The San Antonio Spurs will never tank, but it’s time to stop appeasing Gregg Popovich in an effort to crawl back into the back end of the playoffs
Earlier this spring Draymond Green made some headlines for saying that he and the Golden State Warriors had changed the game of basketball. Respectfully, we disagree. As impressive as the Warriors’ brief run of incredible success was, it still doesn’t compare to the over two-decade run of success that the San Antonio Spurs have been on.
Over the past 23 years San Antonio has rattled off 50 win seasons and playoff appearances like a buy one get one half-off sale at Men’s Warehouse. But in the past few seasons, we’ve started to see the wheels come off the train and the formerly dominant machine has become a shell of its former self.
It wasn’t one moment that flipped the switch on the Spurs fates. You can track the gradual decline through the end of the Big Three era, past Kawhi Leonard’s injury in the 2017 playoffs and subsequent trade soon after, up to the out of date offense and strangely constructed roster we see today. And yet, through it all, the Spurs have adamantly refused to hit the reset button like so many other franchises have done.
Look across the NBA. How many franchises can you name that, at one point or another, haven’t bottomed out in search of a high lottery pick? How many franchises haven’t seen the writing on the wall and traded away aging but still potent stars in search of draft picks? There aren’t any.
Call it faith in a proven system, pure determination in staying the course that has led to success so many times before, or simply a refusal to change but the San Antonio Spurs have never thrown in the towel on a season, traded away a player for picks when they didn’t have to or chased a high draft pick. Even when they traded away Leonard it was only because they had exhausted every other option.
Instead, the franchise has opted for acquiring veterans like Rudy Gay and striking out, through no fault of their own, on others like Marcus Morris, all in an effort to maintain the historic playoff streak. And look where it’s gotten them. Back to back first-round exits and likely missing the playoffs this season. The fate of this year’s squad isn’t set in stone but the odds of them crawling back into the postseason were slim and getting smaller with every accumulating loss.
You can’t blame Gregg Popovich for not wanting to tank but at some point his determination to lead this team back to the playoffs could be doing more harm than good. He was steadfast in his refusal to experiment with lineups this season. Even as the Spurs got blitzed on the perimeter he continually rolled out Bryn Forbes as part of his starting lineup and nearly refused to play Dejounte Murray and Derrick White together, despite their request to share the floor more often.
Pop’s resume speaks for itself and he’s right more than he’s wrong but he could be more open to change than he has been in years past. Even Davis Bertans pointed out the differences between San Antonio and Washington, noting how feedback from players is more welcome in the Wizards locker room than it was in the Spurs.
Now the Spurs are approaching a critical offseason with external factors bearing down that they’ve never had to face before. They’ll have to deal with DeMar DeRozan’s contract situation, potential extensions for Jakob Poeltl and Derrick White, the unrestricted free agencies of Forbes and Marco Belinelli, all under the shadow of the uncertain financial impact that COVID-19 is going to have on the NBA. It’s going to get complicated over the next few months.
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It’s time for a change in thinking. It’s tough to look at Dejounte Murray, White, Lonnie Walker, Keldon Johnson, Luka Samanic, and a high draft pick this year and not be excited about the direction that the team is heading in. But it’s time to stop beating around the bush and go all-in on the youngsters.
The organization doesn’t have to trade DeRozan and Aldridge tomorrow, but they should make clear to them, as well as Pop, that players like Murray, Walker, and Samanic are the future of the team and that every decision going forward should be made around how to best maximize the potential that they have.
As painful as it would be to see that playoff streak end, it’s going to happen sometime. No other team in NBA history has been able to sustain this level of success longer than the Spurs have, shouldn’t that be enough? Is the best path forward really crawling into the eighth seed year after year, only to get spanked and sent home? I doubt it.
It’s time for the San Antonio Spurs to stop appeasing Gregg Popovich with veteran signings that help a futile playoff chase. This team isn’t winning a championship in the next two years with the current roster. But if they go all-in on building around their potential they can get back to that level someday.