The Kawhisis is over.
No longer will the Spurs be in limbo, waiting for a superstar to take them to the next level. Instead, a DeMar DeRozan with a chip on his shoulder offers to keep the San Antonio Express chugging along and into the playoffs for a 22nd year in 2019.
General Manager RC Buford and Coach Gregg Popovich searched for several trades for players that would help keep the team relevant while also receiving first-round picks, but the 2018 draft came and went, the free agency deadline disappeared, and all went quiet on the Texan front. Fans went on a rollercoaster of emotions, between thinking Leonard would return, be traded for young Lakers talent, young 76ers talent, or a bit of Boston’s talent, but instead San Antonio received another All-Star, one young decent player with potential, and a single heavily protected first-round pick from Toronto.
So, with DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, a future pick, new free agent signing Dante Cunningham, an old free agent signing in Marco Belinelli, rookie Lonnie Walker IV, and several returning free agents and veterans, what does the future of the Spurs look like?
DeRozan is a player who is slightly less talented than Leonard on offense, much less talented on defense, doesn’t space the court like the small forward, and has disappeared on the big stage, whereas Leonard became better in 2014 and won a Finals MVP.
However, the Spurs won 47 games in the 2017-2018 campaign and received the equivalent of a turd sandwich from the team’s superstar: nine games. Those nine games featured half decent production in 23 minutes of play, but nine games with a 5-4 record doesn’t get you to the playoffs. Maybe without Leonard, the Spurs go 42-40 and miss the playoffs? Yes, but maybe without him in those four losses against teams like Dallas and Detroit, they actually win and get there anyway.
Let’s say the Spurs have DeRozan for a full season. Last year, the shooting guard played 80 games. The fewest he has ever played was 60 in 2014-2015, which means that if he played his worst season in San Antonio, there would still be 51 games where the Spurs have a greater chance of winning.
During his offseasons with the Toronto Raptors, DeRozan improved a different aspect of his game each year. After 2016-2017, he began working on his three-point shot and upped it from 26 percent to 31 percent. The best percentage of his career was in 2015-2016 at 33 percent but last year he took double the shots from behind the arc.
This will need to continue, because joining Dejounte Murray and LaMarcus Aldridge will mean three-fifths of the starters have a career average of less than 30 percent from three. He will have a few weeks to get acclimatized to Texas and start working with shooting coach extraordinaire Chip Engelland, who has helped turn Tony Parker, Leonard, Belinelli, and others into threats from the promised land, as well as players like Shane Battier and Grant Hill before he joined the organization.
When LaMarcus Aldridge returned at the start of last season with a renewed contract, Spurs fans were a bit surprised and slightly ambivalent. During his first few years, Aldridge never felt like part of San Antonio. He’d butted heads with the system, been a diva about getting shots, and it felt like he’d expected to be the guy after Tim Duncan retired, only to take another back seat behind Kawhi Leonard. Last year, with no healthy Leonard to get in his way and no timeframe for his return, Coach Pop had no choice but to build plays to benefit Aldridge, which took the Spurs into the second round of the playoffs. But a mix of the personnel not being suited to support him, injuries, and lesser talent, not to mention an AWOL Leonard, meant that progressing further was hopeless.
Still, if Aldridge can retain his 23 points and 8.5 rebounds going into next season and work with Demar DeRozan to let him score another 20+, Spurs fans should have faith in Pop’s ability to motivate and get more out of the rest of the roster than any other coach could manage.
Spacing will be difficult on offense, but defensively is where the team will struggle. This is where some of the newer additions will come in. Dante Cunningham will replace the production Kyle Anderson leaves behind. In 20 minutes per game with Brooklyn during the second half of last season, Cunningham averaged 7.5 points, five rebounds, and one assist.
Lonnie Walker IV has more to offer than just the best picture with Adam Silver from draft day.
Lonnie Walker wearing a hat is the best moment of draft night. pic.twitter.com/gql9vFxEA0
— AJ Neuharth-Keusch (@tweetAJNK) June 22, 2018
He is very young and only played one season of NCAA basketball with Miami, where he averaged 10 points for the season. He got better as the year went on and averaged 11 points, four rebounds, and two assists in Summer League. Those numbers aren’t going to blow anyone away, but there is a good defender in that athletic body and he showed promising flashes on offense.
Along with the promising playmaking and great defense of Murray, the youth looks set to carry this Spurs team.
Pau Gasol will still be there for a few more years, but for this team to improve to the point where it can beat 47 wins convincingly and make noise in the playoffs, the key might be in the last man standing from San Antonio’s glory years.
If Manu Ginobili returns, he can still play. Last season, in 20 minutes of action per game, he scored nine points per game, grabbed two rebounds, and assisted the ball 2.5 times. But he still managed to go off every so often, scoring 26 points against Portland halfway through last season.
If Manu Ginobili returns, his limited minutes will still allow him to provide leadership to the youngsters who will have the majority of playing time.
But if Manu Ginobili returns, hopefully, it will only be for one year. In 2019, a number of free agents will hit the market that could form a new big three in San Antonio, and by 2020, the Spurs could compete for the final championship of Pop’s career.
If the greatest coach of all time can step away from the game on top and hand over the team to one of his excellent assistants, the future of San Antonio Spurs basketball looks promising.