The Spurs' postseason hopes were hanging by a thread despite the fact they were riding a three-game winning streak with one game to play. The Phoenix Suns delivered the final blow with a victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday.
This streak was bound to end sooner or later, and the biggest surprise might be the fact head coach Gregg Popovich went this deep into the 2019-20 season before the playoff door finally closed.
As Tim Duncan neared the end of his career, the succession plan was clear. Kawhi Leonard would become the franchise cornerstone in much the same way Duncan inherited the mantle from David Robinson. That plan unraveled when Leonard was limited to six games in 2017-18 and subsequently demanded a trade.
Once San Antonio dealt Leonard to the Toronto Raptors, it significantly altered the course of the team going forward. And rather than embracing a full rebuild, the return from the Leonard trade showed how the Spurs wanted to remain a postseason contender.
The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor also explained how a roster centered around mid-range specialists DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge was going against the grain with the increased focus across the league on spacing the floor.
San Antonio's 10.7 made three-pointers per game are 26th in the NBA, but the team is ninth in offensive rating (111.8), per NBA.com. Popovich has found a way to make the approach work, but even he couldn't overcome a team with a firm ceiling.
The Spurs lack a true superstar equal to Leonard, and they don't have a young player who's clearly going to be the guy in the years ahead because they've landed in the back half of the first round of the NBA draft for so long.
A decline in their overall fortunes was inevitable, and the process could accelerate based on how the offseason unfolds.
DeRozan has a $27.7 million player option for 2020-21. The four-time All-Star could opt out in pursuit of a long-term contract, or he might decide the timing isn't ideal amid the general financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
CNBC's Jabari Young reported in March on ESPN San Antonio that DeRozan "is not happy in San Antonio," which cast some doubt on his future:
If DeRozan leaves, then perhaps the Spurs would consider moving Aldridge since he only has one more year left on his current deal. Paying the 35-year-old big man $24 million doesn't make a lot of sense for a team that might struggle to climb into the top eight of the Western Conference.
Whereas the playoffs were once a given for the Spurs, they may have to get used to the draft lottery as the new normal for the foreseeable future.