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San Antonio Spurs Season Preview: The dawn of a new era

The Big Three: gone. Kawhi Leonard: ditto. The new-look Spurs will need to find their identity quickly.

NBA: Preseason-Miami Heat at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the end of an era in San Antonio. All members of the Big Three -Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker - are gone. Their heir apparent, Kawhi Leonard, is a Toronto Raptor after forcing his way out of town. A franchise that was used to its own kind of exceptionalism now looks shockingly ordinary.

Expectations are certainly lower for the Spurs this season, yet as long as Gregg Popovich leads the way, fans know that the team will be competitive. The Spurs have postponed their long prophesied downfall many times in the past. With the help of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, they will try to do it again this season.

Team Name: San Antonio Spurs

Last Year’s Record: 47-35

Key Losses: Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kyle Anderson.

Key Additions: DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, Marco Belinelli, Lonnie Walker IV.

1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?

The Spurs would have been happy bringing back most of their 2017 roster. Kawhi Leonard had other plans. His trade demand essentially set in motion a hectic off-season for a franchise that is used to quiet summers. The front office was essentially backed into a corner by Leonard’s very publicized discontent, reportedly receiving numerous low-ball offers for their best player. They settled for the one that gave the team the best opportunity to remain relevant and avoid a slow rebuilding process. In came DeRozan and Poeltl, out went Leonard and Danny Green in arguably the biggest trade in modern franchise history.

Those were not the only departures. Tony Parker didn’t want to be a full time mentor yet and signed with the Hornets. Manu Ginobili decided he had shared enough of his magic with us and retired. The Grizzlies poached Kyle Anderson. The Spurs lost a lot of “corporate knowledge,” as Gregg Popovich likes to call it. Marco Belinelli’s return should help bring back some familiarity to a locker room that lost several stalwarts. Rudy Gay, Bryn Forbes and Davis Bertans were re-signed, so not all continuity was lost. Lonnie Walker and Chimezie Metu will join Derrick White and Dejounte Murray in the team’s young core. It’s an eclectic but intriguing roster.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

Can mid-range shooting be a strength in the modern NBA? The Spurs sure seem to think so, since they gathered the two biggest proponents of the in-between game in DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. Those two might not have the shot charts that make analytically inclined observers salivate, but they do have their tricks. If on top of raining fire from 18 feet Aldridge continues to beast close to the basket and DeRozan remains a foul magnet, the offense could grind out enough points to land in the top 10 in scoring efficiency after finishing 17th last season. It won’t exactly be graceful, but it could be effective.

Another throwback characteristic Gregg Popovich has been able to turn into a strength is having size in the front court. Last season four of the Spurs’ five most used lineups featured essentially two seven footers, as Aldridge was flanked by Pau Gasol. All that height near the basket helped them excel at rebounding and remain an elite defensive team built from the inside out. The addition of Poeltl should only bolster the team’s control of the paint. The Spurs have small ball options to deploy if needed, but their defensive identity in recent seasons has been tied to their ability to stay big on most nights. It’s hard to see that changing this season, considering how successful it has been.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

It’s a good thing the Spurs have the personnel to control the paint, because their perimeter defense could be bad, and laughably so. They lost Leonard, Green and the underrated Kyle Anderson and replaced them with Marco Belinelli and DeRozan, two ghastly defenders. Rudy Gay might be their best option against bigger wings, which is a problem since he seems better suited to guard power forwards now. Murray is borderline elite on his own end, but beyond him, there’s simply very little defensive talent on the perimeter, for the first time in a long while.

A more familiar issue is the worrisome lack of three-point shooting. The Spurs ranked in the bottom five in attempts per game and three-point field goal percentage last season. They could easily finish in the same range in both categories again. In order to avoid that, they’ll need their good shooters — Patty Mills, Belinelli and Bertans — to make the most of their opportunities and their passable shooters — Gasol, Gay, Dante Cunningham — to at least approach league-average efficiency. The role players will have to hit their open looks for the offense to reach its ceiling, no matter how good DeRozan and Aldridge end up being.

4. What are the goals for this team?

Making the playoffs, even as a lower seed, would be considered a success. The Spurs are used to having loftier goals, but this is a transitional year and the West is teeming with talented teams. Getting to the postseason is the main objective.

If we were to dream bigger, passing the 50-win threshold again, after failing to do so last year for the first time in 18 seasons, could signal the league that the Spurs are still a premiere franchise. Right now, however, that feels unlikely.

5. What would have to happen for the Spurs to exceed expectations?

There is universe in which everything clicks for the Spurs from the start: they win 55 games and get homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. A lot would have to go right for that to happen. Too much, almost. But there is a chance.

Pop would have to somehow cobble together a top five defense out of a clearly limited roster. He’s done it before, but not with so little defensive talent. If he somehow pulls it off, however, the foundation for a regular season juggernaut would be in place. To really reach those heights, Murray would have to take a huge step forward. If all the work he’s done with shooting guru Chip Engelland pays off and he can be an off-ball threat, suddenly his fit next to DeRozan wouldn’t be so questionable and the starting lineup would be more balanced.

With a killer defense, a solid starting five and some firepower off the bench, the Spurs could destroy bad teams, as they used to routinely, while also competing with the better squads. Again, it’s not likely, but it could happen.

6. What would have to happen for the Spurs to disappoint?

The last time Aldridge played next to a high usage perimeter scorer, he had one of the worst years of his career. Pop has claimed to be at fault for it, but the fact remains: LA clearly feels more comfortable as the centerpiece of the offense. This is also true of DeRozan. Both like to operate in similar spots on the floor, too. Maybe the two aren’t compatible. Add shaky shooting from the rest of the projected starters, especially Murray, and the Spurs’ offense could sputter.

To alleviate the spacing issues, Pop could decide to give his shooters extended minutes, which could help on offense but would almost certainly hurt the defense. The team could spend most of the season hovering around .500 while struggling to find well-rounded lineups and dealing with chemistry issues. This worst case scenario is almost as unlikely as that best possible outcome mentioned earlier, but it could happen. Mediocrity, or worse, is a possibility. The Spurs could realistically miss the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

It’s been a while since there was this level of uncertainty in San Antonio, which is equal parts refreshing and terrifying for fans. No matter how things go this season, it should at least be an entertaining one. After a drama-filled 2017/18, that doesn’t sound so bad.