Tony Parker (9), Manu Ginóbili (20), Tim Duncan (21) and Bruce Bowen (12) are all signed with the Spurs through at least 2010.
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
By HOWARD BECK
Published: May 31, 2008
LOS ANGELES — Late Thursday night, in a cramped Staples Center locker room, Manu Ginóbili talked about pain, Bruce Bowen mused on missed opportunities and R. C. Buford rifled through boxes of stale pepperoni pizza.
The Spurs breathed in an atmosphere of defeat that was as unappetizing as Buford’s lukewarm snack. Buford, the Spurs’ unassuming general manager, forced a half-grin as he filled his hands. He needed something to tide him over for the long flight back to San Antonio.
They all felt a little empty. The Los Angeles Lakers — younger, quicker, maybe hungrier — needed only five games to eliminate the Spurs, the defending N.B.A. champions, from the Western Conference finals.
The Spurs have won a league-high four titles since 1999, but have never repeated as champions. A sympathetic reporter tried to console Ginóbili by pointing to the Spurs’ knack for winning every other year (2003, 2005, 2007), suggesting they were due for another title next June.
“If you can assure me that I’m going to win it next year, then I’ll be kind of happy,” Ginóbili said. “But it’s not that easy.”
The Spurs can be sure of two things. They will remain a force in the West because of their All-Star threesome of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginóbili. And they will fall short again without substantial changes in the supporting cast, which wilted as June approached.
Even before the series ended, team officials knew this summer would be a busy one. Four key players are free agents, all in their 30s — Fabricio Oberto, Robert Horry, Michael Finley and Kurt Thomas.
Horry did not play in the series finale, and his storied career as one of the game’s clutch players might be over. Horry, who has won seven championship rings (three with the Lakers, two each with Houston and the Spurs), turns 38 in August. He was 0 for 9 in the conference finals.
The 35-year-old Finley, who helped the Spurs win the title in 2007, also had his shooting touch desert him in the conference finals. Finley, who started ahead of Ginóbili, averaged only 5.8 points in the series.
If the Spurs opt for a youth movement, Thomas and several others could be gone. Oberto is 33, and Brent Barry is 36. Bowen remains a defensive force — he made Kobe Bryant work hard for his points all series — but he turns 37 in two weeks.
The Spurs had a tough first round against the Phoenix Suns, followed by an exhausting seven-game series against the New Orleans Hornets. They were slow to get to loose balls and short on offensive options. The age issue is unavoidable.
The Spurs have already talked about adding younger players in the off-season. They also envision roles for two recent draftees, Tiago Splitter and Ian Mahinmi.
“Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen,” Bowen said.
It is risky to draw hard conclusions from this season, given how competitive the Western Conference was. But there is a sense that a shift is under way, with the young Lakers, the Hornets and the Utah Jazz supplanting the Spurs, the Suns and the Dallas Mavericks as the top powers.
The Suns and the Mavericks fizzled in the first round and have far bigger problems than the Spurs. The Spurs might still be playing if Ginóbili — arguably their best player this season — had not been playing with an ankle injury.
He scored 30 points in a Game 3 victory, but averaged 8 points in the four losses.
“We got the feeling that we had an opportunity this year to win it, and if you let it go away, it hurts,” Ginóbili said. “So we’re all disappointed.”
The key faces are not going anywhere. Duncan and Coach Gregg Popovich are signed through 2012, Parker through 2011, Ginóbili and Bowen through 2010. There is time for another championship run or two, and perhaps a chance to accomplish the one feat that has eluded the Spurs — a repeat championship.
Their first title defense, in 2000, was derailed by an injury to Duncan, and ended with a first-round loss to the Suns. They stumbled in 2004 when the Lakers’ Derek Fisher hit a seemingly impossible buzzer-beater in Game 5 of the conference semifinals. Their 2006 run came down to a handful of controversial plays, and an overtime loss to Dallas in Game 7 of the conference semifinals.
“We’re getting closer and closer, as far as the rounds go,” Bowen said with a smile.