Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series, where we go over how each team did this past season as well as evaluate how they did this summer. So far, we’ve covered the lottery teams, the borderline playoff teams and the treadmill teams. Now that we’re approaching the playoff teams, we’re coming up on the upper echelon of the NBA
Today, we’re looking at the team that for over the past two decades has been the golden example of how to run a basketball team – the San Antonio Spurs.
For the first time in ages, San Antonio did not possess an all-time player on its roster. It’s difficult to lose a player as colossal as Kawhi Leonard. That much was made clear in this year’s playoffs. Having a legendary coach can make up for even absence, but even someone as phenomenal as Gregg Popovich can only do so much.
Right now, San Antonio is in a time of transition. This league is still run by the stars who have the most talent. With Kawhi gone, the Spurs don’t have the talent to measure up with that – all apologies to DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. They do have something they haven’t had the privilege to boast about in ages – a youth movement.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
As if losing your future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer wasn’t bad enough, the Spurs lost their most promising young player before the season even began. After establishing himself as one of the premier young defenders in the league the previous season, Dejounte Murray went down with an ACL tear in San Antonio’s very first preseason game.
The Spurs did not start out the way they usually do. They played like a team that had virtually lost everything, as they started out 11-14, and that included blowout losses suffered at the hands of Houston, Utah, and Phoenix. After the Lakers handed them their 14th loss, the Spurs turned it around, going 37-20 the rest of the way.
This came from the team slowly building a new identity. Murray was slated to be the Spurs’ starting point guard at the start of the season. With him down and Tony Parker bolting for Charlotte, there was a void to be filled. With not many options to turn to, San Antonio designated DeMar DeRozan as its primary playmaker.
Scoring-wise, DeMar did not replicate the same numbers that he had in Toronto, but he had the best all-around season of his career. He shot his best percentage since his rookie year – 48.1 percent – and put up his best rebounding averages (six) and assist averages (6.2).
He even kept it up when the postseason rolled around. His scoring numbers remained the same, but his efficiency rose considerably – 48.7 percent while putting up his best rebounding numbers in his playoff career – 6.7. For a guy who has a rep for disappearing in the playoffs, DeMar definitely showed up when the Spurs needed him to.
While we’re on the subject, DeRozan deserves a shout-out for the progress he’s made. He definitely has some warts in his game, but in his rise to stardom, the guy’s all-around abilities as a player have developed quite nicely over the years. He didn’t get much All-Star buzz in San Antonio, but they could have done much worse when they traded Kawhi. DeMar may not be in Leonard’s league, but he proved that he could fit with the Spurs.
The season wasn’t all about him, though. The Spurs got an unlikely boost by the upstart sophomore Derrick White. White’s season can be detailed more here, but if you’d like to keep moving along, let’s summarize it like this. The 25-year-old has suddenly emerged as one of the better young two-way guards in the league as he demonstrated that he was capable of running the offense as well as proving himself defensively.
You, of course, can’t talk about the Spurs without talking about the play of LaMarcus Aldridge. The guy proved his breakout season – in a Spurs uniform – was no fluke. He averaged 21/9 on almost 52 percent shooting while having almost two less shot attempts a game.
But enough about who their individual standouts were. You know why this is a time of transition for San Antonio? Well, the Spurs’ calling card in the glory days was their defense. This season, they had the 19th-highest-rated defense in the league by allowing 111.2 points per 100 possessions. That was to be expected when you lose Leonard, Murray, Kyle Anderson and Danny Green all before the season starts. That stat is a little deceptive though.
The defense was bad early on, but when San Antonio got its act together, or when they went on that 37-20 run to end the season, they had the 11th-highest-rated defense allowing 109.3 points per 100 possessions. In that same time, they had the fourth-highest rated offense, scoring 113.5 points per 100 possessions.
They’ve done this despite their refusal to conform to the NBA’s obsession with threes. The Spurs took the lowest volume of threes this season – shooting 25.3 a game while also topping the league in three-point percentage – 39.2 percent. They did this despite the fact that their two top offensive options – DeRozan and Aldridge – shot between 15 to 24 percent from there. When Gregg Popovich is running the show, you don’t ask questions.
