An NBA team cannot be a serious title contender without a legitimate superstar. The idea of what defines a franchise player has evolved over the years, with few clubs breaking the mold to find glory without the guidance of a generational talent. The Lakers and Heat put that tried-and-true theory to test last night, and though injuries certainly played a role in the outcome of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Los Angeles owns the two best players in the series, and that is often the most crucial factor in determining who comes away victorious.
Of the last 20 champions, the 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons are arguably the only outlier lacking the services of a dynastic building block. Sure, Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, and Ben Wallace were All-Stars, but they hardly fall into the first-ballot Hall of Famer category that classifies most of the league’s legends.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Steph Curry are all synonymous with individual greatness that translated to organizational success. And while most of these players solidified their legacy with one franchise, LeBron has entered his TENTH NBA Finals appearance with a third team.
This isn’t to say his accomplishments are any more or less impressive than those previously listed. Honestly, this article has very little to do with The King and everything to do with the notion that rostering a superstar is maybe the most critical ingredient in building a team capable of winning the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.
LeBron, alongside a fellow superstar in Davis, conquered the Western Conference with the front-running Los Angeles Lakers. Meanwhile, the fifth-seed Miami Heat surrounded Jimmy Butler, a three-time All-NBA Third Team nominee, with a perfect supporting cast comprised of lethal long-range shooters and formidable interior and exterior defenders on their way to Eastern Conference domination.
It is known that single player can alter the trajectory of an organization because there’s historical proof these players exist and do just that. They may not terrorize the association from day one, but once they find their footing and a proper ensemble of role players and secondary stars, you can bet on watching them make perennial playoff runs throughout their prime.
Today is the age of the jumbo initiator, an oversized offensive hub you can run the offense through on a majority of possessions, and someone who can get unassisted buckets and create opportunities for others. So, who fits that definition? LeBron, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and to a lesser extend, Butler. But the next generation of superstars is full of big playmakers like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and Nikola Jokic, Jayson Tatum, and Ben Simmons.
As the NBA continues to embrace the pace-and-space brand of basketball and the influx of three-point attempts it has brought with it, the bruising post giants of yesteryear have quickly been cast aside for versatile bigs with a more perimeter-oriented skillset. The Enes Kanters and Jahlil Okafors of the world may have a place at the end of the bench, but their value has plummeted near irrelevancy.
With that in mind, where do the San Antonio Spurs factor into this conversation? Do they not have an untraditionally large creator on the roster in DeMar DeRozan? Well, yes and no. Although he certainly seems to fit the description, the 6’6” swingman has shown he can’t be the first option for any reasonable contender, and his outdated playstyle as a midrange maestro is partly to blame.
Some of the same things can be said about Bulter, although the similarities between the two stop at the defensive end. Whereas Butler is a four-time member of the All-Defensive Second Team, DeRozan’s inconsistent effort to make stops has earned him the unfavorable label of a defensive liability. And that designation has only worsened while leading a bottom ten defense in minutes played over the last two seasons.
It would be fair to say that most, if not all fans already know the Silver and Black won’t be making any trips to the NBA Finals, let alone the second round with DeRozan or LaMarcus Aldridge spearheading the attack. After all, the Spurs missed the playoffs for the first time in 23 years with the aging tandem steering the way, but it wasn’t all their fault.
For all Gregg Popovich has accomplished throughout his storied coaching career, the 2019-2020 season saw perhaps his worst work as head play caller. One-dimensional non-defenders like Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes saw an abundance of playing time while their younger, albeit less proven, counterparts bided time on the bench and in the G-League. And although injuries forced the 71-year-old coach into an all-out youth movement in the bubble, it was refreshing to see the year finish on a positive note.
San Antonio got an encouraging glimpse into the future with recent first-rounders Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV, Derrick White, and Dejounte Murray, all receiving north of 20 MPG in Orlando. Still, one eight-game sample size is hardly enough to justify anointing anyone as the next face of the franchise. And that’s not too say that player isn’t on the payroll, though the likelihood they are is incredibly slim.
Keldon averaged 14.1 PPG on 63.8% shooting from the field, but those numbers will be tough to sustain heading into next season once NBA staffs get ahold of the film and have time to prepare a game plan. And Derrick White averaging 19-4-5 on 46-39-83 shooting splits was another welcome sign for Spurs fans, but will the soon-to-be 27-year-old receive enough touches to replicate that production once Aldridge, Trey Lyles, Patty Mills, and a 2020 lottery pick join the mix?
In any case, San Antonio is at a crossroads. It’s not a marquee Free Agent destination, and without a franchise player, the Spurs will be banking on one of their many promising young players to take a gigantic leap into superstardom. While it’s easy to point fingers at Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard as examples unheralded prospects who made this sort of jump, it would be unfair to place those same expectations on a handful of twenty-somethings on a team in transition.
For every Manu, Tony, and Kawhi, there are plenty of DeJuan Blairs, George Hills, and Kyle Andersons: pros who exceed initial projections to become serviceable role players but didn’t live up the the hype early results stirred up. There’s nothing to be upset about if most of the young guys fail to reach All-Star status. When you’re annually selecting towards the end of the first round, finding a star is like looking for a polar bear in a snowstorm; it isn’t as easy as San Antonio has made it look.
What are PATFO to do if this generational player isn’t on the roster? Unfortunately, as hard as it may be to hear, the Spurs are likely in for a long-overdue rebuild, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be an extended process.
The 2021 and 2022 draft classes are brimming with top tier talent, and a continuation of a full-fledged youth movement sans Aldridge and DeRozan could spur the development of one of San Antonio’s budding youngsters, land them a top pick in an upcoming draft, or maybe both.
Fans should be thrilled should the Silver and Black find themselves in a position to choose somewhere in the top three in the next two seasons. If that happens, that means a shot at selecting Cade Cunningham, Jonathan Kuminga, BJ Boston, Emoni Bates, Chet Holmgren, and Jean Montero, as well as several other high-end prospects. Drafting at the top may not ensure a franchise savior, but the odds of finding one increase the earlier you pick.
As long as Pop remains the head coach of the Spurs, I will never advocate for them to intentionally tank, and that’s not what I’m doing here. Though he probably won’t be here much longer, at the bare minimum, Pop deserves a competitive roster. Dejounte, Derrick, Lonnie, and Keldon have shown they could help San Antonio keep pace with playoff-caliber teams during the seeding schedule, and extending their leash while figuring out how to return to prominence wouldn’t be the worst idea.