Riding the momentum of a Game Four upset over the Warriors, the Spurs felt prepared to repeat the impossible. They felt “more aggressive than previous games”, said Manu Ginobili, and still coached by the wizard who orchestrated the surgical Game Four win Ettore Messina after horrible tragedy of losing Erin Popovich, looked wired to contain the Warrior’s seemingly unbeatable offense.
Nevertheless, the typical Warriors basketball with casual alley-oops and a shootaround-like three-point barrage commenced instantly after tip-off. While the Spurs continued to work magic and only trailed by two at the end of the first quarter, the Warriors’ high energy play on both ends quickly left the venerable Spurs in the dust. An eleven point deficit faced them at the half and the Warriors mercilessly never looked back. The fourth quarter surge tried and failed. Face-to-face with the palpable prospect of retirement, Ginobili would end his season and possibly career with ten points and Tony Parker with four.
Now at the hands of the Golden State Warriors for the second season in a row, the Spurs’ season ends prematurely. The pinnacle of sports franchise excellence has crumbled once again under the historical weight of the Warriors and the future looks bleaker than anything the Spurs have ever faced. Four years have passed since their last Finals appearance and former cornerstones Parker and Ginobili seemed to hit the end of the line, even if they have yet to retire.
In years past, the Spurs have always been inexplicably capable of keeping the pipes chock full of young talent to pass the torch to even without a lot of high picks. David Robinson handed it to Tim Duncan (and Ginobili and Parker) who recently handed it to Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs are perpetually in championship mode for their ability to draft steals and sleepers when it seems as if the window is close to closing.
Really, the Spurs should be safe right now. The Spurs should have a future. Leonard remains and with LaMarcus Aldridge, who still has a few good years left in him, and some fairly exciting youth in Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson to develop into essential role players, everything seems to be in place to contend for years to come. That is if Leonard would be a guarantee to stay.
This season, to say the least, was an uncharacteristically confusing year for Leonard and the Spurs. After going down with a reportedly serious quad injury before the season even began, he would appear in an inconsistent sputter of games before throwing in the towel with the same quad injury. From this generally routine yet unfortunate season-ending injury, ominous team meetings would be held and reports surfaced he distanced himself from the team.
Come playoff time, he would be cleared by doctors and ushered on by fans and teammates alike, but he entirely sat out the series against the Warriors. The Spurs would go down 3-0. Leonard remained in New York for recovery. No tweets, no interviews, no Instagram posts. He received criticism and probable shade from his own head coach while Spurs fans sat listlessly sweating bullets. All to rehab to a significantly less serious quad injury that far older teammate Tony Parker recovered from with no trouble.
An odd turn of events, obviously, however, his motives remain unknown. Contract disputes and a desire to leave San Antonio have been often cited and with two years still remain on his current contract, it adds up. Parker and Ginobili won’t last more than one more season, if that and that will leave Leonard high and dry in a brutal Western Conference. Aldridge doesn’t have too much longer of his prime and just him simply won’t be enough to contest anymore, especially with the sudden emergence of the 76ers and the Celtics in the East.
A while back, the Spurs came up with a borderline brilliant and somewhat luck based strategy to keep themselves competitive for as long as humanly possible. And it has largely worked since it’s conception. In these three easy steps, they have stretched the championship window beyond sports reason.
A)Introduce a young player with star potential under the wing of an all-time great (Gregg Popovich also plays a part in this step)
B)Win a championship with the all-time great and in turn, convince the young player to stay.
C) Surround the player with strong role players and win enough to prompt the player (now an all-time great himself) to finish his career as a Spur and take another young player under his wing.
D)Rinse and repeat
The fleeting glue, however, holding this relatively flimsy strategy together comes down to ungodly amounts of loyalty. Duncan and Robinson were undeniably special players in that regard, spending their entire careers with the Spurs. Anticipating the same mentality out of Leonard, the Spurs expected to continue this Dr.Strange time loop-esque championship window.
So this is where the Spurs’ future becomes so murky and bleak. San Antonio intended for Leonard to be the prodigal son, the next great Spur in a long line of great Spurs. They planned to let him shepherd the subsequent generation and revolve the new crop of stellar role players and secondary stars, not unlike Ginobili and Parker, around Leonard. But as Leonard’s patience wanes as the Spurs prepare to roll into a soft rebuild period, it seems as if the rosters has too many question marks to keep his attention.
The Spurs don’t have a lot of guarantees on their roster for the future and this can be seen as a big reason Leonard wants out. A good chunk of their future lies in the hands of the terribly raw Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson and while this is not doubting the brilliance of Popovich, to coax them into secondary stars will be a tall order. As a highly marketable superstar with aspirations above dragging a crude Spurs team to an annual sweep in the playoffs, it makes sense Leonard doesn’t want to waste a sizable chunk of his career on a developing Spurs team.
The characteristically reliable Parker and Ginobili will not be able to lighten the load on Leonard as even if they don’t retire, they won’t be able to contribute much, if at all. This puts a ton of pressure on the young pups and Leonard himself.
With a great enough player, not to mention Aldridge’s consistency, to lug a team to the playoffs without a lot of help, especially under Popovich, the Spurs will have a one way trip to no man’s land starting this season. Not talented enough to hold their own in the purge of the Western Conference playoffs yet still talented enough to qualify. So even if Leonard sticks around long-term, the shaky championship hopes will only last as long as Aldridge’s prime, which isn’t a whole lot longer.
A superstar rotting on a middling team is one of the worst travesties in sports and inductively Leonard doesn’t want to go down that path. Skipping town for a team with legitimate championship hopes or to be the cog that takes a team over the edge for legitimate championship hopes feels like a solid career plan.
In turn, however, Leonard leaving puts the Spurs in highly unfamiliar territory-rebuild season. We haven’t seen the Spurs enter a stage where they didn’t look like title contenders since 1996. The Spurs have never had consecutive losing seasons in their entire history and that level of incessant greatness in sports has never been matched. The reality of an even a .500 Spurs team hasn’t been considered by anybody under the age of 21 but here we are.
If Leonard stays, the Spurs sit as passable seventh seed in a brutal Western Conference for years to come. If Leonard cuts ties, the Spurs will be stuck with numerous aged veterans, dangerously green prospects, a dying Aldridge to keep their heads above water, and a stake in the Tankathon. And with an upsetting campaign from Leonard, the future for the Spurs looks as dark as their away jerseys.
In Pop we trust.