Saturday, May 18, 2024

Pop Culture: End of An Era

San Antonio is in serious turmoil. But unless you are living under a rock, you already knew that. No offense to anyone actually living under a rock, I’m sure it’s a great place to live.

But let’s get back to the point. GOAT coach Gregg Popovich has led the Spurs victoriously during his 22 years of coaching. Since taking over as head coach in 1996, Popovich has had nothing immense success. ‘Pop’ holds the 4th highest winning percentage in NBA history, a testament to his greatness.

Talent alone has not driven the Spurs dynasty. For Pop, winning basketball games is more than how good you are. He has instilled a culture of selflessness and sacrifice. The coveted Spurs system revolves around his players working as a team, selflessly passing and moving without the ball.

Pop retains players with a high basketball IQ and understanding for the game. Year after year, the Spurs are filled with players that are egoless and ready to sacrifice their role for the good of the team. Pop has always employed hard working guys who are ready to seize their opportunity.

Pop’s system has elevated the productivity of many average players, making them look like stars. Gary Neal, Cory Joseph, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter. The list goes on and on with players that have made a living in the Spurs system.

There’s a certain humbleness and modesty that we have come to expect from every member of the Spurs organization. This includes coach Gregg Popovich who is notorious for his one-word answers and comedic replies during interviews.

But for all the players Pop has mentored, for all the rings he has won, there is one accomplishment that sticks out above all else. His name is Kawhi Leonard.


Kawhi’s Journey To The NBA

You know Kawhi Leonard right? Superstar small forward, multiple DPOY winner, yeah that one. You know Kawhi now, but do you know where he came from?

Kawhi played two seasons at San Diego State University before declaring for the NBA draft. Leonard was no stud, he was not a slam dunk prospect who teams were gushing over. Although Leonard was to be a lottery pick, he was one that was considered a bit of a project.

In spite of that, Pop knew exactly what he wanted. On June 23rd, 2011, the night of the NBA draft, Kawhi’s faith would be sealed. With the 15th pick, the Indiana Pacers selected the small forward out of San Diego State University. Yeah, you read that right.

Most people seem to forget, but the Spurs didn’t actually draft Kawhi, the Pacers did. A trade on draft night sent the up-and-coming point guard George Hill to the Pacers for an unknown, unproven commodity in Kawhi Leonard. But Pop doesn’t care what you think.

So what did the Spurs receive in Kawhi? To begin with, they got a player with elite measurables. Kawhi had prototypical size for the small forward position at 6’7” 225 lbs. What stands out is his 7’3” wingspan, an unprecedented size. If you’ve heard the nickname ‘The Claw’ before, it derives from his gigantic 9.75-inch hands, just as big as Shaquille O’ Neal. Take a look past his measurables and turn on the game tape, you see the athleticism that vaulted him into the top 15 on draft night.

Kawhi was set to be a very versatile piece who could do many things on the floor. A solid shooter, he could handle the ball and could defend multiple positions. Kawhai was said to be a jack of all trades but did not excel in any aspect.

But drafting Kawhi goes farther than his skills on the floor. The Spurs got an absolute gym rat. Kawhi was said to be one of the hardest workers out there, relentlessly putting in time and working on his game. More important to Pop was the man they were drafting. As I mentioned before, there’s a certain modesty to Spurs players that exist. Kawhi beats every player in that category.

Kawhi is all business. He puts up a shot, it goes in, he walks away. He shows almost no emotion, no need to celebrate, just does his job then goes to the other side of the court and plays defense. Kawhi is the king of being humble, He doesn’t care what you think about him, he simply plays at an elite level, then goes home.

Which makes this whole situation a little peculiar, but we’ll get to that.


Kawhi’s Rise To Power

Almost all NBA fans can recite the time they discovered Kawhi. 2013 NBA Finals. A superstar squad led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh was set to take on Gregg Popovich’s dynasty led by Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili. Except this series was a little different. There was a new guy on the block who took almost everyone by surprise. Well everyone besides Pop, of course.

Kawhi Leonard has no fear. He was given the task of defending the best player in the world, and oh boy did he do that. To be frank, nobody is shutting down LeBron James. LeBron still put up an elite 25.3 PPG, but you can see Kawhi’s impact with LeBron’s 44.7 FG%. While the percentage doesn’t seem so bad, we’re talking about a guy who has been shooting around 55.0 FG% for the past 10 years.

