Kit Shepard | July 17th, 2018
In 1996, the San Antonio Spurs were hopeful of another strong season. After winning 59 games the previous year and spearheaded by 1995 MVP David Robinson, the team from the Alamo City expected to be contenders again.
However, things did not go to plan. Robinson only featured in six games all season due to back and foot injuries, leaving a 37-year-old Dominique Wilkins responsible for leading the team. Predictably, the Spurs endured a dismal campaign, winning just 20 games and finishing 13th in the Western Conference, leading to two acquisitions of note. First, coach Bob Hill was fired and replaced by general manager Gregg Popovich. Then, in the 1997 draft, the Spurs fortunes improved drastically as they lucked into the first overall pick, selecting power forward Tim Duncan out of Wake Forest University.
The rest is history. Led by the steely Popovich and the egoless Duncan, the Spurs embarked on a run of success that no one has come close to matching in the modern NBA. Between 1999-2014, they won five titles, but what is truly remarkable is their unerring, relentless consistency.
Benjamin Franklin famously wrote that nothing is certain in life apart from death and taxes. Had he been alive today, he would have added the San Antonio Spurs making the playoffs to that list. Due to Popovich’s genius, Duncan’s longevity (he achieved 15 all-NBA selections) and shrewd draft picks (including Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili), the Spurs have been featured in all 21 postseasons since the ill-fated 1996-97 campaign. To put that into perspective, the longest active run of playoff appearances after San Antonio is six, by both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. In the context of the NBA today, this streak is unprecedented.
However, nothing lasts forever in sports. With the spine of the team during the Spurs’ championship years gone, a deeper Western Conference, and off-court drama plaguing the organization, they could finally miss the playoffs in the coming NBA season. Here’s a closer look into why.
The Spurs’ consistency was built on keeping together a core of players for well over a decade. Duncan was always the focal point, especially in the first half of his career as he took home league MVP in both 2002 and 2003. Yet the aforementioned Parker and Ginobili were just as vital, with the former winning Finals MVP in 2007, while the latter averaged over 15 points for seven straight seasons between 2004-2011. Above all, the pair were each able to fill in as the first option more frequently as Duncan got older, and, like the Big Fundamental, both had no-nonsense, unassuming personalities in line with the Popovich-agenda.
Now, the legendary big three has been broken up. Duncan retired in 2016 and Parker signed with the Charlotte Hornets earlier this month. That leaves 40-year-old Ginobili as the only member still standing, not exactly the ideal player to lead the Spurs in the future.
With the days of San Antonio’s legendary trio well and truly consigned to history, how quickly the franchise will be able to move on is questionable. They may not have been the most glamorous big three ever assembled, but they epitomized the Spurs culture in every way possible, and so an under-performing season is inevitable at some point.
Another body blow is just around the corner, as Popovich’s days in the hot seat are numbered. There have been rumors that he does not plan on coaching the Spurs past 2020 and could even leave as soon as the end of the coming season to focus on his role as head coach of the USA men’s Olympic basketball team. When the tragedy of his wife’s passing earlier this year is also considered, one has to wonder how much Pop has left to give in San Antonio.
Depth of the West
A team bereft of a clear identity will find the going tough at the best of times. Unfortunately for the Spurs, they are in a conference with an astonishing level of talent, making their road to yet another playoff berth even more challenging.
At the summit of the West is the Warriors who, coming off back-to-back titles, are a lock for the playoffs. The same can be said for the Rockets, who pushed Golden State to the brink in the seven-game Western Conference Finals last season. Elsewhere, Lebron James‘ Los Angeles Lakers and Russell Westbrook‘s Oklahoma City Thunder are both expected to make the postseason.
That leaves just four spots left. The Utah Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers reached the playoffs in the previous campaign and will have set their sights set on repeating. The Denver Nuggets have been very active this summer after narrowly missing out last year, and will be determined not to fall short again, as will the Los Angeles Clippers. Even other lottery teams such as the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks, bolstered by rookies Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic respectively, cannot be ignored.
Without even including the Spurs, there could be up to 12 teams in serious playoff contention in the West. Clearly, San Antonio must overcome an abundance of serious competition to keep their streak alive.
The Curious Case of Kawhi Leonard
Under Popovich, the Spurs simply did not get involved with off-court drama…until recently. Billed as the league’s best two-way player after winning Finals MVP in 2014, successive Defensive Player of the Year Awards and a stellar 2016-17 campaign, Kawhi Leonard seemed destined to continue the dynasty in San Antonio.
Fast forward a year, and it is highly likely that Leonard will never play for the Spurs again. Team doctors cleared him to play after a quad injury midway through last season, but he refused to return. A civil war in San Antonio followed, highlighted by Parker claiming that his own quad injury, sustained during the 2017 playoffs, was “a hundred times worse”. The saga could reach its crescendo soon, as Leonard’s representatives have stated that he would only play in Los Angeles once his current contract ends next summer, leaving the Spurs with little option but to somehow find a trade for the 27-year-old in which they get something remotely close to equal value in return.
These events are perhaps unsurprising when considering the changes the Spurs’ are currently going through. The Duncan-Parker-Ginobili core once seemed eternal but is now over, and Popovich could also be on his way soon. Likewise, the franchise has always been one of the top teams in the West, yet it is all of a sudden trailing behind at least half a dozen squads. And now, after over twenty years with very little drama, their franchise player is refusing to play for them.
The Spurs missing the playoffs would be extraordinary but, after the past couple of years, it would not be the first unusual occurrence in San Antonio.
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