2021-22 Kia Season Preview
Popovich, star-less Spurs excited for future, new challenge
Gregg Popovich and San Antonio start the season with optimism and excitement despite a roster filled with youth and no clear-cut star.
SAN ANTONIO – Gregg Popovich posed a question to articulate a point about the uncharted territory San Antonio approaches this season without a single star player on the roster.
“I just think that our style will be different in the sense that, for instance, if you were the coach, you’re at the end of the game, who’s your go-to guy?” Popovich asked a reporter Monday at the team’s practice facility. “Who are you gonna give it to?”
Laughter ensued when the reporter stumbled into an awkward joke.
“That’s my point though,” Popovich said, laughing. “It’s exciting. I have no idea who I’m gonna give it to or what play we’re gonna run. That’s something that we’re gonna figure out as we move along here. To me, that’s exciting as hell, and it is to those guys, too.”
You’d have to go way back into team annals, to before the David Robinson era to find the last San Antonio Spurs team devoid of a star player. Tony Parker retired in the summer of 2019 as the last of the Big Three, which also consisted of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. Even after that season, the team could still lean on star players such as LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan.
San Antonio reached a buyout agreement last March with Aldridge and moved DeRozan in a sign-and-trade deal with Chicago resulting in the acquisition of forwards Thaddeus Young and Al-Farouq Aminu along with a trio of Draft picks.
So, the team opens training camp Tuesday with its last seven first-round Draft picks, and eight players new to the Spurs as Popovich enters his 26th season.
Drafted by the Spurs as a 19-year-old in 2016, four-year veteran Dejounte Murray, 25, is San Antonio’s longest-tenured player.
“It’s not a negative to say, but we don’t have superstars,” Popovich said. “This is not a superstar-filled team. It’s a team filled with great character, a lot of will, and that’s what makes it fun.”
“This is not a superstar-filled team. It’s a team filled with great character, a lot of will, and that’s what makes it fun.”
— Gregg Popovich
Popovich showcased the good-times vibe even after his 12-minute press conference to open San Antonio’s Media Day.
Shortly after his time at the lectern, Popovich snuck behind the cluster of news cameras perched behind media seating and imitated the gaggle of reporters on hand with a series of obnoxious questions.
Before that, though, Popovich gathered the team for a serious discussion “about the fact there’s no need to pace yourself,” he said.
“Nobody’s gonna play 39 minutes a game,” Popovich explained. “We’re not worried about stats, individual honors or anything like that. These guys are just gonna have a ball playing. It’s gonna be simple, simple, simple stuff. And at both ends of the court, we just want a lot of activity, a lot of pace and just play fast, hopefully smart along with that. But the pace should be really enjoyable to watch. These guys, they enjoy each other, and it’s exciting to me.”
It’s also deliberate how the Spurs arrived here.
San Antonio entered the NBA’s bubble in Orlando during the 2019-20 season without Aldridge, who had just undergone surgery, with plans to focus on developing the team’s young talent. When the Spurs emerged from the bubble, the brass knew the course to chart moving into the future.
San Antonio wanted to utilize its youth and athleticism by employing a simpler, more free-flowing style of play.
“This is purposeful what you’re seeing,” Popovich said. “It was put together with a lot of foresight and a lot of discussion with [general manager] Brian Wright, with [CEO] R.C. [Buford], with the coaches.”
Murray appreciates Popovich’s commitment to the new vision.
“It’s good to hear that’s the page he’s on and the page we’re on,” Murray said. “It’s all becoming a group thing and everybody’s understanding. It’s just going to take time with practice and getting familiar with one another even more. So, I’m excited. We all should be excited.”
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) September 27, 2021
San Antonio is also making sure to capitalize on every competitive advantage available. The NBA postponed three of the team’s games last season, which left many of the Spurs stuck in quarantine in Charlotte, after four players tested positive for COVID-19. That left San Antonio scrambling to finish the second half of last season, as it was forced to play the last 40 games over the course of 68 days.
Looking to prevent a similar situation from occurring this season, Popovich revealed that every player on the roster is vaccinated against COVID-19.
Third-year forward Keldon Johnson called the situation “a big relief.”
“We’re in good shape right now, and we’re gonna try to do everything we can to make sure we can be safe, which means we’ve got to be disciplined day to day to make sure what happened to us in Charlotte last year doesn’t happen again,” Popovich said. “Vaccination-wise we’re ready to go. I even had my third one, my booster the other day because I’m over 90.”
Another advantage the Spurs hope to flex lies in maintaining the continuity the franchise has established over the last 25 years under Popovich. San Antonio hired Ginobili, 44, as special adviser to basketball operations, the team announced last Friday. Popovich joked that Ginobili’s “wife needed him gone,” when asked about the new addition.
“He’s gonna do everything. He’s gonna help Brian [Wright] in management,” Popovich said. “He’s gonna help me with coaching. He’s gonna help the players with development. He’s probably gonna go scout some people. I think he’s probably gonna figure out a two-week trip to Italy to scout foreign players. I might go with him. But I’m being serious, he’s gonna do all those things and see where he feels comfortable.”
Ginobili spent time at Media Day chatting up the coaches and players as they shuffled from one photoshoot station to the next.
Johnson, meanwhile, across the room pondered what San Antonio’s ceiling might be in this new era of Spurs basketball. The club finished last season 33-39 and fell to Memphis in the first game of the State Farm Play-In Tournament. The franchise’s streak of consecutive playoff appearances ended at 22 years during the 2019-20 season after the Spurs sputtered to a record of 32-39.
“I don’t know, that’s the scary part,” Johnson said when asked about San Antonio’s ceiling for 2020-21. “I feel like we could be really good, but I can’t put a ceiling or a cap on how good we could be as a group or as a unit. We’re really young, but I feel like we’re ready to go out there and compete.”
Murray believes the roster’s off-court chemistry will manifest itself on the hardwood. Of the team’s 18-man training camp roster, just three players (Doug McDermott, Young and Aminu) own more than five years of NBA experience. Just five players are older than 25.
“With this group, I can look at everybody from when the summer started to now [and] you see everybody asking questions, having fun, competing. The chemistry off the floor is unbelievable,” Murray said. “We’re all around the same age almost. It all carries on to the basketball floor. It starts with tomorrow.”
Fifth-year guard Derrick White agreed. At age 27, White was the team’s oldest player earlier in the offseason, before it acquired McDermott, Young, Aminu and Bryn Forbes, who originally joined the team in 2016 as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State.
“It’s definitely different,” White said. “When I came in, we had Manu and Tony. The last couple of years, [we had] Rudy [Gay], DeMar, LA [Aldridge]. So, it’s definitely different in that aspect. It’s definitely different from the past years, but it’s been exciting for me. For a while there, I was the oldest player on the team. So, that was when it really hit me. I didn’t like that. It’s super-exciting. We’ve got a bunch of guys that are trying to make a name for themselves and trying to prove themselves.”
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