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Six Things to Know About the Golden State Warriors

Basketball Insiders’ series six things you need to know continues with the Golden State Warriors.

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The Golden State Warriors were the darlings of the first two playoff rounds in 2013 before finally succumbing to the San Antonio Spurs in six games. After a blockbuster offseason brought swingman Andre Iguodala from the vanquished Denver Nuggets, the Warriors looked poised to move into the league’s elite. At times the team has looked that way, especially when their dominating starting unit plays together. Other times, the team has played .500 ball. As the season moves towards the All-Star break, here are six things you need to know about the Golden State Warriors.

David Lee’s Defense Isn’t So Bad Anymore

The 2013 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference saw Lee became the poster child for terrible interior defense courtesy of research by Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry, which showed that teams made an inordinate number of shots when Lee was defending near the rim. Shortly thereafter, Lee essentially missed the Warriors’ surprise 2013 playoff run after tearing a hip flexor in Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets. After this success sans Lee, many posited that the Warriors would be better off playing a four-out style with a three-point shooter like Harrison Barnes or Draymond Green at power forward.

Lee apparently took the criticism of his defense to heart, losing five percent body fat in the offseason and getting into better cardiovascular shape.  This was sorely needed; Lee’s biggest problem in recent years had been sustaining multiple efforts and getting into the right position on defense. His hard work has paid off, as the Warriors allow only 98.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.* This year, Lee has allowed 49.1 percent shooting while defending the rim, a massive decrease from last year’s 61 percent as noted by Goldsberry. Indeed, that number ranks a very respectable 21st in the league out of 61 players who defend four or more shots per game at the rim. Subjectively, his pick and roll defense and rotations have improved mightily over past years. Lee has even displayed stout post defense of late, forcing LaMarcus Aldridge into a miserable 2-14 shooting night and even doing well against the powerful Blake Griffin during the times they were matched up on Thursday.

 *In fairness, most of the credit for this solid number should go to defensive stalwarts Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, with whom Lee shares most of his minutes. But at the very least it can be said that Lee is not preventing the Warriors from defending well, which could not be said in past years.

Lee will never possess the imposing physical gifts of the best interior defenders. He remains a liability at times due to his below average weight, length, and two foot jumping ability compared to many power forwards. He is still prone to getting bludgeoned in the post at times, his defensive rebounding has been below average,* and he has blocked 16 shots all year. These problems are compounded when he is forced to play center with some of Golden State’s bench units, or when coach Mark Jackson has benched Andrew Bogut late in games.

 *Especially at the end of games or when he has to box out centers on free throws.

But despite these warts, Lee’s failings are now largely the result of his physical limitations instead of a lack of effort, awareness or conditioning. In 2013-14, Lee competes as hard as he needs to and is now close to maximizing his limited defensive potential.

The Warriors Are Most Likely to Be the Sixth Seed

Predicting a Warriors playoff berth does not exactly go against the grain of conventional wisdom, but after a recent spate of home losses to the Nuggets, Pacers, Timberwolves and Wizards took the shine off a franchise-best East Coast road trip it suddenly appeared as if their assumed playoff position might be vulnerable. But recent events have bolstered the Dubs’ chances to a near certainty. The Warriors righted the ship with back to back wins against the Clippers and Jazz. But perhaps more importantly, the surging Grizzlies (Mike Conley) and Wolves (Nikola Pekovic) suffered ankle injuries to one of their top two players that should have them both out a week and potentially longer. Meanwhile, Dallas does not appear to have the personnel on defense to make a significant move. All of the aforementioned competition is at least 2 games back in the standings.

The Warriors are in seventh position in the conference, in a virtual tie with Phoenix for sixth. Mark Jackson’s squad has a better point differential than the Suns, and Eric Bledsoe should still be out for a while. The Warriors seem likely to pass the Suns, pending any potential trades by Phoenix.

