Spurs preview: San Antonio's next star trio might already be in place

Tom Pennington

Don't weep for the Spurs. Even as Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili get older, the future of the franchise is in good hands with a new Big 3 of sorts.

The perpetual success machine that is the San Antonio Spurs under Gregg Popovich will never stop. One legend will roll his Lark into the sunset, and another will step into his place. This is how it shall be, because the Spurs never make mistakes and frequently capitalize on the mistakes of others.

Or, Tim Duncan is a Paul Bunyan for our times, a myth even more impactful and better than we could ever know, and that perpetual success machine is really a centrifuge of which Duncan is the axis. The Spurs' rise to absolute and persistent excellence began with David Robinson in the early 1990s, but hit a new level with the arrival of Duncan a few years later. Robinson is gone, Duncan remains and the Spurs just came off of a fifth NBA Finals appearance in 15 years and were one Ray Allen heartstopper from a fifth title in that span.

If the latter explanation for the Spurs' prolonged success -- Duncan is the dominant force of good -- is true, the machine will wind down in years to come, because there is no true successor to Big Fun on the roster. (There is quite possibly no true successor to Big Fun in the world.) But if that first theory is valid, that the Spurs always win on the scoreboard because the Spurs always win in the draft, in free agency and on the draft circuit, then the machine just might ride on for another decade.

Because as the Spurs' epic trio we've grown up with -- that'd be Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker -- fades away, a new one stands ready to replace it. It features Parker, who is somehow still just 31, possibly through some sort of Belgian magic. It also features Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter. Is this trio worthy of carrying the Spurs banner for years to come?

Parker is as good as ever: every single year now he gets mentioned when everyone starts considering the MVP race in the spring. He'll never win it, but he's certainly good enough to make the ballot, which is no small matter. He's quite possibly as good or better than Chris Paul right now, and because of the low hum that San Antonio operates at, he gets overlooked in the great debates on the greatest players. Leonard is a player cursed and blessed with incredibly high praise from Popovich himself, that curmudgeon with a sharp tongue and a flagellation for all comers. That wolf of a man says nothing but good things about Leonard, and Leonard has rewarded that faith with sheer excellence on the court.

And then there's Splitter, who just signed his first star contract: $9 million per year. He's not Duncan and can never be, but he's a stout defender, he's really efficient on offense and he plays well with Parker. Those are three seriously wonderful attributes for a Spurs big man of the future. He'll turn 29 this season, but he appears to be a young 29, by all accounts.

What's more, the trio is excellent together without Duncan and Ginobili (who is increasingly a shadow). In 125 minutes last season, the most-used lineup involving the trio and excluding Duncan and Manu -- Danny Green and Boris Diaw were the supplements -- outscored opponents by nearly 17 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Even if extended usage would cut that effectiveness in half, you're looking at one of the better lineups in the league.

Kawhi is still really young, and Tiago still has plenty to prove on both ends. But as we approach the end of Duncan's time in the NBA and say goodbye to a player in Manu we might no longer recognize, cry not for San Antonio, because the Spurs know no dusk. Popovich has found a way to capture an endless dawn.

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