Report Card: The San Antonio Spurs Offseason in Review
Writer: Noah Magaro-George
Summer has brought several changes to the San Antonio Spurs, but don’t expect their brand of basketball to change. Gregg Popovich still runs the show, and as long as he’s in charge, players will adapt to his system. Let’s dive into what these changes might mean for the Spurs upcoming season.
When you lose Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Danny Green and Kyle Anderson in one offseason, it’s understandable to think the Spurs would suffer tremendously on the offensive end. However, San Antonio deserves heaps of praise for replacing their production. Newcomers DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl may not bring the floor spacing or defensive versatility that Green and Leonard had, but DeRozan is among the greatest scorers in the game and Poeltl was arguably the most efficient player in the league last season. Add in the acquisition of Dante Cunningham and second-time Spur Marco Belinelli, and you’ve got more than enough buckets to practically double the total points lost to transactions this offseason.
While the rest of the NBA has adopted the pace and space movement, Gregg Popovich and his staff continue to live in 2009. Playing hard-nosed defense and making smart plays has always been the bread and butter of this organization, but if last season was any indication, that just won’t cut it in today’s league.
This offseason, it seems as though they’re determined as ever to avoid the three-ball like the plague. San Antonio’s projected starting five combined for 205 made three’s in total last year. For perspective, Steph Curry made 212 on his own and he missed approximately 40-percent of the season.
Cunningham and Belinelli should add some shooting to the second unit, but don’t expect either player to see as much floor time as they did with their former teams. This is quite the dilemma to overcome, but then again, Popovich is quite the coach.
Let’s face it, Parker hasn’t been the game changer he once was early on in his career. His leadership will be missed within the locker room, but his on court performance made him virtually unplayable last year.
As for Leonard, he may have opened up the floor for others by drawing the attention of the defense, but he’s hardly what you’d call a premiere distributor. Green barely had the ball in his hands anyway and Anderson’s assists can be replaced.
Yes, a third of the Spurs assists are gone. But no, there’s no need to panic. Although you may not associate facilitator with the name DeMar DeRozan, his career-high 5.2 assists per game last season were surprisingly efficient. In any case, the Spurs tend to run an offense by committee, they’ll be just fine.
I’ll keep this short and sweet. The Spurs lost little in terms of team rebounding. They also did fairly little to cushion those numbers this offseason. A slight improvement is possible, but I wouldn’t be taken aback if their numbers stagnate. The Silver and Black tend to finish around the middle of the pack in grabbing boards, look for them to hover around the league average again.
Up to this point, there were no significant marks against San Antonio. Count this as their only major step in the wrong direction. It goes without saying the Spurs will sorely miss Kawhi Leonard. The Claw only took part in nine contests in 2018, but his per 36-minute projections suggest he likely would have run away with the Defensive Player of the Year Award a third time had he been healthy.
Green and Anderson proved they could hold down the fort in Leonard’s absence, and the duo will likely prove to be irreplaceable commodities. While they posted impressive seasons, it was the latter who finished third in defensive box plus minus (+4.3) and sixth in defensive rating (101.2) amid a year of defensive discovery. Aside from the huge addition by subtraction of Tony’s atrocious olé defense, it’s difficult to imagine the Spurs putting together an improved defense next season.
It doesn’t help that DeRozan, Belinelli and Cunningham have consistently achieved below average defensive numbers by almost every metric imaginable throughout their careers. Despite the Spurs adding several pieces, Poeltl remains the lone silver lining to San Antonio’s defensive woes this offseason. His role was limited in Toronto, but when on court, he rated as a top ten defender at the center position. Pau isn’t getting any younger, and the former 9th overall pick may just snatch his starting job by year’s end.
It’s simple to see how the Spurs defense might take a huge dive, but don’t forget about third-year point guard Dejounte Murray. At just 21-years-old last season, he broke Kobe Bryant’s nearly two-decade long record as the youngest player ever to be named to an All-Defensive Team. It’s not going to be a cakewalk, but even a notoriously terrible defender like Rudy Gay became a plus in San Antonio’s system.
It should be interesting to watch how Popovich manages minutes at the one and two-guard spots this season. The Spurs house eight guards perfectly capable of taking over ball handling duties for portions of the game and there should be plenty of opportunities for everyone to play between the NBA and the G-League. The excess of capable backcourt bodies should bode well for San Antonio in their attempt to fill Parker and Green’s minutes.
With only one true small forward on the team in Rudy Gay, some shuffling of the lineups will be in order unless the 13-year veteran is called on to man 48 minutes a night for San Antonio. It’s a fun thought to toy with, but it’s not happening. Belinelli will likely reprise his role as a backup for both wing positions.