At 3.5 games behind the Clippers for the fourth seed, Golden State is unlikely to seize homecourt advantage in the first round. But getting at least the sixth seed is paramount for the Warriors. This would allow them to avoid a first round matchup as a heavy underdog against likely one and two seeds Oklahoma City and San Antonio. Instead, the likely opponent would be Portland or the Clippers, both of which the Warriors would stand a decent chance of beating. In fact, with little difference between those two potential opponents (at least at this juncture), the sixth seed might serve the Warriors better than the fifth seed, currently held by the Rockets. This would allow them to avoid a matchup against first-seeded Oklahoma City until the conference finals. As proven in last year’s playoffs before Bogut and Stephen Curry were injured, the Warriors matchup reasonably well with projected second seed San Antonio, though they would still be an underdog in a series against a healthy Spurs team.

The Warriors Need Klay Thompson to Diversify His Game

The 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft is a great three-point shooter and solid defender. Those two things alone make him a valuable player. The problem is that those two things are alone—he does virtually nothing else well. The Washington State product is 30th among shooting guards in PER due to his lack of rebounds, assists, steals and free throws. The Warriors rank a disappointing 16th offensively by points per possession, a very poor result for a team featuring the Mark Jackson-christened best shooting backcourt in NBA history.

Part of the problem is how one-dimensional Thompson is on offense. Passing is a particularly neglected aspect of his game. Thompson is one of the worst and least frequent passers among the league’s guards. His assists per 36 minutes ranks 50th among the 54 guards who have qualified for the minutes leaderboard and have a usage rate above the league average of 20 percent. Moreover, he averages a mere 20 passes per game in his 38 minutes per game. How bad is that? Among the 116 players at all positions who play 30 minutes per game or more, Thompson ranks 116th in passes per game.

This is not to imply that Thompson is selfish or takes an inordinate number of bad shots. His role is to shoot the ball. At 41 percent from deep, pretty much any shot he takes out there is a good one. And while his True Shooting Percentage is disappointingly near the league’s average due to his propensity to take long twos and inability to get to the line,* he is not mindlessly gunning away. But, the only way Thompson helps the Warriors’ offense is by shooting from the outside. That certainly has value outside of the box score statistics, as his man must remain glued to him at all times. Unfortunately, his offensive impact is limited because he is not a passing threat when he does try to create on his own, whether off a close out or postups.

*Thompson might be well-served to watch tape of guys like Reggie Miller and Richard Hamilton, two players who got to the line at solid rates despite their jumpshot-based games. However, emulating them may not be possible since Thompson lacks the athleticism of even those players.

As a third year player, Thompson will be eligible for an extension to his rookie contract this offseason. The negotiations will be fascinating, as there are many conflicting indicators on his value.

The Warriors Cannot Create Without Curry

A season-long problem for the Dubs has been their putrid offense without Curry on the floor. With him, they score 108.8 points/100; without him that drops to 89.7. The former rate would nearly lead the league, the latter is far below the worst team in the league. Why are they so bad without Curry? He is their only real offensive creator. He ranks in the 84th percentile in points per possession out of the pick and roll. Thompson ranks second on the team at the 40th percentile, but as discussed he cannot create for others. The rest of their perimeter players, namely Harrison Barnes (22nd percentile), Andre Iguodala (6th) and Jordan Crawford (3rd), are even worse.* Until the Warriors can find someone else to create offense out of basketball’s most basic play, they will continue to struggle without Curry on the floor.

*Crawford was brought in to upgrade the shot creation on the second unit, and he has—departed point guard Toney Douglas was only in the 2nd percentile out of the pick and roll.

