SAN ANTONIO — Internally, San Antonio certainly covets the shot to extend its NBA-record tying 22-year streak of consecutive postseason appearances.
Eight seeding games during the NBA’s restart in Orlando set the stage for that.
But by now you should know better than to think the Spurs are singularly focused on just the playoffs.
“First and foremost, obviously we want to go and perform well,” general manager Brian Wright said. “Obviously, we finished the season strong [with] a good win versus Dallas [on March 10] before things were shut down. We want to continue to do that, continue to grow as a team, continue to grow as a unit.
“But guys haven’t been playing basketball for three months. So, there is going to be a focus on making sure we’re keeping our guys healthy and how we best do that. We want to go play well. We want to go compete. We want to finish the season strong. But we’re also going to keep in mind the health and safety of our players and everybody as we return.”
The quest for a 23rd straight postseason berth starts July 31st, against the Sacramento Kings, without the help of power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, the team’s second-leading scorer (18.9 points per game) and leading rebounder (7.4 rebounds per game). A seven-time NBA All-Star, Aldridge underwent arthroscopic subacromial decompression and rotator cuff debridement on his right shoulder on April 24 in Dallas.
The club announced June 8 that Aldridge would miss the remainder of the season, and he won’t be with the team in Orlando.
So, while San Antonio sets its sights on seizing sole possession of the NBA’s record for consecutive playoff appearances, it also understands where it is at this stage of the game, having dealt with the retirements of future Hall of Famers Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili over the past four seasons, as well as the departure of Kawhi Leonard, now a star with the LA Clippers. No doubt, San Antonio’s schedule sets them up favorably (we’ll get into that later) heading into the NBA’s restart at Florida’s sprawling Walt Disney World Resort.
But let’s not forget the Spurs are sitting at 27-36, good for 12th in the Western Conference standings and 4.0 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot. They’re also teeming with unproven young talent in guards Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV, as well as rookie first-round pick Keldon Johnson.
So for the Spurs, Walt Disney World Resort becomes not just the greatest place on Earth, but also the best venue to evaluate their young prospects.
“I think in the last few weeks of the season, you got to see a little bit of Keldon Johnson and what he brings to the table,” Wright said. “I think you’ll see that growth and development from a lot of our young guys. So, those games are important for us to evaluate and for them to continue to grow. Coach [Gregg Popovich] controls the minutes. But it’s obviously a great chance for them to continue their development process that they started at the beginning of the season.
The No. 29 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Murray was averaging 10.7 points, 4.1 assists and 1.7 steals before the NBA suspended play almost four months ago due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the world still hasn’t yet seen Murray’s full potential after he missed the entire 2018-19 season with a torn right ACL.
White, meanwhile, flashed two-way talent in the opening-round playoff series last season against the Denver Nuggets, but has started in just 13 games this season, averaging 10.4 points and 3.4 assists.
By far San Antonio’s most explosive player, Walker dropped a career-high 28 points in a double-overtime win over Houston, but he’s started in just four games this season as Popovich has worked closely with the second-year man to harness his intensity and playmaking ability.
Walker has averaged 14.5 minutes in 2019-20, shooting 43.4% from the floor and 40.8% from deep.
“The young dudes we’ve got, we’ve got a special group of young dudes,” Walker told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “Everybody I see, man, they got better every day. If you don’t know, you’re going to know who Dejounte is when I get the opportunity, just unleashed 110 percent.
“You can’t compare me with a guy who plays 35 minutes. You can’t compare Derrick White to a guy that plays 35 minutes. You’re not seeing the best of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker, Bryn Forbes or Keldon Johnson, Jakob Poeltl. You’re not seeing the best of us because we’re still earning our stripes behind closed doors, but also trying to gain trust from our coaches and our teammates.”
That all starts on July 31 when San Antonio opens the NBA’s restart against the Sacramento Kings. Throughout the Spurs’ entire schedule of seeding games, they play just one back-to-back set on Aug. 2 and Aug. 3 against the Memphis Grizzlies and Philadelphia 76ers. Of the eight seeding games on the team’s schedule, just four outings — including two against the Utah Jazz — come against postseason participants from a year ago.
Just three of those matchups — Aug. 5 against Denver, Aug. 7 and Aug. 13 against Utah — come against squads currently seeded in the top four of their conferences.
Favorable schedule aside, the Spurs didn’t even get back into their practice facility to resume training until June 8, as they worked with local health officials to determine when to reopen.
“It’s a great opportunity for them to continue playing, continue development,” Wright said. “To pull something like this off is a tremendous undertaking. I think the league looked at a lot of different options in a return to play. This one fit best for a multitude of reasons.
“So, we’re happy that we have eight games, and we have an opportunity to compete and get a chance to play in the playoffs. It’s going to be a huge adjustment. And to know what it will take, we won’t really know until we get into that bubble. But I know the guys want to compete and crown a champion this season. We’re fortunate to get the opportunity to do that.”
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