Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re at least partially aware of the weird year the San Antonio Spurs had. Their regular season was un-Spurs like. They “only” won 47 games this year before bowing out gracefully to the eventual champs. Breaking their gargantuan 50-win season streak counts as an upset of its own.
There were bright spots, of course. LaMarcus Aldridge slapped up a nice “Don’t forget about me” campaign. Dejounte Murray made a mini-leap, and emerged as one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders. Kyle Anderson grew his stock as a funky two-way wing, and Bryn Forbes was the classic “who the HECK is that” guy that proved to be a serviceable bench piece.
Sadly, all of that was overshadowed by the absence of Kawhi Leonard, who never recovered from Agent Zaza taking him out during the 2017 postseason.
Leonard only appeared in nine games this season before ultimately being shut down — or shutting himself down. The fuzziness around the extent of his injury, as well as the who’s and where’s of his rehab process cast a cloud of confusion inside and out of the organization.
Frustration settled in from the Spurs side. Head coach Gregg Popovich took thinly veiled shots at Leonard’s camp; Tony Parker went full-blown “ha, could NOT be me” in regards to the actual injury. Even a guy as Kawhiet (deal with it) as Leonard can only take so much shade before being turned off.
It appears that point has been reached, with reports of a trade demand dropping this week.
Popovich has and will continue to try reconciling the relationship, but it appears like things have gone too far. Trade calls have reportedly started coming in, and a preferred destination — Los Angeles — has emerged. Of course, that shouldn’t completely dissuade teams from trying; Kyrie Irving reportedly had a multi-team list that didn’t include the team he was actually traded to. Within that framework, the Kawhi Sweepstakes are pretty wide open.
Still, the leaderboard is the leaderboard. The Lakers and Clippers have a leg up in discussions if they choose to do the work early. The Sixers and Celtics have an intriguing mix of win-now young guys and draft capital to toss in. One team that has gone a little under-the-radar is the Sacramento Kings.
On the surface, it’s easy to see why: they’re the freaking Kings. They’re years away from contending, ownership remains a mess, and, well they’re the freaking Kings. What makes them intriguing is their reported willingness to include the second overall pick in this year’s draft.
Objectively, they absolutely shouldn’t do that. While Kawhi would easily be their best player, and their first star with any semblance of a winning pedigree since Chris Webber (and even that requires some stretching), they’d be making a huge risk. The odds are pretty high that Kawhi would just leave next summer, meaning the Kings would’ve given up a high-end prospect with at least seven years of control for a rental that might not even push them into the playoffs, much less contention.
But let’s say a package around the second pick is on the table. Should the Spurs take that over the other packages available, like a possible Godfather offer from the Celtics? I’d argue that they should, only because a potential generational talent is expected to fall right into their laps. Assuming Arizona big man DeAndre Ayton is taken by the Phoenix Suns, Euro wunderkind Luka Doncic would be the perfect player for the Spurs to give the torch to.
Think about the Spursian ethos. The organization cherishes players that values winning over self. Basketball know-how trumps fancy highlights. Versatility and adaptability are key. Through that lens, Doncic fits San Antonio like a glove.
Doncic has done nothing but win since starting his professional career as a teenager. You would need a scroll to list all of his accomplishments to this point. The most notable ones include:
- EuroLeague MVP (2018)
- EuroLeague Final Four MVP (2018)
- All-EuroLeague First Team (2018)
- 2× EuroLeague Rising Star (2017, 2018)
- Spanish League MVP: (2018)
- 2× Spanish League Best Young Player (2017, 2018)
- 3× Spanish League All-Young Players Team (2016, 2017, 2018)
- FIBA EuroBasket Gold Medal with Slovenia (2017)
That just spans over the last year and a half. Once you get into the under-13, under-14, and under-18 tournaments he’s dominated, you’re looking at the most accomplished international prospect ever.
It’s easy to see why Popovich would love a player as accomplished as Doncic. The learning curve for what it takes to win is much lower for Doncic than it is for other prospects. He would have to adjust to the speed and physicality of the NBA game, but it’s hard to envision a scenario where Doncic would be overwhelmed.
Popovich already has experience dealing with accomplished international talent. Both Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were thrown into the fire early in their careers with Pop having to adjust to their unique strengths and weaknesses.
