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The Spurs Have Lost What Made Them Special

San Antonio has remained competitive with DeMar DeRozan in Kawhi Leonard’s place, much to Gregg Popovich’s delight. But a dated style of play and a dearth of young talent have raised serious doubts about the future of one of the NBA’s model franchises.

Derrick White, Jakob Poeltl, and DeMar DeRozan Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Spurs are starting over this season. Gregg Popovich, in his 23rd season as the head coach, is one of the few familiar faces left. Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili are gone. A new cast of characters in San Antonio is trying to figure out its place in an ever-changing league. After a quick start, the Spurs have fallen out of the top eight in the Western Conference, with an 8–8 record and a net rating of minus-0.7. There may no longer be anything special about an organization that was once the model for the entire NBA.

San Antonio still has plenty of talent. Its top two players (DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge) have 10 All-Star appearances between them. Aldridge carried them to the playoffs nearly single-handedly last season, while DeRozan, the centerpiece of the trade that sent Kawhi to Toronto, helped lead the Raptors to a franchise-record 59 wins.

Popovich, one of the last head coaches in the NBA with significant personnel authority, wanted a star in his prime in return for Leonard, not younger players and draft picks. It’s hard to sell a 69-year-old on a rebuild; he might not be there by the end. So far, DeRozan has been everything the Spurs could have wanted. DeRozan was supposed to share a backcourt with Dejounte Murray, but he began playing as more of a point forward after Murray tore his ACL in preseason. The 29-year-old has thrived in his new role, averaging 24.9 points per game, as well as career highs in rebounds (6.3), assists (6.4), and true shooting percentage (55.6). DeRozan is still more comfortable hunting for his shot than running the offense, but he knows how to draw defensive attention and find the open man.

Aldridge has not lived up to his end of the bargain. The Spurs are 2–6 over the past week and a half, and their star big man is averaging 13.5 points on 36.5 percent shooting and 1.3 assists per game in that span, dropping his field goal percentage this season (41.5) to the lowest mark of his career. It would be easy to blame Aldridge’s struggles on the lack of playmaking around him, but his game is built on making tough one-on-one shots. They are just not falling right now. Aldridge has gone from being in the 80th percentile of post scorers leaguewide last season to the 40th percentile this season.

Aldridge should bounce back at some point. He’s 33, but players with his size (6-foot-11 and 260 pounds) and shooting ability can play at a high level deep into their 30s. One concession to age that could help him is expanding his game out to the 3-point line, a move that has done wonders for Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez. Aldridge, who is more mobile than either, could be deadly attacking closeouts. The game is called tighter on the perimeter, and he would benefit from keeping defenders off his body for stretches of time.

It’s not just Aldridge. None of the Spurs take enough 3s. They are 29th in the league in 3-point attempts per game (24.8) despite being fourth in 3-point percentage (38.3) and last in 2-point percentage (45.2). The issue is systemic. Aldridge, DeRozan, and Rudy Gay each steadily raised their number of 3-point attempts before coming to San Antonio and are each averaging fewer there this season. Instead of encouraging them to continue to evolve, Popovich has allowed them to indulge some of their worst habits when it comes to shot selection.

The Spurs are a bizarro-world version of the Rockets. Both teams run isolation-heavy offenses built around two primary scorers, which limits their turnovers and keeps the game in the half court. But there’s an underlying philosophical difference that creates dramatically different outcomes from the same basic formula. The Rockets take as many 3s as possible and avoid long 2s at all costs; the Spurs do the exact opposite. James Harden and Chris Paul average 17.3 3s per game and 4.5 long 2s (shots between 10 feet and the 3-point line); DeRozan and Aldridge average 2.2 3s and 16.3 long 2s.

The Spurs can beat the percentages on a given night, but the math is hard to overcome over a longer period of time. They have no margin for error. They have to run incredibly crisp offensive sets to even have a chance at scoring as efficiently as teams that play four and five 3-point shooters at a time. It’s a dramatic reversal for a franchise that pioneered the corner 3, allowing players to consistently generate higher-percentage shots than their opponents. The Spurs were counting cards when their run began at the turn of the century. Now they are trying to beat the house with the deck stacked against them.

