Heading into the 2019-20 season, the San Antonio Spurs possess the longest active playoff streak in the NBA. It’s seen them compete in the postseason for the past 22 years, during which time they’ve won five NBA titles.
In the eyes of some, their glory days are well and truly behind them. After all, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli are gone. Their successor and heir apparent to the Spurs throne, Kawhi Leonard, won a championship with the Toronto Raptors last season. And the closest thing the franchise currently has to a cornerstone is midrange maestro DeMar DeRozan. But as long as the Spurs have head coach Gregg Popovich (who signed a three-year extension with the franchise over the summer), they have a chance. Even if this season’s roster does lack an obvious identity.
Last season was a pretty good one for the Spurs. In the absence of their departed superstar, they still succeeded in winning 48 games – good enough to claim the seventh seed in the Western Conference. The achievement was made all the more remarkable by the fact that they had to do it without sophomore point guard Dejounte Murray, who was ruled out for the season in early October with a torn right ACL. Fortunately, they still had the ever dependable LaMarcus Aldridge and the newly acquired DeMar DeRozan, who wound up in San Antonio as part of the Leonard trade. Their mid-range games took us all back to 2003 (when that shot last truly mattered in the NBA), but somehow it meant they complemented one another wonderfully, averaging 42 points and 15 rebounds while playing together over the course of the season. Behind their scoring, the Spurs received solid contributions from a host of veterans including Rudy Gay (who looks reborn under coach Pop), Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills, all of whom exceeded expectations.
In Murray’s absence, Derrick White and Bryn Forbes also came good, playing beyond their years while eating major minutes. White was nothing short of heroic in the postseason, averaging 22 points over the first three games of the series, perhaps proving that Murray is unlikely to walk straight back into the starting five when he returns from injury.
Speaking of the postseason, the Spurs were arguably fortunate to get there. A late season surge eventually saw them match up against the upstart Denver Nuggets, who had won 54 games en route to the second seed. With homecourt advantage, the tie was in theory theirs for the taking. But in a manner that epitomized the heart and character of their storied coach, the Spurs won two of the first three games, before blowing out the Nuggets in a crucial game six to force a tie-breaker. Obviously Denver prevailed, but the series proved that Gregg Popovich is capable of taking an overmatched team and getting the most out of them when it matters.
And that’s exactly what he’ll be doing again this season. Following the upheaval of the previous summer, the Spurs settled for stability this time around. Aldridge and DeRozan will again be their talismen, while Gay, Belinelli and Mills will prop up the bench.
The big difference will likely come in the form of the returning Murray, who’s expected to be ready to go from the off. His presence will improve Popovich’s backcourt options, allowing him to regularly deploy some combination of him, White, and DeRozan at the three, or maybe even the four. Lining up this way should ensure they have ample firepower, especially as we can probably expect Murray to exceed the 8.1 points he averaged in 2017-18. Even if he needs to be eased back in, he has the potential to be an explosive scorer and playmaker who’s capable of giving DeRozan and Aldridge the looks they need. Expect him and his second and third-year cohorts to pick up some major minutes this season, as Pop looks to pass the torch.
Elsewhere, the Spurs two most significant offseason additions, Trey Lyles and DeMarre Carroll, have the potential to fit in well. Reclamation project Lyles in particular seems like the kind of player who’s ready-made to excel under Popovich. He showed flashes of potential in Denver thanks to his size and shooting touch, and could be a useful role player for the Spurs this season. Carroll’s game on the other hand appeared to be in sharp decline during his second season in Toronto. But the past couple of years in Brooklyn suggest that he’s still capable of producing. The Spurs will certainly be hoping that’s the case anyway, as he’s just signed a reworked deal that’ll see him earn $21 million over the next three years.
San Antonio’s other key addition came via the draft, as they took Luka Šamanić 19th overall. And the Croatian forward looks exactly like you’d expect a Spurs mid-first round pick to look. At 19 years of age he’s long, athletic and capable of creating his own shot and shooting from distance, in Europe. If his skillset translates well in the NBA, he could quickly become a lock in Pop’s rotation and is yet another reason why the Spurs will have one eye on the future.
By bringing back most of last year’s core, the Spurs are clearly hoping to keep the postseason streak alive. Provided the veterans on the roster have the legs to compete for 82 games, they’ll certainly have a shot a low seed and from there, who knows. One or two injuries to key personnel though and they could be looking at a very different outcome.
2.Focus on the future
While they won’t have a ton of cap flexibility until the summer of 2021, now is the time to embrace the next phase of Spurs basketball. In case you hadn’t already realized from the above, this begins with Murray and White. Expect the youngsters to get some major reps this season, for better or worse.
Enjoy him while he’s in the league, folks. Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest, most entertaining coaches in NBA history (and he’s a notoriously generous tipper to boot). But he won’t be around forever. These next three years could potentially be his last in the league, so make the most of every hilarious in-game interview while you can.
Dejounte Murray | DNP
Provided that ACL holds up, Murray’s getting the keys to the car this season. He’ll return to the court hungry and ready to give his all and should be a lot of fun to watch. Whether he can elevate the Spurs beyond the sum of their parts remains to be seen, but he’ll give the team a huge boost (particularly on offense) as they shoot for 23-straight postseason appearances. Speaking of shooting, this remains the weak point of his game and an area where the Spurs will be hoping for improvement this season.
Derrick White | 9.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.9 apg
Despite the injury troubles that kept him out for the first couple of months, last season was a breakout year for White – one that might have put him in the running for a starting spot this season. The return of Murray likely sees him slide to the bench though, where he could serve as a productive sixth man type. Wherever he ends up, he’ll no doubt be looking to put the experience gained at this summer’s World Cup to good use.
DeMar DeRozan | 21.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 6.2 apg
This season could well be DeRozan’s last in San Antonio. Although he has a sizeable player option awaiting him next season (just under $28 million), he may be willing to take a cut in order to compete for a championship elsewhere. In the meantime, expect more mid-range jumpers and veteran leadership, as he and Aldridge will be crucial if the Spurs are to keep the postseason streak alive.
LaMarcus Aldridge | 21.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 2.4 apg
Aldridge is another Spurs player who may well be thinking about the future. At 33 years old, his championship window is closing fast. The only problem is that he’s guaranteed $33 million over the next two seasons. The Spurs can avoid paying him the full $24 million he’s owed next season by waiving him before the end of June 2020, but doing so would still cost them $7 million. Assuming he does remain in San Antonio, he’ll continue to be an excellent mentor to the young guns, while providing consistent offence in the tried and tested fashion.
Šamanić has been widely touted as one of the more athletic European forwards to come through the draft in recent memory. Last season he averaged a modest 8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game for Petrol Olimpija the Basketball Champions League, Adriatic League, and Slovenian 1st Division. But a strong performance at the Draft Combine captured the attention of the Spurs brass, who were reportedly drawn to his size and versatility. If his skillset translates to the NBA, he could be another long-term piece for a franchise looking to develop talent for the future.