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There Is No Cavalry Coming for the Spurs

Life after Kawhi Leonard has been tough for San Antonio. They have been hit by the injury bug, fielded an uncharacteristically bad defense, and had to rely on role players to eat big minutes. Is mediocrity the new normal? Or can Coach Pop pull another rabbit out of the hat?

DeMar DeRozan and Gregg Popovich Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s a job, but it’s also basketball, and as basketball jobs go, working for the Spurs has traditionally been a pretty great gig. This season has been a bit different. A lot different, actually. At some point Patty Mills looked around and realized everything had changed and he was the last man left from a core group that enjoyed a lot of good times together.

Success has been harder to come by for the Spurs this season. After a recent blowout loss to the Rockets, Mills told reporters that “guys feel embarrassed and deflated” and that they should all “take pride” in playing for an organization that’s achieved so much. In the past, that role of speaking up and speaking out might have fallen to Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker. They’re gone now—just like Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, and so many other key components to the Spurs of yesteryear. And so Mills isn’t just a point guard anymore. He’s also a leader, a mouthpiece, and a team historian. As the longest-tenured Spur, he’s the only one on the current roster with the institutional knowledge to remind everyone how things are supposed to operate around there.

“It’s definitely challenged—I shouldn’t say challenged, but it’s definitely shown how much importance the leadership needs to be in times like this,” Mills said in Los Angeles last week after a loss to the Lakers. It took him a second to come over and talk to the assembled media. After showering, he sat, hunched over and shirtless, in front of his stall in the visitor’s locker room at Staples Center and stared at a print-out of the box score for a long while before finally dressing and giving us the high sign that he was ready for the debriefing.

Mills is a nice guy. Reporters love him because he’ll give you a straight answer and tell you what he really thinks. On that night, he sighed a few times, and it seemed pretty plain that the season was weighing on him. “Games that we’re losing by 30, if we can learn from those and put them in the bank for later in the season, that’s what it’s all about.”

As the schedule-making luck had it, the Spurs’ next game was at home against the Lakers. San Antonio was down 10 going into the fourth quarter, and it looked like a difficult season wasn’t going to get any easier. But then the Spurs exploded for 44 points in the final frame to upend the Lakers. Mills said it was “probably the first game and first win that everyone felt like it was fun, including the fans.” It was a staggering admission—that the first quarter or so of the season had been an unenjoyable slog for everyone in and around the organization—but it was also understandable. When the Spurs followed up that home Lakers win by beating the Jazz over the weekend, it was the first time they’d posted victories in consecutive games since late October/early November.

The absence of essential franchise figures like Ginobili, Parker, and especially Leonard hasn’t just robbed the Spurs of integral players, it’s altered their DNA. As a result, the Spurs have absorbed some brutal blows on defense, where they’ve long been one of the best in the NBA. (The Spurs have finished in the top five in defensive rating in each of the past six seasons. The last time they didn’t reach that mark was during the strike-shortened 2011-12 campaign, when they were 11th.) San Antonio has given up 135 or more points four times this season. Previously, that had happened only twice in the 23 seasons Gregg Popovich has been in charge. In a recent four-game stretch, the Spurs lost three of them by 30 or more courtesy of the Timberwolves, Rockets, and Jazz. It was the first time under Popovich that they had lost back-to-back games by that margin; before this season, they’d lost that badly only seven times during his tenure. The aforementioned loss to the Rockets—which led to Mills saying they were “embarrassed and deflated”—dropped the Spurs to 10-12 and left them as the second-worst team in the Western Conference. It was the first time in 22 years that the Spurs were that low in the conference standings that late in the season.

And yet, for all their adversity, the Spurs were only one game under .500 heading into Tuesday’s home tilt against the Suns. At 13-14, they were just two games behind the eighth seed in the Western Conference—and, even more remarkably, just five and a half games off the pace for the best record in the conference. They aren’t alone there. Other Western Conference playoff teams from last season, like the Jazz and Rockets, have also struggled. Meanwhile, teams like the Kings and Mavericks have performed better than expected. It’s created one big knot that might take time to untangle. As DeMar DeRozan said after that Lakers loss in L.A., the fact that everyone keeps “beating up on each other” in the West makes it harder for teams at the top to separate themselves from the pack, which allows teams like the Spurs to stay in the mix while trying to course-correct.

Still, it’s been disorienting that one of the most stable organizations in NBA history has needed this much time to find its equilibrium. The Spurs managed to win 47 games and make the playoffs last year despite not having Leonard for almost the entire season. DeMar isn’t nearly as good as Kawhi at either end of the floor—but at least DeRozan wants to play for them. Conventional wisdom held that an available DeRozan was better for the Spurs than an unavailable (and unwilling) Leonard, though outside observers still expected the team to take a slight step back. Oddsmakers put their over/under win total at 43.5 this season. FiveThirtyEight’s preseason prediction was less bullish and had the Spurs winning 37 games (with a 25 percent chance of making the playoffs). As of Tuesday, the site’s model had soured even more, forecasting 34 wins and just a 3 percent chance of reaching the postseason.

