Tonight as San Antonio hosts the dysfunctional Timberwolves, there will be no Tim Duncan on the court. No Manu Ginobli. No Tony Parker. No Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs glory years are over, shutting closed with the Leonard trade and Ginobli retirement. All the chess pieces are gone, only Parker is still playing NBA games but at a reduced role. The automatic pencil of San Antonio into the Western Conference playoffs is gone too. Some see them as a 6 seed. Others, struggling to make the playoffs. What they had with Tim Duncan was special- that is apparently obvious now. Everything is different. Everything is changed.
For starters, they don’t have a point guard. Dejounte Murray is out for the season. You cannot survive Western Conference wars without a point guard who is established. The only other Western Conference team in such dire straits as far as the point guard position is Phoenix and they are lottery bound.
The Spurs don’t have an elite player. DeMar DeRozan is a good player but not top-10. He has limited perimeter range and his defense is mediocre but may improve under Popovich. His leadership skills are untested since Kyle Lowry was the leader in Toronto. Similarly, LaMarcus Aldridge is an All-Star but not a leader, unable to carry a team over the long haul. He’s good not great.
In the NBA, good gets you the 7th seed, great gets you into the conference finals.
The Spurs will play hard and Pop will coach his ass off and they will win games they shouldn’t and lose games they shouldn’t but in a series against a loaded team of scorers and defenders the Spurs will be overmatched despite having two probable 2019 All-Stars in DeRozan and Aldridge.
Better than average is not the San Antonio we know.
The San Antonio we know had Tim Duncan. Every since Duncan retired, the team has been sliding off the cliff. Kawhi Leonard went rogue, Tony Parker’s game broke with age and Manu was 40. It’s not a crime what has happened to the Spurs. When Kobe Bryant retired the Lakers went downhill fast too and needed a LeBron James miracle to make them interesting and so no one is accusing the Spurs of some crime of their own making. It is what happens when an elite Hall of Famer retires. The organization is going to take a sucker punch.
Starting from scratch, the Spurs and Popovich have to throw out the old playbook, at least on offense and create a system where Aldridge and DeRozan can thrive. Their game’s aren’t compatible by nature. Aldridge likes the mid-post and so does DeRozan. Neither space the floor with their shooting and they’ve been in the league long enough for us to assume they just aren’t going to wow anyone with their three point shooting. But the floor has to be spaced and DeRozan and Aldridge have to play 35 minutes for the Spurs to have a chance.
I have 100% faith in Greg Popovich to coach the Spurs up and design a system that benefits everyone. He has made multiple transitions, particularly from big to small once David Robinson retired and Tim Duncan aged. Before the Warriors were jacking up threes, the Spurs moved the ball and made timely perimeter shots. They had a roster that complimented each other plus elite offensive and defensive players.
Now it’s a community thing. The team is the team. Strength in numbers and all that. Can they be so cohesive as a unit that they make everyone forget who they used to be for two decades? It will be a process and a learning curve and the biggest coaching challenge of Gregg Popovich’s career.
It’s not starting over. But it is starting new. For the first time since forever.