Spurs eliminated but not extinct
They ignored us when we branded them boring. They shrugged when we treated the point guard's wife as their first and only celebrity. They tuned us out year after year, over and over, especially when we locked in on the back-to-back championships that repeatedly eluded them.
So surely you can't expect the San Antonio Spurs to listen to us now.
They won't and they shouldn't.
They know what you're thinking, but the Spurs who matter most won't hear us because they know it isn't true. Tuesday's night's humbling 106-93 loss to the Dallas Mavericks might have defied the infallibility they're supposed to have in odd-numbered years and most certainly saddled Tim Duncan with the maiden first-round defeat he has ingested with his uniform on, but we warn you now.
Don't buy into all that end-of-an-era stuff, no matter how many times you hear and read that this week and beyond.
Not unless you somehow already can prove the Spurs will fail to reload -- which would be a real first -- either this summer or next.
Foreign and unsettling as all this must feel to them -- two seasons in a row without a title, constant fretting about Duncan's age and with so much mystery bubbling around in Manu Ginobili's ankles -- San Antonio has some hope to go with the uncertainty. Remember: Tony Parker and Duncan are not on the same doomed track as John Stockton and Karl Malone, drafted just one year apart. Parker is the Spurs' best player now, at a mere 26 years old. Duncan certainly would work for me as a second or third option as his mid-30s beckon, just as David Robinson filled in the gaps when Timmy was at his peak. Starting over with Parker, Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich as the only three Spurs who have contracts guaranteed beyond next season, doesn't sound so bad. Does it?
As one rival executive in the Western Conference said over the phone Tuesday night as he watched the Mavs finish off this series with more depth than anyone (including the Mavericks) knew the Mavs had: "The demise of the Spurs has been greatly exaggerated. They need an athlete or two. They need to get a little younger. But I have a feeling they'll be back."
At the very least, San Antonio will have a couple of cracks at it. There's no guarantee the Spurs will get it right, obviously, but we're inclined to like the chances of a brain trust that has found champions with the 28th (Parker) and 57th (Ginobili) picks in the draft and has a history of finding the right pieces to flank Duncan.
We concede that what San Antonio will try to do from here is no small project. The goal is finding another upper-tier talent, whether or not it's a big man who can allow Duncan to be more like his mentor Robinson. That will be tough enough.
The other tricky part is deciding when to take its big swing.
The Spurs, you see, won't find significant cap room until the summer of 2010. That means they have to decide whether they can stomach going through another season like the one they just finished -- with a high risk of seeing one of their 30-something stars in a blazer on the bench at playoff time and Duncan wearing down and playing hurt after looking so spry in November and December -- or whether it's better to try to move up the timetable.
Ginobili, who will turn 32 in July, is one of six Spurs on the current roster who is about to enter the final year of his contract. If the Spurs can bring themselves to break up the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili triumvirate, snagging a big name this summer is not inconceivable when cost-conscious clubs start trying to shed big salaries. Don't forget that the Spurs flirted with trading for New Jersey's Vince Carter in February. Given the well-chronicled impact of the worldwide economic downturn on NBA bottom lines, Carter will be available again along with other big names you'll recognize.
The Spurs' other option is to try to upgrade more modestly on a one-year basis -- signing Rasheed Wallace, as we've been discussing since February, is one strong possibility -- to preserve salary-cap space for a 2010 bid on a marquee free agent. By then, perhaps, they'll also be able to afford the costs involved in getting 2007 draftee Tiago Splitter out of his Spanish League contract.
Sources with knowledge of Sheed's thinking say he's also interested in playing with the Spurs' conquerors from Dallas, among others, but he's only one potential stopgap. Free-agent dollars are likely to be scarce for everyone this summer, which can only help a team like San Antonio that will be relying on championship pedigree to offset financial limitations when chasing the likes of, say, Ben Gordon.
"I think we just have to make a couple of changes," Parker told reporters in San Antonio after the Mavs sealed the Spurs' first Round 1 exit since a loss in 2000 to Jason Kidd's Phoenix Suns, a series Duncan missed after knee surgery.
"I don't think we're done at all."
Not after Duncan, with his ice-cold shooters making his job zero percent easier, went for 25 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in Game 4 and 30 more points in Game 5. Duncan's free throws are indeed still a major weakness, while another Wake Forest guy -- Mavs born-again swingman Josh Howard -- ranked as the difference-maker in this series. But I submit that a lot of teams in this league would love to have the one-legged Duncan.
"At the beginning of the year, I always say one thing: If we're healthy at the end of the year, I think we've got a chance," Duncan told me a few days ago. "We haven't been as healthy as we want to be this year."
Instinct tells me Timmy will be able to make his usual proclamation before one of the next two seasons.
Maybe even both.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.