How the San Antonio Spurs Finally Fell Behind the Curve

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterMarch 11, 2020

SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 07: (L-R) Patty Mills #8 of the San Antonio Spurs, assistant coach Becky Hammon, head coach Gregg Popovich, and assistant coach Tim Duncan watch action from the bench during an NBA game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on November 7, 2019 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images)
Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — At 25 years old, San Antonio Spurs guard Derrick White can't remember the last time his team didn't make the playoffs. Literally.

In June 1997, White was just two years old when the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan first overall, a move that would kick-start a 22-year playoff run that's since resulted in five NBA championships.

"Yeah, that was my childhood. Every year they were either in the championship or Western Conference Finals. They've been good ever since I've been alive, so that's really all I've known," White told Bleacher Report.

Now, White takes daily instruction from Duncan, an assistant coach on a Spurs team that's almost unrecognizable from the time the future Hall of Famer suited up.

At 27-36, the Spurs sit four games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. With five weeks left, this is already the most games San Antonio has lost since 1996-97.

The playoff streak is the longest current run in professional sports and is tied for the greatest in NBA history with the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers from 1950 to 1971. In those 22 years, the Nationals/Sixers won 58.9 percent of their games and two titles, while the Spurs have come away victorious 69.9 percent of the time, claiming five championships, per Land of Basketball. The Spurs have won 170 total playoff games in that time, an average of 7.7 playoff wins per year over the past 22 seasons.

"The longevity has been most amazing. To be able to do what they've done while the game has changed, and the way they've changed and adapted with it," Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff told B/R. "You go all the way back to playing with two bigs to now playing with the small-ball lineups and the spacing. Being able to be so good for so long in so many different ways is impressive."

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Spurs icon Tim Duncan looks on as LaMarcus Aldridge warms up.
Spurs icon Tim Duncan looks on as LaMarcus Aldridge warms up.Darren Abate/Associated Press/Associated Press

Of course, adaptation only works if there's enough talent on the roster.

The Spurs have never fully recovered from the Kawhi Leonard trade in July 2018, one that also sent Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first-round pick that became Keldon Johnson.

San Antonio has been stuck between relying on past-their-prime veterans like DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge all season while also trying to grow a young core of White, Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV and Johnson.

The result has been the worst defense a Gregg Popovich-coached team has ever put out, a 113.7 rating that ranks 26th overall.

While injuries have bit numerous players throughout the year, the Spurs just don't have enough talent. While San Antonio hasn't made a trade-deadline move since 2014, this was the year it was clear a move was needed. Still, the Spurs did nothing.

Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli are the only remaining players who have won a championship in the black and silver. For young guys like White, there's only childhood memories and YouTube highlights of what the mighty Spurs once were.

Don't expect Popovich or Duncan to sit around and talk about the glory days, either.

"We don't really talk about the streak. We really don't think too much about dynasty or whatever it may bejust continue to keep our season alive. Just trying to keep the culture alive. Just focus on this season and trying to make the playoffs," White told B/R.

Derrick White celebrates during a big win over the Mavs.
Derrick White celebrates during a big win over the Mavs.Logan Riely/Getty Images

If the Spurs fail to make the postseason, that creates even more questions this offseason when DeRozan can become an unrestricted free agent, something Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reports he plans to do if an extension in San Antonio isn't agreed upon.

If DeRozan leaves, a rebuild seems inevitable, especially with Aldridge, Mills and Rudy Gay all on expiring contracts next season.

Remaining competitive now without fully handing the keys over to the young core hurts a potential rebuild as well. Murray, White and Walker are all averaging under 25 minutes per game, while DeRozan and Aldridge have remained over 33 per night.

In a small market that has struggled to attract big-time free agents, player and relationship development have traditionally fueled San Antonio.

"You look at what they've done with their own talent. You think about where they were able to draft some of those guys—Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili—and what they turned those guys into. I think that's, in a small market in particular, that's what you have to do. You have to draft well and then develop the talent that you draft, and you'll have them for a long time," Bickerstaff told B/R.

"Bigger than that, the way that you treat people to make them want to come back," he continued. "Those guys stayed in San Antonio for a long time and had an opportunity to go other places, but because of the way they went about business every day and the way they were treated, it was like a family. It was like home to them, so they wanted to stay."

DeMar DeRozan considers his options.
DeMar DeRozan considers his options.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

If DeRozan opts out, not only will the playoff streak have died but also a piece of what's made the Spurs so special from a player-team relationship aspect.

While it may be too early to officially pronounce the playoff streak dead, the Spurs will have to scratch and claw not only past the Grizzlies but also the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and a Zion Williamson-charged New Orleans Pelicans team.

"A lot of people would have cashed it in, because the expectations were high this year after having a really good year last year," Popovich said after a March 8 loss to the Cavaliers. "So far, we haven't achieved that level. So that's frustrating, but they haven't let that affect their effort and their will to win."

Making the playoffs is one challenge. Continuing a dynasty is quite another.

For the first time in 23 years, the Spurs are in danger of ending both.