The Spurs secured the seventh best record in the West on Wednesday against the Mavericks, when they got their 48th win of the season. They had already punched their ticket to the playoffs days ago, so all that was left to decide was seeding and matchups. In the end, they drew the talented but untested Nuggets and will try to pull off the upset.
There’s nothing surprising about how many games the Spurs have won or about their 22nd consecutive trip to the playoffs. The results are ordinary, largely in the range that most experts and even fans expected. The journey, however, was fascinating and has shaped a unique team during a unique season.
The start of the year was filled with uncertainty. Dejounte Murray’s injury had left an already defensively-challenged perimeter without its most rugged stopper. Derrick White’s own health-related setbacks brought even more question marks to a team that was already dealing with the tough task of integrating a high usage offensive player with very specific strengths and weaknesses to an established attack. The shadow of Kawhi Leonard and his messy departure was still looming over the franchise, which had no option but to transition into reloading mode in a hurry. The front office’s decision to make a win-now trade instead of embracing a rebuilding process put pressure on the roster to perform, but missing the playoffs felt like a real possibility.
As the games went on early in the season, it became clear that a lot of work would need to be done to keep the Spurs relevant. The defense was even worse than anticipated for long stretches while the offense lacked the explosiveness to carry the team to great heights on its own. The talent just wasn’t there and neither was the cohesion. A lesser coach would have panicked as November ended with a losing record, but Pop fortunately just went to work. He tweaked the defensive scheme and developed a fast-paced, three-point heavy second unit offense to complement the plodding, calculated attack of the starters. San Antonio finished the calendar year on a tear and kept it up for most of January, surprisingly looking the part of a truly elite team at times while racking up wins.
Alas, it was never meant to last. The Spurs turned out to be better than they looked at their worst, but not nearly as deadly as they appeared at their best. The ups and down that characterized the first half of the season got even more pronounced in the second. Pop got to establish a rotation but familiarity unfortunately didn’t breed consistency. Winning streaks were followed by stretches of wretched, uninspired play that rightfully raised concerns about San Antonio’s playoff hopes in a tough Western Conference. Ultimately things stabilized enough for the Spurs to make the postseason with some ease, aided in part to collapses from the Lakers and the Kings, but not before Pop had to introduce one last tweak to the starting lineup.
It really was an unpredictable season in which the only constant was change. Role players stepped up and faded at different times, and even the stars had periods of elite play mixed in with some timid performances. There were core principles that remained in place throughout, including a commitment to a surprisingly effective throwback style of offense, but roles and responsibilities changed. So did defensive game plans, tweaked to even accommodate a zone that proved more useful than anticipated. The roster barely transformed but it would be fair to say that the Spurs team that finished the season is a different one than the one that started it, even if the names on the box score are largely the same. It’s been a journey of collective self-discovery.
If this team is going to be remembered for anything, it’s going to be because of the adaptability and willingness to evolve that characterized it. The 2018-19 Spurs were flawed, lacking the personnel to play the way they wanted, but decided to do something about it instead of stubbornly sticking to their guns and fading into ignominy in the name of a misplaced desire for continuity that was never going to be fulfilled after Leonard’s departure. At times it seemed like the narrative that was going to define them was going to be one of Quixotic commitment to an outdated style and mercurial stars. Instead, the lasting legacy of this version of the team will be its pragmatic malleability, which occasionally resulted in inconsistency but in the long run saved their season.
The hope now is that the same virtues that got the Spurs to the playoffs will allow them to compete with the Nuggets. Every wrinkle they have mastered will be necessary against a young, deep opponent boasting a transcendent talent and a solid supporting cast. The LaMarcus Aldridge — Jakob Poeltl duo that ended the season playing together will have to be on point to battle Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee, but smaller units will also be needed to counter Denver’s more perimeter-oriented lineups; the offense will hopefully run smoothly through DeMar DeRozan and Aldridge since the Nuggets don’t really have the type of defenders that can handle them one-on-one, but the Spurs will also need Derrick White to assert himself instead of deferring. The bench will have to move the ball and push the pace, but Pop will also have to let everyone know when slowing things down is the way to go.
With the playoffs about to start, the Spurs will find themselves once again facing uncertainty, as this group has not been through the ringer of the postseason together. They’ll need to discover their identity once again in the face of their biggest challenge yet, which won’t be easy.
If the regular season is any indication, however, the doubts they might encounter won’t paralyze them but instead spur them into action. The Spurs reinvented themselves several times this season to avoid being defined by their limitations. Let’s see if they can do it once again.