[Update: this column was posted prior to the news that PG Derrick White would miss the next 6-8 weeks with a heel injury. The bad news keeps pouring in for the Spurs.]
Gregg Popovich is too old for this shit.
At age 69, Pop has nothing left to prove to the basketball world, but the 2018-19 season was always going to be a big test of his coaching brilliance. Franchise stalwarts Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard are all gone. So are Danny Green and Kyle Anderson, two useful rotation pieces. The only remaining player from the Spurs’ 2013-14 championship team is Patty Mills. Amid all this roster turnover, Pop could at least feel secure knowing he had Dejounte Murray, a young, athletic point guard poised to take the leap this season.
Until he didn’t.
Team officials confirmed Murray tore his ACL on Sunday, ending his season before it began. It is a devastating blow for both Murray and the team, and it forces us to ask a question which would have seemed unthinkable a year ago: can the Spurs cobble together a viable defense?
If this sounds crazy, it’s because it is. The Spurs are the gold standard for NBA defense this decade. The last time a Spurs team ranked lower than third in Defensive Rating (per 100 possessions) was the lockout season of ’11-’12. Obviously they have always benefited from the schematic genius of Popovich, which somewhat obscures the fact they have had a roster populated with really freaking good defensive players. Tim Duncan was one of the best defensive players to ever walk the Earth. Everyone knows what a menace Kawhi is, and Green is highly respected as a solid 3-and-D guy as well, but it is underappreciated how quietly terrific both Anderson and Murray had become on that end over the last couple seasons. Parker and Ginobili were not lockdown defenders at the tail end of their respective careers, but their level of institutional knowledge in the Spurs’ system and the mind meld they enjoyed with each other are not easy things to replicate.
Had the Spurs’ front office been able to somehow replace all of these spots in the rotation with marginally comparable defensive talents, then it would be easy enough to make the case that Pop could work his magic and conjure up a competent defense. That’s going to be a hard sell given the rotation they are set to trot out, however, particularly at the point of attack. The downgrade from the defensive trio of Leonard, Green, and Murray to now-presumptive starters Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, and Patty Mills is probably not something Pop can just scheme around — it is a legitimate problem. Mills is an easy target for mismatches (basically the antithesis of Murray’s rangy, ball-hawking tenacity), and Gay and DeRozan are both physically capable but frequently indifferent defenders.
San Antonio should remain fairly stout on the interior with LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, both of whom remain dependable, productive defensive presences, despite their reputations never quite catching up with their performance. Jakob Poeltl, acquired in the Kawhi trade, also shows potential as a rim protector. The challenge is, none of this trio is going to be terribly effective guarding in space, and combined with the way teams will hunt Mills in the pick-and-roll, San Antonio will have a very tough time executing the type of switch-heavy scheme that has become de rigueur in today’s league. A system where the bigs lay back on the pick-and-roll and switches are generally avoided can still work, but it requires on-a-string chemistry, diligent communication, and precise rotations, all of which could be problematic for a team with little continuity in its lineup combinations.
There is one potential answer on the roster. Pop will have to see what he has in second-year point guard Derrick White, who is already 24 years old, but has the requisite size (6’5″ with a 6’8″ wingspan) to guard across multiple positions, and showed some promise on both ends in limited minutes last season. If he can provide a reasonable facsimile of Murray’s production, then White could eventually take over the starting spot, allowing Mills to return to his traditional bench spark plug role, but that’s a big ask for a guy who’s played a grand total of 139 NBA minutes.
The Spurs will need to take a cautious approach with this year’s first round pick, Lonnie Walker IV. The 19-year-old shooting guard out of Miami oozes with potential as a two-way running mate for DeRozan, but he is going to take time to develop, a process currently stalled by a torn meniscus, which is slated to keep him out six to eight weeks but often has lingering effects, especially on players heavily reliant on athleticism, as Walker is at this stage of his development. They will have to hope Walker can come back and provide a jolt later in the season for a bench which looks to be underwhelming, at best. Davis Bertans, Dante Cunningham, Marco Belinelli, and Quincy Pondexter (when healthy) are all veterans who have been through the battles and bring something to the table, but none of them moves the needle in any significant way.
With Murray out for the year, the Spurs are banking on internal development from Poeltl, White, and Walker, because the core is not getting any younger. [As an aside, the Game of Thrones-inspired branding possibilities for the White/Walker backcourt are limitless.] DeRozan is the youngest of the projected starters at 29, Belinelli is 32, Cunningham is 31, and Pondexter is 30. Gasol and Gay both saw the lowest minutes load of their respective careers last season — Pau because he’s 38 years old, Gay because he was recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon — but should see an uptick again this year out of sheer necessity. For his part, Gay bounced back nicely in ’17-’18, putting up per-36 minute numbers right in line with his career norms. He was overpaid and miscast as a primary option in previous career stops, which may have skewed our perception of what he is as a player, but now in a more optimal role (and at a more palatable salary figure), he looks to be a genuinely useful piece.
So is this still a playoff-caliber roster? With Murray leading the defense and pushing the pace (something Pop had emphasized in preseason prior to the injury), I would have been firmly on the bandwagon. The team somehow won 47 games last season while getting virtually nothing out of Kawhi, and they added DeRozan, a two-time All-NBA performer who, after being unceremoniously dumped by the only pro franchise he has ever known, has a chip on his shoulder so massive you can see it from space. There are questions of fit based on the somewhat retrograde playing styles of DeRozan and Aldridge, but bottom line, there are not many teams who trot out two All-NBA caliber players each night, and that has to count for something. Even with the lack of shooting around them — San Antonio was 27th in 3PA and 26th in 3P% last season, marks which don’t figure to improve much this year — DeRozan has worked hard to become a solid playmaker, and if he and LA can develop pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop chemistry on the fly, the offense could be just potent enough to allow Pop to turn chicken shit into chicken salad on the defensive end and keep the team in the mix.
Other teams will suffer injuries as well, but in the always-loaded West, the loss of a core piece like Murray is brutal, and short of a giant leap forward from White, it’s tough to see how they recover enough to stay in the playoff hunt. Obviously, it hasn’t been a wise move over the last two decades to write off the Spurs, but besides Pop, they’ve just lost so much of the foundation of their success that it’s hard to keep giving the benefit of the doubt to a group of guys which isn’t remotely the same. Pop always seems to find a way to adjust his game plan to fit his personnel, so maybe he will again. Maybe the magic of shooting guru Chip Engelland will finally turn DeRozan into a competent outside shooter, and the Spurs’ culture will motivate Gay and DeRozan to become the menacing defenders their physical profiles suggest they should be. Maybe Derrick White will come out of nowhere and look the part of a starting NBA point guard. Maybe Pau has one last throwback season in him. Maybe Lonnie Walker IV is this year’s Donovan Mitchell. Maybe they won’t miss the collective presence of Parker and Ginobili in the locker room. Maybe the bench ends up being better than the sum of its parts. Maybe Murray is less important than he seems.
But that’s an awful lot of maybes for a team who finished one game away from the 9-seed last season. Combining a ton of variables with a nonexistent margin for error is usually not a recipe for success, but if anyone can make it work, it’s Popovich. The Spurs have proven themselves to be the most adaptable organization in sports (along with the Patriots), so even at what appears to be their lowest point, I am having an incredibly hard time counting them out. Perhaps even in the West, having two All Stars and one of the three best head coaches of all time is enough. The Spurs have often been labeled “boring” (wrongfully so, but still), and for all the change they have endured this offseason, the biggest change might be how fascinating they are finally going to be.