If the San Antonio Spurs’ downfall was coming anytime soon, it was supposed to be last season.
San Antonio was forced to trade Kawhi Leonard. Tony Parker, the last remaining member of the Big Three, was playing elsewhere. The pairing of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge seemed a backwards fit for the modern NBA.
But San Antonio instead did what it always does, defying expectations to win 48 games, ultimately pushing the heavily favored Denver Nuggets to seven games in the first round of playoffs.
Nearly two months into 2019-20, though, it’s becoming surprisingly and increasingly clear that the Spurs’ time as pseudo contenders is over.
Key to understanding the level of disappointment gleaned from San Antonio’s 9-14 start is the broad optimism surrounding it coming into the regular season.
No one expected the Spurs to compete for a championship at the top of the Western Conference. But with an improved supporting cast around DeRozan and Aldridge, the expectation was that Popovich would again ensure his team’s whole was far greater than the sum of its parts.
DeJounte Murray was back and supposedly better than ever after missing all of last season with a torn ACL. Derrick White was coming off a summer spent with Team USA, which many players in the past used as a springboard to stardom. San Antonio seemed like the perfect place for Trey Lyles to revive his career, and first-round pick Lonnie Walker was poised to contribute after a dominant Summer League.
But instead of the Spurs forcing their way into the West’s second-tier, they’ve taken multiple steps back to join the lowest one – and there’s no indication things will improve.
Despite playing the league’s ninth-easiest schedule, San Antonio is currently 22nd in net rating. While their utter inability to shoot from deep has received most attention, it’s the Spurs’ 23rd-ranked defense that’s more problematic. They’re getting killed with both DeRozan and Aldridge on the floor for the second straight season, and a once-dominant bench has faltered.
There’s no silver lining here. San Antonio is bad, and the potential fix other struggles teams are clinging to in the season’s early going to isn’t readily apparent.
Finally, it’s time for the Spurs to stop putting off the rebuilding process they’ve avoided since tanking to draft Tim Duncan in 1998.
Finding interested trade partners for DeRozan should be the front office’s first priority. His failure to develop three-point range is the biggest reason the growth of similarly non-threatening shooters like Murray, White, and Walker has been stunted, and DeRozan certainly contributes to San Antonio’s porous defense, too.
But the same limitations that make DeRozan detrimental to the Spurs would loom large elsewhere, which means San Antonio should work the phones on Aldridge, too. Impact veterans like Patty Mills and Rudy Gay might be easier to trade than either of the Spurs’ stars.
The problem is that there aren’t many teams who would be willing to trade for DeRozan or Aldridge while giving up a valuable asset. Their value league-wide just doesn’t align with their contracts or reputations.
San Antonio, though, should be undeterred by that reality.
This team isn’t going anywhere in 2019-20; its incredible, record-tying run of 22 straight postseason appearances is bound to end come spring. Fivethirtyeight currently gives the Spurs a one percent chance of making the playoffs.
And with Murray, White, Walker, and Jakob Poeltl in the fold, San Antonio has the beginnings of its rebuild already in place. The Spurs’ most prudent path back to success, it’s clear, is beginning their rebuild as soon as possible – no matter how much it would pain Gregg Popovich.