This year’s NBA playoffs are weird. No, it’s not the lack of crowds due to coronavirus restrictions. It’s nothing to do with the fact that the No 1 seed in each conference lost their first games. There is something missing.
“I was pretty sad to see it end. It was an unbelievable run and very rare in the sports world – 22 years is a long time and I was part of 17 of them.”
When San Antonio Spurs legendary point guard Tony Parker spoke to Sky Sports NBA, he had just watched his former team miss the playoffs for the first time since before he joined the franchise in 2001. Parker played 1,198 games in San Antonio before joining the Charlotte Hornets for a year and retiring.
“It was an amazing journey and if I had to choose moments that stand out, it’s hard,” he said. “We won a lot of games and a lot of titles, and if I had to choose one, it’s the dedication of the Spurs franchise to be great and to come in every year and be the best we can be. That was our motivation, with the ‘Big Three’ and Pop (Gregg Popovich), we wanted to be great every year.”
Parker was always a Spur at heart, and made up the most successful trio in NBA history – compiling 575 regular season wins, four championships and being part of 22 straight playoffs appearances. But to paraphrase one of Charles Barkley’s favourite sayings, ‘Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili must be rolling over in their graves’ after the 2019-20 season.
With that being said, it is time to look at the silver lining in the black cloud, and for the 2020 Spurs, missing the playoffs isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The young players on the team are in a good place: Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Jakob Poeltl, Lonnie Walker IV, Drew Eubanks, Chimezie Metu and Luka Samanic all have the potential to be professionals in the NBA for a long time.
They also had the opportunity to learn from veterans like Patty Mills, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay in meaningful games – especially in the bubble while competing for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. But had they successfully scraped an empty playoff appearance this year, it might not necessarily have been what this group needs.
Despite the potential in those young players, it’s fair to say that the Spurs might still be short of a star. They aren’t going to be lucky enough in the 2020 NBA Draft to have a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Duncan fall into their lap – which they did in 1997 – but their first lottery appearance since then means they have the opportunity to select a top talent.
Murray, White, Walker and Poeltl in particular could be four-fifths of a good starting five in the NBA, but this season showed they still needed DeRozan to help them win during the final minutes of competitive games, and they won more games when Aldridge’s usage rate was higher.
It’s not unusual for non-lottery picks to be support players rather than a stallion that leads a pack of horses and the last time the Spurs had a lottery pick, they selected Duncan, which led to five championships.
But because of that success, they have struggled to draft players who have been relied upon throughout high school and college basketball, and those players have not entered the league as confident, go-to scorers.
Poeltl is the highest draft selection of those four names, and he came via a trade that included DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard.
This draft class doesn’t have anyone like the greatest power forward of all time, Duncan, which is a shame, because the Spurs currently have a decent center and three perimeter players, so it makes sense to target a big, athletic scorer. The problem is that there is not necessarily a Zion Williamson or Blake Griffin in this draft class either.
With the 11th pick in the draft, San Antonio could package it with a player to trade up. Gregg Popovich has always loved international players, and Israel’s Deni Avdija could be too tantalising to resist.
He would fit like Rudy Gay, as an offensively minded big body who loves to handle the ball. He is better driving to the basket rather than shooting from distance, but he’s no slouch in either department. He is not the best defender, but he has got energy and smarts on that end of the floor, which Popovich will know how to harness.
Avdija might slip out of the top five picks, European players often do, and the Spurs have a long-lasting affinity with international players – he would be too good a player to miss.
In the likely event Avdija is already selected, the Spurs would be more likely to take a talent like Precious Achiuwa. The Nigerian stands at 6ft 9in but has the length and shot blocking ability of a seven-footer. He can also create off the dribble and has a nose for scoring. He might be one of the best fits for San Antonio’s immediate needs, but there are better league-ready talents in this draft.
As the head coach for Team USA in recent years, Popovich will have had plenty of opportunities to see or scout some of the young players on the fringe of making the USA scrimmages.
While Onyeka Okongwu also has Nigerian heritage, he was born in LA, so falls into the USA category. At 6ft 9in he is more of an undersized center with bags of athleticism. He made a name for himself playing alongside Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball in Chino Hills, but had some big games of his own in which he showed himself to be a good shot-blocker inside and far from flat-footed on the perimeter. He can rebound and catch lobs, and while he can create his own shot, that might be an area for development at the professional level.
Another potential top five pick is Obi Toppin. His physical mechanics can sometimes look a little off, but there is no doubting his athletic ability. He will need to improve in defense and rebounding to find favour in the Spurs’ system, but he runs the floor hard, is a great finisher in transition and can also help space the floor.
A title in two years?
After the San Antonio Spurs drafted Duncan in 1997, they won a championship in 1999. Regardless of who they are able to pick when the NBA Draft takes place on October 16, it is unlikely the team will be able to reach the NBA Finals in 2022. For that reason, we might not see Popovich stay with the team – he has been threatening to retire ever since Duncan finished playing.
Popovich, Parker, Ginobili and Duncan wanted to be great every year, but the current roster would need a quick overhaul to return to championship contention within the next two seasons.
As Parker said, the Spurs have always tried to be the best they can be. That doesn’t mean they have to compete for a title every year, but as the franchise begins its next chapter, building from the ground up will be the right way to get back to their usual winning ways.