Without Kawhi, A Dream Deferred

It feels peculiar that the most stable organization in the NBA finished a season that can only be graded as incomplete. Because player personnel problems in San Antonio are a rarity for a franchise that puts a lot of faith on character evaluation, I kept waiting for a magical turnaround to occur, for the Spurs to go back to being the Spurs, for Kawhi to get over himself. Four years ago, they won a NBA title. Now they look aged, dated and in a troubled marriage.

History dictates that the Spurs don’t invest in dysfunctional marriages. They don’t have the stomach for ugly divorces. The know exactly who and what they are getting so they don’t need to thumb through the irreconciliable differences handbook. But the Spurs are not robots. They are human and humans make mistakes and get angry and are bitter and hold grudges. Humans ruin seasons.

In October, the 2017-18 year had every intention of behaving like every other year in the Gregg Popovich era. 50 wins. A playoff berth. Perhaps not the Western Conference Finals but a fight to get there with Kawhi Leonard, a top 5 player, leading the Spurs and perhaps taking home another Defensive Player of the Year trophy.  Realistically, the Spurs weren’t deep enough in scoring talent to match the Thunder or Rockets in offensive electricty, but their defensive identity with their patient offense and coaching excellence, plus their willingness to always compete, kept them relevant.

In the 2017 summer, the Spurs signed Rudy Gay below market value. He wanted out of Sacramento and the Spurs needed athleticism. They were willing to roll the dice after a torn Rudy Gay Achilles. Because the Spurs have an outstanding (recent) culture of faith, togetherness, community and culture, it never occurred to outsiders that one person could bring the Spurs house down, could tear apart what the Spurs have built over time, could wreck their playoff chances, could ruin San Antonio. But one person did. The Spurs, I guess, aren’t so different after all.

(There is the famous Rudy Gay stat that when he goes to a team he makes them worse. This year San Antonio was worse. Rudy Gay karma is real).

I found something satisfying about 40 year old Manu Ginobli and 35 year old Tony Parker gritting out their last game of their careers perhaps, in it until the very, very end. I found something vapid and selfish about 26 year old Kawhi Leonard not on the bench to support his teammates, injury or not, remaining separate, as if the divorce papers have already been signed.

Spurs 2017-18 Weaknesses

  • 3-Point Percentage,  26th
  • Points, 27th
  • Pace, 28th

As if the burdens of this season weren’t bad enough, particularly having to walk the Kawhi tightrope, so fearful of alienating him into not returning you don’t call his behavior what it is, San Antonio had to deal with the weight of grief and Gregg Popovich losing his wife and the organization feeling as if there was a hole in the clouds. In a strange way, it gave the Kawhi soap opera the appropriate relevance. Nothing is worse than a death in family. If Kawhi doesn’t want to be in San Antonio, he isn’t family.

As for the product. The Spurs have to face what they never wanted to face as they wrapped themselves in the breathing room Kawhi afforded them. They have tor rebuild. They have to play faster. They have to get younger. Even with Kawhi, they are not a team that can beat the Warriors or the Rockets. They will play hard because it is the Spurs ethic but they don’t have the weapons to match up against Anthony Davis and the Pelicans much less James Harden, Ben Simmons and Steph Curry.

Spurs 2018 Free Agents: Tony Parker, Kyle Anderson, Ruy Gay (R)

Number one on the get list is a point guard. They don’t have one. Dejounte Murray isn’t it. He is capable but isn’t an elite passer or scorer, despite athleticim and great length. They have to get younger in their front court, someone born after 1996 and who uses Snapchat. They need a shooting guard, a scorer who can give some pull up threes to an offense with Kawhi or without Kawhi. Kawhi will give the Spurs some pieces if they trade him and if they don’t he is definitely someone to build around. However, Kawhi has to earn the trust back of his teammates. His leadership skills are hovering zero.

The next time we see San Antonio there will be changes like when your next door neighbor who has lived next door for 30 years and has moved out and in comes a young family of kids who skateboard on your lawn. The Spurs need upgrades. They need to handle the Kawhi Leonad upset. They are no longer a lock for anything. The NBA is becoming a league of Anthony Davis, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, James Harden, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving exceptionalism. The NBA has turned the page.

The Spurs have to do the same.