As NBA teams are officially eliminated from title contention, theScore NBA freelance writer Andrew Unterberger takes a look back at the highs and lows of their season, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The 17th edition focuses on the San Antonio Spurs.
LaMarcus Aldridge, first option. After being subjugated to more of a secondary role during his first few years with the Spurs - and subsequently alienating him to the point where he asked to be traded - Aldridge was embraced as the Spurs' best offensive option this season, and responded with a season to rival any from his Portland prime. The power forward posted 23 and nine on 51 percent shooting, with the highest PER (25.0) and True Shooting (57 percent) of his career. In particular, he was unstoppable down the stretch, as he dragged the Spurs onto the right side of the playoff bubble, averaging 27 points a game on 55 percent FG across his last 15 games - and where he mostly folded against the Warriors in the playoffs a season earlier, he stood tall this year, twice scoring 30-plus in the series.
DeJounte Murray, point guard of the future. The 29th pick out of Washington two summers ago had tantalized in his rookie season - particularly as he got an unexpectedly extended postseason look, following the injury to incumbent starter Tony Parker - and made good on that potential in his sophomore campaign. Murray averaged just eight points and three assists in 22 minutes a night, but also grabbed six boards and picked off a steal a game, showing potential to be one of the NBA's most formidable defensive point guards. He even answered some questions about his subpar shooting by going 10-25 from three in the playoffs - albeit largely on open looks Golden State was happy to concede - showing he might not always be vulnerable to the Rajon Rondo treatment from opposing defenses.
A six-game March winning streak. The Spurs were really up against it in mid-March, when a period of five losses in six games dropped them to 37-30. That put them in a three-way tie for the seventh seed with Utah and Denver, and at very real risk of missing the postseason for the first time since the pre-Tim Duncan era. Then, the Spurs tore off six wins in a row - four of which came against their Western Conference playoff competition - and essentially bought them the flexibility they needed to ease into the postseason from there. Aldridge was particularly beastly during the streak, averaging an absurd 32 a game on 58 percent shooting, including a career-high 45 in a huge win against Utah. "He's carrying us," Manu Ginobili said of Aldridge at the time. He's just saying, 'OK, follow me guys and we'll be OK.'"
Manu Ginobili's game-winner against Boston.
It was by no means guaranteed Young Emmanuel would even return for a 16th season in San Antonio - but he did, and at the tender age of 40, he still regularly made gigantic plays down the stretch for the Spurs, like this regular-season game-winner against Boston. "I said before the game, he's one of the best players at the end of quarters I've ever seen," offered Celtics coach Brad Stevens postgame. "And now I wish I hadn't said it."
One win against Golden State. For a franchise as proud as the Spurs, winning one game in five in a first-round series - the Gentleman's Sweep, as many NBA pundits call it - is hardly something to raise a banner over. Still, it was something of a hurdle for the Spurs, who were at risk of getting swept by the Golden State Warriors for the second time in two postseasons, both without San Antonio's best player on the floor, but also this time without two-time MVP Stephen Curry for the Warriors. Winning one game was needed to salvage a little dignity, and they did it with a 103-90 win at the AT&T Center, with huge performances from Aldridge, Murray, and Ginobili - in what, if he retires, could go down as the final home game of his career.
Kawhi Leonard's lost season. In what surely rates as the strangest subplot of the NBA season - if you consider the Markelle Fultz drama in Philly mostly resolved, anyway - Leonard missed the first few months of the NBA season with a quad injury, returned to the lineup for nine games before departing again with the same injury, and then never came back. Rumors of closed-door team meetings, of trips to New York, and of growing alienation with the staff and organization all bubbled underneath. But as he's historically been wont to do, Kawhi himself stayed silent, as his teammates and coaching staff could do nothing but shrug as it became increasingly obvious his return would not come until next season - if at all. And in the meantime, the Spurs went from title contenders to lucky to make it into the postseason at all.
The end of the 50-game streak. The Spurs have been so good for so long that you don't have to have much of a bum season to snap some random streak, like the one they had of posting winning road records, which ended at 20 seasons after the Spurs went just 14-27 on the road this season. But one run that actually felt like a bummer to see get reset was the team's streak of 50-win seasons (or seasons with 50-win paces, if you count the strike-shortened '98-'99 season), which had also lasted for two decades, and was closed this year by the team's 47-34 performance. It hardly makes the season a failure, especially with all the injuries and other drama that besieged San Antonio. But it's a bummer nonetheless.
