Stein's Scoop: Next for Duncan, Spurs?

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Five burning questions and answers about the immediate future of the San Antonio Spurs in the wake of their agonizing seven-game exit in the first round to the Los Angeles Clippers:

1. Is Gregg Popovich right? Are Pop and the trusted trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all expected to return intact next season?

STEIN: "Probably" is the exact word Popovich used after the Spurs' Game 7 defeat. And that's realistically as strongly as anyone can phrase it for now. Because if Pop himself isn't sure, who can be?

But the early evidence suggests that he'll be mostly (if not totally) right. When reading the available tea leaves, you find little to back the idea that either Popovich or Duncan is ready to walk away.

Especially Duncan. The man just threw up four 20-and-10 games in a seven-game slugfest at age 39 and, along with Steve Nash, loves just being part of the team as much as any superstar I've ever covered. Duncan is an all-world family man, too, so I know the lure of spending more time with his children is strong. Yet I just can't picture him walking away when he's seemingly playing at a higher level than he was five years ago.

Pop, meanwhile, could be heard telling local reporters at a season-ending press call Monday that "I wish practice would start next week." Which doesn't exactly make him sound like he's looking for the right spot to hang his whistle.

Ginobili, rather fittingly, is the wild card here. By his own admission, retirement is a real possibility, which should come as little surprise given his declining production and the way he's thrown himself around with reckless abandon for 12 seasons in the NBA and four in Italy before that. But it also shouldn't surprise anyone if Ginobili ultimately decides to drag himself through one more season trying to keep up with all that youth and athleticism on the NBA perimeter. Leaving a party this good and familiar is hard when you understand, as he surely does, that retirement lasts so much longer than the actual party.

2. How long will Popovich coach this team?

The theory was introduced in this cyberspace nearly a year ago by former Alamo City resident Michael Finley, who told us as part of our book-length compilation of Spurs stories that "one thing I think may happen is Pop staying an extra year to make sure things are going in the right direction."

It's the exit strategy that makes the most sense to me, too. As storybook as it would be for Popovich and Duncan to go out together, after this season or next season or whenever, it would be an unspeakable shock to the system for even a program as rock-solid as San Antonio's to have to try to replace both of them at once.

So that's what I expect now. Whenever Duncan decides to hang 'em up, my money is on Pop coaching one more season after that, just to ease the transition to the Spurs' next generation.

For the record, furthermore, don't forget that Popovich only just completed the first season of a five-year contract. Word is he contemplated retirement after last season's championship with more seriousness than any of us on the outside realized, but Pop didn't just agree to keep coaching. He consented to sign that long-term deal which, according to industry insiders, pays in the $11 million range annually.

The reflex reaction to news of Pop's five-year contract was to conclude that it was somewhat ceremonial, based on the idea that no one in South Texas really expects him to see out all five of those years on the bench. Yet we can share that there's at least one pretty well-connected Spurs watcher we know who thinks Pop just may surprise us.

His name is Peter Holt.

In an interview with the Spurs' owner for ESPN Radio during All-Star Weekend in February, Holt told me then that he was cautiously optimistic Pop could actually be convinced to see out the deal.

"He and I are roughly the same age," Holt said. "In five years, he'd be 70. If his health holds up, I know he doesn't believe it, but I believe he'll stay. He'll be there."

3. Who is San Antonio's top target in free agency?

Complicated question.

One candidate could be LaMarcus Aldridge, given what league sources describe as strong mutual interest between the All-Star power forward and Spurs officials to explore every opportunity to bring Aldridge back to Texas this summer.

Complications arise, though, because of all the unknowns.

What will Duncan do? What will Ginobili do? How quickly can they secure a commitment in restricted free agency from Kawhi Leonard?

And how much salary-cap space will San Antonio have once those variables become known?

The working assumption nonetheless persists that the Spurs, with maestro executive R.C. Buford as their offseason point man, will manufacture at least $20 million in salary-cap space this summer to go after Aldridge -- or Memphis' Marc Gasol -- even if Leonard is maxed and Duncan returns.


