This isn’t the first time – and it may not even be the last – that the funeral rites have been read for a franchise that persistently refuses to go gently in to that long night, but now, finally, we feel we can confidently say it: the San Antonio Spurs will not make the playoffs in 2019-20.
In the last two decades since the team last bottomed out accidentally/deliberately in order to draft Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich – potentially the greatest coach in the history of sport – has led his team to six Finals appearances and five championships. In that 22-year span, the franchise has never missed the playoffs, and has recorded better than a 60% win-loss ratio in every single season.
“The Spurs Way” has become a euphemistic adjective for organisational excellence; encapsulating everything from competent front office performance in all facets of basketball management, to on-floor consistency, selflessness and brilliance that has perennially been the envy of not only the rest of the league, but also the sporting world as a whole.
The way they’ve managed to transition through wholly-different styles – from a post-heavy offense revolving around David Robinson and Tim Duncan, to their trademark pass and cut style of ball-movement with Kawhi Leonard and an ageing big three, to this current iteration centred on the mid-range ability of Demar Derozan and LaMarcus Aldridge – is a testament to the clear organisational strength flowing from top to bottom.
We’ve seen the Spurs publicly written off before. In fact, it’s become a nearly-annual tradition. On every occasion, they’ve responded, and done so emphatically.
But this year is different. It’s not just their 6-12 record and current 13th-rank in the Western Conference which is alarming, it’s the way that record has come to be.
The Spurs – at the time of writing – have lost nine of their last 10 games, with the only win in that stretch coming against the Knicks to snap an eight game losing streak; the franchise’s longest since 1996.
Their defense, in particular, has been shockingly porous. “Shocking” the chosen adjective given that aspect of the game is traditionally a strength of Popovich-coached teams.
Probably the most worrying part of San Antonio’s defensive struggles is that it hasn’t just been an 18-game sample size in which we’ve seen them. In 2017-18’s 49-win campaign – which was infamously undertaken almost-wholly without the services of Kawhi Leonard – the team was first in opposition points per game (99.8) and third in defensive rating overall (104.8).
Despite a poor offensive performance (17th in offensive rating) the Spurs comfortably made the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference, before being bounced by the Warriors in the first round.
Last season – their first with the new era of Derozan and Aldridge together – the Spurs still went 45-37 and pushed the Nuggets to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs, but defensively the cracks began to appear. They were 12th in opposition points per game, allowing 11 more than the season prior, and 19th in defensive rating.
This season, the cracks have become gaping chasms. The team is currently 25th in opposition points per game (115.3) and 27th in defensive rating. What’s becoming clear is that those defensive flaws are not anomalies, they’re officially becoming a trend. We’re now seeing lacklustre, low-energy plays like this from what are supposed to be star players.
Can you imagine a play like that unfolding in the Leonard / Tony Parker / Duncan / Danny Green era? No, me neither.
While the problems on the defensive end shouldn’t solely be placed on Derozan’s shoulders, he certainly shouldn’t escape a large portion of the blame either. Derozan was a notoriously disinterested defender in Toronto, and those problems have only become more pronounced as he has entered the twilight of his NBA career.
Currently, FiveThirtyEight’s new player-rating metric “RAPTOR” has Derozan rated the sixth worst defender in the league with a -5.4 rating. For context, renowned sieves at the guard position like Lou Williams (-5.1), Kyrie Irving (-4.3), D’Angelo Russell (-3.8) and Trae Young (-3.7) are all rated significantly higher, and Eric Gordon (-6.3), Frank Jackson (-6.9) and Isaiah Thomas (-7.7) are the only guards to rank worse on the RAPTOR scale.
Playing Bryn Forbes (-4.4) and Derozan on the floor together as guards is a defensive disaster.
While Derozan’s offensive numbers are still well above average – he’s a +1.2 on that end according to RAPTOR – his defensive woes are hurting the Spurs significantly. But, as they say, it takes two to tango, and the Spurs aren’t only struggling on the defensive end of the floor.
A team that was once so settled offensively – Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili played with each other for what felt like a lifetime – has chopped and changed its personnel, and in doing so has lost its identity. Once the Spurs were synonymous with ball-movement and being at the cutting edge of basketball efficiency; this year’s edition are making the eighth-fewest passes per game of any team in the NBA and are taking the least threes.
If you’re not passing and creating layups, or shooting threes and spreading the floor, what are you doing? The answer is simple; taking mid-range jumpers; the shot that stats gurus have proven time and again is (by far) the least efficient shot in basketball.
Since Leonard’s infamous protest season in 2017-18 that led to the trade for Derozan in the summer of 2018, San Antonio has not had the transcendent superstar it has always had. Derozan and Aldridge are fine, but neither can carry a franchise on their backs, and with the pair at 30 and 34 years’ of age respectively, it may be that even their run of low end top-tier production is coming to an end.
Dejounte Murray – who was the heir apparent to Tony Parker as the franchise cornerstone at the guard position – has been completely unable to find his feet in his return from a serious knee injury. Murray – now at 23-years-old theoretically reaching his prime – is averaging just 10.4 points per game and shooting an abysmal 22% from long range.
Murray cannot keep turning the ball over at a rate of 4.1 turnovers per-36. and his shooting – particularly in the 3-10 foot range where he’s making just 34% of shots – has to improve if he’s going to reverse his recent ignominious benching.
He’s not the only one who’s struggling to make his mark on the NBA; Lonnie Walker IV – a former first-round pick out of Miami – is averaging less than five minutes per game. Bryn Forbes looks like he’ll never be anything more than a backup guard. Jakob Poltl – part of the Derozan trade – can’t find his way off the bench. The less said about offseason acquisitions DeMarre Carroll and Trey Lyles, the better.
Popovich’s teams are built around continuity; his players know each other so intimately that they’re able to anticipate moves and cuts before they happen. Only Patty Mills (who is quietly having a career year hitting 44.8% of shots from deep) and Marco Bellinelli (who’s been everywhere in the intervening five seasons) remain from the 2014 title.
Kyle Anderson departed for Memphis in the offseason, while the team also lost one of the league’s premier three-point shooters in Davis Bertans to the Wizards. To say this team is crying out for a sharpshooter like Bertans is an understatement and a half.
The Spurs are bereft of shooters to space the floor, bereft of defenders with the ability to close out on the perimeter and, seemingly, bereft of ideas on how to fix it.
If the rumours are true, we may see either or both of Aldridge and Derozan playing elsewhere by the trade deadline. At this point, burning down what remains of the team and starting again looks like the clear best option for Popovich and co. going forward.
If that does happen, a remarkable 20-year run of sustained success will come to a crushing close.
We dare say 29 other teams in the league will be breathing a sigh of relief.