Parker was a speedster with bravado, but it took time for the game to slow down for him — the lack of a jumper didn’t make matters easier. Parker eventually grew into his own and had a stretch as the NBA’s most dangerous point guard inside of 18 feet. He grew as a pick-and-roll maestro, eventually using the threat of a suddenly-reliable mid-range jumper to enhance his skills as a driver.
Manu Ginobili came into the league seeing the game two, sometimes three frames ahead. Ginobili’s basketball IQ and vision were a godsend for Pop, though the risks he took as a passer frustrated him.
Pop was able to find a balance between reigning Ginobili in within the system, but also giving him the freedom to try things that only he could see. That give-and-take ultimately helped Ginobili grow into one of the most dangerous offensive threats in the league.
If we’re rolling with an easy Spurs comparison, Doncic is a lot more Ginobili than Parker. Doncic will be one of the NBA’s best passers the second he steps on a court. He possesses a craftiness in pick-and-roll well beyond his years. His 6-foot-8 frame allows to see and pass into windows that most point guards just can’t. His slithery handle and propensity to probe gives off vibes of Ginobili and James Harden.
That unique blend of size, vision, and craftiness allows him to make plays like this look routine.
— Sebastian Komianos (@sebfromthecourt) June 13, 2018
Pay attention to his pace on that possession. He waits half a beat to make sure his defender gets screen. He probes to the left to suck in the big defender, but also to freeze the defender in the corner. Once he recognizes that the corner defender is ball watching (and debating internally if he needs to “tag” the roller or not), he flings a cross-body pass to the corner for a three. That isn’t an easy play to make, but he created something out of thin air with relative ease.
That craftiness extends to shot creation as well. Doncic doesn’t possess upper-tier explosiveness, but his ability to decelerate — like Harden or Ginobili — allows him to throw defenders off balance.
Just ask former NBA forward Victor Claver:
Source: PHI, PNX, LAC, ORL, DAL, NOLA, WAS and more, were in Madrid to witness Luka Doncic cross the life out of ex-POR forward Victor Claver. NBA official: "This kid has the package, bro. He's special. Don’t pass on him." pic.twitter.com/sbeYQPRAe1
— David Pick (@IAmDPick) December 15, 2017
Claver is clearly playing for the drive on that possession. Doncic uses that against him by stopping on a dime as if he’s going to take the stepback. Once Claver steps up in anticipation of the shot, Doncic hits him with the okie doke. This entire sequence is rude; it’s like dribbling against a three-year old that falls for literally every fake because they’re running towards the ball with their arms open.
Parker, with his explosiveness, had to learn that kind of craft. Ginobili entered the league with it, but had to be reigned in some. Doncic is the high school genius that has tested out of entry level and advanced classes. In the event that the Spurs were able to land him, he’d be able to slide right into the starting lineup.
The offense would likely flow through Aldridge much it did this year, but Doncic would immediately become the primary initiator. Murray isn’t that guy, and may never be. There’s no telling if Parker or Ginobili will be back next season; if they are, it’d be in a limited capacity.
The Aldridge-Doncic duo could be an interesting one. In a way, they’re perfect for each other. Aldridge’s ability to shoot off the pop could open up driving lanes for Doncic; his ability to score from the mid or low post should allow Doncic to flow off ball. Doncic’s ability to probe in pick-and-roll and create angles could open up easy rolling opportunities for Aldridge. To that point, he’d have someone on the perimeter that could consistently create open looks for him — an element he (and the Spurs) desperately missed last season.
Of course, this is just how Doncic could fit in right now. The scary thing is that he’s just 19-years-old with plenty of upside.
Doncic has a frame that could stand to add more muscle — adding strength should help him as a driver, and enhance his versatility defensively. His three-point shooting percentages probably undersell him at this point; he has an easy-to-replicate shooting form and great touch. More reps, plus working with well-regarded shooting coach Chip Engalland, could take his game to another level.
There’s a realistic path to Doncic becoming something like a 21-6-9 guy in San Antonio — and quickly — if things break right for him. He appears to be a perfect fit for Popovich in terms of IQ and ability, the rare rookie that’s ready to contribute to winning basketball right off the bat.
The Spurs would obviously prefer to work things out with Kawhi, but if that falls through, the chance to take Doncic is too much to pass up.