The San Antonio Spurs’ season is finally over and they have to feel a sense of relief about it. After keeping their playoff streak alive and avoiding a sweep, there was nothing more this team could accomplish in the postseason.
Lowered expectations were the only upside to Kawhi Leonard’s injury. Even early in the year it was clear without him, San Antonio was not special. The Spurs had a four-game losing streak in November, with three of those coming on the road and the other against the Golden State Warriors.
That was the first sign they simply couldn’t win away from the AT&T Center or against elite teams without Kawhi. They finished with the worst road record out of all playoff teams and more losses than wins against teams over .500.
At the time, however, it all seemed like a blip in what would be a successful season once Leonard returned. The superstar wing missed preseason, then the first two months of the season. When he made his debut in December, San Antonio was supposed to go back to being a dominant squad with a contender’s ceiling. The illusion lasted only nine games. Leonard was shut down at his request to continue to rehab his injury. Despite some reports about an imminent return, he never played again for the season.
The absence of a star creates problems elsewhere. To make matters worse, Leonard’s natural replacement, Rudy Gay, also got hurt. Patty Mills, already filling in for an injured Tony Parker to start the year, was not suited for the bigger role he received. His efficiency faltered. The Spurs had to experiment with three-guard lineups featuring rookies or untested players and give minutes to Joffrey Lauvergne. No matter what Gregg Popovich tried, they simply couldn’t replace Leonard’s two-way play. When he was finally forced to pick between offense-only guys or defensive specialists who couldn’t shoot, Pop picked the latter.
It was the right decision. The Spurs chugged along and managed to stay third in the West for a long stretch thanks to their defense, before the offense completely fell apart. They barely eclipsed mediocrity after the All-Star break but they had done enough before it that they could have finished with the fourth seed had a few close games gone differently. Alas, the same issues they had early against good teams and on the road haunted them. A couple of tough losses in Los Angeles and one on the last day of their season in New Orleans sentenced them to a meeting with the Warriors, and an early exit.
The result, a 4-1 gentleman’s sweep, is dignified enough. But despite giving it their all, the Spurs’ flaws were exposed.
Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson were ignored off the ball and didn’t have the off-the-bounce juice to make up for it. Golden State left them and other non-scoring threats open to shut down Lamarcus Aldridge. It worked. The Spurs simply didn’t have shooters who could make the defense pay while holding their own at the other end.
While defensively they did well, at times it was painful to watch San Antonio trying to score on a series of pick and rolls and isolations that went nowhere.
A rough season had a predictably bad ending. It’s hard to find silver linings on a first-round exit for a team that was hoping for a deeper run coming in. Yet it was not all bad. As the Spurs head into a crucial offseason, there are a few bright spots that shouldn’t be overlooked.
LaMarcus Aldridge, he of the anachronistic big-man game, regained his All-Star level. After clearing the air with Gregg Popovich, Aldridge went back to being a reliable offensive hub. The post and the in-between area are inefficient spots for most players, but not for the Spurs’ fulcrum. Aldridge hit enough pick and pops, fadeaways and jump hooks to reclaim his place among the league’s elite. He never played better defense. His renaissance validated the front office, which extended his contract after convincing him to not seek a trade. At the time, the decision seemed inexplicably misguided. Now, it seems prescient.
The “next man up” mentality Gregg Popovich fosters was on full display all season. Kyle Anderson still can’t make a shot, but he emerged as a reliable defender in big minutes. So did Dejounte Murray, who also had enough special moments to continue to boast tantalizing upside.
Once he got in shape, Rudy Gay got to show he can still be a featured offensive option. Manu Ginobili proved he can still be a net positive in the aggregate and a difference-maker on any given night, even at age 40. As a team, the Spurs managed to remain elite defensively through discipline and effort. Those were all undoubtedly positive developments.
It’s hard to call this past season either a resounding success or an abject failure. Recovering Aldridge and developing Murray count as wins. Finding out just how dependent the team is on Leonard was disheartening, especially considering his absence could become permanent.
The rumors about a rift between the front office and Kawhi Leonard are impossible to brush aside at this point. If Leonard wants out, this is the summer in which he’ll make his move. He only has one season left on his deal before he can opt out, which gives him plenty of leverage to land wherever he wants. The Spurs can still offer significantly more money than anyone else on an extension, however.
If the relationship is salvageable, it’s hard to see either party moving on without attempting a mutually beneficial reconciliation. We’ll know just how serious the issues between Leonard and the Spurs are by the course the negotiations take. A split doesn’t feel inevitable but it does feel possible.
While Leonard is undoubtedly the biggest story of the offseason, he’s far from the only core player who could be leaving. Manu Ginobili is contemplating retirement. Rudy Gay and Danny Green can opt out of their deals and become unrestricted free agents. Kyle Anderson and Davis Bertans will become restricted free agents, but it’s unclear if the Spurs see either as a long-term contributor at the forward spots. Tony Parker’s contract is up and, while it’s almost impossible to imagine him signing elsewhere, San Antonio might not be able to guarantee him minutes if Murray and Patty Mills are around.
Change is clearly in the horizon. Whether Leonard stays or goes, San Antonio will be a different team next season, which is a good thing. This was always supposed to be a transitional year anyway. The injury made it almost irrelevant, as we never got to see how the real Spurs were supposed to look. Maybe a healthy Leonard wouldn’t have elevated the team to contender status anyway, prompting similar concerns about the viability of the current core.
The offseason should bring clarity as to the front office’s thinking. Everything should be on the table in what will be the most important summer for the franchise in almost two decades. Will the Spurs embark on a full rebuilding effort or just reload? The league will be waiting with bated breath for the answer to that question. For once, all eyes will be in San Antonio not on April or May, but on July.