The San Antonio Spurs are in an interesting position. They may have the wider range of possible outcomes for the 2021-22 season than any other team. With no actual star player on the team — and not just in the “superstar” sense; they literally have zero All-Star appearances among the 17 players on the roster — this team could go any direction. They could bottom out and fall (or rise?) to the top of the lottery, or they could gel into a cohesive, fun, upset-minded playoffs team.
Odds are they will continue to be somewhere in between: a middling, 30 to 40-win team whose floor is too high to fall into a top 5 pick, but the question is, what are they supposed to do with that? ESPN’s Zach Lowe attempted to answer those questions in his latest piece. It’s well worth the read but also requires a subscription, so here’s a deep dive through all the relevant points, in Lowe’s own words.
Why the Spurs are where they are
- “A perfect storm left the Spurs with perhaps less leverage than any team ever to trade an MVP-level superstar in his prime.”
- “The Spurs turned down several offers (for Kawhi Leonard) heavy on future first-round picks, sources said. Choosing to pair DeRozan with LaMarcus Aldridge — who turned 33 the day after the Leonard trade — seemed to prove the Spurs would never rebuild until Gregg Popovich retired.”
- “The Spurs have drafted well recently in the back of the lottery and the end of the first round. . . . (but) It is hard to find anyone who thinks the Spurs have a foundational star among (Dejounte) Murray, (Derrick) White, (Keldon) Johnson, (Lonnie) Walker, (Jakob) Poeltl, Devin Vassell, Luka Samanic, Joshua Primo, and the rest. It’s early, but that assessment seems correct. It’s possible one or two cracks an All-Star Game; there have been lots of one- and two-time All-Stars, (but) there is a giant chasm between those players and perennial All-Stars who determine championships.”
Reasons for Pessimism
- “There are reasons for pessimism about this single-season San Antonio team — to wonder if the Spurs, almost by accident, have positioned themselves for a real chance at a top-five pick. Which teams in the West are you certain will win fewer games than the Spurs? That list ends at the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder.”
- “The Spurs profile as a bad offensive team that will have to work really hard for clean looks — many of which will be long 2s. (Their old-fashioned shot profile didn’t shift much when DeRozan and Aldridge sat.)”
- “Opponents will go under screens for Murray, White, Walker, Johnson, and Vassell. They will form a shell above the foul line, and dare those guys to hoist 3s. The result will often be a lot of side-to-side passing that generates little north-south traction.”
- “The Spurs are pretty switchy on defense, but they are also easy to switch against. None of them have brutalizing one-on-one games for size mismatches. Their guards and wings can roast opposing bigs, but that speed advantage dissipates when defenders sit back and invite jumpers.”
- “If this really is a top-five defense, the Spurs will be in the play-in race. If it’s closer to 10th or average, this could be a painful season.”
Reasons for Optimism
- “Even if they disappoint this season, these Spurs’ young core could develop into a good team — and soon. Murray and White are in their primes. Walker has hit 37% on 3s, and has flashed the ability to be a solid secondary ball handler — when he catches on the move, with a head start, and takes his time. His passing and defense will improve.”
- “You can see Johnson learning to slow down, change pace, and keep defenders off balance. He has a decent floater, and even ran 250 pick-and-rolls last season.”
- “Vassell could become San Antonio’s Mikal Bridges — and maybe more. He is already an absolute mauler on defense, capable of switching across four positions — and enveloping smaller guards ... He is long enough to provide some rim protection. (Johnson is too.) Vassell was mostly a stand-still option on offense, and that was fine for his rookie season. He hit 38% on corner 3s. He showed a pump-and-go game that usually ended with midrange pull-ups. Vassell is good at those. He’s smooth with the ball, stops on a dime, and rises up with ease over smaller guards — who often defend him because opponents have deemed Vassell a safe hiding place ... Vassell will get more decisive in Year 2. He’ll attack right away off the catch instead of giving the defense a chance to reset. He’ll venture the one extra dribble that unlocks a layup, or some profitable pass.”
- “Why should we put low ceilings on these players, or doubt the Spurs’ development machine? No one saw Leonard’s superstardom coming. There isn’t a Leonard here, but if these guys stay together, the Spurs will grow into a good team. That’s just what happens.”
The ultimate conclusion Lowe appears to be making is for now, this Spurs team is stuck in the middle: too good to bottom out and snag a more sure thing from the top of the draft, but not good enough to be anything more than a play-in team, at least this season. They could eventually rise to a consistent lower-seed playoff if the internal development keeps progressing, but either snagging a star in the draft or via free agency/trade is their best bet to reach the contending status they enjoyed for nearly three decades.
For now, as Lowe puts it:
And so: the wilderness. This is normalcy for so many franchises outside glamour markets. The Spurs were the constant exception, because they acquired exceptional players. Climbing back to the top without bottoming out is the NBA’s greatest organizational challenge. Maybe the Spurs will bottom out this season — or come close enough as to benefit from some lottery luck.
If not, the journey back up is uncertain.