That is hard to fathom. For all the time we spend talking about the Warriors’ dominance, no team has been as good for as long as the Spurs. Golden State has had a losing season as recently as seven years ago. It’s been a lot longer since we could say that about San Antonio. The Spurs have had a winning record for 21 straight seasons. That’s the longest such streak in league history. The best the Lakers ever managed was 16 straight winning seasons between the late ’70s and early ’90s, while the Celtics put together 14 straight winning seasons twice, first between the mid-’50s and late ’60s, and then between the late ’70s and early ’90s.

The Spurs are used to winning, and not regularly doing so has required an adjustment. As LaMarcus Aldridge said after they beat the Jazz at home on Sunday, the Spurs have “had great games where we’ve played the right way” and “games where we laid an egg out there.”

“It’s a marathon,” Aldridge said.

It is. But this also represents the hardest race San Antonio has run in recent memory. For the first time in more than two decades, the Spurs have been in constant danger of falling off the pace and watching the pack leave them behind.

In late October, the Spurs beat the Lakers in Los Angeles in overtime. The game-winner came courtesy of Mills, who curled around Aldridge, took a handoff, and nailed a long 2-pointer.

It was a classic Spurs play. The only difference was who ran it. Mills said it was “a play we’ve run over and over”—only “usually with Tim, Tony, and Manu.”

Personnel has been an issue at times for the Spurs this season. They aren’t just missing one-name franchise legends. In addition to offloading Leonard and Danny Green in a trade to Toronto, and losing Kyle Anderson to the Grizzlies in free agency, the Spurs took a major hit when Dejounte Murray went down for the season after tearing his ACL in an early-October exhibition game. After a promising sophomore season a year ago, the Spurs had high expectations that Murray would take over at point guard for Parker and became the next homegrown talent for the organization to lean on. Popovich called the injury “devastating for the player and the team.”

Murray was being groomed for a reason, but how much he could have reasonably been expected to supercharge this team is debatable. The Spurs have always excelled at squeezing every ounce out of their players. They find late-round gems, then draft, develop, and empower them. They pluck guys from the G League or Europe, or refurbish other teams’ cast-offs. Roster building is their brand. But that is easier to do when the top-line talent is together for more than a decade. When that continuity evaporates, things get tougher. These Spurs are learning that—and their overarching health issues haven’t made a difficult lesson any easier.

Two days before Murray’s injury, the Spurs revealed that Lonnie Walker IV had a meniscus tear. After being out almost two months, the 18th overall pick in the 2018 draft has only recently returned to the court. Meanwhile, Derrick White missed the first nine games of the season with a plantar fascia tear, while Pau Gasol has missed the last 19 games with a stress fracture in his foot and remains out indefinitely. In Los Angeles last week, someone asked Popovich whether he allows himself to consider how different things might have been this season if not for all the injuries. I expected him to blow it off or deflect, but he admitted he’s thought about it.

“I mean, sure,” Popovich said. “It goes through your head. But not very often.” He said they’d keep monitoring Walker, who is rehabbing in the G League. But in the case of Murray, Popovich sounded more defeated. “Dejounte is not coming back,” he said. “He’s done for the year. It doesn’t do much good to think about that.”

As a byproduct of their roster limitations, the Spurs have relied pretty heavily on five guys. As of Tuesday, DeRozan was averaging nearly 36 minutes per game, while Aldridge was north of 33. Rudy Gay was playing around 27 minutes per night, and Mills was averaging 25. The fifth, Bryn Forbes, has been thrust into the mix out of necessity and was averaging 27 minutes, much of which had him playing out of position as an emergency point guard. The fact that the Spurs are so thin has resulted in a lot of heavy lifting for DeRozan. His usage rate (30.2), average field goal attempts (19.4), and points per game (24.8) are all the second highest of his career. He’s also averaging 6.1 assists, which is his best mark in 10 NBA seasons. Popovich said he didn’t quite realize how talented a playmaker DeRozan is until he started coaching him. The head coach made a joke out of it and said he “didn’t pay enough attention” while DeRozan was in Toronto, then praised him for being “a very willing, unselfish passer.”

“He’s had to kind of be DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry all at once, so to speak,” Popovich said. “You know, Bryn Forbes has been awesome and overachieved already to a great degree— because that’s not his position at all. He doesn’t even want to be there. But I’ve forced him into it. That means that DeMar has to handle the ball a little bit and give Bryn a break from that responsibility and that situation, because that’s not what he’s done his whole life.”

