Tim Duncan retired following the 2016 playoffs, strolling off the floor unceremoniously with the rest of his team after the final seconds of the fourth quarter elapsed, the Spurs eliminated by OKC in the second round that post-season. Duncan's exit, as low key as it was, signalled big changes coming in San Antonio, and with the departures of Kawhi Leonard (traded), Tony Parker (left in free agency), Manu Ginóbili (retired), and Danny Green (traded), the 2018 off-season delivered them up. Greg Popovich is the last man standing in the era of basketball excellence he helped create, now tasked with the challenge of using the final seasons of his NBA coaching career to steer the Spurs towards a new era.
Duncan's retirement sounded bells for the end of the team's current era, and the departures of Parker and Manu amplified them further, but it will be the retirement of Coach Pop -- which may come after coaching Team USA at the 2020 Olympics, optimistically -- that will mark the beginning of a new one. The Spurs are currently executing a tricky and crucial transition, made exponentially trickier after Kawhi Leonard's relationship with the team disintegrated while nursing a slow-to-heal quadriceps injury, prompting him to bolt for the door. Following a season of unwelcome media drama surrounding Leonard and the Spurs, apparently concerning how his injury had been managed, the Spurs reluctantly traded the two-time Defensive Player of the Year to the Raptors this July. Kawhi Leonard was the transition -- or at least, its cornerstone -- the Spurs planned to supersede the Big Three of Duncan, Parker, and Ginóbili; instead, his departure almost exactly coincides with theirs.
Yet as the dust settles on the 2018 off-season, and the jolt of losing both Kawhi and both remaining Big Three members subsides, what comes into view is a still-highly-talented Spurs team, captained by Popovich, recharged with current first team All-Star DeMar DeRozan, free from its recent dramas and distractions, staffed by the best front-office in the league, and capable of immediately competing with elite Western Conference teams. For a team that just had the rug pulled from under it, it is standing remarkably tall. And given that Leonard played only a few games last season, and Parker and Ginóbili were playing off the bench with increasingly restricted minutes, the Spurs are in fact a clearly improved team in the 2018/19 season. This kind of preternatural ability to remain upright and maintain their excellence is what we have come to expect from the organisation, but it is exceptional.
DeMar DeRozan's arrival adds an air of excitement. Combined with LaMarcus Aldridge, fresh from a powerhouse season where he delivered the kind of dominance and output fans have hoped for since he arrived three seasons ago, the Spurs have a slick pair of All-Stars performing at-or-near their peaks. Both deadly at mid-range, though Aldridge scores closer to the post, and DeRozan often further back and usually off the dribble, we can expect to continue to see a distinct brand of basketball from the Spurs -- always zigging while the league zags, goes the refrain -- in a league obsessed with scoring the three ball. It will be interesting to see how Popovich (who, since its inception, has held a personal disdain for the three-point shot, despite incorporating it into the Spurs game) makes use of this super concentrated yet versatile scoring efficiency inside the arc.
Dejounte Murray, a young and rapidly improving talent who took over from Tony Parker as starting point guard last season, adds athleticism, energy, and some much-needed defensive presence. Spurs fans have a lot of faith in their point guard's future, and are eager to see what further leaps forward Murray can make this season, seeing in him the makings of an elite defensive guard and potential future All-Star. This nucleus -- Murray, DeRozan, Aldridge -- will form the core of the 2018/19 Spurs, with Rudy Gay (who looked good when healthy last season) likely starting at small forward, and veteran Gasol / newcomer Poeltl (who came over from Toronto as part of the DeRozan trade, and many consider a valuable addition) rotating at the five spot, which Aldridge also plays in small lineups. A solid bench that can contribute both youthful energy (Lonnie Walker IV, Derrick White) or veteran smarts (Dante Cunningham, Marco Bellineli) supports the core group.
Fittingly for the Spurs, an organisation who prides themselves on humility, work ethic, and team basketball, there is something that feels both highly functional and deceptively talented about their lineup. The Popovich-led Spurs have always possessed the qualities of a particular strain of NBA franchise, amongst which in recent years you might include Raptors or Jazz squads. Teams that are happy to spread responsibilities on the court and focus on the system, fly under the radar and quietly set themselves up to punch above their weight, and put together impressive winning records. But now, without household names or generational talent everything must be thought around, these qualities will be clearer than ever. It could be the perfect kind of squad for Pop to shape in the last phase of his coaching career. The Spurs has in effect, and by necessity, moved even further towards its natural sporting habitat -- the one that veers away from the individual, and towards the team and system they play inside.
DeRozan, who was loyal and committed to Toronto, and initially incensed on hearing he had been traded to San Antonio, appears to have the mindset of a great Spur. He has shown loyalty and appreciation to a good organisation, city, and fans, above a focus on self. On the court, he plays an efficient, effective, unspectacular flavour of basketball. The Spurs look like they have, once again, made an astute choice in who they trade for. Add to that Aldridge, who carried a depleted and injury-stricken team for long stretches last season, finally looking comfortable playing a major, dominant role with the Spurs, and Murray, who appears energised in the off-season, publicly declaring his intent to set the defensive energy and tone for the team going forward, and you have the makings of a super talented core that could stick together like glue.
As for downsides following the recent changes, one obvious thing the Spurs will be missing this season is the towering defensive ability they had with Kawhi and players like Danny Green or Kyle Anderson on the floor. DeRozan is a middling to below-average defender, and while Murray has shown rapid defensive improvements in his first two NBA seasons, relative lack of experience limits the impact he can be expected to make to compensate for the loss of elite, veteran, lock-down defenders.
Zooming out from the abilities of individuals on the roster, defensive awareness will also be sharpened by Popovich's coaching. Surprisingly, with Kawhi sitting out, the Spurs still managed to rank fourth in the league for defensive efficiency last season. In concert with the natural defensive abilities of players, a bump in defensive aptitude can be imparted by the Spurs system and coaching staff, it would seem. Popovich has mentioned defence as a concern during interviews this off-season, and with Murray's recent comment about wanting to set the tone defensively, it's clear the Spurs don't intend to drop that ball. They will lack the defensive acumen of previous seasons, to be sure, and that could put a ceiling on their immediate championship ambitions, but Popovich is likely to instil a defensive pride and knowledge into the new guys over the course of this season, setting them up to carry that mentality forward.
Assuming the core stays healthy, it seems clear the Spurs have the talent to improve on their 47-win record from last season, and break back into the 50-win+ realm they had maintained for the prior 18 consecutive seasons. They should make the playoffs handily, in my estimation placing somewhere around the 4-5 seed. On the high upside, they could even be a dark horse to reach the Western Conference Finals -- though that is probably expecting a lot. More than immediate championship prospects, though, it will be fascinating to see a refreshed and refocused Spurs take on something of a new shape this season. The pairing of Aldridge and DeRozan should result in some slick, efficient, winning basketball. And with a crop of new faces showing up at camp this summer, Coach Pop could take the franchise in subtly new directions, in preparation for the inevitable post-Pop era.