The San Antonio Spurs, arguably, will be the most underrated team going into the 2018-19 NBA season. The five-time Champions were constantly in the news last term, as the story of the Spurs changed from that of the least dramatic franchise into a theatrical venue as the Kawhi Leonard saga unfolded.
The first part of the theatre ended when Leonard became (a reluctant) Raptor, as another round of drama unfolded up north. DeMar DeRozan, the star of the northern team, became a (reluctant) citizen of Texas. The front office of both the Spurs and Raptors pulled off a coup no one saw coming, as the two All-Star players moved in opposite directions.
The prevailing theory is that the arrival of Leonard, one of the best two-way players in the league who has already been named NBA Finals MVP, has increased the chances of the Raptors in an Eastern Conference suddenly shorn of LeBron James’ influence while those of the Spurs, minus Leonard, have significantly reduced. Especially as LeBron has landed in Los Angeles with the Lakers, the Rockets keep retooling and the Golden State Warriors look set to extend their reign.
There has been no thought of the DeRozan effect on the Spurs. In fact, the whole narrative around the most consistent franchise over the past 20 years has been negative with regard to basketball in the 2018-19 season. And that could be a mistake.
While it can be argued that the California native was not the only reason the Raptors experienced a boost to have them qualify for the playoffs every season since 2013-14, he remains a huge factor. And while the Spurs were not so bad last season that DeRozan will not be credited with ‘reviving’ them, the four-time All-Star has enough weapons in his arsenal to ensure that San Antonio finish more comfortably than they did last season.
DeRozan has been the highest scorer for the Raptors in five of the last six seasons, and is in his prime. Those five years were also the only years in the last 10 that the Raptors appeared in the postseason. The other player who led the Raptors in scoring in the sixth year was Rudy Gay. Both players were one and two in scoring, with Gay averaging 19.5 points per game, and DeRozan totalling 18.1 as the Raptors endured their last year as a non-playoffs team.
It’s been a while since the Spurs have seen as proficient a wing scorer as DeRozan, surely counting for something. And now, with DeRozan playing as the shooting guard and Rudy Gay in the small-forward position, San Antonio finally have a proven scoring combo to deliver loads of buckets.
In order to challenge for the title, Greg Popovich will have to (again) change the ways the Spurs play: the former Air Force officer is known to adapt to the times. He utilized the size of David Robinson and Tim Duncan to devastating effect in the era of big men; and the exploits of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, when point guards and wings came into focus, are legendary.
Now, the future Hall of Famer will again need to re-invent the Spurs and find ways for LaMarcus Aldridge to keep producing at the same level, while accommodating the scoring skills of DeRozan. While it’s not yet clear how much time will be available for Jakob Poeltl—who was part of the deal that brought DeRozan from Raptors—the 37-year-old Pau Gasol will not start 63 games this season, and Poeltl has shown enough to guarantee a bright future at the Spurs.
How well will DeRozan and Aldridge play will also go a long way in determining how serious the Spurs’ challenge will be. The prospect of the two in pick-and-roll situations is tantalizing: DeRozan can create shots for himself, and grew as a passer last season. Both are accomplished scorers, and with Rudy Gay, Marco Belinelli, Bryn Forbes or Patty Mills hovering, San Antonio have a template to upset preseason predictions.
The most exciting prospect for a future Spurs championship challenge, though, has got to be point guard Dejounte Murray. The 21-year-old will tip off his third season with the Spurs having played just 119 games and starting only 56 of them … but he has already been named on an All-Defensive Team. Murray grew his game when he stepped into the starting role in place of Tony Parker last season, and his continuous development can only bode well for San Antonio.
The key component, however, has got to be DeRozan. He brings something the Spurs have not seen in a while. Ultimately a lot will depend on how well and how quickly he adjusts to his new team, and his willingness to buy into a system that promotes team ethics over individual glory.
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