As the NBA offseason twisted and turned, the San Antonio Spurs waited on a change that never came. Pau Gasol’s unexpected decision to decline a $16.2 million player option was a familiar omen; San Antonio not only has a history of retaining players on below-market deals, but also of working with those players to maximize the potential to improve the roster. This was a preliminary move. Clearing Gasol’s salary was a necessary step in the chase for high-end talent, and that the team actually sold him on the possibility spoke to the seriousness of their pursuit.
Then Chris Paul, who had long admired the Spurs from afar, took himself out of free agency altogether by opting back into the final year of his contract to complete a trade to the Rockets. Other potential fits (Kyle Lowry, J.J. Redick, George Hill, etc.) signed elsewhere, for once leaving San Antonio holding the bag. Suffice to say, the Spurs did not anticipate re-signing Gasol to a three-year deal worth $48 million—essentially the same annual value as his original declined option. Yet here they are on the other side of the summer, reinvested in a roster without material improvement.
This result is less a decision to stand pat than a false start. Paul was off the market before the front office could even make its pitch. The trade winds swirling around LaMarcus Aldridge went nowhere. Soon the team’s priorities turned to retention, at least in the cases of Gasol, Manu Ginobili, and Patty Mills. Then-restricted free agent Jonathon Simmons instead had his qualifying offer pulled, freeing him to sign with the team of his choosing. The only real additions made came through signing Rudy Gay, whose Achilles tendon ruptured back in January, and reserve center Joffrey Lauvergne.
Perhaps that’s enough. A charitable view of San Antonio’s first-half dominance in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against Golden State would encourage the return of the team as previously constructed. What’s enough to wallop the Warriors with a 25-point lead after mounting a 61-win season is worthy of deeper investigation. The Spurs will get it, even if that result has been foisted upon them. Kawhi Leonard is still one of the best basketball players in the world. The core of a team that finished with the seventh-best offense and the top overall defense returns largely intact. Even the biggest exception—the fact that Tony Parker won’t be available for months due to a torn quadriceps—could work out in San Antonio’s favor. The Spurs were a distinctly better team with Mills on the floor in Parker’s place last season, even in otherwise identical lineups.
Unfortunately, it’s a flawed premise. It took a competitive series for the Spurs to sneak past the Rockets in the second round of the playoffs last season, and even that outcome relied on James Harden evaporating in the middle of Game 6. Houston, in a cruel twist of fate, returns with Paul in tow, spearheading improvement throughout the conference. The Paul George-infused Thunder join a second tier that should be more than formidable.
Credible competition on the edge of the playoff field will ensure quality of whichever teams make the cut. The Wolves are the kind of team that could surge at the worst possible time, making some veteran opponent a plot device in their coming-of-age story. Matching up with the Warriors is the ultimate, preposterous goal. Yet even getting to that series will demand more of the Spurs, tugging the team’s rotation and strategy in different directions along the way.
If you’re Gregg Popovich—or, for that matter, Kawhi Leonard—you can only hope that this group is enough. That LaMarcus Aldridge can drum up enough 25-point nights to keep things interesting. That Gasol, 37, and Ginobili, 40, have enough solid play left in them to stabilize the rotation. That losing Simmons, who was crucial to the team’s small-ball adjustments last season, doesn’t come back to haunt them. That Gay, in his recovery from one of basketball’s most devastating injuries, might be able to contribute. That there’s enough upside between Dejounte Murray, Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes, Kyle Anderson, and rookie Derrick White to give the roster something it might otherwise lack. That replacing the minutes of Dewayne Dedmon and David Lee doesn’t come at some underestimated cost. That the acceleration of the West, including the further growth of the Warriors, hasn’t passed them by.
For the Spurs, so much of this season depends on this result that has been foisted upon them—a reality that even the best-laid plans of one of the NBA’s best-run teams don’t always turn out as expected. All that’s left to do, in typical San Antonio fashion, is make the absolute most of it.