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San Antonio Spurs Season preview: Moving again, after years of standing still

The Spurs are finally embracing a new identity based around the young core they built up over recent years. Now it’s time to figure out if they waited too long before moving on from the past.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

As The Mountain Goats said, the most extraordinary thing in the world is the feeling of being in motion again. After three years of respectable mediocrity but also a lack of purpose or movement, the Spurs are finally picking a path and starting to walk it. The players they have drafted in recent years will play, and the chips will fall where they may. It’s refreshing.

It’s also, if we are to believe Gregg Popovich, purposeful. In what was surely the strongest statement he made on media day, Pop reassured fans that there was a plan and that the Spurs meant to put themselves in this position. This is where they wanted to be, and it doesn’t look like a terrible place.

Dejounte Murray and Derrick White will permanently start together and lead the attack later than when most fans wanted, but arguably at the right time. Murray is a more reliable scorer now, both from mid-range and at the rim, and White has been evolving to be a shooter in the past couple of years. Defensively they were ready from the start to terrorize backcourts, but even in their own end they seem more complementary now. Murray is the one who pressures ball handlers and plays passing lanes like an expert while White does a fantastic job of rotating for blocks and drawing charges as a help defender. They can both guard either backcourt position, and both can run the break. Playing off DeMar DeRozan allowed them to develop secondary skills instead of focusing all their energy in trying to be ball dominant, which means they fit well now.

The same applies to Keldon Johnson, who after breaking out in the bubble got to spend most of last season as a complementary player. Keldon thrived in a role in which he was only asked to bring energy and drive off the creation of others, but clearly has the potential to do much more. A summer spent surrounded by superstars with Team USA and more possessions coming his way should give him the confidence he needs to start looking for his shot more on pick and rolls and post ups against smaller players. It might be a challenge for him to not only make a leap on offense but also on defense, but with the backcourt flanking him and Jakob Poeltl, one of the best defensive centers in the league, patrolling the paint, Keldon won’t feel the pressure as much as he would have under other circumstances.

Off the bench, the rest of the young core is ready to earn their stripes. The safety net that the veterans provided is gone, but that won’t necessarily be a bad thing, as the team will finally get to see what they have. Lonnie Walker IV should at last have a fixed role after being asked to slot in wherever needed. Devin Vassell, who immediately showed the potential to be special on defense and who should be more comfortable on offense in his second year, could emerge as the perfect wing pairing for Walker. A sometimes inconsistent offensively-inclined explosive athlete paired with a defensive force who won’t produce as many highlights but will be steady — seems like a good duo. Sprinkle in some Tre Jones as well as any of the young bigs getting some minutes, and you have a very intriguing young second unit.

All that’s missing, then, is some reliable shooting and some veteran depth. San Antonio covered that by signing Doug McDermott and Bryn Forbes in the offeseason. The two are perpetually in motion and ready to pull the trigger at any time, which should help counter any habits the young starters made while standing around watching veteran stars go to work alone. Jock Landale, Zach Collins and maybe even Drew Eubanks, if he actually commits to letting it fly, could take the opposing center out of the paint, leaving it open for cuts that especially McDermott will be looking for. Poeltl and Thaddeus Young can find him and anyone else who gets open as they facilitate from the top of the key. Young will provide grit and defense as well as leadership.

Regardless of whether there was a grand plan that led up to it, the Spurs have a team that makes sense when it comes to the broad strokes, at least on paper.

How viable it will be — thats a more complicated question. If part of the plan is to use this upcoming season to figure that out, that’s a respectable goal, but there’s a real possibility they might not like what they find.

Some of the “young” talent is actually in or entering their prime. Derrick White is 27 years old. Dejounte Murray and Poeltl are 25. None of them are stars. Neither is Johnson. At least not yet. Lonnie Walker IV is running out of time to prove that he can actually turn those flashes of brilliance into a skill set that elevates him to core player status. Jones projects as a backup. Josh Primo is promising, but his years as a difference-maker will likely come when White is in his 30s. Luka Samanic is already gone.

The reality is, unless something changes, the Spurs seem to have a lot of good condiments and side dishes but no main ingredient. Maybe Chef Pop can work his magic and create a great meal out of them, but perhaps the mix of new, strong flavors detract from each other. In that sense, if fans treat this upcoming season as a tasting that will reveal what should and shouldn’t stay on the menu moving forward, they’ll enjoy the experience a lot more than if they are expecting a banquet.

An adjustment of expectations will be required, from the front office on down. After mostly standing still for three years, as they recovered from having their original plans shattered, the Spurs have decided to walk again. But these are their first steps in a while and they have no crutches. There might be some stumbles along the way and it might take them a while until they can run, but as long as they build some degree of forward momentum, they’ll be fine. It will be important for fans to remember that when the team looks lost or wobbly.

It’s fair to wonder if the Spurs actually mean it when they say they planned to arrive where they are now all along, but there’s fortunately no need to dwell on that too much. Not anymore, anyway. Now it’s time to figure out where they’re going, which is the scary but exciting part.