SPURS: Burn Down the Forest, Not the Trees

There was a time where the most apt metaphor to describe the San Antonio Spurs was the three-legged stool. Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker were completely symbiotic, facilitating each others’ games in a way that other teams of co-superstars could only dream. It was a team where the offense and defense were engineered perfectly to the talents of the personnel and the expected environment of the post-season, and I don’t know if you heard, but it kind of worked. They won a ton of games, a few championships, and are/were a damn dynasty if I have to go to my grave repeating it. That model marked San Antonio as one of the two most successful franchises this decade, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they deserve to top that list or merely be second best.

Needless to say, that’s changed a bit. The Spurs are no longer a fixture at the top of the Western Conference standings, and “the Big Three” as we knew them are dead. Duncan aged and slowed, Ginobili had entered a new phase of his career, and Tony Parker looked to be taking on a bigger scoring role before regressing this season and succumbing to injury. Nothing anyone does or says will revive the model that was and worked, and it’s become very apparent that all of the Richard Jeffersons in the world won’t breathe new life into a system that is now defunct.

Now, the Spurs are not dead. But the three-star system that relied on Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan to bring out the brilliance in one another as equally important parts? Like a doornail. It’s rotting, maggoty (I don’t think I mean Maggette), and frankly starting to smell a bit ripe. The fact that Ginobili has absolutely taken over since Parker’s injury isn’t a mistake or a mirage. With Duncan and Parker’s respective declines, the first due to age and the latter to injury, Manu is simply being given the proper outlet to do what he’s always been capable of doing, even if the system never properly called for it. Ginobili has had his rough patches, sure, and there were times both this season and last where he didn’t exactly look himself. But this is the man who could have and should have been doing more for the San Antonio Spurs, and finally is. The answer wasn’t importing RJ, but figuring out what on Earth went wrong with how the Spurs were utilizing Manu Ginobili, what ailed him, and why the product wasn’t the same as it used to be. Even the great Gregg Popovich comes up short from time to time, and though some have chalked up the Spurs’ drop-off to the inevitabilities of age, I don’t think that tells the whole story.

Manu may not be the spitting image of the player he was five years ago, but to say that he isn’t talented enough to be a top player in this league or that he lacks the flair that once made him a must-watch is absurd. I think that’s been made pretty apparent by his decision to completely dominate the month of March. However, his recent tear has done two very interesting things:

  1. Manu’s ability to run the San Antonio offense without Parker is improving his value as a free agent.
  2. Manu’s ability to run the San Antonio offense without Parker is proving his value as a Spur.

Now we’re getting somewhere. The Spurs are in a tough spot because they need to move forward without moving backward. Trying to replicate the Parker-Ginobili-Duncan model by replacing Ginobili is just foolish; not only does SanAn’s cap situation not allow for it (unless they convinced some other team to a bizarre sign-and-trade swap that has way too many moving parts to even consider), but the combination that Pop and Buford struck gold with was equal parts basketball genius and luck. Who could have predicted the evolutionary paths of both Parker and Ginobili? Duncan’s been a can’t-miss player from the start, but I don’t think anyone within the Spurs organization could have properly appraised the other two pillars of Spurdom. After all, even great scouting teams have to happen upon some luck once in awhile rather than make their own. Yet the more important element of Pop and Buford’s design — or really, of the luck involved — is how well the pieces fit. The Big Three complemented each other in a way few cores really can, and the only reason the Spurs have been so successful for so long is because of the synergy that those stars forged together. It’s incredibly specific and won’t be re-created by plugging in another name where Ginobili’s once was.

As I said before, the Big Three design in San Antonio is deceased, and to drag it out any further would only halt the Spurs’ potential progress. Don’t misunderstand my meaning here, though; just because the model is dead does not mean that the players themselves are done as a viable core. Perhaps the balance of the offense simply needs to shift in a way that better accommodates the change in effectiveness of the Spurs in question; a healthy Parker is capable of carrying an offense, and has developed a diverse enough game to be the primary offensive option for a team. Manu would be a crucial part of that offensive framework, though, as a team relying on a scoring playmaker like Parker would be best served with a player alongside him who can do more of the same…even if he accomplishes that “same” in a completely different way. Consider this the Joe Johnson model, where a team can find offensive effectiveness by relying on two players in the backcourt who are “combo guards” in some respects. Manu may not be thought of as a point guard, but he’s shown during Parker’s injury that he’s capable of fulfilling that role within half-court sets. Parker may not be thought of as a shooting guard, but is the purest example of a championship-level point that relies mostly on his ability to score. Obviously Pop wouldn’t dive into Mike Woodson’s isolation-heavy offense which makes the Joe Johnson comparison almost invalid on principle, but from a more abstract perspective, it makes sense.