The situation is pretty straightforward as we move onto the frontcourt. LaMarcus Aldridge is set to take up most of the minutes at power forward while Davis Bertans and Cunningham battle to cut out roles for themselves off the bench. Gasol’s starting gig seems relatively secure, but like I mentioned earlier, Poeltl’s no scrub and he’ll make Gasol work to keep his starter status.
2018 second rounder Chimezie Metu has yet to sign with San Antonio, though it’ll be worth watching to see if the big man’s athleticism and pick and roll game translate to any NBA minutes.
Like many second rounders, Metu is likely a long-term project. He was a decent defender in college and a top of the line pick and roll player. His steady improvement each year at USC is encouraging, but he’s a bit undersized and his ceiling is low. He’ll likely become an adequate backup, anything more hinges on his ability to develop touch and timing.
On the subject of San Antonio’s first round pick, Lonnie Walker IV, San Antonio has more than a few reasons to get excited. Most mock drafts had him going somewhere in the top 10 to 15 range. Luckily for San Antonio, Walker slipped on draft day and fell right into their lap.
Walker is an elite athlete with a silky-smooth shooting stroke. He has the makings of a modern 3-and-D wing and all the physical tools to become an All-Star. San Antonio is famous for finding diamonds in the rough, and Walker just may be the next late first-rounder to overachieve in the Countdown City.
Most of his time will probably be spent with fellow Spurs draftee Metu in the G-League. Coach Pop makes all his players earn their minutes, talented rookies are no exception. Just because Walker was the Spurs highest original draft pick since Tim Duncan doesn’t mean he’ll be seeing many minutes in The Association this season.
Not only will the Spurs young core have more opportunities available with the departures of a handful of marquee players, they’ll have a longer leash. With fewer established veterans to sub in at the first sight of an ill-advised decision, Pop will be forced to leave his budding rotational players in the game to work through their growing pains if he wants to keep his starters fresh for the postseason.
As they say, the third time’s the charm. And while Bryn Forbes has likely hit his ceiling as a 3-point marksman, two other third-year studs are poised for increased workloads. Bertans got paid shortly after Anderson made his exit, and that presumably indicates he’s finally carved out a consistent spot in the rotation. In regard to Murray, year two was a giant leap. Now here’s to hoping all those offseason workout videos finally lead to a higher shooting percentage from beyond the arch.
Last but not least, keep an eye out for combo guard Derrick White. He didn’t find much playing time in his introductory season, but rarely are rookies the staple of San Antonio’s game plan. Whatever struggles he had adjusting to the NBA in his first go-round, they were nowhere to be found as White emphatically took over the 2018 Utah Summer League. Summer League games rarely correlate to regular season success. However, White looks like a possible exception to the rule.
The Kawhi Dilemma
The Kawhi Leonard trade saga was the most puzzling NBA headline in recent memory. Nobody predicted it, few understood it and unquestionably no one wanted to hear about it again by the time a deal finally got done. R.C. Buford and the Spurs front office may have waited a bit too long to pull the trigger on a trade, but ultimately the Spurs came away with a solid return for the best two-way player in all of basketball.
After playing hardball with the Lakers and Celtics for weeks, San Antonio was forced to come to terms with the Raptors or face losing a perennial MVP candidate for absolutely nothing. There was no guaranteeing the Spurs could’ve repaired their incredibly frayed relationship with their quiet superstar, and odds are he’d never have played another game for them even if he had stayed for the remaining obligatory year of his deal.
All things considered, the Spurs made the most of their unfortunate situation. DeRozan doesn’t quite measure up to the former Finals MVP, nevertheless the negotiation was far from one-sided. DeRozan is a four-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA player and he’s smack-dab in the prime of his career. Throw in former lottery pick Jakob Poeltl and a future first-rounder, and San Antonio may just have come away with the better end of the swap.
Despite his bizarrely cryptic demands, the Spurs avoided dealing Leonard to the Los Angeles Lakers while simultaneously sending him out of the Western Conference. The drama that dogged the NBA’s model franchise was weird and unexpected, but thankfully it’s over.
On the whole, San Antonio managed their exceedingly difficult offseason situation with masterful execution. When Kawhi Leonard forced their hands to facilitate a trade, the Spurs could have hit the panic button and torn the whole thing down, but they didn’t. Instead, the NBA’s most consistent franchise embraced a chance for change as they seamlessly ushered in a new era of Spurs basketball.
This isn’t going to be the same San Antonio team we’ve all come to know and love, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, despite a considerable decline on the defensive side of the ball, the Spurs look largely improved from a season ago. The rotation is easily twelve men deep, some much needed scoring has been injected into the lineup and young players full of potential fill out the roster for what feels like the first time in forever.
Few experts are giving San Antonio a chance to win more than 45 games in the 2018-2019 season, but as we know, the Spurs are perennial overachievers. With the exception of last year, Pop and the Spurs have churned out fifty wins and deep playoff runs for almost two decades. It should come as no surprise when they exceed league expectations once again.
Overall Grade: B+