Tim Duncan retired two years ago. It was an event marked for its importance in Spurs and NBA history. Yet, only now are the San Antonio Spurs and the basketball world coming to grips with its significance. The Spurs’ way, as we have come to know it, retired with Tim Duncan.
After a 116-112 loss to the Los Angles Lakers over the weekend, the Spurs are reeling. San Antonio has lost eight of its past 10 games. To continue adding to its record-setting 18 straight 50-win seasons, the Spurs must win 14 of 19 remaining games.
With 15 games against teams competing for a playoff spot, including two each against the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, that seems unlikely.
With only three games separating the third-seed Portland Trail Blazers from the Los Angeles Clippers, who are currently out of the playoffs entirely, it’s fair to worry about the Spurs playoff hopes.
LaMarcus Aldridge wanted out last summer. Kawhi Leonard doesn’t speak often, but what others say for or about him could scream volumes. Even the Rodeo Road Trip, the mythical time for the Spurs to come together, was met with uneven play.
For almost two decades, consistency has been the Spurs’ armor. For the first time since Duncan’s brief flirtation with free agency, that armor is showing cracks.
From the San Antonio Express-News’ Jeff McDonald, on the Spurs dropping to the seventh seed after losing to the Lakers:
“Halfway through the season, we were aiming for the third spot,” Manu Ginobili said. “Now we are aiming for the playoffs. A lot of things changed.”
The Kawhi Leonard conundrum
Injuries happened over the course of Duncan’s tenure, but rarely were they constant. For all the talk of rest, Duncan and the Spurs have been remarkably durable. And even when pain required rest, Duncan’s ever-stable presence provided organizational structure. Even in his absence, his way—the Spurs’ way—was carried out by his two generals while he watched from the bench.
Now, San Antonio’s North Star is gone. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili still guide, but their light has long since dimmed.
Last season’s Spurs’ team was a one-star system that revolved around Kawhi Leonard, with LaMarcus Aldridge balancing out the gravity to keep the tides in check.
The Spurs’ MVP has only played nine games this season due to quadriceps tendinopathy.
Good fortune had every bit as much to do as rest and injury management for the Spurs’ run of relatively good health. It’d be foolish to expect to dodge season-altering injuries forever.
But even within the things, the Spurs can control, things are different. A rift has been reported between Leonard and San Antonio. The size and scope of it are up for speculation, but something is certainly amiss.
Kawhi Leonard spent time away from the team rehabbing on his own. And on a recent podcast from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Wojnarowski used terms like, “private frustration.”
“It was described to me by people who know (coach) Pop very well that they felt he was speaking to an audience of one — that he was speaking directly to Kawhi,” Wojnarowski said.
“It has been a private frustration (in San Antonio),” Wojnarowski continued. “I thought it was the first day that you could see it. If (Kawhi) doesn’t come back and play this year — or if he comes back in a very limited way — he’ll be a year away from free agency, and I think his future is going to have to be addressed there.”
“I think the question people are wondering is: Does he want to be there? Does he want to play there?” Wojnarowski noted.
This is all new territory for the Spurs, who’ve rarely had players’ “camps,” have to refute rumors. Even high-profile stalled shoe contract negotiations reflect something San Antonio rarely had to deal with around Duncan.
According to Michael C. Wright and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:
“Jordan Brand, and Leonard’s representatives came “very close” to completion on a new four-year extension worth more than $20 million. But discussions broke down abruptly because representatives for Leonard didn’t feel that the new deal reflected the forward’s accomplishments and standing within the league, sources said.”
Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have never had to publicly worry about players, or players’ camps, worried about their standing within the league. None of this suggests a character flaw or glaring emergency. Just a sharp contrast with how fortunate and surreal the Spurs existence has been until now.
The Spurs’ diminished system
Think of the Spurs as a solar system. The sudden disappearance of the Earth’s star wouldn’t be immediately noticeable. (It’d take roughly eight minutes for the last of the sun’s light to reach us). The planets in San Antonio’s system never skip a beat, orbiting regardles of the stars surrounding it.
And even when the sunlight left, there’d be enough resources on our planet to carry on for a certain amount of time.
For most of the season, there seemed to be very little discernible difference in the Spurs. Even now, San Antonio remains second in the NBA in defensive rating, per NBA.com. And its net rating is still a healthy 3.1, good for fifth.
It wasn’t until recently the Spurs dropped off their 50-win pace.
But eventually, without a star, all the pieces will begin to drift out of orbit. The patterns and consistency that make life sustainable fall apart.
In the past, San Antonio thrived for short stretches with no star players based off the execution. Years of playing together provided what Popovich referred to as corporate knowledge. These ties that bound the Spurs’ role players have either lost their elasticity with old age or have yet to be established with youth.
Earlier this season, the Spurs handed the starting point guard position to Dejounte Murray. Tony Parker might not be a quality starter anymore, but he still possessed the entirety of the Spurs’ playbook in his muscle memory.
To accommodate Murray, Popovich has moved Patty Mills into the starting lineup for Danny Green. Mills provides a more versatile shot than Green, capable of pulling off the dribble and at a full sprint. He’s also a more adept ball handler. All of which helps to create passing and driving lanes Murray isn’t adept at creating, yet.
They’ve also had to move Davis Bertans in and out of the starting lineups while addressing ailments to LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol.
All of these moving pieces are still capable of competing against most teams. But the muscle memory required to execute still falls apart when stressed. On both ends of the court.
Over the past 10 games, the Spurs are second-to-last in Net Rating in clutch situations, per NBA.com, with a -62.4 rating in six games with clutch situations.
Once taken for granted, things like rebounding a missed free throw, or running clock when numbers aren’t immediately available, no longer are.
“Night in and night out, we could count on Tony to get a layup or Manu or Timmy to execute a play—without even having to call it,” guard Danny Green said. “Now we have to draw up plays and explain it to (players) and see how well they can execute it. … It’s very different. The old Spurs that we used to be (are) not here anymore.”
The Spurs’ way is dead, long live the Spurs’ way
Tim Duncan was one of the 10 greatest players to ever walk the Earth. His leadership—the ability to set a flourishing culture—was even better.
Nothing is scarier than working in the dark. It can take a while for one to reorient themselves after losing a landmark.
But none of this is damning. The constellations are different, but the knowledge of how to navigate using stars is still viable.
Without Kawhi Leonard or LaMarcus Aldridge, it’s not just possible for the Spurs to miss the playoffs…it’s likely. But these aren’t flaws in the design. San Antonio’s secret was never surviving without their best payers, it was that their best players were rarely out.
The likes of Mills, Green, Gasol, or Kyle Anderson aren’t bad players. But they are limited and suited to specific roles. They can function outside of those roles with great effort, but only for a limited amount of time before fatigue or better scouting reports kick in.
If Leonard and Aldridge return, there’s still enough corporate knowledge remaining for the team to make a run. This is a roster that won more than 60 games in each of the past two seasons with a Western Conference Finals trip last year.
And if they don’t, the Spurs have an amazing track record when it comes to adding lottery picks to already established teams.
If the rift between Leonard and the Spurs is real, there isn’t a front office you’d trust more to repair it—as they did with Aldridge.
Tim Duncan is gone. For the first time, the ramifications of what that means have bubbled to the surface. But the lessons of those years still exist—the ability to adapt without overreacting.
There’s always been adaptability within the Spurs’ consistency.
Even if the Spurs way is gone as we knew it, few places have better infrastructure to forge a new one.