So by Manu proving that he is, more or less, still Manu, he’s shown just how essential he is to what the Spurs look to accomplish. I shouldn’t need to tell you that when Ginobili plays, he tends to do some pretty amazing things in terms of individual plays and on a game-wide scale. When he doesn’t play, the Spurs tend to do some pretty crazy things. Like lose to the Nets. Manu’s resurgence simultaneously tears him in two separate directions, both as a valuable commodity and upcoming free agent and an integral part of the Spurs’ present and near-future. Such a development may be pretty obvious if the aforementioned free agent was, say, a 24 year-old emerging star, but for a 32 year-old shooting guard thought to be stumbling toward mediocrity? It’s a bit more rare. That’s because Ginobili isn’t just proving that he’s still producing at a high level, but proving that he might be completely irreplaceable for a Spurs team not looking to waste what precious years Tim Duncan has left. San Antonio might not have the time to twiddle their thumbs until Richard Jefferson’s contract expires, but luckily for them, he’ll be renamed “Richard Jefferson’s expiring contract” next season.

Moving Jefferson is going to be the key. The drop-off in the Spurs’ core may not be enough to justify blowing it all up, but it certainly doesn’t mean that they can be surrounded by a batch of random role players anymore. The fourth best player can’t be a DeJuan Blair, an Antonio McDyess, or this year’s Richard Jefferson. They need something better, and there’s nothing wrong with that. For all of the talk about two stars or three stars winning championships, a group of productive role players can be just as important. The Celtics wouldn’t have gone all the way without Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, and the dynasty Lakers would have had trouble without guys like Derek Fisher or Robert Horry. I’m not saying these players were absolutely essential to the degree of a Duncan or a Garnett or an O’Neal, but they’re an important part of the championship puzzle and without them the picture is incomplete. That’s where the Spurs of the future need to depart from the mold of the past. It’s what they’ve tried to do but couldn’t with RJ, and it’s the path they need to keep pursuing if they’re going to stay competitive.

Believe it or not, Jefferson could actually be worth something on the open market next year…or not. It all depends on how the ongoing labor negotiations proceed or more importantly, how they’re perceived. If owners and managers around the league anticipate a lengthy lockout (lasting more than one season), RJ’s deal will be worth less than those that expire in 2012. In that case, teams will be trading for a year of production and then will be off the hook for at least a fraction of the following season (if not more). If, however, the negotiations progress to the point where managers don’t anticipate 2011-2012 to be lost entirely, contracts like Jefferson’s would be quite valuable. Especially so for any franchise looking to take advantage of the new, likely more favorable contract terms of the upcoming CBA. That could put a lot of small market clubs in the bidding for Jefferson’s expiring deal, particularly those looking for a reboot.

But before San Antonio can look to move Jefferson, they have to retain Manu Ginobili. Otherwise they call it a day, surrender their ability to compete for a playoff spot next season, and have a go of it post-lockout. You could hardly blame the Spurs if they did, but what message does that send to Parker, who is sure to attract interest as a free agent in 2011? I know there’s a lot of trust between the Spurs’ management and their principals, but that has always come with a well-constructed plan and a commitment to winning. You have to believe the plan will still be there as long as Popovich and Buford are, but what of the commitment to winning when wins aren’t so easy to come by? When the Spurs are looking at a team next year that features Duncan, Parker, Jefferson, McDyess, Blair, and who? Will George Hill’s natural progress be enough to fill the void at shooting guard? Not bloody likely. Internal improvements aren’t going to save the day if Ginobili isn’t around, and losing him turns Parker into a bit of a wild card.

While San Antonio’s salary situation is actually quite flexible on paper (the only committed salary in 2012-2013 goes to Blair and likely Hill, and the only additional players on contract through 2011-2012 are Duncan, McDyess, and possibly Malik Hairston), their reality is a bit more complex. I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that Duncan doesn’t want to play for a losing club. Even if he’s the farthest thing from a troublemaker, that could be a problem. I don’t see him rousing rabble, but the only way the Spurs can approach their plans for the future with any certainty as to whether Duncan is a part of that future is to hold on to Parker and Ginobili. It all starts this summer, and though clinging to the past hardly seems like the best way to usher in a new era, the safest bet for San Antonio might be to proceed with a similar roster but a renovated approach.

Seth Carstens