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With a 100-92 victory in Los Angeles last night, the Lakers clinched their first trip to the Finals since 2004 and, perhaps more significantly, Kobe Bryant's first trip to the Finals as a bona fide first banana.
Congratulations go to the Lakers on a hard-earned Western Conference title, and there will be plenty of word space put toward the cause of analyzing them as the Finals approach and progress.
But the end of this series out West also touched off a series of questions that we seem to go through every other year regarding the Lakers' newly dispatched opponents from the Alamo.
Those questions, of course, are based around one point of contention: whether this elimination spells the end of the San Antonio Spurs' run of dominance out west.
The mere-hours-after-the-game answer here, in a word, is no.
Now, in several more words...All of Steve's daily posts can be found in the CelticsBlog: NBA blog. Check him out!
Yes, the Spurs looked overmatched throughout their series with the Lakers. But it's worth remembering that this is a very good Los Angeles team and that being the runner-up in this year's Western Conference is not a title that should have any shame attached to it.
Though Manu Ginobili did not have a good series by any means, the Spurs were in trouble primarily because of the lack of consistent contributions they received from many of their supporting cast veterans. Fortunately for the Spurs, this remains a league driven by stars, a league in which getting the stars and the right coach aligned is the tough part and finding the surrounding role players for them is generally the most doable of the tasks in that department.
The Spurs go into next season knowing if nothing else that their three studs are back and likely still as good as ever. For all the mouthing done about the Spurs' age issues, Tim Duncan is still only 32 years old and coming off a postseason in which he averaged 20 points, 14 boarsd and two blocs per game. At 30, Ginobili seems timeless, still contining to grow more dynamic with age. Meanwhile, Tony Parker is just 26. The former Finals MVP continues to develop in all facets of the game. These guys aren't finished by any means.
This group showed throughout the playoffs that it can still play effectively together, and the boys will only be happier to know that their beloved coach Gregg Popovich will be returning with them, having just signed a fresh contract extension. Pop has one of the best minds in the business, and he'll be enshrined when all is said and done.
Once again, the difference for the Spurs may come down to what they can put around that group of studs. Fortunately for them, while I don't know who in particular they will be able to pick up - too early for that sort of thing -- the Spurs will likely have plenty of freedom to clean house in this department. Of the nine players left under contract at season's end, only Brent Barry, Ime Udoka and Bruce Bowen fall into the category of those non-star vets being retained for sure. Meanwhile, Robert Horry, Michael Finley, Fabricio Oberto, Kurt Thomas and Damon Stoudamire are all owed absolutely zero and aren't likely to be retained next season.
The point here is this: There were times this season when anybody with a pulse could have ouproduced that group. That the Spurs will sign someone is a given, because people will be calling them about playing with their stars
The players will be lining up to play with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. And if the new suitors can prove themselves at all worth the investment, the Spurs will be right back in the thick of it once more in the Western Conference.
Here's guessing that's the way it all shakes down. They've got the coach. They've got the stars. They can and will find the role players.