They are the model franchise, owners of four championships in the last 13 seasons and the highest winning percentage in pro sports since 1997 (69.9%). But as the Spurs walked off the FedExForum floor in Memphis last Friday after a 99--91 Game 6 loss, they faced, for the first time in a long time, uncertainty. The Grizzlies exposed several weaknesses in San Antonio's roster, flaws not easily fixed.
The biggest is the frontcourt: Memphis's power players Zach Randolph (21.5 points per game) and Marc Gasol (14.2 points, 12.3 rebounds) controlled the paint. Tim Duncan is still a strong defender but coach Gregg Popovich couldn't find a capable sidekick, shuffling Antonio McDyess, Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter with limited success. The Spurs also need a small forward (think Shane Battier) who can defend both wing positions and knock down open shots—which Richard Jefferson failed to do over the final four games against the Grizzlies, when he scored 10 points in 106 minutes.
"You hate to say it," says a Western Conference scout, "but it looks like it's time to rebuild." Help, however, will be hard to find. The Spurs have $71 million committed to salaries next season if, as expected, McDyess retires. They have a first-round pick, but it's No. 29 in one of the weakest drafts in years. The best hope for improvement could be Splitter, 26, a 6'11", 240-pound bruiser who battled through an up-and-down rookie season.
The core of the team—Duncan, Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker—is good enough to stay in the playoffs, but without frontcourt help, San Antonio's days as a contender are over.
Two other teams that were bounced in the first round also face major questions.
• The Magic's midseason roster overhaul backfired, leaving G.M. Otis Smith with the cap-eating contracts of Gilbert Arenas ($62.3 million over the next three years) and Hedo Turkoglu ($34.2 million, three years). The top priorities are finding a power forward to play beside Dwight Howard and a center to back him up. But Orlando doesn't have the assets or the cap space to acquire either, and 2005 first-round pick Fran Vàzquez, a 6'10" athletic center, is likely to remain with Barcelona. Orlando may be faced with a decision: Trade Howard or watch him opt out and leave after next season.
• The Knicks have a formidable one-two punch in Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, but they are far from enough. Rajon Rondo's first-round field day (19.0 points and 12.0 assists in the Celtics' four-game sweep) and the woeful half-court offense underscored the need for a point guard. Chauncey Billups will be back, but largely for the value of his trade-friendly $14.2 million expiring contract. Coach Mike D'Antoni rewrote half his playbook when Anthony came aboard, but until he can find a way to spread the ball around, New York will not be a major factor in the East.
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After his team was eliminated by the Bulls in Game 5, Pacers president Larry Bird said he would immediately begin searching for a coach. But the right choice is at hand. Little was expected of assistant Frank Vogel when he took over for the fired Jim O'Brien in January. But the 37-year-old Vogel guided a team 10 games under .500 to a 20--18 finish. He developed forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Paul George; built a post attack around Roy Hibbert; and came up with a defensive scheme in the playoffs that limited Derrick Rose to 37.1% shooting. Vogel—who will, according to Bird, be the first candidate interviewed—has the unwavering support of the players. If Indiana is serious about moving forward, keeping Vogel is the first step.
GREG NELSON (DUNCAN)
DOWNTURN Things could get ugly for an aging Duncan; Anthony (below) and his Knicks need a point guard.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (ANTHONY)
[See caption above]
GLENN JAMES/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (VOGEL)