The San Antonio Spurs are one of the NBA franchises most synonymous with success since the Chicago Bulls during the Michael Jordan era. Their legendary coach, Gregg Popovich, oversaw a 22-year playoff streak from 1998-2019. That is tied for the longest in NBA history. Over that stretch, San Antonio won five championships on the backs of a famously ragtag group of key players.
The dynasty was led by Tim Duncan, a number one overall pick. The other key players in the dynasty included Tony Parker, who was drafted 28th, Manu Ginobili, who was drafted 57th, and Kawhi Leonard, a 15th-overall pick.
They have a knack for finding talent late in the draft and then developing them into perennial All-Stars. All of those players are gone, but history seems to be repeating itself. In their third year since Leonard’s departure, they are 15-11, and 6th in the Western Conference.
San Antonio Spurs Reliant on Player Development
Expectations for this year’s San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs traded Leonard to the Toronto Raptors after a seemingly mutual mistrust developed. In return, they received DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. These new additions along with LaMarcus Aldridge were able to get the Spurs back to the seventh seed during the 2018-19 campaign, but the next year the streak would end.
In the 2019-20 season, the Spurs finished 11th in the Western Conference, but it never felt like a rebuild. It seemed like the team was in limbo. The veterans on the team including DeRozan, Aldridge, and Rudy Gay were seemingly too old to carry a team. The beginnings of their young core including Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker were also too young.
Heading into this season, it seemed it would be much of the same. San Antonio has had very few lottery picks on account of their two-straight decades of making the playoffs. It was hard to imagine their young players would progress at the rate needed to make them playoff contenders. That of course was wrong, as their young core has improved immensely from last season to this one.
Young players’ progression
We’re unsure what the Spurs do in practice or with their G-League affiliate but it absolutely works because their young players are able to improve with very little NBA game time. Keldon Johnson has become the team’s starting small forward in his second year in the league. He’s averaging 14.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. This might be unremarkable were it not for the fact that he played in only 17 games in his first season, only starting one.
Their young core is composed almost entirely of players who did not have immediate individual success in the league. During his rookie year, Walker averaged 2.6 points per game, and now in his third year averages 10.8 a night. In White’s fourth year, he’s averaging 9.9 points per night. In Murray’s fifth year, he’s putting up 14.7 points per game.
There is never much expected of Spurs’ rookies, and yet they improve consistently year-to-year until they are solid players. This past offseason, the team had its first lottery pick in decades and selected Devin Vassell with the 11th pick. He’s averaging 5.7 points per game, which isn’t going to win him any hardware, but when compared to the rookie numbers of the other San Antonio draftees, is ahead of the curve.
Spurs fans should be very excited for Vassell if he develops at the rate of Murray or Walker. The 41st-overall pick, Tre Jones, is only averaging two points per game, but we can’t count out his development rate either.
The improvement of San Antonio’s young players is the main reason for the team’s success, but there are some other factors. The older players have been willing to change their games.
Since DeRozan and Aldridge have been on the Spurs, the team has struggled when they were on the floor at the same time. The main reason for that is that both are prolific mid-range shooters who rarely shoot threes.
At 35-years-old, Aldridge has seen his game decline in recent years, but he seems to be changing his game. He’s averaging 14.1 points per game, which is his lowest average since his rookie year, but he’s taking the most threes of his career. Last year he attempted three three-point attempts per game, and this year it has increased to 3.7. Even though he isn’t as good of a scorer as he once was, he’s now providing floor spacing.
With such a small team, DeRozan has had to essentially play power forward despite being a shooting guard for his entire career. He’s still averaging more than 20 points per game and might be an All-Star.
The combination of older players reinvented their games and the lightning-quick speed of the young core’s development has Spurs fans hopeful for another long run of playoff appearances.
Embed from Getty Images