After a pair of embarrassing losses, the Spurs have dropped to fourteenth in the Western Conference. Though the Spurs are technically only 5.5 games out of first, fourteenth feels closer to their correct position than does first given the depth of the conference and the way the team is playing together. So how did we get here? Is the current state of the Spurs the result of a series of unfortunate events, or did PATFO overplay their hand?
The timeline of events that led to this iteration of the Spurs
Before we dive too deep into how the Spurs have ended up trending toward the bottom of the Western Conference, it’s important to take a moment to refresh our memories of the important events that occurred during the summer.
- June 21st - Spurs draft Lonnie Walker IV and Chimezie Metu in the 2018 NBA draft.
- July 1st - Marco Belinelli agrees to sign a 2-year, $12 million contract with the Spurs.
- July 1st - Rudy Gay agrees to sign a 1-year, $10 million contract with the Spurs.
- July 6th - Kyle Anderson signs a 4-year, $37.2 million offer sheet with the Memphis Grizzlies.
- July 7th - Tony Parker signs a 2-year, $10 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.
- July 8th - Spurs do not match the Grizzlies offer, allowing Anderson to officially sign with the Grizzlies.
- July 10th - Davis Bertans agrees to sign a 2-year, $14.5 million contract with the Spurs.
- July 10th - Bryn Forbes agrees to sign a 2-year, $6 million contract with the Spurs.
- July 16th - Dante Cunningham agrees to sign a 1-year, $2.5 million contract with the Spurs.
- July 18th - Spurs trade Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a 2019 top-20 protected first-round draft pick.
- July 31st - Spurs waive Brandon Paul.
- August 27th - Manu Ginobili announces his retirement.
- August 29th - Spurs sign Quincy Pondexter.
- October 6th - Lonnie Walker IV tears MCL, and is out 6-8 weeks.
- October 7th - Dejounte Murray tears ACL and is out for entire 2018-2019 season.
- October 12th - Derrick White injures heel and is out 6-8 weeks.
- November 4th - Pau Gasol injures foot and is out indefinitely.
The Spurs wanted to reconcile their differences with Kawhi
Many expected Kawhi to be dealt to another team on the day of the draft, but when the dust settled, the Spurs made their selections as they do every year. Spurs GM R.C. Buford was interviewed right after the 2018 NBA draft, and when asked about the Kawhi Leonard saga, he responded by saying: “Kawhi and his family mean a lot to our organization and our community. While none of us would wish we are where we are, we’re gonna do what we can to build the best relationship we can with him. We’ll explore all of our options, but the first one would be to do what we can to keep Kawhi as part of our group.” To this day I feel R.C. was genuine in his response to the media, and some of the Spurs’ early offseason moves support this theory.
Signing Marco Belinelli made sense at the time
Free agency started a week and a half after the draft day interview with R.C., and the Spurs wasted no time agreeing to terms with former Spur Marco Belinelli. Marco’s signing seems strange now, but at the time free agency began, adding a known shooter familiar with the Spurs system seemed like a smart way to bolster the bench unit of a team riddled with talent in the starting lineup. When healthy, the Spurs were true contenders, so only fringe moves seemed necessary.
Whether or not PATFO already knew the fate of their relationship with Kawhi, there are two other potential reasons for bringing Marco back into the fold. The first being that the 2017-2018 iteration of the Spurs marked the first time in a decade the Spurs did not finish in the top ten in three point percentage. The offense in general was poor, and Marco’s ability to move without the ball was expected to help transform an offense that had been far too stagnant. The second reason may have had to do with leveraging Marco’s friendship with Manu to try and convince Manu to stick around another season.
I’ve heard a theory that Marco was signed in anticipation of Manu retiring, but I don’t see that. Marco’s game is certainly complimentary to the ball-handling abilities of Manu, but if PATFO was expecting Marco to replicate what Manu brought to the Spurs, they were sorely mistaken. Without a true ball-handler off the bench, much of what Marco brings to a team is neutralized. What we have seen over the Spurs first 22 games is Marco trying to generate his own shots, mostly to the detriment of the team.
