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Patience will be key with the rebuilding Spurs

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It will take a healthy roster and more than one preseason game to start seeing the “new” Spurs.

Oklahoma City Thunder v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs enter the 2020-2021 season from largely uncharted territory. For the first time in 22 years, they will begin a season from the outside of the playoffs trying to get back in. Fortunately for Spurs fans the Silver and Black have never missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons in the franchise’s history. It’s an incredible run that’s unmatched by anybody in the NBA. But just because it hasn’t ever happened doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen.

Some of the most successful franchises in the history of the league have had a tough time getting back into the post season once they fell out of it. Take for example one of San Antonio’s fiercest rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers. Before selling their souls and teaming up LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win a championship, they had missed the playoffs for 6 consecutive seasons. Their last appearance was the ill-fated team of Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, and Steve Nash in the 2012-13 season. That feels like a lifetime ago.

Another seemingly infallible franchise, the Boston Celtics, had a tough run after the final members of their great 1980’s big three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish finally retired. After Parish’s last season in 1993-94 they made the playoffs one more time then were on the outside looking in for 6 straight seasons. They didn’t really get back on track until Danny Ainge came in to take things over and even that took a few years and another big 3 to get things going.

Fortunately for the Spurs, they have always had competent decision makers and seemingly have a plan in place to keep it going strong even after Greg Popovich retires.

So, the question is: How long will the Spurs be out of the playoffs? If I had to guess, it would be, not long. If we step back and take a look at the league as a whole it would seem that franchises tend to be what they are. Take the Los Angeles Clippers for example. This is a continually disappointing franchise that has never even been in a Western Conference Final. Last year they had everything line up perfectly for them. They had a fun and scrappy team that had just pushed the Golden State Warriors to 6 games in the first round of the playoffs, then they added everybody’s favorite fun guy, former Spur Kawhi Leonard, and teamed him up with all-star Paul George. And the Clippers did what the Clippers do. The season ended with them blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Denver Nuggets. Then in the offseason they lost 6th man of the year Montrezl Harrell and apparently have chemistry issues in the locker room. A year ago, they were the toast of the town talking about how they owned Los Angeles. Now they have a lot of questions and uncertainty. They couldn’t even keep it going for a full season and they still haven’t ever been to a Western Conference Final. Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, Clippers gotta Clipper.

And I believe the Spurs will continue to Spur.

It’s not going to be easy, however. Last year, before the shutdown, San Antonio was not a playoff team. They were 27-36 and sitting at 12th in the Western Conference. Nationally, some were disappointed they were even included in the bubble.

But before the bubble got started, they were dealt injuries to two of their big men, LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles. This forced them into very unusual lineups and a change in playing style. Whatever they did, it seemed to work and they had success, almost making it into the play-in game.

The challenge they now face is trying to figure out who they are and what they have. Was the bubble an aberration or is that the direction they should be headed? They didn’t make any moves to speak of during the abbreviated offseason, other than drafting Devin Vassell. So, who are the San Antonio Spurs going to be moving forward? DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Rudy Gay are all on the last year of their contracts. Do the Spurs go young or try to keep running it back with this same roster? The thing is they have never been a hasty franchise so they’ll take their time making a decision. Right now, and early in the season, they are just gathering data — and their initial data point was their first pre-season game versus the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In all honesty wins and losses don’t matter in the pre-season. Players are just trying to get back into game shape and get their feet under them. It’s difficult to really take anything away from these games as someone outside the locker room, but we’ll do it anyway.

The game started out great for the Spurs. Jakob Poeltl hit two floaters in the lane and LaMarcus Aldridge nailed a 3 from the wing to give San Antonio an early 9-3 lead and force a Thunder timeout. I don’t want to say it was all downhill from there, but it certainly didn’t get any better. The Thunder couldn’t miss in the 1st quarter. Mike Muscala hit all 4 of his 3s in the opening period and helped OKC to a 1-point lead after the first 12 minutes of action.

One of the early bright spots was rookie Devin Vassell, who showed a little bit of everything early on. The first time he touched the ball he aggressively drove to the hoop and earned himself some free throws. Then he hit a long pull-up 2 and ended his first stint on an NBA floor with a steal, causing another Thunder foul.

The 2nd quarter rolled on and so did the Thunder and they started putting some distance between themselves and the Spurs. However, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills wouldn’t let them get too far ahead. During one stretch Gay hit 2 threes. The second pulling the Spurs within 10 at 60-50. The Thunder went on another run until Lonnie Walker IV had one of his few bright spots and hit a 3 to make it 68-53. Then Patty Mills tallied his 16th point of the half on a three to pull San Antonio within 10 again. But at the end of the half, Thunder player Isaiah Roby threw up a brick that somehow took a perfectly lucky bounce and went in to increase OKC’s lead to 73-58 before halftime. It was just one of those nights.

One thing you can say for sure about any Spurs team is that they will not quit on you. Devin Vassell continued to look confident and decisive all game and his 3 pulled San Antonio within 10 late in the 3rd quarter. Aldridge hit another 3 to pull them within 6. Then Patty Mills nailed yet another 3 to cut down a once 20-point Thunder lead to 5. The third ended with the Thunder leading 98-90.

As I started watching the 4th quarter, the teams emptied the benches and, if I’m honest, I only watched peripherally. I had seen what I came to see. Although the Spurs cut it to two, the Thunder ended up winning 121-108.

Game Notes

I’d like to end this on a positive note, so I’ll start with the bad.

  • Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, and Quinndary Weatherspoon missed the game due to injury. I really hope for a speedy recovery for all. Especially since White is my favorite Spur. I’m also looking forward to seeing more of Johnson after his bubble performance. I think he and Vassell on the wings could eventually give opposing teams fits.
  • I know it’s only the first preseason game, but if the Spurs want to get back to Spurs basketball, they need to defend the 3 better. OKC was making everything and finished the game 17/31 (54.8%) from beyond the arc on a lot of what seemed to be wide open looks. That’s not going to get the job done.
  • Now some positives: The Spurs did win all the hustle stats. They had more offensive rebounds than OKC 11-8. They had 11 steals and 6 blocks to OKC’s 6 and 3. And they caused 23 Thunder turnovers while only committing 10.
  • Patty Mills had a fun game, scoring 24 points and hitting 4 threes, but the most exciting performance was from Devin Vassell. He looked comfortable and confident in his decision making. He looked like he belonged and his numbers showed. In 24 minutes, he scored 12 points grabbed 6 rebounds with 2 assists. He caused disruptions on defense with 3 steals and 2 blocks. He only shot 3/8, but was 2/4 from three and 4/5 from the free throw line.

The Spurs next preseason game is Tuesday 12/15 @ the Rockets.