By Sean Highkin
PORTLAND, Ore. -- For the last decade, two dueling narratives have existed around the San Antonio Spurs, trading places depending on the time of year. As each successive season ramps up, it's common to hear the following question: "Is this the year Father Time finally catches up to San Antonio?" Then the playoffs hit, with Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili having gone through yet another predictably-dominant regular season, and the question becomes something very different: "Is this the best Spurs team ever?"
This song and dance has been going on since at least 2005, and every year they silence their skeptics. Their organizational stability is unrivaled. Popovich has been at the helm for 18 seasons, and for most of that time, he's been aided by one of the most durable and reliable superstar trios in the history of the NBA. San Antonio's uncanny ability to find under-the-radar talent on the free-agent scrap heap and through international channels has been instrumental, but Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have been constant. In most ways, the 2013-14 Spurs are just the same as any other Spurs team of the Big Three era. But in one crucially important way, they're the first of their kind.
This is the first Spurs team that has had a way forward, the first that's painted a picture of what things might look like in San Antonio once the Big Three are gone. Duncan is 38 and has hinted at retirement (he has a player option for 2014-15). Ginobili is 36 and has declined the most noticeably with age. His contract also runs out next summer, and it's not a stretch to imagine that could be it for him, too. Parker is only 31, still young enough to be the elder statesman of a new core. And the other pieces of that new core are starting to fall into place.
Outside of Parker, the Spurs' best player throughout these playoffs has been center Tiago Splitter. His work containing Portland Trail Blazers All-Star center LaMarcus Aldridge is a large part of why the Spurs are one victory away from a third consecutive trip to the Western Conference Finals. Aldridge was dominant in Portland's first-round series win over Houston, but Splitter has bothered him just as he bothered Dirk Nowitzki in the first round. Aldridge is still getting his numbers, but he's working harder for his shots thanks to Splitter's superior defensive positioning.
"Tiago just works hard every night," Popovich said before Game 3, a 118-103 road win at the Moda Center. "He's been that way ever since he came over to the NBA. He's not going to keep LaMarcus from scoring, but he's going to make him work hard for it. That's all we can ask."
Splitter, a Brazilian native who was the Spurs' first-round pick in the 2007 draft and made his NBA debut in 2011, is in the first year of a four-year, $36 million contract signed last summer. He struggled at both ends of the floor in his first three seasons, but put together his best year as a Spur in 2013-14, becoming a legitimate force on the defensive end and a capable scorer in the paint.
"Tiago is doing an unbelievable job," Parker said after Game 4, Portland's first victory of the series. "It's not easy to slow down one of the best power forwards in the league."
At 29, Splitter is younger than Parker, but not by much. The Spurs' real centerpiece for the post-Duncan-Parker-Ginobili era is 22-year-old Kawhi Leonard -- a long, athletic forward who has morphed into a two-way star, scoring inside and out and hounding opposing wings on the defensive end. Leonard has been excellent in the postseason, averaging 13.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. His 16-point, nine-rebound, four-steal performance in Game 1 and 20-point effort in Game 3 gave the Spurs another weapon on the rare occasions when the Blazers came close to finding a solution for Parker.
Leonard has had the benefit of low pressure through the first three seasons of his career. With Duncan, Parker and Ginobili still in the picture, anyone else is secondary. But Leonard has excelled as a role player, and the tools are there to transition into a star once the fabric of the Spurs changes.
"He's one of our key guys," Spurs big man Boris Diaw said. "They've had to focus on him a lot."
Having another legitimate star outside of the three future Hall of Famers has allowed the Spurs to continue to beat Portland with their depth. Second-year Blazers guard Will Barton and forward Thomas Robinson provided a much-needed jolt in Game 4, but it's clear that San Antonio has the edge with their reserves.
"They've been playing well all year," Popovich said. "That's allowed us to keep resting guys, keeping them fresh so we're prepared for the playoffs."
That, in a nutshell, is why the Spurs aren't going away, even after Duncan, Parker and Ginobili do. Their rock-solid infrastructure has allowed all manner of low-level reserves to flourish, and has provided a foundation for some of those players -- like Splitter and Leonard -- to grow into foundational pieces of a continuing dynasty.