The road to the Larry O'Brien Trophy runs through San Antonio now. And with a strong young roster that is poised to get even better, with two-time MVP Tim Duncan leading the way, that path to the league title could be going past the Alamo to the SBC Center for many years to come.
"Tony (Parker), Manu (Ginobili), Stephen Jackson, Bruce Bowen, Malik (Rose) and Tim are all guys that we have back next year," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. "Stephen is a free agent, but Stephen wants to be here and we want him here, so that's not a problem.
"Outside of that group, David (Robinson) and Kevin Willis are getting the minutes. David missed 18 of the last 35 games of the year. So the guys we played with at the end of the season were guys we envision going forward for us. It was during that time that we won 19 out of 21 on the road. There's a great deal of excitement with the group we are going forward with before free agency."
While Robinson, a future Hall of Famer, is set to retire after this season and Willis is 40 years old, the rest of the Spurs' key players have a lot of basketball left in them.
At just 27 years old, Duncan solidified himself as the best player in the world after keying the Spurs' elimination of the champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. Duncan will be a free agent this summer, but every indication hints that he loves San Antonio, loves coach Gregg Popovich, loves his new house in San Antonio and would love to re-sign with a long-term deal this summer.
"He is the leader of this bunch, and he is why we are where we are right now," Rose said.
Parker, who just turned 21 on May 17, could be the NBA's hottest young point guard. The young Frenchman has made big shot after big shot in the playoffs while averaging 14.2 points. Ginobili, a rookie who is averaging 9.7 points in the playoffs, has been playing on a bum ankle all season. But when he is fully recovered next season, expect the athletic Argentinean to become one of the NBA's most exciting players.
Bowen is one of the NBA's best defenders, and he gave superstar Kobe Bryant fits in the West semifinals. Jackson is also a streaky scorer who gives some strong punch off the bench, while Rose is the gritty forward who gives his body for the best of the team, like guarding Shaquille O'Neal despite giving up about six inches and 80 pounds.
Add Robinson and Willis, and the Spurs will win the 2003 NBA title. But to continue to be a NBA championship favorite for many years, San Antonio needs to sign a major free agent this summer outside of players already on the squad. The Spurs can definitely make that kind of acquisition because they should be around $15 million under the salary cap.
"I want to do what we can to bring the best players we can in here, whoever that happens to be," Buford said.
Even as bright as the Spurs' future is, it will probably be difficult for Kidd to come to San Antonio. If the Nets win the Eastern Conference, as expected, how difficult would it be for him to turn down a maximum contract? His wife, Joumana, has many media opportunities as an entertainment reporter in the New York area. Also, there's the potential for more endorsement possibilities for Kidd after another Finals appearance.
But if somehow, some way, the Spurs persuade Kidd to sign with them, expect him to play a lot of minutes with Parker. And with the NBA's best point guard on their roster, the Spurs would be running away with titles. I wouldn't be surprised if Kidd, at the very least, listened to the Spurs' sales pitch. And one potential selling point is that he would be more likely to win NBA titles with a Western Conference power than with a team in the Division II Eastern Conference.
Imagine Duncan and O'Neal in the post together in San Antonio. Scary, isn't it? This is a stronger possibility than the Kidd scenario. Duncan would probably prefer to have someone else play center, and O'Neal can do that. But one concern that the Spurs may have is whether Duncan and O'Neal could play together. Could O'Neal put his star status aside to be the No. 2 guy in San Antonio?
Basically, it would come down to what's more important for O'Neal -- personal super stardom or winning an NBA championship? With the Spurs' motion offense, the two All-Stars could co-exist offensively. And with the unstoppable game of O'Neal, who's just 24 years old, San Antonio could have one of the great inside tandems in NBA history. But O'Neal is also very close to Indiana coach Isiah Thomas and would have to guard the mammoth Shaquille O'Neal at least four times a year, so the Spurs would need to be convincing.
If Kidd and O'Neal don't land in San Antonio, expect the Spurs to turn their attention to the likes of Clippers restricted free-agent forward Elton Brand, Clippers center Michael Olowokandi, Pacers center Brad Miller and Timberwolves center Rasho Nesterovic. If the Spurs don't feel comfortable with their free-agent options this summer, they could wait until 2004 when the likes of Kevin Garnett, Jamaal Magloire, Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess, Nick Van Exel, Quentin Richardson, Desmond Mason and Hedo Turkoglu could be free agents.
Either way, get used to the Spurs being the team to beat. They will get that needed addition to become an NBA title contender for many years to come since the combination of big money and big talent will be too hard for many superstars to turn down.
"It's our goal to play for championships," Buford said. "The group we have in place is a group that gives us that opportunity as long as we are diligent in adding players that will add to that opportunity."
Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA and Denver Nuggets for the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.