The San Antonio Spurs weren’t directly involved in the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery, but their competition in the Southwest Division certainly was.
For years, the Southwest Division has been one of the most consistently competitive collections of teams in the National Basketball Association. Between the three diehard teams in Texas (Dallas, Houston and San Antonio), a rambunctious organization in New Orleans and the gritty Memphis Grizzlies, the Southwest is not a friendly place to settle in the Western Conference. The San Antonio Spurs have reigned supreme in the hierarchy of teams in their division for the majority of the time, although James Harden has pushed Houston ahead as of late.
Following the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are going to have some serious game planning to do when taking the outcome of Monday evening’s lottery into account.
In an unanticipated turn of events, the Pelicans and Grizzlies both moved up in the draft for the first and second overall picks respectively. This paves the way for generational draft pick Zion Williamson and star-in-the-making Ja Morant to enter the Southwest, causing even more headaches for the Spurs down the line. Both organizations have unclear motives because of the current construction of their teams.
New Orleans has potentially the most intriguing asset in the league now with the No. 1 overall pick. Few prospects have garnered the allure that the high-flying Williamson has in his young career. As a freshman at Duke, Zion averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks in just 30 minutes per game under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski.
His dominating athleticism is matched with a charming personality and distinct will to be the best version of himself as an individual and professional basketball player. There’s a case to be made for Zion as the gold standard for an NBA prospect; the best since LeBron James in 2003.
Earning the No. 1 pick comes at an interesting time for the Pelicans. As one star is presumed to settle in the Big Easy, another is seemingly prepared to walk away from it. All-NBA big man Anthony Davis is still expecting to be traded away this Summer in spite of newly-appointed general manager David Griffin’s hopes of retaining the generational power forward.
Meanwhile, Memphis is in the midst of a renaissance in play style and team direction. After years of the ‘Grit and Grind’ Grizzlies battling through the Western Conference playoffs without a Finals bid, the old core of the team has dispersed with point guard Mike Conley as the sole remaining force. Over the years, Conley has given hell to the Spurs in both the regular season and the playoffs, so Pop would be glad to see him removed from the division. This would come as a result of Memphis selecting Murray State point guard Ja Morant with the second pick.
Morant is a well-adjusted 19-year-old with a wide range of skills and some killer scoring instincts. He’s a talented passer with court vision that’s sometimes so startling, it catches his own teammates by surprise. For as skilled as he is, Morant is an athletic specimen in his own right with leaping ability that leaves spectators jaw dropped.
Hopefully R.C. Buford and his staff have scouted some of these players, because there’s a good chance that two of the best prospects of the last decade will fall in their division.
Next: What comes next in the Big Easy?
What comes next in the Big Easy?
As mentioned earlier, New Orleans general manager David Griffin finds himself in a puzzling situation with a newfound leverage that puts him in position to succeed. While the status of Anthony Davis with the Pelicans remains shrouded, Griffin now has an opportunity to build an immediate playoff contender around two-way menace Jrue Holiday and (potentially) Zion Williamson. One way or another, the Pelicans are set to be a more daunting opponent in the 2019-2020 season than they were this past season.
Considering the magnitude of his talent, Davis is slated to draw a tremendous return in any trade. Young talent will be available in abundance as teams like the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers construct trade packages for the disgruntled star.
There are two routes for a team in this position to proceed with: find a package that helps you to remain competitive or acquire as many young players and assets as possible. San Antonio is a perfect example of a team trading away a star player without initiating a rebuild. This was the right decision for the Spurs considering all that was left in the line: legacy, two decades of tradition and uncanny playoff records.
New Orleans, on the other hand, isn’t at that same level of prowess as an organization. They’ve never won a championship despite having Hall of Famers like Davis and Chris Paul in their primes. The track record isn’t there for the Pelicans to ship Davis off and become a playoff team, so they may ponder trading for more assets in this draft.