The Spurs have been surprisingly good offensively this season (10th in offensive rating as of Tuesday), but that goes only so far. They were 19th in rebound percentage, 21st in assist percentage, and 29th in defensive rating. Going into Tuesday’s home game against Phoenix, San Antonio was giving up a very un-Spurs-like 112.9 points per 100 possessions. Only the Cavaliers at 114.8 points per 100 possessions were worse. When Mills, Aldridge, and Gay were asked why the defense has underperformed this season, they all gave some variation on the same theme: It’s a new team that’s still figuring how to play together. But surely there must be something else at play too?

“No, that’s it,” Aldridge insisted when I pressed him on the matter. “That’s a big deal. The Spurs have had little turnover over the years. They never had to go through that. Now we’re going through that. It takes time.”

Even in a league that continues to push the pace and make defense that much harder, it’s tough to win when opponents are regularly running up the score—especially when the Spurs play a plodding, throwback style on offense that doesn’t make comebacks easy. Ahead of their matchup with Phoenix, the Spurs were 23rd in pace, and they averaged just 24.3 3-point attempts per game—tied for fewest in the league with the Cavs.

As of Tuesday, 73 percent of the Spurs’ field goal attempts were on 2-pointers (tops in the league), while nearly 19 percent of their points were generated in the midrange (second), according to NBA.com/Stats. Given that the entire NBA is shooting more 3s than ever, that seems like a strange and atavistic approach—until you consider the source. Just a few weeks ago, Popovich reminded everyone how he feels about the 3-ball as only he might. He said he’s “hated the 3 for 20 years,” then went on to mock the shot by suggesting the league adopt a 4-pointer and a 5-pointer, which might make people “jump out of their seats.”

“There’s no basketball anymore,” Popovich continued. “There’s no beauty in it. It’s pretty boring.”

Even if Popovich was just being hyperbolic, it’s fair to wonder what will come next and how much longer he might want to continue as coach. He’s fourth among NBA coaches in career wins, and he figures to move past Jerry Sloan into third place at some point this season. He needs 125 victories to pass Don Nelson for the all-time lead. If the Spurs were still performing as they did during the glory years, it wouldn’t take Popovich too many more seasons to unseat Nellie at the top. Popovich will also turn 70 in January, and he’s committed to USA Basketball through 2020. (He’s also taken on a charity case and is periodically counseling Jim Boylen on how to avoid another Bulls mutiny.) That’s a lot. He’s already won five championships. There’s nothing left to prove. Not to mention that the last time the Spurs had a losing season, it led to the the drafting of Tim Duncan and the rebooting of the franchise. There’s no similar panacea presently available. The Spurs have been mediocre enough to potentially miss the postseason and/or prevent them from getting in on the Zion Williamson sweepstakes.

At Staples Center last week, there was a pregame conversation among some of my fellow media members about whether Popovich is still enjoying himself. There was even a suggestion that he’s mellowed over the past few seasons. His once infamous in-game interviews have seemed a bit blander and straighter of late—but, mercifully, that doesn’t mean he’s lost his lovable edge entirely. After the Spurs fell to the Lakers later that evening, someone asked Popovich what made LeBron James so hard to stop in the fourth quarter. As soon as I heard the question, an Oh no oh no oh no internal monologue started looping in my head, and I caught two other reporters looking around nervously and bracing for what might follow. Pop didn’t disappoint. He stood there staring silently for a beat before asking a question of his own: “Have you watched LeBron play before? He’s LeBron James. That’s what makes him difficult to guard.” He deadpanned the “he’s LeBron James” part slowly for emphasis. He’s. LeBron. James. Then he walked off to the locker room. The whole postgame interview lasted maybe a minute. He might have realized that. Before he left the arena, Popovich popped out of the locker room and asked the journos still standing around whether we needed anything else from him. We all said we were good—so Popovich launched into a reenactment of the LeBron question and his answer. He’s. LeBron. James. It was classic Pop. I hope he sticks around forever.

There are certain constants in the NBA that we take for granted: LeBron’s unmatched supremacy. The Warriors throttling their opponents in the third quarter. The Knicks being the Knicks. The Spurs are supposed to be regular contenders—but what if the cavalry isn’t coming this time? What then? Will Popovich keep plugging away, content to maybe unearth the next draft-day steal in the service of an organizational rebuild? Or might he decide to step off the treadmill sooner than later if he thinks the Spurs are simply running in place? Because for all the praise the organization has rightly gotten over the years, it’s unlikely that any big-name free agents are planning to swoop in to save San Antonio. If the Spurs really are in need of rescue, they’ll probably have to do it themselves. As always, they’re on their own.