Spurs prepared for future -- of course!
SAN ANTONIO -- The truth is so, so San Antonio. So Spurs-ian.
The NBA's new champions, at the same time they've been busy stuffing a fifth title into a run at the top that spans 15 years and counting, have also been huddling and brainstorming in hopes of being ready for every down-the-road eventuality.
Those stubborn Spurs, despite all their recent let's-wait-and-see proclamations, have been quietly expecting all along for Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich to stick around next season and return in their current capacities alongside Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard.
Yet they've also been preparing, in even quieter fashion, for the day Parker and Leonard are the last on-court pillar or two left from the gang that, with that reborn offense, just dropped LeBron James back below .500 in his five lifetime trips to the NBA Finals.
Did you really expect anything different?
Coming back next season, for Pop and Timmy, means they will have forfeited the opportunity to make the ultimate fairy-tale farewell, but it sure looks and sounds as though they are drinking in San Antonio's resurrection with too much glee to walk away now. You can almost bank on them to snub the storybook ending that has suddenly presented itself because, well, no coach and superstar in league history have ever been less interested in being part of our stories and books and fables.
As Pop told his players in the triumphant locker room late Sunday night with ESPN's cameras rolling: "I've never been more proud of a team, nor have I ever gotten as much satisfaction from a season in all the years I've been coaching."
Then it was Duncan's turn, up at the Finals podium after Leonard became the third Spur amid those five championships to be named Finals MVP, to go a little deeper: "I'm honored to be on this team right now, because he's going to be great for years to come, and I'm going to hold on as long as I can."
Doesn't exactly sound like a guy looking for the exit door, does it?
Yet you can rest assured that Spurs president of basketball operations R.C. Buford wasn't kidding when he told ESPN.com last month that he can't stop himself from pondering the Pop-and-Timmy afterlife "every day."
"Hundreds of times every day," Buford said.
The front-office chief who has been largely responsible for orchestrating the numerous roster reloads around Duncan since that first title run way back in 1999 reminded anyone who asked during these Finals -- numerous times -- that Pop, Timmy and Manu have more than earned the right to decide when it's time for the Spurs to truly start over.
But Buford is doing whatever he can to be as prepared as humanly possible. One example is studying Manchester United from afar, since the English soccer giants -- in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson's sudden retirement in May 2013 -- are already going through what presumably looms for the Spurs when Pop retreats to a Red Auerbach-style patriarch role. Perhaps there are clues or lessons to be gained from what's happening post-Fergie across the pond, where United slumped from Premier League champions to an unfathomable seventh place in the 20-team table and Ferguson's handpicked successor David Moyes failed to last a full year in the job.
Then there's the far more significant measure: Buford has also drafted in a close friend, former Chelsea Football Club executive and noted sports science expert Mike Forde, to make frequent in-season visits to South Texas to try to start building something of a database for what the rest of the league has simply come to regard as the "Spurs Way."
"He's helping me verbalize some ideas and processes and giving our group a platform to build on our corporate knowledge," Buford said. "We're trying to capture as much of our corporate knowledge as we can so we can try to carry it forward when the real linchpins of our corporate knowledge ... if and when they aren't with us."
NBA history tells us that there's no surefire path back to the elite when a glory-days period ends. You saw what the mere fear of another sustained dry spell did to Danny Ainge this time last year, when Buford's counterpart with the Boston Celtics -- remembering all too well how long it took the Celts to recover from the end of Larry Bird's run with Kevin McHale and Robert Parish -- ushered out modern-day Boston legends Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for a fistful of future draft picks.
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The Spurs, though, can draw encouragement on multiple fronts suggesting that they won't have to wheel and deal as dramatically as Ainge did. The consistency with which Buford and his team hit on draft picks, trades and role-player signings, for starters, has breathed new life into the aging Duncan and Ginobili, after San Antonio sandwiched two first-round exits in 2009 and 2011 around a 2010 sweep by Phoenix in the second round.
It appears, furthermore, that Buford will have at least one more season, with Forde and others in the organization at his side, to work on mapping out the daunting future that even the Spurs can't hold off forever.
Priority No. 1 is getting Leonard re-signed to an extension this summer when he becomes eligible for a new deal between July 1 and Oct. 31. Will Leonard push for the max he could surely command in the wake of the way he just fared head-to-head against LeBron on the biggest stage in the game? Or will he do what Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have so often done and take a little bit less than he could rightfully command on the open market to give the Spurs that added bit of flexibility?
Instinct tells you that the Spurs' elders and Leonard -- who's already universally regarded, at 22, as a natural-born Spur -- will figure it out. Nothing is guaranteed, as a seven-year wait for ring No. 5 taught everyone in South Texas, but instinct also tells you that the Spurs always have a plan.
They will likewise have to fend off a full-court press from Golden State and Utah to try to pilfer noted Spurs shot doctor Chip Engelland from Pop's staff and will eventually have to determine whether some of the youngsters they have stashed abroad -- such as 2013 first-round pick Livio Jean-Charles from French Guiana and Latvian second-rounder Davis Bertans -- can live up to their promise and become contributors to the frontcourt Duncan eventually leaves behind.
Yet who would dare doubt them after what the Spurs just achieved?
"The truth is that I never really cared what people said about us," Ginobili said. "There was not one season since I'm in the NBA that I really didn't truly believe that we could have won it.
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"Playing with the teammates I've always played [with], coached by the guy that is coaching us, I always felt that we had a shot. I truly never believed [that the 2013 Finals] was the last shot."
In an interview with me on ESPN Radio in the immediate aftermath of San Antonio's Game 5 rout, Ginobili added: "The first three [championships] were in five years. I'm not saying it was easy, but it was too quick. Now at almost 37, TD at 38 ... this tastes so good."
The Spurs begged David Robinson, at 37, to play on after the 2003 Finals, but The Admiral couldn't be swayed after kneeling down to kiss the center circle in triumph. Fortunately now, more than a decade later, no one within the Spurs' circle seems to think they will have to lobby Duncan too hard.
Surely you heard him in that "SportsCenter" sit-down with ESPN's Stuart Scott, clutching his two kids tightly as the final minutes of the dreamiest Father's Day ticked away and revealing: "I still feel I can play. I still feel I can help."
Those sentiments must bring untold joy and relief to the Spur charged with the tricky task of managing the present while never losing sight of the fact that even San Antonio will someday have to deal with tomorrow.
"I'm so pleased for Tim, Tony, Manu and Pop, because [so many outsiders said] this wasn't going to happen after 2010," Buford said. "Then to come as close as we did last year and not get a ring, I know how much everybody hurt. So for them to experience this, I'm thrilled for them."
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