One idea that’s stuck out is the idea of trading Davis to the Knicks for a package including the third overall pick, bringing close friends and Duke teammates Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett to New Orleans while building for the future. Their combined athleticism would cause plenty of pains for the Spurs down the line, although they may need some time to adjust or the pace, physicality and intensity of the NBA. This would give the Spurs a greater window to win this season series and secure a better record, but Popovich will need to truly put his thinking cap on when finding a strategy to contain Williamson as he develops.
If the Pelicans opt to rebuild around Williamson, Holiday could end up on the trading block this Summer. Not only is this a player that the Spurs should target if he were to become available, but they should rejoice at the idea of getting him out of the Southwest. Holiday has been a problem against the Spurs on both sides of the ball.
Lastly, power forward Julius Randle could be more inclined to opt out of his $9 million contract this summer because he shares the power forward slot with Williamson. After a terrific season, he’s slated to secure a hefty paycheck for his wide range of skills and obvious adaptability, so the Spurs might want to give him a look in free agency.
Next: How do the Grizzlies proceed?
How do the Grizzlies proceed?
Although their on-court performance and constant coaching cycle has been an issue over recent years, the Memphis Grizzlies have a good eye for talent. After selecting Jaren Jackson Jr., son of Spurs legend Jaren Jackson, fourth overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, Memphis ensured that they’re prepared for the future of the NBA while holding onto some key pieces from their past.
The largest question mark surrounding this team comes at the point guard position. All signs point toward the Grizzlies selecting point guard phenomenon Ja Morant with the second overall pick, but this creates a logjam in their roster. Arguably their most beloved player in franchise history, Mike Conley, has held down the point guard spot for Memphis for the last decade. His cool and calm demeanor combine with one of the highest basketball IQ in the game and a diverse two-way skill set that would entice any coach.
Furthermore, the Grizzlies acquired point guard Delon Wright from Toronto at the trade deadline this season. The 27-year-old set franchise records for triple-doubles and will hit the restricted free agency market this Summer. Unless they plan to run a three point guard lineup, which hasn’t worked out great in the past, then the Grizzlies will need to make some moves for the sake of roster construction.
Conley was the center of various trade talks throughout the 2018-19 season and is a top candidate to get shipped off as a result of the draft lottery. For as exciting it would be to see Conley end up in the silver and black, Memphis will likely look to move him out of the division; if the not conference as a whole. The 31-year-old’s services will come at a hefty price tag of $32.5 million next season and $34.5 million in the following year. The haul he returns won’t push the envelope too greatly, but he’ll certainly be worth a few noteworthy assets for a team in desperate need of a starting guard.
In terms of competitiveness, Memphis probably won’t make much of a leap despite winning the second pick in the draft. Their talent still lacks the experience, depth and star power necessary to regain stature in the playoff race.
Next: How does this impact the Spurs moving forward?
How does this impact the Spurs moving forward?
Those ping pong balls didn’t fall in the favor of the San Antonio Spurs, but they’ll still roll out a lineup with two All-Star level talents in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge next season. That, combined with a little bit of cap space to play with and two first-round draft picks this year, should be enough to keep the Spurs as a top 2 team in the Southwest Division.
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There was a strong argument to be made that the Spurs have the best young players in the Southwest before these results, but Williamson and Morant could shift that paradigm. Even so, San Antonio has many unique advantages in this regard. Individual players can be game changing, but the Spurs will eventually roll out a matured group of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV and Jakob Poeltl amongst others with the tutelage of the game’s greatest strategist in Gregg Popovich. Furthermore, the Spurs are notorious for their player development and expert training staff that attacks their players’ weaknesses and enhances their skills.
Down the road, San Antonio will need to find innovative ways of containing the young players entering their division. Both Williamson and Morant have superstar potential with abilities that should translate directly to the NBA, but multiple meetings throughout the season will give Pop and his staff an opportunity to pinpoint strategies to expose their weaknesses.
In its entirety, the Western Conference is a treacherous landscape where every game counts toward the final playoff seeding. An additional loss here and there as a result of this draft could be detrimental to the Spurs down the line, but there’s no telling just how much these young players will transform their teams.
As always, the Spurs will keep on truckin by deploying unique and adaptable lineups with the knowledge necessary to limit the next generation of great NBA Players; whether that’s within the Southwest division or not.