Slide of Duncan, Spurs Ends an Era
The downslide of a dynasty can be unsettling to watch as it unravels, scrambling to avoid the inevitable crash.
And make no mistake, the much-lauded San Antonio Spurs are running out of gas. The franchise that has been held up for many years as the glowing example for others to see -- with one of the league's all-time greats -- is limping toward its finish line.
The reign at the top ended a couple of years ago. The fall has been gradual, but undeniably clear.
It was accentuated recently by franchise center/forward Tim Duncan, the future Hall of Famer who has had two of the worst games of his career in the last 10 days. One could be excused as an aberration. Two makes it a trend.
Duncan made one of 10 shots in Orlando last week when Dwight Howard and the Magic made him look silly. He made two of 10 shots Wednesday night against the Lakers when Pau Gasol denied him the ball. This from a career 50 percent shooter. In between those games, Duncan had a crucial shot blocked by rookie Serge Ibaka in Oklahoma City.
The NBA is not a place to age gracefully. Too many young guns are trying to carve their own reputations.
The Spurs -- and Duncan -- have become a victim of their own high standards. Half the teams in the league would gladly trade places today -- 80 percent of them still would take Duncan as their center -- but the Spurs were not like everyone else.
Duncan, like the Spurs, used to be great every night, a model of consistency. But now there are off games mixed in between. Howard and Gasol can embarrass him. He no longer dominates games when he wants. He picks his spots.
After four NBA titles, and eight consecutive seasons of reaching the second round, the Spurs are headed now for their second consecutive first-round departure from the playoffs, acting like any other middle-of-the-road franchise.
Last spring, they were the higher seed, upset by Dallas in the opening round. This time, they will wobble in at No. 7 or 8 -- unfamiliar territory -- and try to avoid being swept. They are older and slower than they ever have been. They can no longer compete with the best of the West, falling well behind teams like the Nuggets, Mavs and Jazz.
"We've played very average this season,'' admitted Spurs coach Gregg Popovich recently. "I'm not sure why anyone would watch us the way we were playing in the first half of the year. You don't want to dig yourself a hole like we did.''
The Spurs had hoped this season to make a final run or two at being serious contenders, going into the luxury tax territory to add proven veterans like Antonio McDyess and Richard Jefferson to an already aging mix, trying to milk one-last title shot from Duncan.
They owed it to Duncan, a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, a 12-time All-Star with 20,467 points and 11,238 rebounds in his career.
It didn't work. Manu Ginobili started slowly, only recently regaining his form. Point Guard Tony Parker, the third of the Spurs Big Three, has been injury plagued, now on the sideline with a broken right hand.
Jefferson, making $14 million this season and $15 million next, has been a major disappointment, failing to get comfortable in the Spurs system. The Spurs could have saved their money and finished seventh or eighth in the West without him.
Parker is expected to return before the playoffs, but that won't change much. The Spurs have lost three of their last five games, and one of their victories came against the woeful Golden State Warriors.
They are home against Cleveland Friday night, hoping to make a final stand -- a statement -- that might disguise their decline. But it's unlikely to happen. They are facing one of the toughest final 12-game schedules of anyone in the league. And it might not be pretty to see.
After Cleveland, they still must play the Lakers and Magic again. They play at Boston and Denver and Phoenix. They are home against Dallas, Houston and Memphis, all tough tests.
"We've had two decades of a true franchise player (Duncan and David Robinson before him), and we didn't screw it up,'' Popovich said. "We've been fortunate.''
And all good things eventually come to an end.