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THE SAN ANTONIO SPURS still had flickering postseason hopes as they prepared for their regular-season finale in Dallas last April. Not that it had been a priority.
San Antonio had made a series of moves over the previous months that signaled a shift into a rebuilding period. The Spurs didn’t attempt to keep their leading scorer DeMar DeRozan in free agency, instead working with his agent to orchestrate a sign-and-trade deal with the Chicago Bulls. San Antonio moved valued veterans Thaddeus Young and Derrick White at the trade deadline to Eastern Conference contenders.
Those moves netted four future first-round picks — and seemingly pulled the plug on the Spurs’ competitive aspirations for the 2021-22 season.
However, someone had to claim the Western Conference’s final play-in bid. And due to injuries and incompetence, not necessarily in that order, the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings fell short. The teams near the bottom of the West standings showed no interest.
The politically correct way to put it is that those teams prioritized player development, but the reality is there were some egregious tanking measures taken, such as giving major minutes to G League call-ups who had no legitimate chances of NBA futures.
So, um, why didn’t the Spurs — whose season ended with a road loss to the New Orleans Pelicans in the first play-in game — go that route instead of remaining in the NBA’s version of purgatory?
“There’s a lot to unpack there,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said before that regular-season finale in Dallas. “Part of it is, it’s just not who we are. It’s not who I am. I can’t operate like that. Which might not be the most intelligent overall philosophy to have, and I get that. …
“We’re going to go ahead and compete.”
Popovich, who broke the NBA’s record for all-time wins with his 1,336th in March, added that the Spurs’ approach allowed the young players on the roster to “gain a real understanding of a philosophically moral space where it’s the right thing to do, to continue to compete.”
He said he wouldn’t know how to go to his team “with a wink and a nod” if the plan was anything different.
“You do the players a disservice if they’re not able to go out and perform to the best of their ability,” Popovich said. “I think the lessons to be learned are very important as their careers advance.
“I understand the opposite. I just can’t do it.”
But the Spurs’ moves over the past 18 months — especially this summer’s deal that sent All-Star guard Dejounte Murray to the Atlanta Hawks — have all but assured they wouldn’t be stuck in the NBA’s middle again this season.
The franchise has created “optionality,” as general manager Brian Wright said, the potential to build via the draft, trades or in free agency. The Spurs are more than $30 million under the salary cap — and could have more than twice as much space this summer if they don’t use some of it in trades with salary-dumping teams — and a surplus of picks.
Murray led San Antonio in scoring, assists and steals while ranking second in rebounds last season, but the Spurs didn’t replace any of the 25-year-old’s production in the deal. They reached a buyout with veteran forward Danilo Gallinari, whose salary was necessary to make the trade math work.
The compensation the Spurs coveted for Murray, a player too talented to fit in a major rebuild who is due a massive raise in two years, were future first-round picks. They got three — a heavily protected Charlotte pick and Atlanta’s unprotected 2025 and 2027 selections — plus 2026 swap rights with the Hawks.
Wright’s cell phone figures to be relentlessly ringing in the weeks leading up to the Feb. 9 trade deadline, as teams inquire about veterans such as center Jakob Poeltl, forward Doug McDermott and guard Josh Richardson and/or attempt to utilize the Spurs’ cap space.
“You start at the bottom and teach. That’s the most fun of all of it. When the games come, everybody likes the competitiveness. But watching young kids grow is really the joy.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich
Of course, the Murray deal also drastically improved the Spurs’ odds of landing high in a loaded 2023 lottery headlined by 7-foot-4 Frenchman Victor Wembanyama, who is considered a generational prospect. With a roster that includes four teens and nine players 23 or younger, San Antonio sits at the bottom of the West standings with a 9-19 record entering Saturday’s game against the Miami Heat in Mexico City (5 p.m. ET on NBA TV).
“In a season like this one with the draft, everything gets overmagnified about tanking or anything like that,” Wright told ESPN. “It’s never been about that, and it won’t ever be about that. You’re younger and this is a league where you have to learn how to win, and it takes time. It takes the standards and habits and repetitions and doing the right thing, and that’s what this coaching staff has done for a long time, and that’s what these players are learning right now. We will get there.
