Usually when an NBA team has veterans nearing the tail end of their careers, a minimal young core is in place, and several powerhouses exist in their respective conference, a rebuild is on the horizon. With veterans present and a lot of potent teams in the Western Conference, some are pondering whether the San Antonio Spurs should embark on a rebuild.
But there’s one person standing in the way of that taking place: Gregg Popovich.
There has been frequent discussion about how much longer Popovich will coach in the NBA throughout the bulk of the current decade. He’s 70, in his 24th season coaching the Spurs, and his team hasn’t posed a threat to win the NBA Finals in three seasons. The recurring rumor has been that he’ll retire after coaching Team USA in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
But according to The Athletic‘s Sam Amick and John Hollinger, Popovich “has given no indication” that he won’t be returning for the 2020-21 NBA season.
The Spurs have gotten off to an underwhelming start this season, to put it lightly. They’re 9-14, endured an eight-game losing streak — the longest losing streak in Popovich’s time with the Spurs — and went into Monday 25th in the NBA in opponent points per game (115.4), 22nd in opponent field goal percentage (46.8 percent), and 27th in opponent three-point shooting percentage (37.9 percent). Those are startling figures for a team that’s renowned for its play on that end of the floor.
From a production standpoint, the heart and soul of this team is performing up to expectations. DeMar DeRozan (30) is carrying the scoring load, averaging 21.4 points per game; LaMarcus Aldridge (34) is playing his inside, midrange jump shot game; Rudy Gay (33) and Patty Mills (31) are instant offense off the bench; Marco Belinelli (33) is a threat from beyond the arc.
To this point, and over the last two years, it hasn’t been enough, and it’s highly generated by the Spurs’ competition in the West.
The Los Angeles Lakers are an NBA-best 21-3 with the best star duo in the sport in LeBron James and Anthony Davis; the Los Angeles Clippers are reelin’ and rockin’ until the break of dawn with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George; the Denver Nuggets continue to build off their 2018-19 campaign.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook are, at the very least, getting the Houston Rockets to the playoffs; the Utah Jazz are an elite defensive unit capable of getting timely buckets; Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are living up to the hype in terms of turning the Dallas Mavericks into a contender.
At best, the Spurs are a first-round-and-out in the playoffs — again. They don’t have the offensive firepower to go toe-to-toe with the likes of the aforementioned teams, and they’re slumping defensively, which is supposed to be a Popovich hallmark.
DeRozan, their best player, is a free agent after this season. Granted, they wouldn’t get a king’s ransom for his services, the Spurs should be able to compile a first-round draft pick and a compelling youngster or two in a DeRozan trade. Could they sneak a draft pick out of teams for the outside shooting that Mills and Belinelli bring to the table? Subsequently, Bryn Forbes, Derrick White, and Dejounte Murray could take the next step with bigger roles in the offense.
However, the odds of them having the chance to do so are slim to none. Popovich, R.C. Buford, and friends are always looking to contend and will continue to do so as long as Popovich is present — regardless of the likelihood that they lose to a superior team in the playoffs.
When you have a head coach who’s taking his career year by year and has made the playoffs in 22 consecutive seasons, the organization isn’t going to just part ways; they’re riding the head coach out to the end, attempting to put a competitive product on the floor on a nightly basis.
Popovich is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. His coaching style, which is headlined by holding players accountable on both ends of the floor and generating ball movement, won five NBA championships. Those coaching principles can still win in the modern-day game. But this isn’t a Spurs team that scares anybody.
Time has expired with this group.
Now, that doesn’t mean they’re not a competitive bunch or that they can’t sneak into the playoffs, rather they’re going to do little more than as previously stated. Is it worth it to right the ship and play with more consistency just to get swept or lose in five games in the first round of the playoffs?
The Spurs are a prideful organization. They stick to their guns, keep familiar faces in the facility, and it wins games. Embracing a rebuild or semi-rebuilding project is unconventional for them.
If the Spurs began trading their veterans, why would Popovich want to keep coaching? His old-school core has retired, he’s already nearing retirement, and why would he prolong his career to run a rebuilding team?
At the same time, a rebuild is what’s best for the organization. It doesn’t ensure a playoff appearance or them contending in the West in 2021, but it’s a process that would begin to replenish their roster. Individuals such as Forbes, White, and Murray already have playoff experience under their belts and should be able to carry the scoring load.
But the Spurs aren’t a trend. They’re loyal, stubborn in their own right, and won’t dog-it with Popovich. Unfortunately, it’s a set of circumstances that could have the Spurs grinding for an eight seed at a high cost for the ensuing seasons.
When you’re a contender, you can take chances, swinging for the fences with bold transactions. When you’re a team at the bottom of your respective conference, you can build through the NBA Draft and restricted free agency. Having an aging roster that’s meddling in mediocrity like the Spurs is a death blow.
In the short-term, Popovich is what’s best for the Spurs. Long-term? His continued presence blocks a much-needed rebuild.