The Spurs did as reasonably well as they could have expected to do in their first-year post-Kawhi. They still made the playoffs and came within one win of going on an extended run. Yet Murray’s injury will always be brought up when people ask what this team could have been in 2019.
San Antonio wasn’t expected to do much this summer. They didn’t have the cap room to bring in anyone on a max contract. Yet, as we all know, when it’s San Antonio – the team that took empty-calorie scorers like David Lee and Rudy Gay and turned them into valuable rotation players – you don’t underestimate the moves that franchise makes.
First, they got their latest European import, Luka Samanic. Samanic didn’t come into the draft with high expectations. At 19 years old, Samanic is an athletic big from Croatia that doesn’t have the best three-pointer – which won’t be a problem in San Antonio – but he’s fluid and switchable. Being as young as he is, don’t expect him to be played much this coming season.
Knowing the track record of San Antonio’s scouting team, don’t count the kid out. If he is yet another in a long line of foreign player success stories, he may just earn the nickname, “The Other Luka.”
With the pick they received from the Raptors in the Kawhi deal, the Spurs took Keldon Johnson, who fits the three-and-D mold. Judging by the moves they made this summer and Johnson’s age, don’t expect him to get much time either.
San Antonio was in the mood for wings this offseason. First, they signed and traded for DeMarre Carroll. Carroll’s had himself a little bit of a career resurgence in his short time in Brooklyn. That was because, during that time, the Nets didn’t have a whole ton of options – at least his first year there – but Carroll clearly played well enough for the Spurs to invest $20+ million in him.
Next was re-signing Rudy Gay. Gay’s transition to second unit scorer has been heartwarming to watch given his reputation in this league as an ineffective scorer. If there was one coach who could get him to play this way, it was Pop. Clearly, the Spurs felt that he was worth keeping around at good cost, as they gave him a two-year, $28 million deal. Not bad for a guy two years removed from an Achilles injury.
The real story of the offseason came from the Marcus Morris fiasco. The Spurs traded Davis Bertans to put everything in to give Morris the full mid-level exception, which he was set to take…until the Knicks swooped in with a better offer and snatched him up.
As if the Spurs needed more heartbreak.
Teams have gotten left at the altar before. Just ask the Dallas Mavericks. This time, it’s different. The Spurs traded a good rotation player to make room for Morris, who’s an all-around upgrade over Bertans.
(Slightly off topic: What does Washington need Davis Bertans for?)
The real dagger is that they lost two players from this debacle when they could have had at least one of them.
At least Gay and Carroll will be there to make up the difference. Lastly, the Spurs went for the young reclamation project with Trey Lyles. Lyles was productive for Denver until he fell out of their rotation. As long he listens to Coach, his future is in good hands.
PLAYERS IN: DeMarre Carroll, Trey Lyles, Dedric Lawson, Luka Samanic, Keldon Johnson, Quinndary Weatherspoon (two-way)
PLAYERS OUT: Davis Bertans, Dante Cunningham, Donatas Motiejunas, Quincy Pondexter, Ben Moore
The Spurs are not in a bad position. The Kawhi fallout knocked them down, but did not knock them out. They still have a winning formula. The question they have to ask themselves is, where do they go from here?
Right now, the team is at a crossroads. Aldridge and DeRozan are both excellent basketball players, but how much does Aldridge have left in the tank and is DeRozan a long-term factor in San Antonio?
The Spurs have reason to keep Aldridge around. They’ve gotten their money’s worth out of him since they extended his contract. With DeRozan, it’s a little fuzzier. DeRozan deserves all the praise in the world for how he handled being traded to San Antonio, but the Spurs’ promising youth movement could get in the way any of their long-term plans to keep DeMar.
Dejounte Murray will be back and should be eager to capitalize after a lost season. Derrick White should only get better as he gets more time. And don’t sleep on Lonnie Walker IV. The man looked bored at times during the Summer League because he was a man among boys.
If all three of those guys take another step next season, there may not be much reason to keep DeRozan around because they all can play his position.
For now, San Antonio isn’t really regarded as a contender. They should be in the playoff hunt just as they always are. If they are to get back to the elite status they once had both year in and year out, they have to ponder which avenue they should take to get there.
OFFSEASON GRADE: C