The San Antonio Spurs are heading for a third season on the bounce without a playoff appearance. The Spurs are well off the pace in the Western Conference and already looking ahead to the next campaign after allowing point guard Bryn Forbes to join the Denver Nuggets in the trade deal.
Gregg Popovich still has a reason for his team to press forward given that he is only a handful of victories away from becoming the winningest coach in NBA history. Popovich has brought an unmatched level of success to the Spurs during his incredible 26-year tenure with the franchise.
However, at the age of 72, his magic is beginning to wear off and the Spurs are heading towards obscurity in the NBA after defining all the characteristics of a model franchise. At the peak of their powers, the Spurs would be considered the favourites in the basketball betting odds to win the majority of their games and the leading contenders for the Western Conference crown. Since the departure of Kawhi Leonard, however, the Spurs have not been competitive in the conference, losing their only playoff game in the 2018/19 season to the Nuggets.
Over the past two years, Popovich has struggled amid the talent at his disposal. He has worked wonders with solid players in the past, but the strength of San Antonio lay in the one superstar that allowed the rest of the team to flow on the court. Duncan was the star for the first 18 years of Popovich’s reign, excelling not only in his role as a forward but also as a perfect leader on the court. Few players epitomised character and composure under pressure more than Duncan not only in the era but in the history of the NBA.
The succession plan appeared to be in place with Leonard taking over the mantle after being the driving force behind San Antonio’s surge to the NBA Championship in the 2013/14 season. He was not short of outstanding to keep LeBron James and the Miami Heat on their heels, winning Finals MVP. The issue with Leonard was not his talent, but he lacked the same cohesion alongside Popovich that Duncan enjoyed and thrived in his role as a result.
Popovich could not get through to Leonard in the same manner, who sought a move to his hometown Los Angeles over all else. Leonard gave his all while on the court for the majority of his tenure, including a heroic performance in the 2016/17 post-season. It appeared the Spurs were on their way to victory in the game of the Western Conference Finals before Leonard fell on the foot of Zaza Pachulia and was subsequently ruled out for the rest of the series. A year later Leonard was traded to the Toronto Raptors and the rest is history.
Popovich proved he could still get a tune out of his team with a superstar in place. However, since then the lure of San Antonio and Popovich has not been enough to attract star names, notably losing DeMar DeRozan in the last off-season. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker and Devin Vassell are solid players on the court but are not the number one standout or arguably the level of a number two on an elite team. Johnson and Vassell are up-and-coming players and could develop over time along with Josh Primo, but it is not a factor that Popovich has at his disposal at 72. It is unlikely that San Antonio will make a splash in free agency or the draft, it is not their style. Once Popovich has secured legacy once and for all, then the future of the Spurs, both in the short and long term, may lay in the hands of a less experienced man.