“But the biggest thing is it was not about [tanking]. It was about finding the pathways that allow for sustained success over time, which is what [the Spurs] had for so many years, and what do we need to give ourselves the best chance of getting there?”
REMINDERS OF SAN ANTONIO’S recent, extended reign among the NBA’s elite loom all around the franchise, particularly with the organization’s 50th season in San Antonio featuring various celebrations of the best times over the previous half century.
Banners from the Spurs’ five NBA championships won under Popovich’s watch hang in the AT&T Center rafters, as well as on the wall behind the baseline at the team’s practice facility, which will be replaced by a state-of-the-art complex next season. The mere presence of Popovich, 73, who has brushed aside questions of retirement over the last few years provides constant imagery of the Spurs’ historic success.
Hall of Famers who were cornerstones in Popovich’s dynasty remain visible around the team. David Robinson frequently sits courtside at home games. Manu Ginobili has a role in the front office as special advisor to basketball operations and is a regular at practices and games. Tim Duncan often plays in pickup games with players who are out of the rotation or returning from injuries.
The Spurs reached the playoffs in Popovich’s first 22 full seasons as coach, matching the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers‘ stretch that started in 1950 for the longest postseason streak in league history. The 1996-97 season, when Popovich the general manager fired coach Bob Hill after a 3-15 start and put himself on the bench, offers proof of the potential benefits of being really bad at the right time.
The Spurs had won 59 games the previous season and expected to contend again with a roster built around Robinson, a perennial All-Star and former MVP in his prime. He missed those first 18 games due to a back injury. San Antonio went 3-3 in Popovich’s first six games as coach with Robinson in the lineup, but Robinson broke his foot, an injury that originally was expected to have a six-week recovery but sidelined him for the rest of the season. San Antonio finished 20-62 and got some lottery luck, leapfrogging the Boston Celtics for the No. 1 overall pick and the right to draft Duncan, a generational 6-foot-11 prospect.
The rest is history, as Robinson returned and the Spurs started their playoff streak with a 56-win campaign the next season and won the first of their five titles in Duncan’s second year, when he won Finals MVP.
This season also takes Popovich back to his original roots as a head coach, when he was hired at Division-III Pomona-Pitzer in 1979. His first team went 2-22, as Popovich inherited a roster that included several players who didn’t even make their high school teams.
The players’ talent levels are obviously much higher with these Spurs than those Sagehens, but relative to the competition, the expectations aren’t that much different. Popovich sees similarities in the jobs, with teaching the priority and success judged by progress, not the standings. He finds joy in improvement, individually and collectively, whether it’s skill development or building basketball IQ.
“What’s most enjoyable is they are like young, clean slates,” Popovich said during a recent pregame media availability. “You get to fill it up with each one of them. You start at the bottom and teach. That’s the most fun of all of it. When the games come, everybody likes the competitiveness. But watching young kids grow is really the joy.”
THE LATE JUNE news release announcing the hire of assistant coach Brett Brown included a one-sentence quote that is vintage Pop:
“I’m thrilled to be able to hire such a good coach, human being and dinner partner.”
The return of Brown, who spent a total of 12 seasons on Popovich’s staffs in two previous Spurs stints, also brought one of the NBA’s foremost experts in rebuilding to San Antonio. The last time he left the Spurs, it was to become the head coach in Philadelphia at the beginning of “The Process,” a seven-season tenure that started with a total of 47 wins in the first three years and ended with three straight playoff appearances for the 76ers.
“Everything revolves around development,” Brown said after a 117-99 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans earlier this month, when he filled in as head coach after Popovich underwent a minor medical procedure. “It’s a big word. It’s not just, ‘Now they’ve got a jump hook.’ It’s growing them up with NBA habits and terminology and educational stuff on scouting.”
Brown, Wright and others throughout the organization cite Popovich’s experience, perspective and feel for how to approach players. When to holler and when to hug.
“Same Pop every year. Nothing changes,” said Keldon Johnson, 23, who in his fourth season is the second longest tenured player on the Spurs’ roster. “He’s still on us every day. He expects us to get better, and we will get better.”