The Spurs curiously favored offense over defense this offseason
Uncharacteristically, the Spurs made a decision to mortgage their defensive identity in favor of bolstering the offense. In addition to the signing of Marco, the Spurs resigned both Bertans and Forbes while allowing Anderson to sign with the Grizzlies. Those signings only make sense if we believe that 7-10 days into free agency PATFO was still working under the assumption both Kawhi and Green would be back this season. Though Anderson had the second highest Defensive Real Plus/Minus (DRPM) out of all small forwards last season, his skillset would not have been vital to a roster already consisting of Murray, Green, Kawhi, and Aldridge - all plus defenders at their respective positions. It definitely wouldn’t have been worth the $9 million a year he was offered from the Grizzlies.
Then came the trade. The Spurs chose to retool instead of rebuild, sending both Kawhi and Green to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a 2019 protected first-round draft pick. It is at this moment the Spurs seem to have overplayed their hand. They traded away two of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA for an offensively-minded guard and a raw center. Were the Spurs so hamstrung that they had to include Green in the package without getting back OG Anunoby, a young wing with strong defensive capabilities? Knowing the transactions that had preceded this trade, I would have loved seeing them hold off on trading Kawhi until, a) he showed the league he still knew how to play basketball, b) the Raptors agreed to replace Green with Mills in the trade, or c) simply wait until the 25th hour when all other options had been extinguished.
While it’s true there’s no way the Spurs could have predicted the ACL injury to Murray, it’s curious to imagine that PATFO thought Murray and Aldridge would provide enough defense for a team consisting of some of the worst defenders in the NBA. This season, Anderson (while having his issues on offense) is fourth in DRPM for small forwards — as a reference point, Rudy Gay is currently third — and Green is first for shooting guards. Having one or both of those players in the fold this season would have dramatically changed the dynamic of this team.
I’m not sure if Pop believed he could coach this unit into playing competent team defense, or if the fantastic individual defense of previous Spurs teams masked the defensive deficiencies of current Spurs players, but this is where I believe the Spurs made their biggest mistake. A team known for its patience overreacted to a poor shooting season and completely restructured the team.
It’s hard to blame the Spurs for its lack of playmakers
Mixed in and around the Kawhi circus, two other franchise-altering events happened this summer: Manu retired and Tony Parker signed with the Charlotte Hornets. Those two have been the primary ball-handlers for the Spurs for the past 15+ seasons, so losing both in the same offseason was going to be felt both on and off the court.
While I do put some of the blame on PATFO for the atrocious defense, it’s hard to blame them for the lack of playmakers. Parker has found new life in Charlotte, scoring ten efficient points and dishing out 4.5 assists in only 18 minutes a game. Those numbers would really help a second unit full of spot-up shooters with no ability to create for others, but Manu’s status was still unknown and both Murray and White were said to have made huge strides over the past year. Realistically, Parker could have ended up being the third point guard in the Spurs rotation; fourth if you count Manu. Parker came out and said as much, admitting he rejected a similar contract offer from the Spurs because Pop was unable to guarantee a consistent role in the rotation. A retirement from Manu and injuries to both Murray and White changed the entire dynamic of the team, but judging Pop and RC for that is beyond me.
Despite all the injuries the Spurs have had to endure, DeRozan has proven to be an excellent playmaker for the Spurs. Though DeRozan’s assist numbers have fallen off recently, his six assists per game still put him in the top 20 in the NBA. For comparison, Parker has averaged just under six assists for his career. DeRozan’s game actually aligns pretty well with that of Parker’s. Neither are great defenders, but both are adequate at finding teammates and like to feast on points in the paint and mid-range shots.