Andre Iguodala is Essential to the Defense

Andrew Bogut has gotten the most buzz as the key to the Warriors’ defense, and his rim protection and defensive rebounding have been fantastic in his first healthy season in several years. Nonetheless, Andre Iguodala has the most impressive on/off court numbers on that end. With Iguodala in the game, the Warriors allow a mere 95.8 points/100, which would rank second in the league. Without him, the D falls to below league average at 103.7 points/100. Subjectively, Iguodala has not appeared to be the individual stopper he once was, especially upon returning from his hamstring injury. However, his team defense is still outstanding, especially against teams without a dominant wing. He was all over the floor in recent home victories when the Dubs shut down the elite Portland and Clippers offenses.

Get Used to This Team

For better or for worse, this Warriors starting five will likely be in town for quite a while. Curry is in the first year of a 4-year, $44 million contract extension that may be the best value non-rookie contract in the league. Bogut just signed a 3-year, $36 million extension that kicks in next season. Iguodala is in the first year of a 4-year, $48 million deal he signed as a free agent over the summer. And Lee still has 2 years and $30.5 million remaining after this year on the 6-year, $79.5 million contract signed in the summer of 2010. Meanwhile, Thompson is under team control for at least another year, and the Warriors can match any offer to him as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015 if they fail to agree on an extension this offseason. Finally, the Warriors gave up 2014 and 2017 first round picks to Utah to help clear salary for the Iguodala signing, so they are prohibited from trading any first rounders aside from their 2019 selection.

In my recent interview with him,  General Manager Bob Myers intimated that the Warriors still have flexibility to add to the roster. I must respectfully disagree. The Warriors really have no major trade chips left aside from Thompson and Harrison Barnes, who has fallen short of the high expectations many (though not your writer) had for him in his second year. Dealing Thompson would leave the Warriors with a giant hole at shooting guard, so that seems unlikely. That would leave a potential trade of Barnes’ perceived upside for a legitimate third big man or a more established wing scorer. It is unclear how much value Barnes still has around the league, but one would imagine the Warriors will simply hold onto him and hope he can evolve into the fourth scorer this team desperately needs right now.

With no salary cap space, few tradeable assets, no 2014 first-rounder and big long-term contracts for their key players, this is likely the Warriors’ team for at least the next two seasons.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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Now What? – Portland Trail Blazers

From Neil Olshey’s top choice to replace Terry Stotts to whether they should trade CJ McCollum and who they might get for him, Bobby Krivitsky examines what’s next for the Portland Trail Blazers as they work to convince Damian Lillard to stay.

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ search for a new head coach has not gotten off to a smooth start. Less than 24 hours after Damian Lillard made it known Jason Kidd was his top preference to replace Terry Stotts, Kidd withdrew his name from the running.

According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups, San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, University of South Carolina and USA Women’s coach Dawn Staley, Brooklyn Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni, and Spurs executive Brent Barry are among Portland’s top candidates.

It’s vital that throughout this process, the Trail Blazers respect Lillard’s opinions. That doesn’t mean they have to hire one of their franchise player’s top choices, but if what he has to say isn’t holding the proper weight, it could fracture the relationship. According to NBA reporter Sean Highkin, Billups, who has a good relationship with Lillard, is Olshey’s preferred candidate.

Speaking of Olshey, in an attempt to deflect blame, he took an unnecessary parting shot at Stotts during his exit interview following the Trail Blazers getting eliminated by a depleted Denver Nuggets team in six games. 

He also said not to expect many changes to the Trail Blazers roster.

To put it mildly, it’s in poor taste for Olshey to show prospective head coaching candidates they shouldn’t expect him to have their back if the situation turns sour. On top of that and the uncertainty regarding whether Lillard will ask to get traded this summer, those interviewing for this position shouldn’t anticipate many roster changes despite Portland’s first-round exit, which marked the fourth time that’s happened in the last five years.

There’s also the possibility the amount of roster turnover is small but significant. To that effect, it may be time for Portland to break up its potent backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum. The latter can still play at a high level, as evidenced by him averaging 23.1 points, 4.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and only 1.4 turnovers per game during the regular season. He then produced 20.7 points, six rebounds and 4.3 dimes per contest in the six-game series against the Nuggets.

