- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

The model franchise of the NBA limped out of the playoffs this week.

That was a glum-looking Manu Ginobili in street clothes, wondering what might have been if he had not been sidelined with a stress fracture in his right ankle.

That was the gimpy Tim Duncan trying to hoist the Spurs on his shoulders, hitting an assortment of shots, while ignoring the tendonosis in his right quadriceps tendon, a degenerative condition exacerbated by his 33 years.

This was the Spurs of Duncan and Tony Parker and a whole lot of nothing, unable to match the balance and the shot-making volume of the Mavericks.

The Spurs as we have come to know them are done. Their foundation is too old, too prone to injury and too slow to make another title run. Their lack of athleticism undermined their cause against the Mavericks.

The Spurs achieved one of their defensive objectives in slowing down Dirk Nowitzki until Game 5. But they allowed too many of the afterthoughts of the Mavericks to slice through the jaws of their previously vaunted defense.

The Spurs are not about to fall into the abyss of mediocrity, not as long as Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are in the lineup. Championship-caliber teams do not fall off a cliff as much as they fade on an incremental level.

We saw that with the Pistons. They won an NBA championship, made two trips to the NBA Finals and appeared in six consecutive Eastern Conference finals before taking the Chauncey Billups-Allen Iverson gamble in November.

That move, while understandable, hastened the demise of the Pistons. Yet they were not going to win a championship with Billups, not in their present state. They probably would have been no more than a conference-semifinals team with Billups in these playoffs. With Iverson, a one-time big shot-maker, the Pistons had what amounted to a puncher’s chance in the playoffs.

Or so went the thinking of Joe Dumars at the time of the trade.

The Spurs are not unlike the Pistons. They can be 50-win respectable the next season or two. They can remain competent. But they will not be genuine championship contenders.

Worse, their capacity to make improvements to their roster is limited.

Their most marketable pieces are the three they are not apt to move. The potential signing of Rasheed Wallace - one of the rumors bouncing around the NBA - would be problematic, if not an admission that the situation in San Antonio is dire.

Wallace is the antithesis of what the team-first Spurs have represented since they won the first of four championships in 1999. The Spurs do not have meltdowns on the court. They do not sulk and pout. They have a stoic sense of professionalism, even a blandness about them, which, oddly enough, is sometimes seen as a negative.

Unlike in 2000, the last time the Spurs were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, Duncan was just moving into his peak years of productivity, and his playing time did not have to be monitored in the regular season.

That is one of the principal quandaries before coach Gregg Popovich now, weighing the need to win games for playoff-seeding purposes against the need to have a healthy and well-rested Duncan in the playoffs.

That consideration extends to Ginobili as well. Ginobili, who is two years younger than Duncan, has been haunted by a bum ankle the last two seasons. His scoring creativity begins with his ability to attack the basket, a capacity that will diminish in the coming seasons.

With little bartering ability, eight players past 30 years old and playing in a conference that is deep and talented, the Spurs are in their final descent.

They were able to retool after 2000 because of young Duncan.

They do not have that advantage now.

What they have is the arduous challenge of an aging roster.

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