The biggest change this season is that their defense is no longer good enough to make up the difference. The Spurs had a perennial top-five defense with Kawhi, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who could lock up the primary perimeter scorer on the opposing team and plug up any holes on that side of the ball. DeRozan and Aldridge have never been elite two-way players, and there’s not a lot of defensive-minded personnel around them. It’s the inverse of their issues on offense, where they have the personnel but not the scheme. The Spurs don’t have much athleticism up front or size on the perimeter.

Defense is where they really miss Murray. One of the biggest (6-foot-5 and 170 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan) and most athletic point guards in the NBA, he kept them afloat without Kawhi last season. In Murray’s 1,743 minutes on the floor, the Spurs’ defensive rating was 98.0, which would have been by far the lowest rating in the league over the entire season; in his 2,203 minutes off the floor, it fell to 105.1. Without Murray this season, their defensive rating (109.4) ranks 21st overall. The lack of an elite defense has forced San Antonio to win a lot of shootouts without shooting a lot of 3s, a circle even Popovich has a hard time squaring.

Murray’s absence has exposed the underlying reason for the Spurs’ decline: They no longer develop young talent well. It’s hard to find quality players in the bottom half of the first round, but that used to be the secret sauce in San Antonio. They drafted Ginobili at no. 57 in 1999 and Parker at no. 28 overall in 2001. They traded George Hill, whom they drafted at no. 26 in 2008, for the rights to Leonard, the no. 15 pick in 2011. Other than Murray, though, their pipeline has dried up. Lonnie Walker IV, the no. 18 overall pick in this year’s draft, has been out all season with a torn meniscus, but it would have been hard to expect much from a 19-year-old in his rookie season, regardless. Their only starter who came up through their organization is shooting specialist Bryn Forbes, an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State.

Most of their first-round picks over the past decade are gone. They either left in free agency (Kyle Anderson, Cory Joseph), never came over from Europe (Nikola Milutinov), or washed out of the league (Livio Jean-Charles, James Anderson). The Spurs have stayed afloat with free agents instead of young players, and building a team through free agency means squeezing value out of older guys like Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter whom other teams don’t want. San Antonio has been zigging when everyone else is zagging, but it’s not because the Spurs know something others don’t. They haven’t had a choice.

The result is a roster painfully short on players who can make an impact on both sides of the ball. Gay is the closest thing they have to one: Their net rating goes from plus-6.3 in his 326 minutes on the floor to minus-6.5 in his 452 minutes off. And it’s unclear how much they can lean on a 32-year-old in his 13th season in the league who tore his Achilles two seasons ago. Gay recently missed four games with a lingering heel injury.

The Spurs need an injection of youth to prevent them from running Aldridge, DeRozan, and Gay into the ground. DeRozan is currently no. 2 in the league in minutes per game (36.8) and Aldridge is tied for no. 12 (35.1). They don’t have too many options without Murray and Walker. The two most likely candidates are Derrick White, the no. 29 overall pick in last year’s draft, and Jakob Poeltl, a skilled 7-footer drafted no. 9 overall in 2016 who came over in the Kawhi trade.

White, who spent most of his rookie season in the G League, is still trying to find a rhythm after missing the first nine games with a torn ligament in his left heel. His skill set could fill some of the holes on their roster. San Antonio needs Forbes and Patty Mills to space the floor, but their lack of size is a huge issue on defense. White, at 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, can match up with players at either guard position, and he was a knockdown 3-point shooter (39.6 percent on 4.2 attempts per game) who could play on or off the ball in his final season of college at Colorado.

Poeltl is an even bigger question mark. He began the season in the starting lineup before falling out of favor with Popovich. He’s looked worse than he did in Toronto, where he was surrounded by athletic 3-and-D players who masked some of his flaws. Poeltl is an excellent finisher in the pick-and-roll and sound positional defender who can score out of the post and make plays for his teammates. The problem is that he can’t play on the perimeter on either end of the floor: He’s a limited athlete who doesn’t shoot 3s. Big men with his skill set need to stretch the floor to survive in this era of the NBA, but he may never develop a 3-point shot playing in an organization that doesn’t value it.

The Spurs need either a philosophical change or a youth movement, but they may not get one without the other. The players coming into the league now weren’t even alive when Popovich took over all the way back in 1996, and the sport has changed dramatically over the past two decades. The hardest part about staying on top for that long isn’t drafting low every year, it’s remaining innovative when you don’t have to. The Spurs have enough veteran talent to stay afloat, but they no longer seem to have much of a direction. Treading water may be all they can hope for.