However, the Trail Blazers have struggled to overcome their lack of balance between their offensive proficiency and defensive shortcomings. McCollum turns 30-years-old in September, and while there may not be a dip in his performance, it’s hard to believe now is when Portland will start experiencing more postseason success, especially if Olshey’s telling the truth about minimal changes to the roster.

Trading McCollum for someone who can help make the team more dynamic while flanking Lillard as the team’s second-best player could lead to lengthier stays in the playoffs. Two names that come to mind are Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. The former is again experiencing postseason struggles, which could prompt Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, to reconstruct the team’s roster around Joel Embiid. The Sixers’ top-two players remain a clunky fit without a more reliable closer. However, Simmons is a three-time All-Star, he recently got named to the All-Defensive First Team for the second time in his career, and he’s an elite floor general when pushing the tempo. Simmons could also form a potent pick-and-roll partnership with Lillard, including when he turns to one of his most reliable scoring methods in the half-court, faking the handoff, then darting to the rim.

As for Ingram, an All-Star in 2020, this season, he averaged 23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game while converting 38.1 percent of the 6.1 shots he attempted from beyond the arc, which is reflective of his growth as a three-point shooter. He’s far from a lockdown defender, but at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s more versatile on that end than McCollum.

The other decision the Trail Blazers have to make is much easier; whether to re-sign Norman Powell. The former Toronto Raptor quickly acclimated to his new team after Portland acquired him at the trade deadline in exchange for a package centered around Gary Trent. Powell averaged 17 points per game in 27 regular-season contests with the Trail Blazers and maintained that production during the playoffs. It’s a safe bet he won’t exercise his $11.6 million player option. At his exit interview, Olshey reiterated the franchise’s desire to work out a new contract with Powell, saying they “made the Norman Powell trade hoping that he’d be a part of the future.”

As the Trail Blazers work to make sure one of the most loyal athletes in sports doesn’t decide it’s time for him to take his talents elsewhere, it starts with hiring the right head coach. In regards to their roster, the challenge is figuring out how to add upgrades while handcuffed. Portland doesn’t have a first-round pick this year due to the trade to get Robert Covington. They also lack cap space and players who hold great value on the trade market. Parting with McCollum is a choice that could backfire; it’s also possible Lillard voices his opposition to such a move, in which case, the return would have to be better than expected to go through with that decision. Otherwise, the Trail Blazers’ path to improvement centers around making the difficult choice to trade a fan favorite in the hopes that becoming a better-balanced team translates to more success in the playoffs.

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Now What? – Golden State Warriors

The past two seasons have been incredibly difficult for the Golden State Warriors. While they are eager to return to their winning ways, their path back to championship contention could take some time – if it happens at all.

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For the better part of a decade, the Golden State Warriors were the darling of the league. After three championships and five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Warriors fell off the horse. Injuries to their star players and the departure of Kevin Durant left the franchise in a state of despair. Now that they have picked up the pieces, they are ready to get back to being championship contenders.

Nothing in life is that easy though, especially when so many other teams have improved and accumulated their own star power. With another brutal injury to Klay Thompson, an aging Stephen Curry and a devastating injury to their prized rookie James Wiseman, the path back to greatness doesn’t look so golden after all.

The Curry show was in full effect this past season, as the two-time MVP dazzled fans with his play on the way to winning the scoring title. The 33-year old is ready to share the load with his teammates but it could be a rocky start for them as they try to shake the rust off as they battle in the loaded Western Conference.

Several key items must be examined before the Warriors can go back to being a championship-caliber team.

Strengths

Everything the Warriors do rests on the shoulders of Curry, who was spectacular once again this season. The seven-time All-Star earned his second scoring title this year in an epic duel with Bradley Beal. The first time he did so was the 2015-16 season when Golden State won a record 73 games in the regular season but fell short in Game 7 of the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This year was quite different, as they finished 9th in the Western Conference with a 39-33 record.

