The San Antonio Spurs are shifting to a new era. Injuries to their youth are setting back their developmental opportunities, which may be good for Spurs.
In 1997, the San Antonio Spurs dropped the interim tag on head coach Gregg Popovich. They drafted Tim Duncan first overall. From this point on, San Antonio won five championships and won more than 60 percent of their games in each season over a 14-year stretch. They were in a small market. They were not flashy. But they built an un-impenetrable culture that fueled competition and bred winning. No matter the situation around the league, doubting the Spurs was a fool’s errand.
And then, San Antonio’s dynastic run quickly screeched to a halt. In a 26-month period, Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili retired. And, more importantly, Kawhi Leonard was traded.
The Spurs had opportunities to take two different paths with the deal they accepted for Leonard — collecting a bunch of young assets for a rebuild. They could have completely torn the roster to the ground, trading away LaMarcus Aldridge as well. Or, they could have gotten a star back and tried to compete. They did just that, or at least tried to walk the middle ground, acquiring DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick from Toronto.
Poeltl and the pick were supplemental assets to the true focal point of the deal: DeRozan. An All-Star in the East, San Antonio sent a clear signal to the league: we are not going to curl up and chase ping pong balls. DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are both All-Stars — that’s a fact. Both can score with the best of them. It’s a changed league, though, and San Antonio won’t be the only team in the West with two All-Stars.
With a roster devoid of Parker and the retired Ginobili, an opportunity had opened up for the next generation of Spurs basketball. Winning is the goal season but developing the future may be just as important.
Dejounte Murray could have led that charge. Another classic Spurs late-first-rounder with the backing of Popovich, Murray seems destined to be a core piece of the next great Spurs team. Point guards develop slowly. Murray is 22 and entering his third season and had already become one of the best defensive guards in the league. Another leap could have taken him to the tier of foundational stardom. But on San Antonio’s third preseason game, Murray tore his ACL and will miss the entirety of the 2018-19 season.
Murray won’t be the only young guard missing time to start the season, either. Lottery pick Lonnie Walker IV suffered a tear in his right meniscus early in the preseason and will miss the first month-plus of the Spurs season. Derrick White, another potential late-first-round gem and Murray’s likely direct replacement, suffered a plantar fascia tear in his right foot and could also miss more than a month to start the season.
The Murray injury is obviously the one that hurts the most. He arguably has the most potential of the three above guards mentioned and suffered a much more serious injury. Assuming they recover fully, Walker and White won’t miss a ton of time and should come back to see big roles. Potential aside, it’s difficult to gauge how good White and Walker can actually be this season. White was efficient last season but played just 139 minutes in 17 total games. Murray is a springy secondary guard that should provide some spacing, but he is also a rookie.
They would get play if they were healthy now, and they will get play when they do return from injury. But the Spurs, looking to balance youth development and competitiveness, may benefit from being forced to play more solidified guards. Patty Mills wasn’t great last season, but he’s an efficient ball-handler and an above-average shooter. Bryn Forbes is a good off-ball shooter. When times get tough, Marco Belinelli can create magic.
The Clippers didn’t have room for sophomore guard Jawun Evans, but he probably deserves to be on an NBA roster. If San Antonio gets desperate, they can always turn to him as well.
One could argue that the injuries to Murray, White, and Walker could actually help the Spurs win more games this season. Murray is a good defender but he can’t shoot. White and Walker are bound to make youthful mistakes. In a league full of talent, the margin for error is small. With non-shooters DeRozan and Aldridge dominating the ball, even a perfectly-executed Spurs offense is behind the curve. Murray would only compound that issue.
Mills is far from perfect, and on most teams, isn’t a starter. But he is entering his eighth season with the Spurs. He knows what is expected of him and he knows his role. Forbes has 110 games in the system and was impactful last season. Belinelli has been there, done that — with a 2014-15 championship ring on his finger.
Long-term, we don’t know who the Spurs are. The Spurs probably don’t know what they will be. Seeing Murray, White, and Walker play may — or may not — help them figure that out. But for now, the goal is winning. Healthy or not, they may miss out on the playoffs. On top of DeRozan and Aldridge’s $50 million paychecks, Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay, and Belinelli will make $33 million combined this season. They are tailored to compete, not to make development a key focus. Especially when all the players they need to develop are nursing injuries.
Long-term, the injuries hurt. But now, for the Spurs, it may benefit them to play the known commodities. They will eventually make use of White and Walker, perhaps even this season. But to begin the season, a veteran-led attack may bear more fruit.