We’re certainly past the golden age of Spurs basketball—five years removed from the franchise’s last championship. Any hopes of elongating the team’s title window officially ended with the Kawhi Leonard trade in July 2018, though it was likely over sometime over the tumultuous 2017-18 season. San Antonio remains a model NBA franchise and a Western Conference playoff stalwart. But Gregg Popovich’s crew has stalled with two consecutive first-round exits, and there is no guarantee of a playoff spot in 2019-20. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are under contract for two more seasons. With either Popovich or a new coach (there are a pair of intriguing replacements) how can the franchise stabilize its future? The Spurs’ backcourt holds the keys.
The Spurs have invested plenty in their backcourt and wings in recent years. They drafted point guard Dejounte Murray out of Washington in the first round of the 2016 draft, then doubled down with Colorado’s Derrick White in the 2017 draft. The two lead guards were joined by a pair of wings in 2018 and 2019, with San Antonio selecting Miami’s Lonnie Walker and Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson in the first round. It wouldn’t be shocking to see DeRozan leave San Antonio before July 2021, more likely being dealt as an expiring next season. If the Spurs aren’t willing to re-up on a deal for DeRozan, its wealth of backcourt draft picks will need to lead the way in the next decade.
San Antonio’s first rounders in 2016 and 2017 provide the greatest reason for optimism. Murray is already among one of the elite defensive guards in basketball, earning All-Defense honors in 2017-18, just his second season in the league. The 22-year-old entered last season widely touted as a potential breakout candidate before a torn ACL. Murray played on three of San Antonio’s top four three-man lineups by net-rating last season. Only six defenders posted a better defensive rating in the entire NBA. Murray’s shot remains a work in progress, but he grew as a playmaker in his second season. If he can regain his pre-injury athleticism, Murray projects to be a building block in the Lone Star State for years to come.
Murray fits the athletic profile of a potential All-Star in the backcourt. He’s 6’5” with an even longer wingspan, twitchy and stout defensively. White isn’t built in the same mold. Lightly recruited out of high school before joining Colorado as a transfer from Division II, White doesn’t boast an imposing frame. Yet he’s an impact defender and an impressive leaper near the tin, unafraid to attack the rim with authority. White dominated the Nuggets with 36 points in Game 3 of the first round last season, then continued his rise by earning a spot on Team USA at the FIBA World Cup. He appears to be garnering the same preseason praise as Murray from a year ago.
Aldridge is four years older than DeRozan, though he may be the better holdover from the previous era in the first half of the 2020s. He’ll command a slashed price compared to DeRozan as a big in his mid-30s, and Popovich is well versed in milking the best from frontcourt players in their final seasons. Aldridge’s game should age well. Only five players have more points this decade. He’s still a gravitational offensive force, and on some nights, he’s borderline unstoppable. San Antonio’s defensive prowess on the perimeter should mask his flaws on that end. Some Popovich magic always helps. Duncan was the leader of top-ten defenses on a yearly basis. San Antonio sunk below league average last season, but can bounce back near the top 10 in 2019-20 with a healthy crew around Aldridge.
2021 will likely mark a flashpoint for the Spurs. Their two headliners can potentially leave town, and the next face of the franchise has yet to present himself. Uncertainty looms. There may be calls for a tankathon in south Texas more than two decades after a complete cratering landed Tim Duncan out of Wake Forest. The next franchise cornerstone is just one tank away. But that logic ignores the context of the market, one of the smallest in the NBA. The Spurs have been a pillar of success since joining the NBA in 1976-77, consistently reaching the postseason far before Popovich was named head coach in 1996. The Process is far from universal, and it feels especially ill-suited in San Antonio.
If top three picks aren’t on the horizon in the coming years, it will be up to Murray, White and Co. to keep the Spurs afloat in a historically competitive conference. Aldridge and DeRozan still run the show for now, and the Spurs’ playoff chances in 2020 still land on their shoulders. The next decade may prove more volatile, and it will be up to San Antonio’s guards to weather the storm.