A healthy Curry is incredibly important but a healthy Thompson is crucial to their success. After missing two full seasons due to two significant injuries, his return to the court is everything to this team. When at 100 percent, the Warriors have the best backcourt in the league but it will take Thompson some time to ease into things and to clear the mental and physical hurdles associated with his return to play.

Draymond Green reminded everyone of his value and his impact on the game. The former Defensive Player of the Year demonstrated that he is still arguably the best defender in the league, capable of guarding multiple positions. His passing and ability to get guys open have always been his greatest strengths. His impact might not be the same if he were playing for the Orlando Magic but he is the perfect fit alongside Curry and Thompson.

Outside of their core three players, one other person to keep in mind is head coach Steve Kerr. With Rick Carlisle’s resignation yesterday, Kerr now becomes the third-longest tenured head coach in the league behind Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra.

Even with a constantly changing roster, Kerr was able to guide this team to the Play-In Tournament. They were able to finish the regular season with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league, and while much of the credit goes to Kerr and Green, Andrew Wiggins deserves some praise as well.

Known as a defensive liability for most of his career, Wiggins finally took pride in his defense this season. He has always had the tools with his length and quickness, but his energy and effort always seemed to be lacking. Whether or not Kerr and the staff challenged him before the season, the fact is he made a major stride in that area, which ultimately helped the team win many close games. If he continues that heading into next season, it will go a long way in getting them back into the mix.

Weaknesses

One major weakness for Golden State this year was rebounding. They ranked 22nd in the league overall and dead last in the offensive variety of that category. This is not a product of playing small ball or just a lack of size in general. The Warriors were notorious for not boxing out and being out-hustled on the glass. The second-chance opportunities for their opponents to score often killed them in close games. This is something that must be addressed both in free agency and with the current players on the roster.

Another area of weakness that can be solved this offseason is the lack of veterans on the roster. Aside from their top four players, nearly everyone on the roster has three years or less of experience. The good news is that many of these guys seem to have some potential. Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall and Mychal Mulder all played a lot of minutes for the Warriors. Sharing the floor with Curry and Green will ultimately help them achieve their goal of becoming a key contributor for this team.

Turnovers were another trouble spot for this team, as they committed 15 per game during the regular season. Only four teams averaged more per game but the Warriors were often dealing with new young players that didn’t have the experience to negate many of those. They also committed 21.6 fouls per game, which was the second-most in the league trailing only the Washington Wizards. Those are two areas that will need to be cleaned up, regardless of who is or isn’t on the floor.

Opportunities

The Warriors will be back in the lottery for next month’s NBA Draft but they likely won’t have a top pick as they did a year ago. They should still be able to acquire some talent that can help them right now, either on the floor or in a future deal. With Thompson and Wiseman still easing their way back, and impending free agents of their own, it will be important for whomever Golden State selects to be ready to contribute immediately.

The Warriors only have two hitting free agency players this summer, in Kelly Oubre Jr and Kent Bazemore. Despite his roller-coaster season, Oubre is seeking around $20 million annually, which the Warriors simply cannot afford. He won’t be needed as much this season with Thompson eventually reclaiming his starting role. Golden State won’t have much to spend but they should be able to find what they are looking for in free agency.

Only six players are under contract after next season, which could open the door for some of the younger players should they carve out a role for themselves. Seven players are set to be on expiring contracts heading into next season. Curry is one of them, as his salary for next season is just under $46 million. The other six players have a combined salary of around $14 million. This will give Golden State some flexibility in terms of trades next season.

Threats

Obviously, the largest threat that looms over this franchise is another setback for Thompson or another injury to one of their other stars. The same can be said for every organization but the way things have transpired for this team over the last two years makes it even more critical. Curry is not getting any younger and while he has reaffirmed his desire to stay with the Warriors, he will be a free agent after next season. If the future looks cloudy at all, it could be in his best interest to explore other options.

