With the Spurs and Lakers each ousted unexpectedly early in the 2011 playoffs, the two franchises that have won 9 of the last 12 championships are left wondering what to do to get back into championship contention. Although San Antonio and Los Angeles had the top two records in the Western Conference during the regular season, questions about their aging core of players and how each one was defeated in these playoffs (SA: to the 8th seed in the first round in 6 games, LA: swept by annual underachievers Dallas after having trouble with the no-chance-in-hell Hornets) certainly need to be addressed in some capacity this summer. Were these playoffs just a blip in each club’s current track record of success, or is it a sign that something drastic needs to be done? Let’s take a look.
San Antonio Spurs
Major Issue: Their main core is old and has had the “Is their championship window finally closed?” question asked about them since 2008. Of obvious key importance to this discussion is 34-year-old Tim Duncan, who has had his worst ever season for three consecutive years. As his speed declines, so does his defense, which ultimately means the Spurs’ defense.
Other Issues: Of their five starters at the end of the season, only 28-year-old Tony Parker is under the age of 30. It’s unknown to what degree youngsters Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, George Hill, and Gary Neal can take over major minutes and become the new cornerstones of this franchise, especially considering Gregg Popovich’s odd doghouse treatment of Blair at the end of the year. They don’t have the financial room or rotation spots to do anything this summer other than sign a mid-level exception and whoever it is they draft at the end of the first round. They play in a historically strong division.
What They Got Going For Them: If Duncan and Ginobili weren’t playing injured at the end of the year and against Memphis, there’s a good chance we’d be talking about a conference finals between Southwest Division heavyweights right now. Ten of SanAn’s top 11 players are under contract for next year (Antonio McDyess is probably retiring, but he’s under contract if he stays), and Duncan’s the only big one not still signed for the year after. Ginobili and Parker have still got it. Richard Jefferson had a great comeback season. Splitter (anyone else see a young Norm MacDonald when looking at him?) improved as the year went on and could take a big step up next year. They have 3-point shooters for days, which helps keep Duncan’s body from getting nailed by double teams. Coach Popovich and GM R.C. Bufford are two of the best in the business and know how to make great moves and adjustments.
Moving Forward: It is entirely possible that the Spurs again post one of the conference’s top-two records next year with virtually the same team and an even greater emphasis on resting their core guys during the regular season (no Spur averaged more than 32 minutes per game this year). It’s also possible that the older guys accrue more untimely injuries and/or take a step back athletically. Popovich will re-invent them yet again next year, maximizing everything they have in some new way we didn’t quite anticipate (assuming he’s playing Blair again), and they’ll likely be a top-3 seed in the playoffs. Beyond that, a lot will depend on if one of the core guys is playing injured in April and if Splitter can prove to be that new wrinkle that drives opponents crazy. Way too early prediction: 55 wins, conference finals
Los Angeles Lakers
Major Issue: Their main core is old and slow, and Phil Jackson is retiring.
Other Issues: Phil Jackson is the ultimate controller of egos and superstars, so his replacement will certainly get overwhelmed by Kobe Bryant’s Iverson-like belief that winning is the result of his own hero-gunner ways, not teamwork and getting others involved so they’re in rhythm when called upon for big plays. Five of their top six players will be 31 or older at the start of next season. Their only good youngsters are Andrew Bynum (23 years old) and Shannon Brown (25), but Bynum has missed 124 games over the past four seasons due to injury and Brown’s development has been stalled behind Bryant. We’re starting to see some personality/locker room issues on the roster, including more from Bynum this year. They have no financial wiggle room (league’s highest payroll will be even higher in 2011-12), and most of those contracts will be very difficult to move, so it’s hard to see where any roster improvements will come from.
What They Got Going For Them: Their best-in-a-generation front line is the backbone of their success and remains intact. Owner Jerry Buss is more than willing to spend a boatload on talent (if they can find a way to get some this summer), and GM Mitch Kupchak is one of the best at getting it. They play in a historically terrible division that ensures they’ll again likely have the league’s easiest schedule.
Moving Forward: They still have the most devastating set of 4/5’s in the league with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom, so the offense will continue to be carried by their offensive rebounding (the only one of their Four Factors that was significantly above average). Unfortunately, the cracks in the armor were evident all year as they lost to contenders left and right, and had numerous 3-game-plus losing streaks, very uncharacteristic for a Jackson team with this type of talent. LA is noticeably low on athleticism and has shown they can get burned by quick PG’s, much like Chris Paul and J.J. Barea did during the playoffs. Unless they can pull a trade that sends some older guys away and brings in younger, quicker talent, they’ll continue to look slow and things will only get worse under a new coach and a more guys-watching-Kobe-take-on-double-teams offense. Way too early prediction: 52 wins, first- or second-round exit