“Loyalty is just a word in this game.” – Isaiah Thomas’ reaction perfectly encapsulated the vibe of the controversial trade that sent Kawhi Leonard across the northern US border, and DeMar DeRozan down south to Texas.
Two of the four involved parties came out of the biggest drama of the 2018 offseason with a bad taste in their mouths. On one end, the Spurs organization, the epitome of sports professionalism, rightfully felt wronged by Leonard’s approach to the unfortunate situation. On the other end, DeRozan did not shy away from publicly showing that he is deeply hurt with how the Raptors’ front office, and especially Masai Ujiri, handled their business.
After Leonard averaged just eight points and five rebounds in his rookie season in 2012, Gregg Popovich made a remarkably bold prophecy that he will eventually become the face of the franchise. With Tim Duncan hanging them up and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili entering their respective twilights, Leonard made sure to honor his coach’s trust and turn his vision into reality.
That episode of Spurs history, however, came to its premature end under some shady circumstances. Popovich will now have to enter the final phase of his own storied career deprived of the services of his prodigal son.
That, of course, doesn’t mean that Pop will throw in the towel. He still has two current All Stars at his disposal, and looks set to embark on the quest of leading the Spurs to the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive time.
With Parker leaving for Charlotte, LaMarcus Aldridge surprisingly became the third longest-tenured player on the Spurs roster (behind Ginobili and Patty Mills) after only three years with the organization. Since Leonard managed to play in just nine games this past season, it was Aldridge who had to quickly take on the role of the undisputed leader on the court. That meant that the Spurs’ apparent transition from a pass heavy to a more iso-oriented system had to become even more accentuated.
With the addition of DeRozan, it seems that the trend will continue for the foreseeable future. Just like Aldridge, whose game is reliant on operating from the block and finding space for his highly effective mid-range shot, DeRozan is also known as a deadly player inside the perimeter.
In the modern NBA, however, that may not be considered particularly beneficial.
Under the influence of advanced analytics, the mid-range shot is gradually becoming an extinct aspect of NBA basketball. It will be interesting to see how Pop manages to utilize the main strengths of his new star duo in the face of the recent league tendencies.
What strikes the eye in that regard is that the Spurs now have two of the four highest volume mid-range shooters from last season on their roster. Combined, the tandem was taking 13.7 mid-range shots per game, which is more than seven entire NBA teams.
Whether Aldridge and DeRozan suffocate each other with their overlapping habits, or use their elite mid-range expertise to their advantage, will highly depend on the chemistry they establish. That is precisely why neither of them should force themselves into the role of the face of the franchise. The positive factor here is that neither of the two are known for issues with their ego – DeRozan is used to playing in a 1A-1B scheme with Kyle Lowry, and Aldridge has displayed willingness to defer to other stars on the court in times of need ever since his Portland days.
After all, judging by what Magic Johnson and the Lakers are doing, it seems that the nominal contenders are coming to a painful realization that it’s impossible to beat the Warriors playing their own game. Trying to surprise Steve Kerr with a unique approach instead of resorting to a 3-point shootout will therefore be in vogue this season. For the Lakers, that will mean focusing on gritty, smothering defense and all-around playmaking, while the Spurs will rely on fielding two mid-range assassins supported by a compelling combination of youth and seniority.
The point of emphasis for the Spurs will be balancing out the offensive output of their two stars, and adjusting their usage rates depending on the particular matchup. If the two click fast, the Spurs will remain a force to be reckoned with; instead of a team led by a lone commander, they will become a two-headed beast with a not-so-secret weapon that can still shred the opposition to pieces.
Even with Leonard out for the huge portion of the season, the Spurs were still a team boasting a ~60 percent win rate. Now, they have complemented one of the best two-way big men in the league with a top-5 shooting guard, who will enter the season with a chip on his shoulder. With both DeRozan and Aldridge assuming an equally important rule in a redesigned system, there is no reason that they won’t improve record-wise, even in the Western Conference that is shaping out to be a bloodbath.
Whether that will be enough for even an outside chance of dethroning the Warriors remains uncertain. What is certain, though, is that the Spurs now have two players with a peculiar skillset that differentiates them from the rest of the league. The majority of the Spurs success will surely depend on how compatible their playing styles turn out to be, but if anyone can make it work in the end, the odds are that it is Coach Pop.