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The Spurs’ mediocre season is a sign they need to embrace real change

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Hopefully the lesson the Spurs will learn from this season is that the time to comfortably tread water has passed and the need to transition to the next era is pressing.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs season has been over for a few days now, and before moving on to the offseason, it’s always good to look back to see what it all meant. Surely as more time passes, there will be new revelations, but there are some lessons that seem obvious even now.

The main theme going into this past season for the Spurs could be summarized as “development and relevancy don’t have to be mutually exclusive.” San Antonio went in with a lot of young players, but also some veterans in key roles. The idea, as it has been for the past three years, was to straddle the line between rebuilding and staying competitive.

To a degree, the Spurs did find some success doing that. But even with some great moments along the way, the ultimate result points to a need for deeper change that hopefully will come this offseason,

It’s important to note that this season was not a disappointment. Not fully, at least. A stronger start than anticipated might have raised expectations to an unrealistic level, but these Spurs were always expected to be a fringe playoff team. The surprising success in the bubble was achieved under such unusual circumstances that assuming it was sustainable throughout a full year while incorporating LaMarcus Aldridge was probably wishful thinking from the start. San Antonio finishing 10th in the West can hardly be considered a failure when there were no big offseason additions to a roster that finished 11th the year prior. More than the results, then, the focus of any review has to be based on the process.

In that regard, the season was a mixed bag. The Spurs simply could never add Aldridge to the mix successfully, despite trying. The vision of having a small, fast team with a stretch five who could punish switches just never came to be. As for the increased usage of the Dejounte Murray - Derrick White duo, injuries mostly derailed the promising experiment. FIBA Patty was a good story for a while, but the lack of a leap as a reliable scorer from Lonnie Walker IV — who to be fair had to deal with the volatility of oscillating between starter and bench player — left the Spurs with a weak second unit once the compressed schedule zapped Mills’ energy.

Perhaps worst of all, a team that to start the year had embraced pace and movement reverted back to a slow, predictable offense centered around DeMar DeRozan after the All-Star break. DeRozan put up good numbers and the Spurs, which were not improving on defense as much as most expected with Aldridge gone, managed to get enough wins to make the play-in tournament, but the excitement that was palpable earlier in the season was gone. Instead of reverting back to the bubble version after the departure of Aldridge, the Spurs started to resemble the team they were during the 2019-20 season more and more as the months passed.

Not everything was bad, of course. The Spurs never gave up, which was inspiring. The development of Dejounte Murray into a vocal leader and better all-around player was welcomed. Jakob Poeltl emerged as a true defensive centerpiece who could mask the struggles of the starting unit on that end. Derrick White was starting to look like the borderline star he was in the bubble before he got hurt, and Devin Vassell showed enough glimpses of potential to fuel plenty of optimism about his future. Keldon Johnson proved that not only veterans can be emotional leaders. Even Luka Samanic, who was fading from the proverbial picture, forced his way back into the young core with some promising performances.

A team embarking on a full rebuilding effort would have been content with all those good developments, but unfortunately the Spurs are not such a team. It’s why this season, despite including that long yet still definitely incomplete list of positives feels a little empty. The internal development was definitely there, but it wasn’t significant enough to elevate the team past mediocrity and lacked the emergence of a true star. The veterans didn’t show another dimension to their games, which forced the departure of Aldridge and might cause a bigger exodus soon. The team still lacked defined offensive and defensive identities, which is concerning. There won’t be a deep playoff run or a top pick coming. Essentially, in the ways that mattered more, not much changed from the year before.

“Change” will be the key word going forward and the one that will determine if this was a lost season or the one that led to the Spurs to fully shed their old skin. The three-year process that started when Kawhi Leonard forced his way out might be coming to an end, and if it does, the balance would be slightly positive, which is rarely the case after superstar departures. San Antonio will have had a playoff appearance and a postseason appearance while amassing and developing young talent. The highs were never too high, but the lows weren’t extreme, either, which is a good thing for a franchise that is not known for embracing uncertainty and wild swings.

Now, however, it’s time for a true change of course. As appreciative as fans should be of the relevance that a team led by DeMar DeRozan can achieve, it’s time to aim higher, even if it involves risk. What the process of embracing a new identity will look like is hard to say, but the Spurs have put themselves in a decent position to begin it in earnest. They don’t have a top-five pick, but they’ll still select in the lottery; this might not be the best free agency class, but San Antonio has money to get a nice piece or two. This is probably not going to be the summer in which the next franchise player arrives, but it could be the one that sets up the perfect environment to maximize him when he does. Or it could be the lead-in to another season with roughly the same roster and likely the same end result.

Hopefully the 2020-21 season, in all its weirdness, will be the last chapter of this era of Spurs history and not a midpoint. If it does, it will be easy to remember it fondly. Endings have a funny way of redefining what came before them.

For the time being, however, this past season, just like the two before them, will feel like a prelude to something better. The Spurs don’t need another one of those. It’s now time to finally find out what’s next for the franchise.