Unlocked: Now what for Spurs?

The NBA lockout is almost over. The “nuclear winter” commissioner David Stern promised turned out to be a mild snowstorm. What can the Spurs expect from a shortened training camp, condensed free-agent period and truncated 66-game regular season slated to start after Christmas? Express-News Spurs beat writer Jeff McDonald takes a guess:

Will the shortened season really help an old team like the Spurs?

In 1999, when the Spurs parlayed a lockout-shrunken, 50-game season into the first championship in franchise history, their starting lineup averaged 30.8 years.

This season’s projected starting lineup averages 31. For an older team, it seems logical that fewer regular-season games should result in fresher legs once the playoffs roll around.

Last season, the Spurs were 54-12 and peaking at the 66-game mark. Had the postseason started then, perhaps they would have lasted past the first round.

How many back-to-backs (and back-to-back-to-backs) can older stars such as Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili be expected to handle?

The downside for an old team facing a compressed schedule: a greater percentage of those dreaded back-to-backs, and the possibility of back-to-back-to-backs as schedule makers attempt to shoehorn 66 games into a four-month window.

In a normal season, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is vigilant about resting his older stars during the rigorous portions of the schedule. With Duncan 35 and Ginobili 34, expect that caution to approach paranoia this season.

When Ginobili had to play eight games in 11 nights in an Olympic qualifier in Argentina this past summer, he complained of exhaustion by the end of it. Chances are, he won’t be given a chance to repeat that experience for Popovich.

What kind of shape will most players be in once training camp commences?

Don’t expect many fat, out-of-shape guys among the Spurs’ key players.

Throughout the lockout, Duncan has been leading regular workouts for San Antonio-based players and is reported to be in fine fighting shape. Ginobili has kept himself in shape after playing for Argentina. Tony Parker played for France and is now playing professional ball in that country.

The Spurs’ veterans have been there and done that and know how to prepare their bodies for the nightly grind of the NBA. Younger players, given too much downtime away from the watchful eyes of the Spurs’ new strength and conditioning staff, might not fare so well. It will be interesting to see who is gassed and who is not come the first day of camp.

Will Richard Jefferson still be here opening night?

The new collective bargaining agreement is expected to contain an amnesty provision that would allow teams to waive one player without incurring the accompanying salary-cap hit.

Richard Jefferson, the 31-year-old small forward who has mostly underwhelmed in two seasons in San Antonio, appears to be a prime candidate for the axe. But not so fast.

Jettisoning Jefferson and his $9.2 million salary wouldn’t put the Spurs below the cap, limiting their ability to replace him via free agency. It is possible, perhaps even likely, the Spurs hold on to Jefferson for the time being, using him as a de facto expiring contract at the trade deadline.

Or, they could wait and waive him until next summer, when the Spurs also have Duncan’s $21.3 million coming off the books, to create enough cap room to attract a higher class of free agents in 2012.

How active should we expect the Spurs to be in the December free agent frenzy?

Not very. Even if the Spurs do use amnesty provision on Jefferson and lose Antonio McDyess and his $5.2 million contract to retirement, they still won’t fall far enough below the cap line to make much of a splash in free agency.

For the Spurs, the free-agent period expected to start Dec. 9 — the same day teams can open camp — will probably look much like the one that usually starts July 1. The team will use its mid-level exception and minimum contracts to fill out the roster with role players (Shane Battier, anyone?) and hope the core of a team that won 61 games last season will be enough to keep it competitive this season.

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