Tim Duncan’s picture still sits on the mantelpiece like a dearly departed relative. Tony Parker is cashin’ dem cheques for as long as possible elsewhere. Manu Ginobli may as well not come back. Even Danny Green was thrown into the Kawhi Leonard trade that saw DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, plus a first round draft pick (protected 1-20), make their way to Texas. The only man left standing in San Antonio from the 2014 championship team is Patty Mills. Technically, so is Marco Belinelli, though he has had a sabbatical for a few years while Spurs’ glory days, which we all know and love, fell apart.
Many fans will be looking at 2018-2019’s potential squad and praying for the thunder and the rain of terrible basketball to pass them by. But while there is little chance of joining a championship parade along the Boardwalk, the silver-and-black might be back and competing in the playoffs.
Now and then when I see Manu Ginobili’s face, it takes me back to those special championship runs, but if I stare too long I’d probably break down and cry.
He will be the last player of that era still going, but if he retires, it would open up space to potentially add another quality player to support the Spurs’ new star shooting guard.
DeRozan will be important for the team, especially if he spends the summer continuing to extend his range. He will have a few weeks to get acclimatised to Texas and start working with shooting coach extraordinaire Chip Engelland. Having already made a good start last year, DeRozan upped his three point percentage from 26% to 31%. The best percentage of his career so far was 33% in 2015-2016, but last year he took double the number of shots from behind the arc.
This needs to continue, because joining Dejounte Murray and LaMarcus Aldridge will mean three-fifths of the starters have a career average of less than 30% from three.
Patty Mills will continue to be a Duracell Bunny off the bench and will occasionally start. Derrick White has proven himself to be at least a head, if not necessarily shoulders, above the people he played against in the G-League last year, and was one of the best players in Summer League. He was also one half of the best San Antonio nickname for a duo since the Twin Towers.
The second half of the “White Walker” backcourt is the team’s new draft pick Lonnie Walker IV. It is still early, but the last time San Antonio went after a player drafted in the top half of the first round, he went on to win a Finals MVP within three years.
Walker has more to offer than just the best draft day picture (thanks to that awesome hairstyle), he is very young and only played one season of NCAA basketball with Miami, where he averaged 10 points for the season. He got better as the year went on and averaged 11, 4 and 2 in Summer League. These numbers aren’t going to blow anyone away, but there is a good defender in that athletic body and he showed promising flashes on offense.
Speaking of which, Brandon Paul became a fan favourite with a flair for exciting plays and great defensive nous. He doesn’t score much, but doesn’t seem to care about it. Instead he feeds off the plaudits Coach Gregg Popovich gives him when he takes a charge, gets a steal, or makes a great hustle play.
Rudy Gay proved useful last season, filling in for Leonard to a reasonable level. A simple look at his box score will reveal a huge drop off following his Achilles surgery. From 18, 6 and 3 in 2016-2017 to 11, 5 and 1 looks disappointing, but he played 12 fewer minutes to allow himself to return from the injury successfully, and he played with good energy and focus on both ends of the floor. A large reason for him playing less is the greater depth San Antonio had at the position last season, with Danny Green, Kyle Anderson and Paul fighting him for minutes, as well as the likes of Davis Bertans and Ginobili depending on line-up and situation.
But if you take a look at Gay’s stats per 36 minutes, it’s clear he has not really dropped off that much at all. For 2016-2017, he would have had 20 points with 7 rebounds and 3 assists on 45% shooting per-36 minutes and in the 2017-2018 season, Gay’s line equates to 19, 8 and 2 on 47%. And that’s without being a number one, two, or maybe even third scoring option.
The return of Marco Belinelli is interesting. There were moments where he played very well in last year’s playoffs. Splitting his time between Atlanta and Philadelphia during the regular season, he scored 12 a game while shooting 37% from three and 53% effective field goal percentage. While his efficiency went down slightly during the postseason, his points went up. Perhaps more importantly, Belinelli is a solid defender. He’s no Leonard, but you rarely see him targeted in the pick and roll, and his bigger build won’t be pushed around in the paint. A 6’5 frame is long enough to deter, if not stop, taller wings from shooting over him.
The more interesting pick-up is Dante Cunningham. This went under the radar during a period of higher profile signings around the league but this solid veteran can pick up the production Kyle Anderson leaves behind. In 20 minutes per game with Brooklyn, during the second half of last season, Cunningham averaged 7.5 points, 5 rebounds and 1 assist. But the real benefit of Cunningham is that he is an energetic defender with the ability to get back down the floor more quickly than Anderson.
When LaMarcus Aldridge returned at the start of last season with a renewed contract, Spurs fans were a bit surprised and slightly ambivalent. During his first few years, Aldridge never felt like a sweet child of San Antonio. He’d butted heads with the system, been a diva about getting shots and it felt like he’d expected to be the guy after Tim Duncan retired, only to take another back seat behind Kawhi Leonard. Last year, with no healthy Leonard to get in his way and no timeframe for his return, Coach Pop had no choice but to build the system around Aldridge, which took the Spurs into the second round of the playoffs. But a mix of the personnel not being suited, to injuries, and lesser talent, not to mention an AWOL Leonard, meant that progressing further was hopeless.
Still, if Aldridge can retain his 23 and 8.5 going into next season while working with DeMar DeRozan to let him score another 20+, Spurs fans should have faith in Pop’s ability to motivate and get more out of the rest of the roster than any other coach could manage.
Pau Gasol’s deal runs out after 2020, at a rather costly $16 million per year, but there is no doubt the big man helped win games last season. His 10 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists helped the team during 23 minutes per game. But he will be 40 in the final year of his deal, so unless he retires at the end of 2018-2019 or the Spurs can move the Spaniard, he might become a bit of an albatross.
This is where the potential in San Antonio’s young bigs will be key. Jakob Poeltl played in all 82 games in 2017-2018 and was solid on defense in all categories – except for allowing his assignments to shoot three-pointers slightly higher than the league average. On the other end of the floor he managed 7 and 5 in 18 minutes. He doesn’t shoot from outside the paint much, but the Spurs already have a player capable of doing that.
For a 6’10 power forward, Davis Bertans isn’t the greatest of rebounders, even measuring per-36 minutes where he reaches just 5. But with his playing time limited to just 14 minutes last year, 6 points and 2 rebounds is useful, especially as he took more than double the amount of shots from three compared to inside the arc. Next season he will continue to space the floor and is on a friendly contract.
Eyes of the bluest skies
Given that the Spurs were without Kawhi Leonard for essentially all of last season, the addition of DeRozan, who averages 75-games per season, will automatically be an upgrade. Things look promising and the cloud of the off-season might be starting to clear for San Antonio.
Spacing will be difficult and the team stands no real chance at winning the championship in 2019, but if some space opens up at the end of next year following some retirements or moved contracts, we might see the Spurs return to Finals form for one more year before Coach Popovich steps aside to focus on Olympic duty in 2020.
Featured photo – via Jae C. / AP / Double Clutch illustration
Huw grew up in Wales and was too much of a wimp to play rugby. He fell in love with the quiet brilliance of Tim Duncan and ended up a San Antonio Spurs fan. Huw is a Lead Writer for Double Clutch and also contributes to Sky Sports (NBA/WNBA) and Sporting News (FIBA).