How do you tell when the San Antonio Spurs are dead? Well, that's a trick question: the Spurs never die. They just lay down sometimes. When the grave is prepared and the last rites are being given, the Spurs sit up, grab a ball and beat the snot out of another team. They never die.
But in the wake of San Antonio's submission to the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday -- Memphis went on a tear with four minutes left, and won 99-91 to take the series 4-2 -- we're left wondering if maybe, just maybe, the Spurs actually are dead this time. Sure, we've been fooled. In 2006. In 2008. In 2009. In 2010. We've been made fools reading eulogies for Tim Duncan's dynasty, only to watch him sparkle from the deathbed (insomuch as Tim Duncan can sparkle).
But is this different? Are the Spurs actually dead?
Tim Duncan is slowing down at an alarming rate. Big Fundamental is the rock of this team; while Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have taken turns as the team's MVP over the last seven years, Duncan has been completely dependable, and underrated (insomuch as a former MVP can be underrated). There's a reason this is the Duncan dynasty -- he's the engine. Without him, this is just a well-coached team with awesome guards. Duncan makes them The Spurs.
Now look at Duncan's playoff PER over the last 13 seasons.
Duncan's last two playoff performances have been his worst playoff performances since his rookie season. He's now playing at an average level in the playoffs; against all the great big men in the Western Conference, most of whom are substantially younger than Duncan, that's not likely to improve a great deal. The Spurs used to have a superstar big man, even as recently as two years ago. No longer is that the case.
The Spurs are not making wonderful personnel decisions. Pardon me the vanity needed to criticize R.C. Buford (best GM since Lakers era Jerry West) and Gregg Popovich (up there with Auerbach and Jackson, in my book). But signing Richard Jefferson for $39 million over four years and Matt Bonner for essentially $11 million over three years -- those don't look like great moves. The hallmark of the Duncan dynasty was that the Spurs refused to make long-term, expensive commitments to anyone outside of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker. That's why Duncan had a rotating cast of frontcourt partners (Rasho Nesterovic, Nazr Mohammed, Antonio McDyess), and it's why so many roleplaying veterans just sort of disappeared when the Spurs no longer found a use for them (Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, Brent Barry).
Jefferson is essentially the new Stephen Jackson: a fourth offensive option who doesn't do anything spectacular but is a good player who fits the personnel. The Spurs let Jackson walk in 2003 after winning the championship. The Spurs signed Jefferson long-term after being swept out of the second-round in 2010. You know why Jefferson's contract was such a shock to so many people? Not because he got $39 million -- heck, John Salmons got that much, from Jefferson's old team (Milwaukee) no less! It was because the Spurs made the deal. The Spurs don't overpay roleplayers. Well, they didn't, until last summer. Bonner was a bit of icing; there are dozens of specialty three-point shooters who can't defend in the league. Maybe Bonner was the best available; that doesn't mean he's worth $14 million over four years (which due to a partial guarantee on the final year turns it into a $11 million, three-year deal, essentially).
There's no natural succession. The Spurs don't have an heir to Duncan. Tiago Splitter is next in line, but like Queen Elizabeth II getting itchy about letting her son Charles take over the monarchy, the Spurs don't seem completely confident Tiago, the rookie Brazilian, is suitable. Splitter played in just three of San Antonio's six playoff games, totaling 50 minutes. He's already 26 years old. If Duncan tries to pass the torch, I have a feeling Pop will intercept it, extinguish it and light himself on fire in a sacrifice to the Basketball Gods in an effort to give Duncan's legs new life. Splitter might actually be the answer, and Pop seems rather opposed to such a suggestion.
The Spurs do have good options in the backcourt; Parker and Ginobili are still wonderful, which is good, because each is owed quite a bit of money. Parker is due $50 million over the next four seasons; Ginobili $27 million over the next two. Behind them sit George Hill and Gary Neal, not nearly as electric, but solid.
But remember: without Duncan, this is a well-coach team with awesome guards. Without a new Duncan, this won't be The Spurs. Sadly, the decline of Big Fun might very well -- for real this time -- the end of The Spurs.