Nobody can stop LeBron, but the truly elite defenders can limit him. Leonard did exactly that, forcing tough shots and mistakes from the world’s best player all series long. You can’t stop LeBron, but you can force him to be inefficient.

Kawhi was well on his way to Finals MVP for the series. If not for a dagger 3 pointer by Ray Allen in what was one of the most clutch shots of all time, the series was over in 6 games. Unfortunately for the Spurs, Miami came back in 7 games to win the series. In spite of that, the legend of Kawhi Leonard was born. Everyone saw an elite defender who had the potential to blossom into a superstar.

And from that point on, Kawhi blossomed.

Year after year Kawhi improved his game a little bit at a time. He worked on mastering all aspects of his game. From becoming the league’s best perimeter defender to the league’s best mid-range shooter, Kawhi did it all. He’s worked all the way to supplanting himself as a top 3 player in this league.

But let’s take a step back. Remember that 21-year-old kid from SDSU who came in very raw and unpolished. Gregg Popovich worked his magic. Pop is the best with player development. He took a player with elite physical traits, one who was ready to work and sacrifice and turned him into a superstar.


Downfall of The Spurs

What makes this whole situation so baffling is the fact that it’s happening in San Antonio. As I mentioned before, Pop has instilled a culture of modesty, dedication, sacrifice, and hard work. Kawhi Leonard may just be the most humble person to ever put on a San Antonio uniform.

You have to wonder what the Spurs could have done to tick off Kawhi Leonard.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter. If Kawhi wants to leave, he will leave. There have been numerous reports that the Spurs have abandoned Kawhi in his injury recovery process, but in reality, nobody knows. Kawhi has his reasons for leaving and it isn’t to anyone’s benefit to try and speculate why he wants to leave.

Pop has reportedly been putting in the time to try and convince his superstar forward to stay. It seems all attempts have been fruitless. Kawhi’s time in San Antonio seems to be coming to a close. So what everyone wants to know is, what does San Antonio do now?


Pop Style

Pop has always been prepared for the future. The Spurs first title came in 1999 led by star center David Robinson. Robinson was the unquestioned leader of the Spurs for many years who dominated whilst on the floor. Although Robinson was their franchise player, Pop was sure to draft his successor. You may have heard of him, a guy named Tim Duncan.

The transition was seamless, Robinson finished out his last few years while Duncan blossomed into a superstar for the Spurs. As Robinson faded down the stretch of his career, Pop made another marvelous draft selection with future hall of fame point guard Tony Parker. A year later Manu Ginobili joined the party. Pop drafted Manu with the 58th pick in the 1999 draft. Ginobili stayed overseas for a few years while only Pop knew how Ginobili was ready to take the NBA by storm.

The famous trio of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili wreaked havoc in the NBA for a number of years, but eventually, players get old. Fortunately for the Spurs, Pop already had that covered. Years before the trio hit a major decline, Pop was developing guys like Patty Mills, Danny Green, and of course Kawhi Leonard.

Duncan retired, Parker and Ginobili declined, but Pop was ready. After signing star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge as the heir to the throne for Duncan, the Spurs were set. Along with a young core of players, the duo of Aldridge and Leonard was set to be the future of the Spurs. Or so they thought.

Kawhi missed 27 games to start the 2017-2018 NBA season with a mysterious quad injury. After about a month he picked up another shoulder injury which knocks him out for 3 games. Kawhi came back for one game before Pop makes the announcement that Kawhi would be out indefinitely.

The news came as a bit of a shock to NBA fans who saw Kawhi fight back to full strength before being taken out to rehab an injury nobody knew was serious.

From there the rumors kept swirling. Nobody knew if/when Kawhi would come back. There were reports stating that Pop said Kawhi can come back when he was ready. Other reports stated Kawhi wanted to come back but the Spurs wouldn’t let him. The only thing that anyone was sure about, is that tension was running high with the Spurs.


Where Do We Go Now?

The biggest surprise is that this is happening in San Antonio. This is the organization that built itself on sacrifice and unselfishness. What baffles fans, even more, is how this incident revolves around the NBA’s most humble player. It really makes you wonder what the Spurs could have done.

