SAN ANTONIO — After relying heavily on veterans for two decades, the San Antonio Spurs are having growing pains in their transformation to a younger roster.
For the first time, San Antonio missed the playoffs for a second straight season after an NBA-record 22 straight appearances.
“Unique, roller coaster, weird,” Spurs veteran guard DeMar DeRozan said. “I think those are three things that sum up this season.”
The days of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili guiding a veteran roster have given way to Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker learning on the fly through injuries, little practice and a compacted schedule because ot he pandemic.
It was one of the most confounding seasons for Gregg Popovich, but also one of the most rewarding in his 25 years as Spurs coach.
“If any team needs practices to work on consistency and execution, we did,” Popovich said. “(But) I don’t know if I have ever been more proud of a team that just doesn’t quit. No matter what the mistakes, no matter what the circumstances are, they really fight. That’s a good base. So, I’m really proud of the way they conducted themselves and played to win.”
Popovich, 72, completed the first year of a three-year extension with Spurs. He will coach the U.S. team in the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
San Antonio finished 10th in the Western Conference, losing to Memphis in a play-in game. San Antonio trailed by double digits in 58% of this season’s games, finishing 9-33 in those contests. The Spurs also led by double digits in 51% of their games, finishing 28-9.
They overcame or lost double-digit leads in multiple games.
“Regardless of the situation, we just kept fighting,” Johnson said.
DeRozan and fellow veterans Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and Gorgui Dieng are all unrestricted free agents. San Antonio would like to have all back, but their returns are uncertain.
San Antonio should have money to spend: The Spurs are projected to be second only to the New York Knicks in available cap space this summer.
The Spurs have the 10th-youngest roster in the NBA with an average age of 25.3, but that drops to a league-low 23 years old without the four 30-something veterans.
“I think overall we can be proud of us for a big majority of our season, but we also know we have a lot that we have to improve on,” Spurs starting center Jakob Poeltl said.
IN AND OUT
The Spurs battled multiple injuries this season, including a series of foot and ankle injuries that forced White to miss half the season.
The team also had multiple players miss two weeks after contracting or being exposed to COVID-19. The league’s health and safety protocols forced San Antonio to cut short their annual rodeo road trip in February. Those games were rescheduled for the second half, leading the team to essentially play every other day over the final three months.
“It’s a long season,” Walker said. “We came out and (fought) and gave it our all despite injuries after injuries and not really having a full team. But time goes on and we’re going to continue to work hard. We’re going to continue to get better. I just don’t like losing. I wanted to get to the playoffs.”