White had an inauspicious start to the season to say the least, but his insertion into the second unit has proven fruitful. Mills and Belinelli had a negative net rating together early in the season, struggling to find their spots on the court without Manu running the offense. Since White was inserted into the second unit, the three-person lineup of White, Mills, and Belinelli have a positive net rating — even after the massacres of the past two games. I fully expect their numbers to continue to improve with their familiarity.
Despite the new contract, Pop has yet to free Bertans
Multiple injuries to Spurs’ rotation players nor a hefty raise in the offseason has done much to increase Bertans’ role in the Spurs’ rotation. Fun fact, Bertans has a higher DRPM than Kawhi this season. He’s one of only two Spurs - with Gay being the other - who has both a positive DRPM and Offensive Real Plus Minus (ORPM). He’s also enjoying his most efficient season in a Spurs uniform. Despite the numbers suggesting Bertans is a solid role player, he remains a polarizing figure among Spurs fans. Some believe he should be starting and playing 32 minutes a game while others believe he shouldn’t be on an NBA roster. Pop must have similar struggles in determining Bertans’ worth, as his role in the Spurs’ rotation remains inconsistent at best.
Can the Spurs turn their fortunes around?
The answer to that question really depends on what constitutes a reversal of fortunes. The Spurs are not championship contenders, nor will they be for the foreseeable future. This outcome was written in the cards once Kawhi was traded. DeRozan is a terrific player and an even better human, but he doesn’t have a lot of help, and he’s not the generational talent that Kawhi is who can single-handedly make an NBA team championship contenders.
Aldridge regaining his mojo on offense would do the team wonders, but even then the Spurs are a borderline playoff team. Walker will be ready to join the Spurs in short order, but it would be unrealistic to expect him to move the needle in his rookie season while coming off a significant injury. With that being said, I’d still like to see him take some of Cunningham’s minutes and perhaps even Belinelli’s. Cunningham doesn’t have long term upside (or even current upside), and Belinelli has been struggling.
Improving via the trade market is always an option, though there isn’t a player on the market that the Spurs have a realistic chance at acquiring who could brighten their prospects. Still, it would be optimistic in the extreme to count on this Spurs team being coached into becoming even passable on defense — so making a move to eliminate some redundancy in shooting in exchange for a wing defender could return results. Otto Porter is likely available for the right price and would certainly fit a need, but he’s overpaid and other teams are still likely to beat the Spurs’ offer in a trade package. Another option would be Kent Bazemore. He’s been struggling from distance this season, but has been pretty consistent in previous seasons. He has other aspects to his offensive game that could be useful, and most importantly, he’s an excellent wing defender. But he’s owed $18 million this season and $19 million next, which is a hefty price for a player who will help but not in any significant way. Gasol for Bazemore works, and the Atlanta Hawks wouldn’t mind taking back Gasol’s mostly-expiring contract, but as much I hate to admit it, the Spurs need Gasol’s high basketball IQ and passing ability. I think the Spurs should, and will, explore all of their options, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a Spurs-related Woj bomb.
The Spurs look like they will have two first-round draft picks in the 2019 draft, with the Raptors in firm control of being a top ten team in the NBA. The Spurs pick could even end up in the top ten, giving them multiple options for an underlying rebuild as the aging stars try to keep the Spurs afloat the best they can.
The Spurs have had a tremendous amount of misfortune with injuries the past 18 months. So much so that you could argue it has changed the course of the franchise for years to come. Still, there’s no doubt PATFO made some mistakes this summer, but in a vacuum I can see the rationale behind the decisions. I trust them to make corrections over time, but there’s no simple solution to the Spurs’ struggles. The defense isn’t likely to improve and the shooters aren’t going to suddenly learn how to distribute. Best case scenario is the Spurs squeak into the playoffs, but getting out of the first round seems like a pipe dream. We have no choice but to be patient. The Spurs have brought us two decade’s worth of success at the highest level. We owe it to them to wait out the storm as they search for a winning direction.