It’s hard to believe that a team that just won a franchise record 67 games is in basketball purgatory, yet here we are. A sound defeat at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder effectively ended the Popovich-Duncan era. The once dominant power forward was an afterthought. The coach who had all the answers was left with more questions than ever before. The usual jolts of energy brought by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili fizzled out in the face of the physically superior Thunder. So what’s next? What does the future hold? In Philadelphia, they say, “Trust the Process.” But in San Antonio, it’s looking as though the process has run its course.
The first issue that needs to be solved is at the point guard position. Tony Parker has no real successor. The price of all the success the Spurs have had over the last decade is the lack of young, impactful talent outside of Kawhi Leonard. Now the Spurs need to get past the likes of Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Damian Lillard just to get out of the Western Conference. Tony Parker no longer has the ability to make any of those guys work on either side of the ball. Westbrook completely dominated him in the Western Conference semifinals and his futile attempts to respond led to the eventual demise of the Spurs. To make matters worse, Parker is a reluctant 3-point shooter despite shooting 41.5% from long distance last season. Time after time, he hurts the team's spacing against elite defenses.
The biggest question mark moving forward is what role Leonard will take on. For the Spurs to remain a true contender, Leonard has to learn to impose his will on the offensive end. So far, he has been developed as the ultimate role player. He’s lethal in catch and shoot situations, and finishes around the rim at an elite level. But when you talk about championship caliber basketball, there comes a time where you have to be able to create your own shot. Last season’s playoffs were a case study in shot creation winning games. Stars like Kyrie Irving and LeBron James took over games by finding ways to score when initial sets didn’t work. Last season, the Spurs didn’t have a player that could do that on a consistent basis. That ability is what sets the superstars apart from the all-stars.
Make no mistake about it, the Spurs still know how to win. They also still have the best coach in the league putting them in positions to win. But to retool, they need someone to step up as a generational talent the way Tim Duncan did for them for so long. Look for them to be aggressive in upgrading their talent corps and team athleticism in free agency. Their system can only take them so far. Now is when they need to get the personnel to effectively execute that system en route to more championships.