The San Antonio Spurs could be in for big changes this summer, and there’s a chance that Gregg Popovich might not want to stick around for a long rebuild.
Over the course of the last two decades, there might not have been a better run franchise than the San Antonio Spurs. Since Gregg Popovich took over as head coach, during the 1996-97 season, the franchise has never been the same.
After that first season of feeling out, the Spurs had not missed the playoffs in 22 seasons. Along the way, Popovich has helped lead the Spurs to five NBA championships and six NBA Finals appearances. He helped develop and groom many great players including Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard.
However, all dynasties eventually come to an end. And that’s what was being represented by the 2019-20 season. The Spurs were on pace to miss the playoffs for the first time since Popovich’s first season with the club.
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It’s also probably something we should’ve seen coming. In the last two seasons, the Spurs suffered first-round playoff losses. Before those two years of losing in the first round, San Antonio only had suffered four in the previous 20 years.
Additionally, these weren’t the same Spurs. Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker had all retired or moved on and Kawhi missed an entire season before demanding a trade away from San Antonio. Popovich was left to make lemonade out of lemons, something that he has done so well over the course of his career.
Though, it’s practically impossible to compete in the super team era of the NBA without any true superstars on their roster. That’s exactly what the Spurs’ front office was asking Popovich to do. While the additions of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan helped camouflage the team’s real issues, the results – and lack of playoff success – spoke for themselves.
The Spurs check every box of a team that is in need of a complete rebuild. They don’t have any potential young superstar on its roster, they aren’t terrible enough to win an NBA Draft Lottery, aren’t a big-city destination for free agents, and are teetering around mediocrity. The Spurs are currently projected to have the 11th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
All this leads to a much bigger question, what will happen to Gregg Popovich?
Pop reportedly signed a three-year extension with the Spurs last year, making him the highest-paid head coach in the NBA. Interestingly, in that same article, it suggests that Popovich was going to take his future “year to year.” Considering he was 70 years old when he signed the extension, it makes sense.
Now, though, with the Spurs in a desperate need for change, you can’t help but wonder if Popovich has coached his last game for San Antonio?
Heading into the offseason, there’s a very real chance that San Antonio chooses this summer to pivot. There are a few reasons why this could be their opportunity. For one, four of their top five salary earners will be on expiring deals during the 2020-21 season. It would likely be easy to trade a number of those contracts this summer (assuming we have anything that resembles a traditional offseason).
And two, the summer of 2021 is expected to be a huge offseason in terms of free agency. If the Spurs want to be players, they need to do whatever it takes to open up as much cap space as possible, while also proving to be an attractive destination. I’m not sure a team led by Aldridge and DeRozan is exactly that.
What Popovich has to answer over the next few months, however, is if he’s willing to – essentially – waste a season for a chance to recruit a top superstar in 2021? That means potentially bottoming out in the West next season (with possible trades of DeRozan and Aldridge), and then going all-in with Popovich leading the charge in free agency in 2021.
It would be asking for, at least, a two-year commitment for Popovich at age 71. I’m not sure that’s something he would be willing to offer San Antonio.
On the other hand, would the Spurs’ front office be willing to give Popovich that much control over their immediate future? If any coach deserves that in the NBA, especially over the past two decades, it’s Popovich. At the end of the day, the NBA is a business. And feelings often end up taking a backseat in these sorts of situations.
The Spurs would essentially be wasting one season in an attempt to land a big-name free agent that, in all likelihood, probably won’t pick the Spurs – even with Popovich’s influence. In fairness, Popovich did manage to pull it off a few summers ago when he landed Aldridge.
Though, with so many other variables heading into the summer of 2021, it will be a much taller task this time around.
My best guess is that the Spurs will let Popovich choose the course of action. Though, there’s no guarantee he’d be willing to start a complete rebuild. And I’m not sure they should be all-in on a pipe dream that will likely never come to fruition.