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The Spurs Crashed the Playoff Race by Abandoning Their Identity

The NBA restart has been filled with change, but there’s been no bigger surprise than San Antonio, which has reinvented itself and revitalized its postseason chances

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Over a long enough timeline, what feels revolutionary will become the establishment, and the establishment will become revolutionary. We know this because in the year 2020, the freaking San Antonio Spurs are a breath of fresh air—the pleasant surprise in a Western Conference thought to be more or less understood.

In the biggest upset of the NBA’s restart, San Antonio has become a team of astonishing unpredictability. This team is completely unrecognizable. Its starting lineup has played together all of 15 minutes, every one of them in Orlando. LaMarcus Aldridge, the franchise’s most recent All-Star, is absent after a shoulder operation ruled him out from the bubble experience. DeMar DeRozan, who not long ago made the All-NBA second team as a shooting guard, is San Antonio’s new starting power forward. The defensive scheme has changed. Offensive roles have shifted dramatically. And with wins over the Kings and Grizzlies to open their seeding schedule, the Spurs have improbably vaulted over three other teams to land in ninth place, taking the fate of their season into their own hands.

If San Antonio wins out, it assures the opportunity to play its way into the postseason—a meaningful development considering the Spurs haven’t missed the playoffs since before a few of their rotation players were born. Yet while their entry into the race for the eighth seed adds some excitement to the proceedings, the prospect of extending the franchise’s 22-year playoff streak seems almost beside the point.

“We’re always about the big picture and where we want to go,” longtime Spur Patty Mills said in a video conference with reporters Sunday. Beyond his responsibilities as a reserve, Mills shepherds new teammates through the cloistered world of Spurs culture. When Gregg Popovich declared Mills a healthy scratch for San Antonio’s first seeding game, he traded his jersey for a clipboard to help teammates from the sideline. “This is a big opportunity for that. Meaningful games, meaningful minutes. And in such a short time, we see the growth of our young guys.” The young guys in question are Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker IV, three former first-round picks by the Spurs who, until the NBA restart, never had the opportunity to play together in an actual game. They now comprise the majority of San Antonio’s starting lineup in the bubble—a dramatic shift for a thoughtful organization prone to occasional stubbornness.

In fairness, few franchises in all of sports have more reason to be. The Spurs built something more enduring than a dynasty: a run of five titles across three decades, all in one profound arc. None of that would have been possible without a steadfast belief in the organizing principles that pieced together successful roster after successful roster. The Spurs brand, above all, is competence. You could always pencil in San Antonio to win a few more games than it should, based largely on the preparation of the team and the way it was deployed. This season, however, that competence had begun to sour. A lineup structured around DeRozan and Aldridge could score well enough, but maintained the worst defense in franchise history. They were somehow too small and too slow—especially in their coverage on the perimeter, where so much of the modern game is negotiated.

The team had broken its balance. Which is how you end up with Popovich, at age 70, overseeing a veteran cast (San Antonio has league’s fourth-oldest roster) to a record 4.5 games below .500. The circumstances surrounding the restart offered a way out. The Spurs were too injured to just continue along; beyond Aldridge, San Antonio would be without starters Trey Lyles, who underwent an appendectomy in July, and Bryn Forbes, who continues to nurse a leg injury. “We’re down a little bit,” Popovich said last month. “But for us, in our specific situation, development is more important than anything right now. I’m not too concerned with trying to figure out how to match up with the Lakers or Clippers or Celtics or Raptors or Rockets or Nuggets or anybody else.”

Untethered from their established rotation, the Spurs finally began to invest in their youngest, most dynamic players. There are seven players logging at least 25 minutes a game for San Antonio these days. Five of them are 26 or younger. Orlando has become a testing site not only for the backcourt of Murray and White, but for Walker as a secondary playmaker, for Jakob Poeltl against starting-level competition, and for human wrecking ball Keldon Johnson to channel his energy.

To accommodate this, DeRozan changed not only his position, but his entire approach. Over the past few seasons, San Antonio had grown increasingly reliant on DeRozan to initiate its offense, leading to some of the best assist numbers of his career. Popovich and his staff also encouraged DeRozan to trade those long, 2-point jumpers for drives, leveraging his footwork and shot fakes to live in the paint. Despite the team’s struggles, this was easily the most efficient season of DeRozan’s 11-year career. But when he came to Orlando, he put all of that on hold to help his up-and-coming teammates smooth out the edges of their games.

“They make me feel old,” DeRozan said Friday. “But they keep me young.”

After two games (and two wins), DeRozan ranks fifth on the team in usage rate. The closest thing the Bubble Spurs have to a coherent style is their apositionality. “There are no point guards,” Popovich said of his newly oriented offense. “Just perimeter players.” One drive sets up another, and another, and another, until the defense falters. There still isn’t quite enough shooting on the floor, but what San Antonio lacks for spacing it has made up with pure momentum. That’s also not for lack of trying on the part of White, who attempted more 3s in each of the Spurs’ seeding wins over the Kings and Grizzlies than he ever had in a game before.

There’s something thrilling about a team that doesn’t entirely know what it’s doing, particularly compared to the stodgy mediocrity of recent Spurs teams. Reliability cuts both ways; Popovich may have had the security of knowing what to expect when he put the ball in the hands of Aldridge or DeRozan, but so did San Antonio’s opponents. That’s just not possible with a player like Murray, who turns a live dribble into a dazzling grasp at something; or Walker, who off a routine perimeter catch could instinctively make the play of the night; or Johnson, for whom restraint is more of an abstract concept.

“I don’t see how you could scout us,” DeRozan said. “We’ve got a lot of wild pit bulls out there running around. Any given night, them guys could explode and do something amazing.”

All of this is too new to fully understand, but potentially just weird enough to work. For the first time in years, the Spurs are actually winning their starters’ minutes rather than surviving on depth alone. (Before the restart, San Antonio posted a losing margin with each of its starters on the floor.) A team that had flailed in crunch time all season is suddenly making plays late in games, many courtesy of a moderating DeRozan. The Spurs are playing guards on the wing, wings as bigs, and Rudy Gay as a part-time center while still taking care of business on the glass. All of that positional blurring has allowed San Antonio to switch 1 through 4, revitalizing one of the sleepiest defenses in the league. In the West playoff race, the Grizzlies have the built-in advantage of the eighth seed. The Trail Blazers have the star power. The Pelicans have the hype. The Kings have … a defense giving up 40-point first quarters. But the Spurs are now in leading position to crash the play-in round, if only they can survive their next six games.

San Antonio’s remaining schedule (with games against the Sixers, Nuggets, Jazz, Pelicans, and Rockets) isn’t exactly accommodating. Watch them anyway, as much for the probability the Spurs should falter as the possibility they could succeed. This is the next test for a team that seemed, for a time, like it had little to play for in Orlando. By revitalizing their lineup with raw, unfinished talent, the Spurs created their own stakes.

“I think the best part of all this unfortunate situation that we’re in is they’re in the mix,” Mills said of his younger teammates. “They’re making plays on the court. They’re making decisions.” And in the process, they’re making—or breaking—the season in ways they were never allowed to before.