The Spurs are the standard in the NBA. In the past 20 years, they’ve never missed the playoffs, made six Finals appearances, won five championships, and never won less than 60 percent of their games in a single season. The organization has been a model of consistency, even as it transitions into the future—from a post-based offense to beautiful ball movement, from David Robinson to Tim Duncan to Kawhi Leonard.
But the Spurs are in the midst of their worst season since 1996-97, when they bottomed out for a chance at Duncan. They’ve been an average basketball team since December 12 (18-19) and they’ve slid even harder recently, going 2-8 over a 10-game stretch—their worst since their final 10 of 1996-97, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Things won’t get any easier from here. The Spurs have the NBA’s toughest remaining schedule, with two games to come against each of the Warriors, Thunder, Rockets, Pelicans, and Wizards. They’re also only two and a half games up on the eighth-place Clippers, ninth-place Nuggets, and 10th-place Jazz—two of whom they will face once over their final 18 games.
Of the 18 teams with records above .500, only the Bucks (14-24) and Clippers (11-23) have a worse record than the Spurs (13-21) against teams above .500. The Spurs pummel teams below .500 by 8.6 points per 100 possessions, according to data provided by NBA.com/Stats, but get outscored by 1.8 points per 100 possessions against teams above .500. Only the Knicks, Bulls, and Clippers see a more significant drop-off based on the strength of the opponent. That’s a terrifying sign. It sounds sacrilegious to say, but the Spurs are in danger of missing the playoffs.
Having said that, the team isn’t necessarily bad. It’s 37-27 overall and in fifth place in the West, and it has the league’s second-best defense—which is remarkable considering it’s missed Leonard, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, for all but nine games because of tendinopathy in his right quadriceps. The news cycle moves fast, so here’s a reminder, from just over a year ago, that Leonard is one of the league’s best players:
With or without Kawhi, the Spurs can hang with the league’s best. The last time Leonard played, on January 13, the Spurs smoked the Nuggets by 32. And without him, on February 25, they beat the new-look Cavs by 16. But for all the signs of their sustained greatness that still show from time to time, the current regime is facing a more uncertain future than ever before.
Leonard spoke to the media Wednesday and said he hopes to return to the court “soon.” That came after weeks of reports pointed toward his unrest; ESPN’s Jalen Rose said Leonard “wants out,” and Gregg Popovich suggested that Leonard won’t return to the floor this season. Even if Leonard does, it’s unreasonable to expect him, after months of minimal basketball-related activity, to seamlessly insert himself back into the lineup. Leonard wasn’t even playing in back-to-backs when he returned earlier this year, nor was he playing at the same superstar level he was the season prior.
Leonard has always seemed to be the perfect Spur—a silent killer in the mold of Duncan. Sometimes, he even gets painted as a robot that Popovich programmed to perfection. But the latest reports make him seem more like a disgruntled star who wants to be paid top dollar by Jordan Brand. The stories we’re hearing don’t jibe with the personality that we constructed for him. Perhaps more importantly, they’re the first real signs that Kawhi may want something other than the path Duncan took in San Antonio. Leonard, for what it’s worth, was asked Wednesday whether he wants to finish his career with the Spurs. “Yeah,” he said. “For sure.” The noise surrounding Leonard these days could be nothing, but the fact it exists is interesting in and of itself.
It’s not as if the Spurs haven’t been through this before. Duncan came “real close” to leaving San Antonio in 2000 and joining a superteam in Orlando. “It was a nerve-wrecking time. It was hell,” Popovich said in 2010. “I never let myself believe he was going to stay. I was just getting myself prepared, for sanity reasons.” Just last summer, LaMarcus Aldridge asked to be traded, and Popovich had to have a heart-to-heart with his power forward to smooth things over. Loyalty doesn’t exist in the NBA, and we can’t put much stock into what players, coaches, and executives tell the media. But both Duncan and Aldridge ended up reupping with San Antonio soon thereafter. Leonard’s uncertain situation could linger until he makes the same type of commitment.
Even if Kawhi is as happy as can be and signs the five-year, $219 million supermax extension when he’s eligible to this summer, his injury history is starting to add up. Leonard’s quad issue caused him to miss 18 games during the 2012-13 season and forced the Spurs to address the issue over the offseason. Five years later, it’s back and more problematic than ever. The injury has not only kept their potential MVP candidate on the shelf, but has been the source of some un-Spurs-like commotion this season. Leonard will need to prove he can be durable again.
The franchise also has big decisions to make. The Spurs have one of the oldest teams in the league, but age isn’t inherently an issue. They were the NBA’s grandfather both times they went to the Finals this decade. As Duncan said after winning the Finals following the 2013-14 season, “Not bad for a bunch of old guys.” The difference now is that the team is old and declining and rising in cost and plays an offensive style that’s becoming passé.
What makes Popovich special is his ability to tailor his roster to maximize the players, not force square-peg players into a round-hole system. But their personnel calls for an offense that slows the game down to a snail’s pace (they play at the second-slowest pace, per NBA.com/Stats) and relies heavily on midrange jumpers (they take midrange attempts more frequently than all but three other teams, per Cleaning the Glass). The team lacks knockdown shooters or penetrators who force the defense to collapse. Making this roster play like the Rockets is the equivalent of having Ashton Kutcher portray Steve Jobs.
