Now that Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have been included in a trade agreement with the Toronto Raptors, only 40-year-old Manu Ginobili and backup point guard Patty Mills remain from “The Beautiful Game” San Antonio Spurs that won the 2014 NBA championship. Marco Belinelli returned this summer, too, I guess, but these are not your father’s Spurs. Not even your older brother’s Spurs.
In some ways, it’s the end of an NBA era, and in another San Antonio has long been preparing for this.
From a leverage standpoint, San Antonio was backed into a corner once Leonard’s “group” made it clear he was focused on playing in his hometown of Los Angeles when his contract expires next summer. Citing specifics, Pro Football Hall of Famer turned Fox Sports 1 host Cris Carter, who shares an agent with Leonard, flat-out said, “He’s still not interested in being rented out of the season, so that being Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto or any other team.” That’s how strange this situation had gotten.
That also speaks to how well the Spurs did to get a 28-year-old four-time All-Star who finished top-eight in MVP balloting last season and has three years remaining on his contract, along with a pair of building blocks for the future, in return for Leonard. Granted, San Antonio would have been lambasted for accepting that deal a year ago, when Leonard was coming off two straight top-three MVP finishes, but the mysterious left quad injury that forged a divide between the once-stable franchise and the superstar who captured Finals MVP during their most recent championship run changed all that.
DeMar DeRozan is really good, you guys
DeMar DeRozan is good. He’s not as good as a healthy Kawhi Leonard, but he’s good. Very good, even. He is a lethal threat at the rim and from the mid-range who has ranked among the NBA’s elite scorers for five straight seasons. He is a year removed from averaging 27.3 points per game without being a 3-point threat. Even as he made strides shooting from distance last season, he remained subpar in that regard, but if Spurs “Shot Doctor” Chip Engelland ever straightens his 3-point shot out, good lord.
DeRozan is not without his limitations. He has great strides to make on defense, and if he does improve in that regard, he still won’t ever approach the two-time Defensive Player of the Year talent that made Leonard what Michael Jordan called the NBA’s “best two-way player” 11 months ago.
There are also concerns about DeRozan’s ability to produce in the playoffs, when defenses tighten and that slashing game of his hasn’t been as effective. Over five straight trips to the postseason, he has made just 41 percent of his 969 field-goal attempts, requiring 19 shots to get his 21.9 points per game. The hope is that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — whose teams have leveraged the mid-range, even in the NBA’s pace-and-space era — can put him in position to maximize his talent when it matters most.
Putting Jakob Poeltl to good use
That is also the hope for Jakob Poeltl, the 2016 lottery pick who will join DeRozan in San Antonio as part of the trade. He’s a 22-year-old 7-footer whose mobility and rim protection on defense stabilized one of the NBA’s top bench units last season. He too struggled in the playoffs, particularly on the defensive end, but it was only his second season as a pro and first as a significant rotational player.
There are some questions about how Poeltl immediately fits on a team that heavily features LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol in the frontcourt. Look to Dewayne Dedmon, whose activity around the basket on both ends proved invaluable to a Spurs team that won 61 games in 2016-17 and gave the Golden State Warriors all they could handle before an injury cut short Leonard’s Western Conference finals. And 7-foot Europeans with a good feel for the game can find few better big men to learn from Gasol.
Any draft pick can be valuable to San Antonio
The final piece to the package San Antonio will get for Leonard is Toronto’s 2019 first-round pick, reportedly top-20 protected. If the Raptors get what they imagine from Leonard, that pick should convey. If not, it will convey to a pair of second-round picks, which isn’t an ideal return when trading a top-three talent, but it’s also not nothing for a Spurs team that consistently identifies late-draft gems.
Pour one out for Danny Green, too
The loss of Green also isn’t insignificant for San Antonio. He’s a high-end role-playing 3-and-D wing with the sort of championship experience that includes a Finals record for most 3-pointers made. Not only do the Spurs lose another culture-setting veteran presence in the locker room after Tony Parker’s departure to Charlotte, but gone now are three of San Antonio’s most productive wings from the past two seasons — Green, Leonard and Kyle Anderson, who left for Memphis in restricted free agency.
Impaired 3-and-D vision
In their place at the position are now DeRozan and first-round pick Lonnie Walker IV, a 19-year-old shooting guard with a 6-foot-10 wingspan and all kinds of potential. That’s a heavy 3-and-D load to bear for a team that last season ranked fourth in defensive rating (102.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) but bottom five in both 3-point attempts (24.1 per game) and percentage (35.2 percent).
Floor-spacing will be an issue for a distance-shooting-challenged backcourt that will rely on DeRozan and third-year point guard Dejounte Murray to play significant roles. San Antonio’s ball movement can mirror some of those deficiencies, but neither DeRozan nor Murray has yet proven to be a top-flight facilitator. You wonder how much Mills might need to be involved in some three-guard lineups.
There’s also Ginobili. There’s always Ginobili.
The Spurs are still the Spurs until proven otherwise
More likely, the Spurs will rely on their size, zigging when the rest of the league is zagging with smaller lineups. Working from the low to high post, they have Aldridge, who arguably enjoyed his best season as a pro at age 32 last season, and Gasol, the still-productive 38-year-old future Hall of Famer. Small-ball stretchy forwards Rudy Gay and Davis Bertans give Popovich versatility in the frontcourt. And there’s Poeltl. This is a team that ranked among the league’s best in rebounding and post-up scoring.
It’s also a team that finished two wins shy of the West’s third seed last season (and, granted, a win out of the playoffs) without Leonard for all but nine games. They’ve lost Green, Anderson and Parker from that rotation, but they add DeRozan, who along with Aldridge captured Second Team All-NBA honors, leaving the Spurs with two of the league’s 15 best players from a season ago. There are worse fates.
Discount San Antonio at your own peril. Leonard dug them a hole, but the Spurs did well to dig out. It’s been said a million times, but let’s make it another: Something tells me Popovich will figure it out.
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