One scenario on the personnel grapevine gaining steam is the notion that the Spurs could elect to explore the possibility of dealing away Tiago Splitter to create more financial flexibility. Splitter has two years left on his contract valued at just under $17 million and is quietly regarded as a key contributor in San Antonio given how well he fits as a frontcourt sidekick next to Duncan. But if you're the Spurs -- and if the increasingly loud rumbles about Aldridge having San Antonio as the preferred destination atop his wish list prove true -- examining Splitter's trade market might suddenly become unavoidable.

4. Is there any chance Leonard's late-series struggles against the Clippers will impact his impending free agency?

Stop it.

Disappointed as the Spurs had to have been to see Leonard shoot less than 30 percent from the floor over the final three games of the series, so soon after his dominant 32-point showing in Game 3, they're the last team that's going to overreact to a blip, ill-timed as it might have been.

Especially with the memories of Leonard emerging as San Antonio's best player -- and the eventual NBA Defensive Player of the Year -- with the two-way excellence he displayed to spark San Antonio's 20-4 record from Feb. 27 through the end of the regular season.

The Spurs are well aware that Leonard will receive a flood of four-year max offers from rival teams on July 1 if he invites such interest as a restricted free agent. But the early word is that Leonard isn't keen to be courted, knowing he's regarded as the No. 1 building block upon which San Antonio hopes to construct its post-Duncan future.

So the working expectation in Spurs circles is that Leonard and his bosses will come to a quick verbal agreement on a new five-year max deal, which would then free up the front office to chase Aldridge and the other moves necessary to ensure all the math works.

That's the sort of blueprint San Antonio promised Leonard last October, when the Spurs told the 23-year-old they wanted to hold off on signing him to an extension when they had the chance in hopes of preserving maximum cap flexibility for the coming summer.

Yet there's no escaping the reality that the Spurs, assuming Duncan plays on, will have to do some cap gymnastics to create the needed space to chase an Aldridge or anyone else in that price range. Parker, Splitter, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Kyle Anderson are the only Spurs under contract next season, accounting for a total just over $34 million, but Duncan and Ginobili, as well as the unheralded Danny Green and Marco Belinelli, are unrestricted free agents.

So Leonard's return, which is essentially guaranteed since the Spurs can match any offer he gets, is one of the few inevitabilities for the silver and black this summer.

"The team will probably look considerably different than it looks this year because we have so many free agents and we want to retool a little bit," Pop admitted Monday. “We want to try to start -- not exactly over again -- but these last four seasons have been a grind. And we put the team together with that in mind, that this year we'd have all the free agents so we can decide what we want to do moving forward as far as the makeup of the team."

5. Does failing to repeat damage San Antonio's legacy?

It really shouldn't. But it probably does.

I can assure you that, as far as today's real-life NBA goes, no one really thinks that way. The Spurs are held up as the standard for excellence by the likes of LeBron James, roughly 29 rival teams and pretty much anyone and everyone else in between. The league's only two 60-win teams this season -- Golden State and Atlanta -- are coached by Pop disciples (Steve Kerr and Mike Budenholzer) and were rather open about how much they modeled themselves on San Antonio's team-first approach and the ball movement as the primary fuel.

History, though, is another matter. Five championships in Duncan's 18 seasons is a haul only Kobe Bryant, among active players, can come close to matching. But it remains to be seen whether the 13 seasons without a ring in that span -- so many of them capped by agonizing losses like the one San Antonio endured in Saturday night's crushing Game 7 -- conspire to prevent them from being remembered as truly dynastic.

Asked in our February interview for ESPN Radio how much it bothers the Spurs that they've never quite managed to go back-to-back, Holt said: "Bother probably isn't the right word. We, of course, wish that we had repeated. Now what happened to us two years ago, losing in Miami in the sixth and seventh game and then winning, that helps alleviate that a little bit because we at least won the second of the two and got there two times."