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Can the San Antonio Spurs Return to Dominance?

The San Antonio Spurs have five players under contract for next season. Five.

Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Kyle Anderson. That’s it. No Tim Duncan. No Manu Ginobili. No Kawhi Leonard. Hell, not even Matt Bonner is a lock to be back with the Spurs entering the 2015-2016 season.

Needless to say, the future of the franchise following nearly two decades of dominance, is up in the air. But if there’s one thing we’ve come to expect from the Spurs, it is excellence. And I have to believe nothing short of that is what we will see from them next season, despite the current state of uncertainty.

All that said, the general sentiment since their heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of this year’s playoffs has been one of optimism.

Duncan has generally been noncommittal about his return, but unless he unexpectedly retires, he will undoubtedly be back in black, and probably at an even further reduced rate.

Ginobili’s future is even more tentative, as many believe that he will ultimately retire, with his 13 years in the NBA combined with his two played internationally finally catching up to him.

But, perhaps the most important question the Spurs have to answer this offseason is how much are they willing to spend to keep Leonard? He will be the key to sustaining the level of excellence this franchise has set for so long.

What Happened In 2014-2015?

This past season was an odd one for the Spurs. They finished with a 55-27 record, their worst winning percentage in six years, and with the sixth seed in the Western Conference. Their year was filled with ebbs and flows, and it really wasn’t until the final two months of the season that they seemed to finally get in the groove we’ve become so accustomed to from them, and they went 19-4 down the stretch before being eliminated by a red-hot Clippers team in the playoffs.

April 19, 2015 - Los Angeles, CA, USA - Clippers' Blake Griffin drives the lane against Spurs' Tim Duncan during the first half during the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday.

The Spurs couldn’t get past the Clippers in the NBA Playoffs.

The overall feeling set by their performance last season did nothing to answer any questions about the continuance of their dominance going forward. In fact, many are now beginning to wonder if this could be the end of the Spurs as we know them, including myself.

It’s not that they were bad by any stretch of the imagination. This was still one of the best and most balanced teams in the league — they finished sixth in offensive efficiency (1.052) and fourth in defensive efficiency (0994). In the 13 categories I use to measure a team’s overall strengths and weakness, they were in the top ten in 11 of them.

It’s just that their success has to end sometime, doesn’t it? The law of averages would tell us so, but if any team can defy even the most basic laws of reality, it would be the Spurs.

Where Do They Go Now?

The Spurs list of priorities this summer should look something like this:

  1. Re-sign Kawhi
  2. Re-sign Kawhi
  3. Bring back Duncan at a Nowitzki-esque salary
  4. Re-sign Kawhi
  5. Surround with Spursian role players

You will notice I didn’t mention anything about Ginobili in that list. That was not an oversight on my part. While I am not opposed to him being back on a veteran minimum contract, the time has finally come where the Spurs no longer need to make him a priority. There are plenty of younger players that can replace his production at this point.

Clearly, re-signing Kawhi is their most pressing concern. They need to throw as much money at him as it takes to keep him, including adding the fifth year that can only be given by a player’s current team. Kawhi has become one of the ten most important players in this league, and he has yet to enter his prime. It’s a scary thought really.

The Spurs second order of business needs to be making sure Duncan is back for at least one more season. But why not make it three? They should put an offer on the table similar to Dirk Nowitzki’s recent contract that gave him three years at an extremely cap friendly mark of about $8 million per season. Even at his age, that arguably underpays Duncan, but is something I believe he’d accept to allow additional salary cap flexibility.

Jan. 14, 2015 - Charlotte, NC, USA - The San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan (21) drives to the basket past the Charlotte Hornets' Bismack Biyombo (8) and P.J. Hairston (19) in the first half at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. San Antonio won, 98-93

Will Tim Duncan sign a team-friendly deal?

Assuming those two things happen, that would put about $56 million on their books. Also assuming the projected $67.1 million salary cap and $81.6 million luxury tax thresholds hold true, that would give the Spurs up to $25 million to operate with before hitting the tax line.

That sounds like a lot, but considering that only puts seven players on their roster at that point, it isn’t as much as it seems. This means some difficult decisions will need to be made, and the very first one that will surface will be how hard to pursue Danny Green?

Green will likely command between $8 and $10 million dollars on the open market, in line with the likes of Trevor Ariza, Luol Deng, and Lance Stephenson–all players of similar impact. That really isn’t all that much in the grand scheme of things, especially once you consider that their alternatives in free agency will likely command an equal amount, and they won’t be familiar with the Spurs’ system.

Khris Middleton would be a nice fit, but he comes at a similar price tag, and would be no sure thing to replace Green’s productivity. Wesley Matthews would be another option, but he is coming off of a torn Achilles, and there is even less guarantee that he could give you what Green does.

Put simply, it doesn’t make sense for the Spurs to let Green walk — and my guess is they won’t. Let’s say they sign him for $9 million a year, that still leaves them with $16 million with which to operate.

The only other of their own free agents they would likely attempt to re-sign at this point would be Marco Belinelli, Aron Baynes and Cory Joseph, but they may have also artificially inflated their worth and played themselves out of the Spurs’ price range. All three of those players add value, but all three are also imminently replaceable.

But, with those three gone, the Spurs would have to replace them with good role players to fill their void, and there are some really good ones available.

Mike Dunleavy or Mirza Teletovic would replace Belinelli’s production for a reasonable price — likely around $3 million. Omri Casspi would actually be an even better value, potentially providing similar value for less than $2 million.

Darrell Arthur would be an upgrade over Aron Baynes, and would stretch the floor much better with his respectable jump shot, although you’d be losing some rebounding from your bench. He would run around another $3 million.

That’s means there would be $10 million remaining the Spurs could have at their disposal to add one, or a couple important pieces.

I really love the thought of bringing in Gerald Green to add some athleticism to the Spurs bench. Green is one of the best athletes in the game, and although he has been vocal about his displeasure with his reduction in playing time, it would be hard to pass up a place on the Spurs, even if it means accepting a reduced role. He probably gets a similar contract to his previous one, worth about $3.5 million a year.

Feb. 11, 2015 - ROBIN LOPEZ (42) shoots for two point. The Portland Trail Blazers play the Los Angeles Lakers at the Moda Center on February 11, 2015

Is Robin Lopez an option for the Spurs?

I also love the notion of them signing Robin Lopez to round out their frontcourt, which would immediately become one of the strongest in the league between Lopez, Splitter, Duncan and Boris Diaw. He would likely cost you the remaining $6.5 million, but it would be an investment worth making for them. His blue-collar approach would be a perfect compliment to this team.

Here’s what the team would look like:Starters: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter

Bench: Patty Mills, Gerald Green, Dunleavy/Teletovic/Casspi, Robin Lopez, Diaw, Kyle Anderson

That looks like a team ready to make another run at a championship to me.

The law of averages has never meant much to the Spurs. They’ll find a way to return to the top of the west next season, you can bet on that.

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