If there's one thing the San Antonio Spurs have taught us over the past decade, it's never to count them out. But if Tim Duncan wants to win a fifth ring before he retires, the 2013 NBA Finals appear to be his last and best chance to do so.
There's no way to know how much longer the 37-year-old Duncan can continue to play at this level. He experienced a resurgent 2012-13 season, finishing sixth on my personal MVP rankings, after two somewhat so-so seasons in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Father Time always wins out eventually, though. While it's entirely possible that the Big Fundamental is a basketball cyborg who will continue to dominate until he's 50, the odds are that he'll start slowing down for good over the next few seasons.
Additionally, no matter how the 2013 finals turn out, the Spurs will face a mountain of uncertainty in the coming years. It starts this offseason with the potential dissolution of their Big Three.
Manu Ginobili, who turns 36 at the end of July, is set to become an unrestricted free agent. The odds heavily favor him re-signing with the Spurs for significantly less than the $14.1 million he earned in 2012-13, but there are, of course, no guarantees.
Before the start of the finals, Turner Sports' Rachel Nichols asked Ginobili, point blank: "Are you going to play next year?"
Ginobili's response likely won't assuage the concerns of Spurs fans fearing the end of their Big Three.
I don't know. I think so, I think so. But the chances are, like, yes, I will keep playing, and probably with the Spurs. But I am just going to wait until this is over, then in July sit with my family and think about it and decide.
While it's difficult to fathom Ginobili in any other team's colors, retirement looms as a possible, albeit unlikely, option as well.
The Argentinian isn't the only major Spurs contributor who will reach free agency this summer. Tiago Splitter, who's likely earned himself a fat payday based on his play throughout the playoffs, will become a restricted free agent in July, too, with a $4.9 million qualifying offer for 2013-14.
In the NBA, if you're a young big man that doesn't fall over when tying your own shoes, you're almost guaranteed a handsome contract. It would be a surprise if Splitter doesn't double his annual salary after earning a shade under $4 million in 2012-13.
Because Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are each signed to below-market deals, the Spurs will be in good shape to re-sign both Ginobili and Splitter this summer, if they so desire. Assuming Patty Mills opts in to their 2013-14 player option, the Spurs have around $42 million committed to 10 players for 2013-14 (Parker, Duncan, Diaw, Mills, Matt Bonner, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Nando De Colo, Cory Joseph and Aron Baynes).
In addition, their two upcoming draft choices (Nos. 28 and 58) will have cap holds of $893,500 and $490,180, respectively. Once you account for the two future rookies, the Spurs should be around $43 million in already committed cap space for the 2013-14 season.
The current projection for the 2013-14 salary cap that's floating around the league is $58.5 million, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, or $1.5 million less than many observers expected. Assuming the $58.5 million cap figure turns out to be accurate, that would leave the Spurs with approximately $15.3 million in cap space for Ginobili, Splitter or any other free agent of their choosing.
Free agency isn't the only obstacle standing in the Spurs' path to yet another NBA championship after this season, though. The swath of injuries that affected a majority of the league's championship contenders in 2013 won't necessarily happen again—at least to the same degree—in future years.
The Los Angeles Lakers' chances of upsetting the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs went up in flames when Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles' tendon days before the end of the regular season. A turned ankle appeared to slow down Stephen Curry in the conference semifinals, too, opening the door for San Antonio to advance yet again.
And when Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus in the opening round of the playoffs, the road to the NBA Finals in the West suddenly went through San Antonio.
By the time the 2014 playoffs roll around, Bryant, Curry and Westbrook will, presumably, all be back at full strength. Depending on what happens in free agency this summer, the Houston Rockets could also be on the brink of joining the West's elite teams, giving the Spurs yet another contender to worry about.
It's not to say that another trip to the NBA Finals will be impossible for the Spurs; betting against a team that hasn't finished with fewer than 50 wins since the 1998-99 season is a fool's errand at best.
"We've been saying the Spurs have been done for how long now?" Kobe Bryant said recently, via ESPN Los Angeles. "As a Laker fan, we thought we put the nail in the coffin back in ’08. Like, that was it, and they just keep coming back."
But with two of the Miami Heat's Big Three currently banged up, Duncan likely won't ever have a better chance to win one for the thumb than he does in 2013.
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