The San Antonio Spurs are a playoff team, but stubbornness can ruin that

Patty Mills Becky Hammon Gregg Popovich Tim Duncan (Photo by Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images)
Patty Mills Becky Hammon Gregg Popovich Tim Duncan (Photo by Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images) /

As constructed, the San Antonio Spurs are more than capable of returning to the playoffs this season. However, for that to happen, old habits must die hard.

The 2018-19 San Antonio Spurs were the first version of the team without the Big Three or Kawhi Leonard to lean on since 1997. Still, the Alamo City hosted playoff games, as the Spurs outplayed their expectations to finish with a 48-34 record and the seventh seed in the Western Conference.

Last season, the Spurs brought back 11 of the same players that nearly toppled the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs but still sputtered to a 32-39 record. A successful Orlando bubble restart made San Antonio’s finish respectable, but there was little to be desired about how the Spurs played all season long.

So the question is this: What changed so dramatically between the two seasons, and has this been remedied for the 2020-21 campaign? In short, it was bizarre rotations and a tendency to stick with the norm that did the Spurs in last season.

It seemed plain as day to many Spurs faithful that guys like Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes were torpedoing San Antonio’s defense yet were getting crucial minutes ahead of guys like Derrick White, Lonnie Walker, and Keldon Johnson last year. The buildup of slow rotations, blown assignments, and matador defense caused several losses that should’ve been w’s.

In looking ahead to the season that tips off later this month, there’s good news. Forbes won’t be fourth on the team in minutes per game because he’ll be joining Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in their quest for that elusive Eastern Conference crown.

Marco Belinelli will also be returning to Italy to play for Virtus Bologna next season. In the loss of both depressingly one-dimensional players, San Antonio gains in the long run. Still, while Gregg Popovich won’t have his favorite shooters to eat up meaningful minutes, the Spurs will only go as far as his decisions will allow.

Like everyone else, the San Antonio Spurs must adapt

There was a time where the mystique of the mob boss Popovich and his devastating trio was enough for 50 win-seasons on its own. Teams that ran the ball at a fierce pace were suddenly forced to slow down and play grind-it-out ball against the Spurs’ daunting defense.

Well, that era has been long gone for a few years now, and San Antonio can’t get by on intimidation and stardom alone. Coach Popovich kept the team near the top of the Western Conference for two decades through several different NBA trends with masterful adjustments, but last year showed a step backward in that regard.

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The Spurs’ 25th-rated defense was undoubtedly their undoing last season, and it was a direct result of the coaching staff sticking with guys with more experience over promising younger defenders.

If Popovich can build on the Spurs’ inspiring performance on the Orlando campus and use what he learned from those rotations going forward, there’s no reason San Antonio should be on the outside looking in come playoff time.

The Spurs suddenly have a wealth of young two-way players that only grew recently with the selection of Florida State’s Devin Vassell.

There have been numerous occasions in the past where Pop favored past-his-prime veterans over guys that were ready to be thrown into the fire. However, we do know that if the talent is undeniable, he’ll make the right call — such as he did with Tony Parker in his rookie season.

I imagine guys like Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson will show enough effectiveness on both ends of the floor next season to warrant decent playing time, even if it may take a few weeks to happen.

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Plenty of teams in the West have reloaded and improved from last season, and while the Spurs haven’t necessarily made a big offseason splash, they’re in a better position than they were last year. This team is more than capable of fighting for a playoff spot come next year — they just need to fight the urge to go back to the same old well in the process.