The Spurs have been ahead of the curve for so long—with their shot distribution in the mid-2000s, and with the usage of corner 3s until around the mid-2010s. But the rest of the league has caught up. It’s always felt like while other teams were zigging, the Spurs were zagging. Now it feels like they’re just dragging. Sure, their system could work in today’s league. Let’s not forget that the Spurs were in control in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference finals until Leonard got hurt. Maybe a midrange-focused attack style can discombobulate defenses built to stop layups and 3s. But their issue moving forward may be less about how they deploy their players and more about the financial commitment to those players.
The Spurs have a combined $78.4 million in guaranteed salaries next season, including $22.3 million to LaMarcus Aldridge, $12.4 million to Patty Mills, and $16 million to Pau Gasol. Aldridge takes nearly two-thirds of his shots from midrange, per CTG, but doesn’t make them at a remarkably high rate (42 percent, or the equivalent of a 28 percent 3-point shooter when you factor in the added value of a 3). After Aldridge and Popovich’s heart-to-heart, the team signed him to a three-year, $72.3 million extension in October. The Spurs could have left their cap space open and been buyers this offseason. But they opted to make it work, rather than facing the uncertainties of free agency. Aldridge, 32, has been more productive this season, but whether he’s the right All-Star to pair with Leonard remains to be seen.
The contracts of Gasol and Mills, which run through 2019-20 and 2020-21, respectively, aren’t exactly albatrosses, either. They’re both solid pros; Mills is an energizer, and Gasol is a stabilizer. But Mills has failed to elevate his offensive play, both before and after Tony Parker missed the first 19 games to open the season because of surgery to repair a ruptured left quadriceps tendon. And while Gasol still does Gasol things, the 37-year-old has noticeably regressed offensively. All three deals will hinder San Antonio’s flexibility this summer.
Danny Green ($10 million), Rudy Gay ($8.8 million), and Joffrey Lauvergne ($1.6 million) have player options this offseason. NBA executives expect Green to opt out, and he could be pricey considering the dearth of 3-and-D role players. Unless Gay surges to close the season, he is a strong opt-in candidate. Kyle Anderson, Bryn Forbes, and Davis Bertans will be restricted free agents. Parker’s contract is up, and he said he wants to play 20 seasons for the Spurs, which means that the franchise will have to be willing to offer a three-year deal to a 35-year-old who is average at best on defense and is shooting 19.2 percent from 3. Unless the longtime point guard is willing to take a significant hometown discount (i.e., the minimum), is it in San Antonio’s best interest to bring him back?
Whether or not Parker comes back, Dejounte Murray will need to show that he can fill his shoes as the starting point guard. Murray, in his second season, has a chance to be a lockdown defender and a dynamic scorer. He’s still only 21, but so far he’s been wildly inefficient as a scorer and unreliable as a passer. Meanwhile, rookie point guard Derrick White has had some big G League performances, but has only 16 NBA games under his belt to date. Anderson, Forbes, and Bertans project as above-average players at best.
The Spurs are always good, so they always draft in the back half of the first round, but they haven’t hit a bull’s-eye with a single one of their picks since they swapped George Hill for Leonard in 2011. While they have built a reputation for finding hidden gems, they haven’t quite found the next Tonys and Manus to fill out around a healthy Kawhi. As a result, it’s unclear what’s next for the team. Duncan’s retirement, along with the decline of Parker and Manu Ginobili, forced San Antonio to turn to free agency to acquire a player of Aldridge’s caliber for the first time under this regime. If Gay and Lauvergne both opt in, and if the Spurs use their first-round pick, the team will have roughly $12 million in cap space. With Green being a hot free-agent target, and with several of their reserves also on the market, their cap space could dry up quickly.
There have been whispers, mostly on social media, about whether LeBron James would consider the Spurs because of the mutual respect between James and Popovich, now the coach of the U.S. men’s national basketball team. But I’ve consistently heard from multiple league sources that LeBron currently has only four teams on his list: the Cavaliers, Lakers, Rockets, and 76ers.
The restricted-free-agent market might have more realistic targets for the Spurs. Aaron Gordon and Jabari Parker are intriguing options; the Spurs could fit either into their cap space (even if they extend Leonard) if they choose not to re-sign any pending free agents and the players with options decide to test the market. Or maybe shooting coach Chip Engelland could work his magic on Marcus Smart or Julius Randle, both of whom will conceivably be more affordable. The free-agent market will be harsh for players this summer, so an opportunity could be there for the Spurs to poach a player and reshuffle their roster in a way that sets them up for greater success.
The Spurs are built to evade disaster. Popovich has the admiration of everyone in the basketball community. They’ve built a culture in which players, coaches, and executives all feel empowered and respected within their roles. The team is still productive, despite missing its best player. But nothing lasts forever, and there are cracks forming under its feet. The decisions the Spurs make over the next 12 months will determine whether they can continue on their path of success, or whether they’ll have to scratch and claw their way from the bottom back to the top.