2018-19 Season Preview: Don’t Kawhi Over Spilled Milk, The San Antonio Spurs Will Be Fine
by 21 September 2018, 2:26 PM
After losing four franchise players in three years, a new era of San Antonio Spurs basketball starts now.
Before diving into this year’s San Antonio Spurs team, we must first recognize the Spurs of old. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich, led one of the NBA’s all-time grant franchises for 14 years, winning four titles. They combined for 22 All-Star appearances, 21 All-NBA team selections, and also hold the record for the winningest trio in NBA history.
All good things must come to an end (remember this, Warriors fans). Duncan retired from basketball in 2016, Ginobili followed suit earlier this month, and Parker signed a two-year contract with the Charlotte Hornets this summer after 17 seasons with the team that drafted him. This core helped the Spurs make 21 straight playoffs.
With the Big Three gone, whether or not that streak will continue is up to the next generation of Spurs. San Antonio is used to a winning culture, and, at least for the time being, that should continue this season.
Kawhi Leonard was supposed to usher in the post-Big Three era of Spurs basketball. But, when he requested a trade after becoming discontent with the organization, the Spurs’ had to change gears. They shipped Leonard and Danny Green up north to Toronto in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a future first-round pick.
DeRozan, a four-time All-Star, is one of the league’s premier shooting guards. In his last five seasons in Toronto, he averaged 23.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists per game with a 20.5 Player Efficiency Rating. DeRozan excels around the rim and in the mid-range, even upping his number of three-point attempts per game this past season from 1.7 to 3.6 per game. At only 28 years old he is right in his prime, and with three years left on his contract, he is a player the Spurs can continue to build around.
During free agency, the Spurs signed guard Marco Belinelli and forwards Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter. Belinelli is an elite long-range weapon who averaged 12.1 points on 38% three-point shooting last year with the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers. Cunningham is a veteran journeyman looking for stability, and San Antonio could be a perfect fit. He tallied 5.7 points and 4.1 rebounds splitting time between the New Orleans Pelicans and Brooklyn Nets. Pondexter, plagued by injury his entire career, has only appeared in 23 games over the last three seasons and will try to prove he is still a serviceable NBA guard.
In June’s NBA draft, the Spurs took guard Lonnie Walker out of Miami eighteenth overall, and selected USC big Chimezie Metu in the second round. In his lone season as a Hurricane, Walker averaged 11.5 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per contest while shooting 41.5% from the field. Metu, a three-year player and two-year starter for the Trojans, averaged 12.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game. Both will see action this year, Walker more-so than Metu.
Lonnie Walker wearing a hat is the best moment of draft night. pic.twitter.com/gql9vFxEA0— AJ Neuharth-Keusch (@tweetAJNK) June 22, 2018
Belinelli, who played for the Spurs back in 2015, will fit seamlessly in the offense due to his perimeter prowess. Walker is a slasher with a developing jumper. In time, he can develop into more of a long-range threat to complement some of the other guards. Cunningham and Pondexter have seen limited minutes, but Popovich excels at getting the most out of guys like them (take Tiago Splitter and Jonathon Simmons, for example). Metu may see some time this year if another big gets injured, but most likely he will spend much of the season developing in the G-League.
While the rest of the NBA moves toward the “threes, dunks, and layups only” style of offense, Gregg Popovich is sticking to his midrange-centered scheme. While the midrange jump shot is becoming a dying art, the Spurs have two of the NBA’s best midrange players in their starting lineup in DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge has been able to thrive in Popovich’s system in his two years with the Spurs, averaging 19.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game with a 22.0 PER in his three seasons with the Spurs.
The Spurs refuse to change their offensive scheme
An issue may arise, however, from the Spurs’ dedication to 18 footers. With only a few players able to frequently and consistently hit shots from behind the arc (Belinelli, Patty Mills, Bryn Forbes, and Davis Bertans were the only players on the roster to shoot better than 37%), space inside may become limited, making DeRozan and Aldridge less effective.
DeRozan was best when he was able to improvise and get to the rim or kick out to a teammate like Kyle Lowry, CJ Miles, or Fred VanVleet. He will not have those kinds of shooters on the court with him, aside from Belinelli, so he will have to adjust to his new role in a new system. His pairing with Rudy Gay on the wing will be intriguing to watch, for the two have very similar play styles, with Gay having a better outside touch.
It will take the whole team time to adjust to the scheme but, if anyone is going to make an offensive run effectively on a shot no one wants to take anymore, it is Gregg Popovich.
The Spurs have always been an elite defensive team. In recent years, that has been because they had the best defender in the world in Kawhi Leonard. In 2016-17, Leonard’s last full season, they posted a league-leading Defensive Rating of 100.9 en route to a 61-21 record. Last season, even with Kawhi Leonard sidelined for all but nine games, the Spurs still had the league’s fourth-best Defensive Rating at 102.4.
The 2016 Spurs defense was, somehow, even better.
The Spurs will not repeat those type of numbers this year. Leonard was replaced with DeRozan, who is a liability on defense, Green was swapped out for Poeltl, a center with limited mobility and leaping ability, and Kyle Anderson, the long, athletic wing who excelled at guarding multiple positions, signed with the Memphis Grizzlies in free agency.
Granted, the Spurs do have some very solid defenders. Dejounte Murray is one of the best defensive point guards in the league, earning second-team All-Defense honors in his second NBA seasons. Patty Mills has been a nuisance on that end of the court his entire career. Aldridge and Pau Gasol are both good for a block a game.
The Spurs will get by with their defense, but as they have for the last 20 years they will not be winning games because of it.
The Outlook for The Season
Due to the overall strength of the Western Conference, many have forgotten San Antonio. But this is a team that won 47 games last season without one of the best players on the planet. The Spurs’ over-under for wins this season is 43.5, but if the team can come together under Popovich and play like they did last season without their leader, do not be surprised if the Spurs are closer to the 50 win mark.
They may have lost some pieces during the summer, but their new additions combined with their exciting young core of DeRozan, Murray, Forbes, White, Walker, and Poeltl will be more than enough to secure their 22nd consecutive playoff berth.
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