The post-Duncan era begins for San Antonio
One of the enduring challenges of sport is navigating the transition years after an all-time, franchise-changing player either departs or retires: the post-Jordan Bulls wandered in the wilderness for the better part of a decade; the post-Iverson Sixers went into the most complete tank that sport has ever seen. The departure of players that good leaves both statistical and moral holes — all-time players make everyone around them better, foster locker-room culture the antithesis of what Donald Trump thinks locker-room culture is, and serve as role models for younger, developing players.
To the San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan was all of that and then some. The greatest Power Forward to ever set foot on a basketball court, Duncan’s impact on the San Antonio Spurs was extensively documented by both Serge and I when he announced his retirement over the summer after nineteen seasons, five titles, and fifteen All-NBA, All-Defensive, and All-Star Team Appearances. Well into his late thirties, he remained one of the best rim protectors in the league, a silent leader, and the defining player of his generation. Replacing a player like that isn’t just difficult; it’s impossible.
When the Spurs reported to training camp, Duncan was there, pacing around the court alongside Gregg Popovich and offering instruction to Aldridge and new signing Pau Gasol, who San Antonio brought from Chicago on a 2yr/$30 million contract. Duncan’s presence in the organization looks set to continue — RC Buford has reportedly insisted that Duncan’s role in the organization will be “whatever he wants it to” — even if he isn’t protecting the rim anymore, and Popovich runs one of the tightest ships in sports — the Spurs remain an extraordinarily professional organization, and with Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Danny Green, and Kawhi Leonard still firmly in the fold, the multigenerational culture that has led the Spurs to 17 straight 50-win seasons looks set to continue.
Replacing Duncan on the court will be more difficult, not least because of the departure of much of the Spurs’ backup frontcourt as well: David West’s Mercenary Ring Quest has continued, with the centre departing for the Golden State Warriors, Boris Diaw departed for Utah to clear cap space for Gasol, and giant human Boban Marjanovic signed with Detroit on a 3yr/$21 million deal (reportedly after Popovich told him he’d be mad to turn down that kind of money). Pau Gasol, even at 36, remains an excellent player, average 16.5/11/4 last season with Chicago. His minutes will probably be managed aggressively in order to preserve him for playoffs (and cover for the effects of a season with Tom “40mpg” Thibideau), but he remains a solid scorer and an excellent passer. The bigger concern is on defense: while Gasol was ranked 9th in Rim Protection by Nylon Calculus at the midpoint of last season, his lateral movement has slowed considerably as he’s aged, and teams repeatedly punished him in the pick and roll in both of the last two seasons. Paired with Tony Parker’s continued aging (and intermittent decline), it’s conceivable that teams like Golden State, OKC, and the LA Clippers will just repeatedly put Parker and Gasol into pick and roll plays, and punish them just as repeatedly. Figuring out how to compensate for that will be one of the early-season challenges for Popovich and his coaching staff.
It helps that San Antonio still retains some of the league’s best defenders. Kawhi Leonard is coming off of consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards, and remains the best perimeter defender since Scottie Pippen: being guarded by The Klaw can feel like being trapped in the water case from The Prestige, hands tied, and the case filled with piranhas. He’s also coming off a season in which he shot nearly 50/40/90 while average 22ppg. Yet for all of his two-way talents, Kawhi has often been criticized for his inability to bodily seize control of big games offensively — indeed, this ended up costing San Antonio in their 2015 series against the Clippers and in 2016 against OKC, where they simply ran out of offensive options against teams with more firepower. Similarly, Danny Green remains a ferociously good defender — he recorded one of the only beyond-the-arc blocks on Steph Curry from the entire season — but his shooting form dipped considerably last year after being one of the best 3&D players in the league in 2014–15. For San Antonio to navigate the post-Duncan era, he’ll need to bounce back and Kawhi will need to make the next leap.
Figuring out where Aldridge fits into all of this remains something of a conundrum. There were stretches, and games, where Aldridge was amazing last year, but the forward at times seemed an uncomfortable fit — particularly in his passing from the posts and less-than-stellar defense against teams like Golden State and OKC. There are rumours circulating that the Spurs are open to trading him, but whether that would happen depends on what value they could get in return (Serge will reportedly have an article on this shortly, but I’m hopping aboard the “LMA for Paul Millsap” bandwagon). While they still have him, he’ll be a strong offensive presence in the paint and from midrange, where he’s averaged 40%+ shooting in both San Antonio and Portland.
Complementing this core, San Antonio have continued to rely on their veterans while adding a mixed assortment of players: Manu Ginobili is back on what is probably his final 1-year deal of basketball; while still brilliant and capable of executing passes that most other NBA players wouldn’t have even thought of trying to make, he’s steadily diminished in importance and reliability since postering Chris Bosh in 2013–14. Tony Parker’s penetration remains vital to San Antonio’s offense — particularly a number of their complex, multi-screen offensive plays designed to max open corner 3s — and the guard is probably entering the twilight of his playing career. A lot of San Antonio’s success will hinge on unanswered questions: which Patty Mills shows up, and when? Does David Lee end up having a renaissance under Popovich (much like Boris Diaw did)? Do Kyle Anderson and Jonathan Simmons continue to improve?
As much as I’ve spent the last paragraphs pointing out all the ways that the Spurs won’t be as good as last year, they’re still probably the third best team in the Western Conference, and regressing somewhat from a 67-win season when your franchise player retires is to be expected. They’re still probably the third best team in the Western Conference: OKC are depleted, Utah young, Memphis injury-prone, Dallas aging, Portland…I don’t know, and Houston prone to defensive lapses. Gregg Popovich remains a formidable tactician and excellent personnel manager — it was the Spurs who first successfully deployed the switch-heavy defense against Golden State that was ultimately perfected by OKC and Cleveland, and RC Buford and his team of scouts remain the best in the business. They’ll win 50 games because it’s the only non-death and non-taxes thing in life that’s a given. The question will be whether they’re able to rise above those limits in a 7-game series against the LA Clippers (maybe) or the Golden State Warriors (lol no).
Only the San Antonio Spurs could lose so much and still be so good.