracket are the Golden State Warriors, the team with the league’s best record, and the Memphis Grizzlies. The Spurs defeated the Warriors two of three times they met this season, and San Antonio always beats Memphis when the postseason rolls around. Those teams are probably relieved to see the champs bounced from the playoffs.
Truthfully, this never felt like a title-winning season for the Spurs. Tiago Splitter missed a couple dozen games with a calf injury, which nagged him the entire season. Super-sub Patty Mills started the year on the injured list after offseason shoulder surgery. Even Parker was hobbled most of the year with a variety of maladies. Those problems seemed to intensify during the Clippers series.
In the end, the Spurs-Clippers series was an instant classic. Only the Spurs’ 100-73 win in Game 3 was a blowout, and the finale was testament to how good the NBA can be. The Clippers posed significant matchup problems, especially Blake Griffin, and Paul’s heroic performance with a painful hamstring Saturday night is the stuff of legend. Paul is much more than a State Farm pitchman.
Thus, the retooling begins. Whether it’s a big makeover — so long, Duncan, Ginobili and maybe even three-point shooter and defender extraordinaire Danny Green — remains to be seen. If the two veterans want to come back, it’s unlikely management would turn them away. They have far too much equity built over the years. The team also needs to retain Green at what would no doubt be a huge raise over his bargain $4-million salary.
Almost lost in the shuffle is the future of budding superstar Kawhi Leonard, the MVP of last year’s NBA Finals. Retaining Leonard long-term has to be a priority. He just finished his rookie contract and is a restricted free agent, meaning the team can match any deal offered by another team. Still, keeping Leonard around is going to come with a hefty pricetag.
The offseason starts and the changes begin. Or do they? The future of the Spurs’ Big Three is as uncertain as ever, and all it took was an almost miracle shot and two-point loss, 14 years boiled down to a few seconds.
“Pop side view” by Zereshk – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
“Tony parker spurs vs wizards” by Keith Allison – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
“Tim Duncan approaches bench Spurs-Magic078” by Mike – Flickr: Spurs-Magic078. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.