The Spurs enter the 2019-20 NBA season with more roster continuity than they’ve had since returning 14 players from the 2014 championship squad. That consistency bodes well for the team’s playoff aspirations as most of the Western Conference seeks to integrate major new pieces. But just as importantly, the Spurs’ lack of turnover should make it easy to assess the impact of the few changes that will occur within the team’s rotation for the upcoming campaign.
With only 2 free agent additions over the summer, the Spurs are bringing back 12 players from last year’s roster. Those players accounted for almost 84% of the team’s minutes last season, the 6th highest percentage of Gregg Popovich’s 23-year tenure as head coach. Including their three 2019 draftees, the Spurs will start the season with just 5 new faces on the team.
It’s unlikely that any of the rookies will see significant playing time, but DeMarre Carroll and Trey Lyles should fill important roles. Both bring depth to a position of a need, although their skills are very different, which will add flexibility to the team’s lineup possibilities. Carroll’s defense and capable outside shooting may even be important enough to earn a starting job, while there’s a chance Lyles could unlock some run and gun small ball lineups if he can survive at the five. Still, it’s unlikely either will represent a big enough upgrade over Davis Bertans to make much of a dent in the team’s ceiling.
Overall growth, both in terms of player improvement and comfort within the system, will likely be just as responsible for any improvement the team experiences as the addition of its two free agents. The young guys will all be a little better after a summer of work, and last year’s additions, DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, should have a much easier time on both ends of the floor with a full season in the silver and black under their belts.
Those are marginal improvements, though. The team will be better thanks to the combined value of all those minor gains, but likely not enough to offset the incredible concentration of talent in the top half of the conference. If the Spurs are going to dramatically exceed expectations and take the league by surprise, it won’t be because of a free agent signing or an offseason workout regimen; it will be because of the return of Dejounte Murray and/or the burgeoning stardom of Lonnie Walker IV.
Even if Dejounte just recreates his 2017-18 season in terms of impact, the Spurs will be better. His strengths almost perfectly align with the weaknesses of last years’ squad. That team struggled to generate stops, which is his specialty. They also had issues scoring in transition and keeping their opponents from doing so, both areas where his eye-popping speed and athleticism will make a difference. If the Spurs can find a way to maintain even average offensive efficiency with him on the floor, he’ll be a plus.
In terms of athletic impact, Lonnie should be similar. He might be even faster than Dejounte, and he’s got enough lift off either foot to scare all but the most elite finishers and shot blockers in transition. Lonnie isn’t the defensive menace Dejounte can be in the half court, but he’s a much more dangerous player on offense. If Lonnie follows in Dejounte and Derrick White’s footsteps with a breakout 2nd season, he’ll add a dynamic two-way presence that could be a game-changer for a team that spent much of last season searching for the right balance between offense and defense.
It’s unfair and unreasonable to expect such a leap from two of the team’s youngest players, both of whom still have plenty of time to grow and develop. Fortunately, the Spurs shouldn’t have to rely on either to play winning basketball. Regardless of what the Spurs get from those two this season, they will remain competitive. Their floor, with LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, White, and Rudy Gay leading the way, is a borderline playoff team, even in what could be deepest conference in NBA history.
With Dejounte coming off a devastating injury and Lonnie just beginning his 2nd season, it’s not a given that either will play a starring role, especially early on. That could mean this year isn’t much different from last, with the Spurs scrambling to make the playoffs until the last few games of the regular season. On the other hand, if they find themselves near the top of the standings, competing for home court, and putting a good ole fashioned silver and black scare into the contenders, it’s a good bet that one or both of Dejounte and Lonnie will have a lot to do with it.