Thompson will turn 32 next season and his comeback will be closely monitored around the league. While being a prolific shooter himself, he has much more to offer on the defensive side of the ball than Curry. Earning All-Defensive honors during the 2018-19 season, Thompson has always been an elite-level defender, especially on the perimeter. He uses his feet well to stay in front of his man while not getting his hands in the danger zone against crafty offensive players like James Harden and Trae Young.

While the focus from the outside will be on his offensive game, the key to Golden State’s return to the top-tier will depend on how well he plays on the other side of the ball. Coming off of two devastating injuries, will he still be able to lock down players on the perimeter at his age? Only time will tell, but everyone in this organization will be holding their breath every time he is on the floor.

One thing that Golden State has going for them is the culture they have created. The environment between the players, coaching staff and the front office is a good one. Everyone appears to be on the same page and there is never any panic. The continuity and chemistry they have with each other can be utilized to their advantage over less tenured teams.

The other thing that threatens their future is out of their hands. The Western Conference is oozing with talent. That is nothing new, but the way they are set up doesn’t bode well for Golden State. Playoff teams are loaded with young star players, who will only get better as time marches on.

Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr, Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, Zion Williamson, De’Aaron Fox, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. These are just a handful of names that reside in the Western Conference.

A return to glory would be a wonderful story for this organization, but it won’t be easy. Knowing how this group is wired, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Now What? – San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are down right now. Matt John examines how out they are and how they can get back in in the latest installment of Now What?

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Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ Now What? Series. If you aren’t fully caught up, feel free to read some of our most recent installments such as Indiana and Minnesota first. Today, we take a look at the San Antonio Spurs. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Spurs have missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season, which sounds inconceivable after all they’ve accomplished.

It’s not like the Spurs routinely won the championship year after year, but they were always in the title discussion for what seemed like an eternity. To know that they’re currently not there anymore blows the mind. Granted this large infusion of talented youth has overshadowed San Antonio’s fall from grace, but the postseason doesn’t feel the same without them. So, where are the Spurs at now if they’re not among the NBA’s titans?

Strengths

This comes when you have DeMar DeRozan as the offensive focal point, but, the Spurs drew free throws at a pretty excellent rate this season. They averaged 22 a game, which was good enough to tie for 11th overall in the league according to Basketball-Reference. Admittingly, that’s grasping at straws because not a whole lot about their offense was impressive this season. But this is the strengths section so we won’t dwell on that just yet.

Another strength is that their youth is coming along somewhat. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, and Lonnie Walker IV all took a step forward scoring-wise with bigger roles.

Murray
2019-20: 10.9 points a game
2020-21: 15.7

White:
2019-20: 11.3
2020-21: 15.4

Johnson:
2019-20: 9.1
2020-21: 12.8

Walker:
2019-20: 6.4
2020-21: 11.2

That came at the expense of their field goal efficiency but, again, we’re not going to dwell on weaknesses here. Better yet, progress in all areas takes time.

Lastly, among all that went wrong with the Kawhi trade, Jakob Poeltl has evolved into one of the league’s most effective rim protectors. Opponents’ field goal percentage around the rim dropped by 11.6 percent when he protected the rim this year. So it made sense when they started him at the five full-time over LaMarcus Aldridge.

As you can probably tell, the Spurs don’t boast any notable strengths. Fortunately for them, they don’t boast any glaring weaknesses either.

Weaknesses

Despite NBA offenses being centered around the three, the Spurs still refuse to fully embrace this. According to Basketball-Reference, they ranked dead-last in threes attempted on a nightly basis (28.4) which has been the case for the last few years. This will probably change *if* DeMar DeRozan changes teams this summer. Should that be the case, San Antonio will probably have to be more reliant on taking threes.

