All offseason there has been little talk about the Spurs being contenders this season. This is for good reason, as the team is in the middle of what some would call a rebuilding phase. If you look at the odds, Vegas doesn’t really even give the team a chance to make the playoffs. In years past, this was the type of position the Spurs liked to be in: underdog that’s been counted out. It has always seemed to give the entire roster a boost and a reason to silence the critics. Should they overachieve this season, then there might be some awards headed to San Antonio. Let’s look at what awards those would be and who is most likely to win them.
Starting with the award that has the most possible candidates: Most Improved Player. The Spurs are counting on continued improvement from their young core, mainly from the likes of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, and Lonnie Walker IV. Each of these players will be taking on the largest role of their career, so let’s break down why they could win.
The case for Murray starts with the fact that he has already shown to be the leader of the young core. Last season, he played 2nd fiddle to DeMar DeRozan and was pretty good doing so. The list of players that averaged at least his numbers of 15.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game consists of 10 other members, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and last season’s MIP Julius Randle. On top of those numbers, Dejounte was 11th in the league with 1.5 steals per game. Now, everything seems suited for him to play the role of lead ballhandler, with DeMar’s spot in the roster being given to a better floor spacer. With a heavier offensive load to bear, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Dejounte have a season averaging over 20 points a game, while also providing at least the same level of rebounding and assists.
For Derrick, it’s all about his health. He’s the first to admit that it was a disappointing 2020-21 season with all the time missed due to injuries and COVID. His 15.4 points per game was good for 3rd on the team, behind the aforementioned Dejounte Murray and DeMar DeRozan. That number was also an improvement of 4.1 from the previous season. In a similar fashion to Dejounte, Derrick’s role will increase with the absence of DeMar. Derrick’s overall numbers are likely to improve just based on the fact he’ll be in that secondary playmaker role, and if he can tack on better assist numbers and play a full season, he’ll be right there in contention to win MIP.
Or should I say Olympic Gold Medalist Keldon Johnson. Entering his 3rd season, Keldon is in the position most MIP winners are: Player getting his first real chance to show he can be the leader of a team. While Dejounte will likely be the main ballhandler, we’ve seen that Keldon’s game fits alongside anybody. Known as Big Body, Keldon has an innate ability to get into the paint while careening against defenders and be able to score at the rim. Continued improvement with his jumpshot, and perhaps a few more foul calls when he does attack the basket, and Keldon is looking at a significant jump in scoring. Not to mention the fact he’ll probably see an uptick in minutes from the 28.5 he averaged last season, which should give him more chances to make his mark on the team and league.
Lonnie Walker IV:
For Lonnie, it’s easy. Step into the 6th man role and shine. This past season was the first time Lonnie took on a larger tole with the Spurs. As expected, it came with its ups and downs. When DeMar or Derrick were out of the lineup, Lonnie stepped into the starting unit, starting a total of 38 games. When they played, he came off the bench with Patty and Rudy. Any way you slice it, Lonnie’s season stats don’t look impressive, but you can tell there’s something there when you watch him play. With a more consistent role, Lonnie should be the leading scorer of the bench. This scoring combined with his playmaking ability will be vital for the Spurs bench unit to be its usual steady self.
The next award with the most Spurs candidates is Defensive Player of the Year. Two players in particular: Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl. I’d like to include Devin Vassell, or even Luka Samanic, having seen flashes of his defensive potential, but neither will likely have a large enough role to make an award-winning kind of impact.
Jakob finally took over the starting center position in the middle of last season, having fully earned it. With another year under his belt, and not much backing him up, Jakob should see another increase in minutes this season. He was already 6th in blocks per game at 1.8 and was 2nd on the team in Defensive Win Shares at 2.5, only behind Dejounte’s 2.6. History is on Jakob’s side, as DPOY is an award mainly won by bigs. If he can increase those blocks per game and his rebounding numbers, his stats will look worthy enough to win the award. It’ll come down to where exactly the Spurs rank defensively in the league. Here are the rankings of the teams with the last 10 winners in terms of Defensive Rating: 4th – 1st – 2nd – T1st – 2nd – 1st – 2nd – 2nd – 2nd – 5th. That means for a Spur to win it, they’ll need to jump 13 spots next season, and Jakob will be a key reason for them to do so.
Rarely does a wing player win DPOY, let alone a guard. The last guard to win the award was Gary Payton in 1995-96. And since then, Kawhi Leonard and Metta World Peace (who was still Ron Artest at the time) are the only wing players to win the award, unless you’d consider Draymond Green and Giannis one. That being said, Dejounte is the best overall defender on the team, as well as the only one that’s had any defensive accolades in their career. As mentioned above, Dejounte led the team in Defensive Win Shares and was 6th in the league in steals. If the Spurs have any chance at being near the top in defense, Dejounte will probably have something to do with it, since he’ll be taking on the assignment of guarding the other team’s best guard most nights.
The last award I could see a Spur winning, should everything break right, is Sixth Man of the Year. There really is only one candidate for the Spurs here, and that’s LWIV. Pretty much every year, this award goes to somebody who plays the vital role of being the leading scorer off the bench for their team. Last season, it was Jordan Clarkson for the Utah Jazz. The year before that? Montrezl Harrell. Then you have the years Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford won the award. For the most part, the only element the voters look for in this award is who is a non-starter that can score points in bunches. As I noted when talking about Lonnie’s MIP chances, he’ll likely be tasked with being just the kind of player these voters look for. If he can play like a pseudo-starter, at minimum, Lonnie is likely to be a finalist for this award.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge this one last thing. Should any of the players noted above actually wind-up being finalists for any award, the Spurs probably had a better year than anybody expected them to. Typically, when something like that happens, their coach is rewarded by being a finalist for Coach of the Year. Having won gold in Tokyo, Pop looks to continue his winning ways this NBA season. He’s noted how much he’s loved coaching the young guys up over the last couple of seasons, and if they’re able to take the next step, Pop could be looking at his pièce de résistance – walking away with a 4th CoY and breaking the tie with Don Nelson and Pat Riley for most all-time.
At the end of the day, none of these awards will be won if the Spurs don’t exceed expectations. And who knows? Maybe Devin Vassell does end up playing a larger role than expected, or another Spur not listed will surprise everybody. But those listed above are by far the most likely to receive any accolades this season. Only their play will determine if they do.