The decline of Tony Parker. While Ginobili continued to provide a boost to San Antonio beyond even what his stat line suggests, his longtime backcourt mate Parker gave the Spurs no such spark this season. Despite being five years younger than Ginobili, Parker seems much closer to the end of the line - he missed a third of the season with a quad injury, and posted just eight points and four assists a game on 46 percent shooting in 20 minutes a night beyond his return, ceding his starting role to Murray and providing little of Manu's late-game heroics. Those numbers sagged even further against Golden State in the playoffs, where he managed just 33 points and six assists total across five games and 67 minutes. (Parker and Ginobili did make history with San Anotnio's one victory in the series, however, giving them 132 tandem playoff wins - the most for any two teammates in NBA postseason history.)
The Game 82 loss to New Orleans. The first round didn't have to go like this for the Spurs - they could've slotted into a first-round matchup against Oklahoma City or Portland, both of whom ultimately proved to be extremely playoff-vulnerable. But the Spurs limped into the playoffs by dropping three of their final five contests of the season, including a Game 82 loss to the Pelicans - by 24 points, no less. It doomed them to a series against the finally motivated Warriors, while the Pellies got to cook the Blazers in what was ultimately a four-game sweep. "We got in, and now it is time to fine-tune things and try to get better," Aldridge said following the blowout. "There is no pressure on us, so we've just got go play and be better and just be locked in."
The overall blow to the Spurs' mystique. The San Antonio Spurs have long been the most hallowed, untouchable franchise in the NBA: Five titles in 20 years will do that, as will never missing the playoffs or winning fewer than 50 games, or never having a major off-court drama that the franchise couldn't contain and push past. But this year, well, things were different: The team missed 50 wins, they made the playoffs (barely) but got knocked in the first round, and most disturbingly, they finally have issues with one of their star players that are too big to be swept under the rug of team culture. Maybe they work things out this offseason, but the Spurs' prior aura of being above such messiness might never shimmer in quite the same way again.
Are Ginobili and Parker coming back? Ginobili has another year remaining on the two-year, $5-million extension he signed last offseason, though that's unlikely to stand in his way if he decides to hang it up this summer. Parker, meanwhile, is finally at the end of his deal, and would likely only be returning to be a little-used reserve if he re-upped with San Antonio. It's hard to imagine the Spurs without either of these two, but it's also tough to picture one playing without the other, and both might be more motivated to start their countdown clocks to Springfield at the same time instead. If so, without them, and without Duncan, and possibly even without Kawhi, the Spurs might be in for the hardest culture reset in a generation next summer.
Will Kawhi ever play another game for San Antonio? The biggest question of the NBA offseason not to involve LeBron James almost certainly concerns the NBA future of Leonard. The Spurs' franchise player is under contract for one more year, and should be a no-brainer to both receive and agree to a max deal to stay in San Antonio for the remainder of his basketball prime - but the past season has led to distrust on both sides, and now there are reports the Spurs might not even offer such a deal in the fist place. If so, Leonard will be the most sought-after player on the trade market in recent memory, and his departure could not only have timeline-altering implications for the Spurs, but for the entire Association.
Will Danny Green and Rudy Gay pick up their player options? Neither Green nor Gay will be the players Spurs fans' attentions are centered on this summer, with all the other questions surrounding the franchise, but both could play important roles in the team's cap situation, depending on if they accept or decline their player options for next season, for $10 million and $8.5 million, respectively. Green had a typically valuable-but-frustrating year as the team's three-and-D guy, while Gay was an impressively reliable source of scoring and athleticism off the bench. But both players are better to have around when your team is contending rather than rebuilding, so their status will be an interesting domino to fall in the long sequence of the Spurs' upcoming offseason.
Is re-signing Kyle Anderson a priority? Anderson had long been a favorite of the Spurs' coaching staff, but hadn't translated his promise into on-court production before this season - the final of his rookie contract. His eight points, five boards, and three assists a game on 53 percent shooting were all easily career highs. Anderson's skill, smarts, and versatility are all huge for a team like the Spurs - especially as a player in his mid-20s. But for a team that needs to get more athletic to be able to hang with the likes of Golden State in the playoffs, and which already has a ton of money tied up in the plodding frontcourt likes of Aldridge and Pau Gasol, it's unclear how much of an investment San Antonio can make in the guy they call Slo-Mo.
Are the Spurs still title contenders? Dropping from 61 wins and an appearance in the Conference Finals in 2016-17 to 47 wins and a first-round exit this season is a pretty sobering thing for a franchise like San Antonio - but of course, it's hard to tell if this year was an aberration or the new norm. Maybe Kawhi signs on the line that is dotted, and together with a revitalized LaMarcus, helps power the Spurs to being a bruising powerhouse that the likes of Golden State and Houston dread seeing in the playoffs. Or maybe Kawhi gets dealt for young'ns and draft picks, LaMarcus follows him on the way out, and it's another five years before we're even talking about the Spurs as a factor in the West again. Few teams are staring down an offseason as potentially pivotal as San Antonio this summer, and while the team's track record would suggest it'll be able to come up with the answers it needs, it's pretty rare for the Spurs to be facing this many questions.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)