San Antonio: The New Era

It seems like after an unprecedented 22-year streak of reaching the NBA playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs have finally embraced the rebuild. Gone are the days where a seemingly ageless roster led by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili would routinely defy expectations and somehow either win it all or go deep into the postseason. Now, after the departure of their star forward DeMar DeRozan who signed a 3-year deal with the Chicago Bulls this offseason, the Spurs are in unfamiliar territory. Since legendary coach Gregg Popovich started manning the sidelines in 1996, the Spurs have only missed the playoffs three times, two of them coming in the past two seasons. After two decades of being a model franchise, the San Antonio Spurs are finally showing signs of mortality and ushering in a new era of basketball. Now led by guard Dejounte Murray, the Spurs attempt to rebuild and get back into contention as soon as possible, but without a true star or blue-chip prospects, it may be a rough couple of years in the Alamo City.

Photo by Katie Haugland Bowen, distributed under a CC BY 2.0 license

After selecting 18-year old Joshua Primo out of Alabama in this year’s NBA Draft, the Spurs’ message was clear: get younger. While many labeled this pick as a reach at number 12, the Spurs’ front office deserves the benefit of the doubt after years of finding gems in the draft. Primo has a high ceiling and could flourish in the right system, learning from Popovich who can afford to bring him along slowly. The fact that the Spurs could have taken a more polished prospect to help them win games right away but instead chose a project in Primo speaks to the realization that San Antonio has no choice but to rebuild. Even after trading Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, the Spurs signaled their intention to remain competitive after choosing to forgo a package of young prospects and draft picks. Looking back, the Spurs did not benefit from that transaction as they missed the playoffs entirely for two of DeRozan’s three year tenure in San Antonio and may have been better served rebuilding from that point forward. Of course, the Toronto Raptors are not complaining after that trade helped bring the Larry O’Brien trophy to Canada for the first time, but that is beside the point. After posting a 48-34 record in DeRozan’s first season alongside fellow All Star LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs were quickly dispatched in the first round and began their descent from perennial contender to lottery team. Regardless, the Spurs and general manager Brian Wright deserve credit for getting assets back in return for DeRozan who was sure to leave San Antonio for greener pastures, obtaining draft compensation and the expiring contracts of Thaddeus Young and Al-Farouq Aminu. Young still has value around the league and come the trade deadline, the Spurs could flip Young for assets or let his contract expire, opening up significant cap space next offseason. Next year’s free agent crop has more talent available and the lure of playing for a storied franchise like the Spurs with championship pedigree could be enough to secure the services of a marquee free agent.

Despite the departure of DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills, the Spurs still have a glut of swingmen with youngsters Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Derrick White, Joshua Primo and Lonnie Walker all vying for minutes. Veteran sniper Doug McDermott and big man Zach Collins are also heading to the Alamo City, bringing much needed perimeter shooting to a team that ranked dead last in three pointers made last season. While Murray and White figure to be the key pieces in the offense, names like Johnson and Walker could also be in for breakout years. After winning a gold medal with Team USA at this year’s Tokyo Olympics, Johnson came into his own as a full-time starter last year and showed flashes of his ability that led the Spurs into drafting him in 2019. Walker also exhibited his jaw-dropping athleticism and sublime playmaking ability at times last season, showing why the Spurs selected him 18th overall in 2018. More importantly, Murray appears to finally have a chance to be the centerpiece of the offense, after navigating several difficult situations to get to this point. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged a career-high in points (15.7), rebounds (7.1) and assists (5.4) last season, breaking out in a big way. He has all the tools to become a top point guard in this league and is also an outstanding defender. In typical Spurs fashion, he was not given the keys right away and had to be a secondary option for his entire career, playing behind other veterans. This year, that will most definitely change, out of necessity more than anything else. With so many young players on the roster, coach Popovich has his work cut out for him to ensure the development of their prospects before his rumored retirement after the upcoming season. The 72-year old Popovich is just 25 wins away from passing Don Nelson to become the all-time winningest coach in NBA history and will look to do so this fall. While he may not care much about the milestone in typical Popovich fashion, what he has done over the last two decades as head coach of the Spurs has been nothing short of remarkable. Leading a rebuilding team is probably not on his wish list at the current stage of his career and if he does retire after this season, one can be sure he will be a part of San Antonio forever. It would be unwise to bet against San Antonio’s resurgence despite its current predicament, as they have proved the naysayers wrong for more than two decades with five championships to show for it. 

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