Unfortunately, the days of Davis Bertans and Danny Green are long gone. In the past, the Spurs’ made up for their lack of three-point attempts with incredible efficiency. Not anymore. Of all their rotation players, only two of them shot over 36 percent from three – Patty Mills and Rudy Gay – both of whom, much like DeRozan, are best-suited playing for teams competing right now.

The lack of attempts and efficiency in that department played a major role in the Spurs’ 21st-ranked offensive rating this season. If the defense held its own, maybe the Spurs’ issues offensively could have been mitigated a tad, but nope. San Antonio’s defense fell all the way that they tied for 17th overall in defensive rating (112.8) according to Basketball-Reference. That’s not bad enough to be considered a weakness – it’s average – but these are such off-putting numbers for a team coached by Gregg Popovich.

Whether DeRozan stays or not, the Spurs must become more inventive to boost their offense again.

Opportunities

San Antonio’s opportunities are limited, to say the least. Unless they shock the world with their low lottery odds, they probably won’t get an upfront special talent.

So where does that leave them? Well, reading the tea leaves, DeMar DeRozan seemingly has no interest in spending the rest of his prime with the Spurs. In the grand scheme of things, that’s probably what’s best for both sides. All of San Antonio’s best players are 26 and younger. At 31 years old, DeRozan’s talents are probably best used on a team that’s ready to win now.

Besides, with him gone, that gives their youngsters more room to stretch their legs. Dejounte Murray is a jack-of-all-trades oversized point guard who made NBA All-defense his rookie year. Derrick White’s scoring went up once he saw an increase in minutes and usage. Lonnie Walker IV has had his promising stretches. Then there’s Keldon Johnson.

Johnson was a bubble boy wonder last year. Even if it was brief, he showed a promising three-ball, a bag of tricks in iso, and energetic defense. Many thought perhaps the Spurs had another bright star in their midst. That played a role in giving him some unfair expectations coming in. Much like other individual players this season, Johnson may have benefited enough from the bubble’s atmosphere that not taking another step forward in a COVID-shortened should have been foreseeable.

That doesn’t mean his potential does not intrigue anymore. Much like Murray and White, all it may take is time for him to reach it. If taking two steps forward requires taking one step back first, why not?

Threats

Usually, when writing these, we’re required to highlight each team’s strengths and weaknesses. In San Antonio’s case, that’s precisely their problem right now. Nothing about them, good or bad, is truly remarkable. They’ve been reduced to being the NBA’s quintessentially average ball club. They’ve entered the paradox of being too good to be “bad” and too bad to be “good”.

A core of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, and Jakob Poeltl is a solid one to have. No one’s denying the raw potential that some of them have. At the same time, do any of these guys project to be anything special? For years, a Kawhi-type or a Duncan-type or a Robinson-type led the charge on the Spurs’ title hopes. As of right now, none of the players on this roster has that trajectory.

What they have to ask themselves is how do they, at the very least, get back to owning a timeshare in the postseason as they did for over two decades? Sadly, there’s no quick fix for them. They metaphorically won the lottery when they traded for Kawhi Leonard on draft night and literally won the lottery when they drafted Tim Duncan and David Robinson.

The threat to San Antonio is not the lack of talent itself. It’s how they can get more.

To some, San Antonio’s downfall is a welcome change of pace seeing how long they were at the top. Honestly, it’s sad that their reign ended as prematurely as it did because Kawhi wanted other things. It only got worse the following year when they sacrificed Davis Bertans to make room for Marcus Morris before Morris reneged on their agreement.

They’re not completely bankrupt of young talent. But when you compare any of their young players to the likes of Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, or Zion Williamson, do any of them bring the same excitement as those three? Coach Pops has worked too many miracles to count, but much like any elite player, he needs help.

So their options are to either see how their young core turns out or start from scratch for the first time since the eighties. They’re good enough to give this young team a shot for now, but their immediate future is uncertain in the Alamo.

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