Spurs, Grizzlies headed in different directions
What appeared to be a ho-hum first-round match-up between the No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs and the No. 8 seed Memphis Grizzlies at the outset of the 2011 NBA Playoffs turned into an upset for the ages…and aged.
The Grizzlies knocked the Spurs, who had compiled a 61-21 record over the course of the regular season, out of the playoffs in six games. The combination of Memphis’ athleticism and frontcourt combo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol proved too much for the veteran-laden Spurs. For all the years of experience and all the battles these Spurs had under their belts, they proved no match for a franchise that had never won a playoff game, let alone a series.
Now the questions start.
Have the Spurs finally run out of gas? Can the trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker still compete for a championship? Is it time to rebuild?
Like it or not, the Spurs have finally reached the point where they can no longer avoid these questions. For years the franchise build around its core players of David Robinson and Duncan and then Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker. San Antonio resisted change like America resists the metric system. And this method proved to be very successful, resulting in four NBA titles since 1999.
However, none of San Antonio’s core players are in their prime anymore, and there is no star player waiting in the wings to build around. The signs were there when the Phoenix Suns swept San Antonio in the 2010 playoffs. The Spurs, rather than begin the rebuilding process, chose to stick with the same core group, adding complementary pieces (Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter) along the way. They signed Ginobili and Parker to contract extensions in 2010, essentially going all in with the group they had in pursuit of one more shot at a championship.
It appeared to work as the Spurs posted the best record in the Western Conference. But then the wheels started falling off. It began near the end of March when Duncan went down with an injury. Then Ginobili and Parker were hurt. And before anyone knew what had happened, San Antonio had lost six straight games for the first time in the Tim Duncan Era.
Meanwhile in Memphis, the Grizzlies were hoping to draw the Spurs in the first round and sat out key players in an effort to rest up (read: tank the last few games). They did draw the Spurs, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Now the Spurs cannot hide from the rebuilding questions. They have been ousted in back-to-back playoff appearances definitively, and the Spurs’ aging core no longer seems capable of stepping up in the biggest moments. Duncan is looking more and more like a shell of the great player he once was, getting outplayed by Memphis’ front line being just the latest example of this, and the propensity for Ginobili and Parker to wind up injured has to cast some doubt on the future viability of the team as a legitimate title contender.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are playing with a confidence rarely seen from an eight seed. Even without Rudy Gay, Memphis dismantled the Spurs and took Game 1 from the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Semifinals. Their front line of Randolph and Gasol is as formidable as any in the NBA, and the perimeter defense being played by Tony Allen and Shane Battier has made the Grizzlies a well-rounded threat.
It remains to be seen whether Memphis can maintain this level of play, especially if they face adversity in the playoffs from an experienced team with a huge front line like the Los Angeles Lakers; however, no matter what happens going forward for Memphis, they have proven that they are for real.
The Grizzlies will have to make some decisions this offseason, with Battier being a free agent, Gasol looking for a contract extension, and O.J. Mayo’s future with the club still in limbo, but regardless, the future looks bright for the Grizzlies.
But the future is a bit hazier in the Alamo. Duncan is due $21.3 million next season but can opt out if he chooses and possibly negotiate a longer-term deal with a smaller annual salary to help the team’s efforts in bringing in free agents. Ginobili, Parker, and Richard Jefferson are all under contract for at least the next two seasons. Antonio McDyess is expected to retire, creating a need for more frontcourt help since Duncan, DeJuan Blair, Splitter and Matt Bonner simply won’t get it done anymore.
Making matters worse, the Spurs will draft 29th this June barring any trades before then, meaning that help from the draft is likely not forthcoming.
The Spurs have been in the playoffs 14 straight seasons and regarded the concepts of continuity and repetition as scripture. Now the time has come to finally confront the harsh reality that stands before them — Tim Duncan is no longer capable of carrying the franchise. How GM R.C. Buford chooses to address this and other issues facing the Spurs this offseason will go a long ways in telling us what the future holds regarding one of the most successful franchises of the 2000s.
By: Eric Lorenz
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