There are times, Brown acknowledged, that the coaching staff is concerned about the spirit of the young team. They didn’t have to worry about confidence when the Spurs got off to a surprising 5-2 start.
But reality struck with a vengeance: A 43-point rout by the Toronto Raptors, the most lopsided loss in Popovich’s 27-season tenure, opened a 1-14 November. An 11-game losing streak, the longest under Popovich, crept into early December.
Just before that extended funk, the Spurs were rocked by scandal, suddenly releasing 2021 lottery pick Josh Primo days before the team’s former psychologist Dr. Hillary Cauthen filed a lawsuit alleging that Primo repeatedly exposed himself in sessions with her and the team did not act upon her reporting the issue. (After the lawsuit was settled, Spurs CEO R.C. Buford released a statement that, in part, vowed to “collaborate with Dr. Cauthen and other experts to review and improve our workplace processes and procedures.”) As a team, the Spurs responded to the 11-game rut by reeling off three wins in a row, a run that ended with Wednesday’s home loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
There have been encouraging signs from the young potential core players who remain on the roster.
Johnson and Devin Vassell, first-round picks in 2019 and 2020, respectively, have had bursts of scoring brilliance while demonstrating growth in their all-around games. Jeremy Sochan, the Spurs’ 19-year-old 2022 lottery pick, has already proven to be a defensive difference-maker. Tre Jones, 22, is averaging 6.6 assists and 1.9 turnovers in his first season as a full-time starter.
“They love being coached by Pop,” Brown said. “They like it when Pop bites them. You need to have that sting and that bite, so they feel like they’re getting coached [and] they’re getting better. Pop is the best at that. So when do you give them love and when do you bite them? There’s no book to tell you how to do that. You figure out the pulse of the gym.
“That locker room is amazing. Those guys are high-character young men that just want to get better. That’s our job.”
Physical mistakes, such as missing a good shot taken in the flow of the offense, are easily forgiven. Mental errors and lapses of focus draw Popovich’s wrath, whether it’s immediate or in the next day’s film session. For example, when a defensive assignment is blown, it will be a point of emphasis.
“He’s not letting us slack,” Vassell said. “This year, in the next couple of years, it’s building good habits for us. … We’ve got to be coachable.”
NBA schemes and scouting reports, even those watered down for inexperienced players, are complicated. The essence of what Popovich demands from this roster, however, is simple.
“Just play the right way. Have fun, play basketball, do the right things,” said Gorgui Dieng, 32, a reserve big man who is the oldest player on the team and an affable source of wisdom for his young teammates.
“I’ve never heard him talk about win or lose. He just talks about what we can do, things that don’t take talent to do.”
JOHNSON WAS THE lone player on the AT&T Center court about an hour after the Phoenix Suns put the finishing touches on a 133-95 rout of the Spurs on Dec. 4, which was San Antonio’s 11th straight loss. He had returned to the floor after the customary postgame discussion in the locker room to work on his game, wearing his undershirt and game shorts.
Johnson, fresh off signing a four-year, $74 million contract extension in the summer, got off to a phenomenal start this season. He averaged 23.6 points in the first dozen games, shooting 46.2% from the floor and 42.9% from 3-point range. But he was in the midst of a miserable slump as the Spurs endured their skid. He had continued shooting at a high volume, but Johnson’s efficiency had plummeted.
“They get that this is their year to test-drive some things, experiment with some things,” Brown said.
At this moment, Johnson specifically went to work on “his moonball,” as Brown calls the wing’s 3-point shot. Johnson had made only 12 of 62 3-point attempts in the previous eight games, including 1-of-5 that afternoon.
There had been pockets of empty seats in the crowd throughout the game, and most of the fans filtered out of the arena early in the fourth quarter. By this time, arena workers were the only people in the seating bowls, but there was still one full luxury suite. It was packed with grade school-aged boys who enthusiastically cheered Johnson throughout his shooting session while staffers rebounded for him.
“That’s three in a row!” a boy hollered after a few consecutive swishes.
In an uncharacteristic season like this one for the Spurs — filled with losing streaks and draft discussion but plenty of development — the joy comes in the process, and the small victories should be savored.