Predicting anything but excellence for the San Antonio Spurs is tantamount to blasphemy in NBA circles. Gregg Popovich has presided over a period of sustained success unlike anything the NBA has ever seen – 20 straight playoff appearances, five championships and some of greatest team basketball in the history of the NBA.
However, as the news broke that Kawhi Leonard will miss the entire preseason with a quadriceps injury, there were mutterings that the Spurs had stood still this offseason. Injuries to key players, questionable offseason maneuver and an aging roster have all contributed to this school of thought.
Coach Pop will probably make us all look foolish as the Spurs reel of yet another effortless 60-win season, but it’s hard not to be concerned. Here are four key major worries for the Spurs.
Point guard issues
Tony Parker, a key piece in four of the Spurs’ five championships, will be out until January after rupturing a quadriceps tendon in last season’s playoffs. His back up, Patty Mills, has always been more comfortable coming off the bench as a sixth man. Dejounte Murray, although impressive in flashes, is still far from ready to fill Parker’s shoes.
Parker is consistently one of the most underestimated players in the league. The French veteran has been orchestrating San Antonio’s ball-sharing offense for almost 15 seasons and although his stats have dropped off in recent years, his importance to the team has not.
What Parker provides San Antonio is an unselfish ball handler who can see the court with clarity and almost always make the right decision. Learning from one of the best coaches in NBA history has provided Parker with one of best basketball brains in the league. Additionally, Parker is a leader both on and off the floor.
The Spurs drafted Derrick White in the offseason and they will hope he can make an impact in his rookie campaign. But this will do little to fill the void left by Parker. The reality is San Antonio’s guard rotation will require some creative thought from Popovich.
Leonard has developed into one of the best, if not the best, two-way players in the NBA. If Parker is the conductor of the San Antonio Symphony, then Leonard is its star soloist - pretty much everything runs through him.
Whether it is leading the Spurs at the offensive end of the floor with his increasingly polished game or providing smothering defense, Leonard is crucial to everything the Spurs do. This was illustrated perfectly when Leonard went down during last season's Western Conference finals. The Spurs went from looking like they could shock Golden State to providing no meaningful resistance.
As much as Popovich preaches team basketball there is no replacing a generational talent like Leonard. The concern for Spurs fans is the vagueness surrounding Leonard’s latest setback. Popovich said this regarding the All-Star forward’s injury: “He'll probably miss the beginning of preseason or a good deal of preseason, and we're not going to put a timetable (on a return).”
This suggests that the injury is far from minor and it may take Leonard some time to get up to full speed this season.
Questionable offseason moves
Normally an example of a perfectly run organization the Spurs' front office made head-scratching moves this summer. Jonathan Simmons was allowed to walk to Orlando, Rudy Gay was acquired in free agency and Pau Gasol was signed to a three-year extension.
Simmons was one of San Antonio’s most promising young performers last year and provided fantastic energy off the bench which is crucial for an aging roster. The decision to let him leave for a big payday in Orlando seemed to fly in the face of San Antonio’s policy of developing and retaining young talent.
He will be replaced by veteran Gay who came at a cut-price in free agency following a disappointing time with the Sacramento Kings. Gay is a proficient scorer who has averaged almost 20 points per game throughout his career but his get-buckets mentality seems an awkward fit with the Spurs’ team-first philosophy.
By far the most bizarre move from SA's front office was the decision to hand out a three-year, $49-million extension to the 37-year-old Gasol. The Spaniard has been an outstanding player over his NBA career but is on the decline. He will have turned 40 by the time this contract runs out and it seems unlikely any other team will want to take on his contract should San Antonio wish to get rid of him.
Popovich has always been a magician at getting the most out of a ragtag bunch of misfits, elevating them to more than the sum of their parts. However, it seems this year Pop will have to weave more of his magic than ever before.
The LaMarcus Aldridge problem
When the Spurs signed LaMarcus Aldridge two seasons ago, they envisioned him as the co-star that Leonard would need as he entered his prime. Whilst Aldridge has flashed the talent that made him an All-Star in Portland his performances have been inconsistent, especially in the playoffs.
There is a sense that Aldridge’s skillset is becoming increasingly marginalized in the NBA. He is a big man with a slick mid-range and post game who does most of his scoring from within 16 feet. Aldridge is not a great rebounder or defender, especially on the perimeter, and this has made him an awkward fit in today’s three-point happy league.
The Spurs decided not to trade Aldridge in the offseason, perhaps a smart move considering his value was at an all-time low following his disappearing act in the playoffs. However, the fact he has not provided the Spurs with the production they expected cannot be ignored.
If the Spurs are to make the most out of Leonard’s prime they need to surround him with the right pieces. After a two-season experiment, it would seem that Aldridge is not the right fit as the number two next to Kawhi.
Whilst the rest of the Western Conference is engaged in one of the most intense arms races the NBA has ever seen, the Spurs have stood still. In Popovich the Spurs have one of the few coaches who could make it work but for the first time in nearly two decades there are dark clouds forming over San Antonio.
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