2019-20 Previews: San Antonio Spurs

Losses: Davis Bertans, Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter.

Additions: Trey Lyles, DeMarre Carroll, Luka Samanic, Keldon Johnson.

Likely Starters
Guard: Dejounte Murray, Derrick White
Wing: DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay
Big: LaMarcus Aldridge

Predicted Record: 42–40 | 15th in NBA | 8th in West

There are 30 teams in the NBA, so if your team has a couple of the 45 or so best players in the world, you should probably be in pretty good shape. The Spurs have DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, and while neither of these players gets me feeling any sort of religious basketball enthusiasm, each is capable of doing the yeoman’s work of grinding out buckets with slightly above-average efficiency. Aldridge, in particular, remains useful all over the floor; he’s huge and mobile on defense, and can absolutely be the hub of a functioning offense, too. With DeRozan and Aldridge, a basketball team shouldn’t be terrible.

Should it be good though? Probably not, right? Neither player generates easy points. They score, but not really in a way that makes things easier for their teammates. They play hard, but not in a way that lifts the spirits of the players around them. I know I’m being a little too nebulous here, but I can’t think of two players who are more ho-hum in their greatness. And really, greatness is the wrong word. I think I mean: very good-ness.

Last season, DeRozan and Aldridge shared the court for 2242 minutes, and the Spurs outscored their opponents by 0.5 points per 100 possessions. For the whole season, the team was +1.6. Basically, the Spurs were better during all the other times. Of course, these numbers are notoriously noisy, but what’s interesting is that the Spurs bench is actually fun. Or, not fun exactly, but it’s at least a little more aesthetically pleasing. You’ve got Patty Mills flying around and making plays. You’ve got more ball-movement, more creativity on both sides of the ball. DeRozan and Aldridge are a functional basketball machine that almost never breaks, but is also never churns out anything special. Just buckets at a rate slightly higher than average. The rest of the Spurs were capable of weirdness, and weirdness just might be the key to winning.

A few years ago, when the Rockets initially acquired Chris Paul, Daryl Morey talked about risk-profile. Given the fact that he had James Harden in his absolute prime, Morey understood that he needed to take some risks. Those risks might not work, but if they did, he’d have a championship contender. If the risks didn’t work, well, they wouldn’t have had even a chance of winning without them.

Our ideas about basketball, of course, are shaped around championships, but the truth is that no one wins championships. Championships are incredibly rare. When a team wins, we try to take apart the black box and do some reverse engineering, but this isn’t science. There are no repeatable experiments. Basketball is about magical synergies between groups of people. We can understand some of it through careful inquiry, and I love that inquiry with all that I am, but we can’t really understand it’s mystical heart that way.

Each year, a team becomes more than it should be on the way to winning the whole thing. In almost every case, it could have been otherwise, but wasn’t. Kawhi’s shot in round two takes one odd bounce the wrong way, and all the narratives are gone. What wins championships? What thing can you point to that can’t immediately be refuted? What NBA title, when you really start looking at it, isn’t the exception that proves the rule?

The Spurs won five of those titles over the past 20 years. Those teams all centered around Tim Duncan, one of the greatest players of all time. Why was he so great? Besides the ineffable skill known as “team defense” was there a single thing Duncan was the best at? He was incredibly great at so much, but really his best skill was that he was a deeply committed teammate. His game was perfectly calibrated to make the game easier for everyone on his side. Magic swirled around him. Think of all those incredible moments. The night Steve Kerr made all those 3s in 2003. The “Spursgasm” years of the early 2010s. Every single thing Manu Ginobili ever did in the NBA. Duncan connected all of these things.

Before he retired, I found myself wondering whether Duncan’s final act of greatness would be that the Spurs would just keep on being excellent after he left, and sure enough their downfall keeps being wrongly predicted. No longer are they running off 50 wins every year, but each year, sure enough, they’re a little better than they’re supposed to be. The reasons are mysterious, but I believe it is about the magic along the fringes, and the things you can’t understand without being out there, playing. Even then, who knows.

For this season, I’m excited to see what Dejounte Murray and Trey Lyles can make happen. They are the site of any potential upside this team holds; no doubt they will surprise us with their unexpected grace. The Spurs, most likely, for reasons I no longer can claim to understand, will continue being the Spurs.

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