We can speculate for days what happened, but that wouldn’t benefit anyone. The question remains, what does San Antonio do now?

Popular to contrary belief, SA is not doomed. If/when they lose their superstar forward, they quietly have all the pieces to continue the dynasty.

The puzzle starts with Kawhi of course. Leonard is under contract for another year before he is free to sign with any team in the league. The question is, should the Spurs keep him another year and gamble that he will resign?

In my best judgment, they should not. It seems whatever the Spurs have done to Kawhi has left him with no desire to stick around. If Pop could not convince Kawhi to stay, they have to start thinking about the alternatives.

While most fans in the league would love to see San Antonio blow up their roster and start from scratch, that really isn’t necessary. Let’s take a look at what the Spurs currently employ on their roster. The first thing you see is star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge sitting there atop the roster. Aldridge played 2nd fiddle to Kawhi for 2 years and struggled to maintain the dominance he did in Portland. With Kawhi limited to only 9 games last year, Aldridge seemed to snap back to reality. He approached career highs in major statistical categories.

The Spurs would be smart to build around Aldridge for the next few years, making him the focal point of their offense. Just Aldridge is not enough, of course. It takes a team to win. The Spurs will need to find a viable trade suitor for Kawhi.

The bad news is, they’re giving up a superstar in his prime. The good news is, they’re giving up a superstar in his prime. Huh? Wait, what?

There are two sides to any coin. While it’ll be impossible to replicate the production Kawhi will give them, they’re assured to be getting a lot in return.

The most popular idea is trading him to the Lakers where they could get any combination of Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and/or draft picks. Another idea is being traded to the Timberwolves for another disgruntled superstar in Jimmy Butler. Or how about a trade to the Celtics? Or the Knicks? That’s no shortage of teams out there with young talent and/or draft picks.

No matter where the Spurs may trade Kawhi, they’ll be sure to get a fantastic deal in return. The one thing they cannot afford to do is keep Kawhi for another year and lose him for nothing.

The Spurs already have a few young pieces with tons of promise. Most notable is up-and-coming point guard Dejounte Murray. Murray very much looks like a future star for the Spurs. After a solid sophomore season where Murray ended up All-Defensive 2nd Team, Murray will continue to work on his jumper to improve his offensive game. At 6’5” Murray has fantastic size for the point guard position which is complemented by insane 6’10” wingspan.

Offseason standout Derrick White just averaged 22.3 PPG in spectacular fashion in the summer league. After being taken in the first round of 2017, White seems to have turned a corner this offseason. White has shown off all sorts of skills, handling, shooting, the whole repertoire. White will look to take on a bigger role in San Antonio as opportunity is sure to arise.

The Spurs spent their first round pick on stud shooting guard Lonnie Walker out of Miami. Walker will look to improve his finishing and shooting but his raw physical ability stands out above all else. Checking in at 6’5” 204 lbs with a 6’10” wingspan, Walker boasts a massive 40 inch vertical. Walker has all the physical tools to develop into a star and as everyone knows, there’s no better player development staff than Gregg Popovich’s.

The addition of Chimezie Metu in the 2nd round was also a solid addition. Metu stands tall but weak at 6’11” 225 lbs. As Metu continues to get stronger, he can also improve his skill set. He already possesses the athleticism and physical profile to succeed. Once again, playing under Gregg Popovich will do wonders for his development as Metu looks to succeed the aging Pau Gasol.

Let’s not forget about one of the most underrated players in this league. From 2007 to 2016 only 6 players have averaged at least 17.0 PPG. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Rudy Gay. Yeah, that’s right. Rudy Gay.

Gay is a professional scorer who has been buried under bad teams year after year. Gay finally got his chance with a great team in San Antonio but faltered badly. He had his worst season since coming into the league in 2006. Finally healthy and with ample opportunity, Gay will look to make a strong impact and show what he’s made of.

It’s quite obvious to see, the Spurs are far from finished. While they’re not going to go beat the Warriors next year, they have a chance to continue to be something special. Obviously, it will start with trading Kawhi Leonard, but don’t be mistaken into thinking this is the end. You’re probably already writing off his San Antonio franchise, understandably so, but you’d be mistaken to write off Pop so easily.

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