Same as he ever was, Gregg Popovich, the wavy haired, 72-year old Spurs coach using his pregame media availability on Tuesday to ping pong between topics, from the return of Keldon Johnson (“He’s not back yet,” said Popovich) to Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to lift the state’s mask mandate this week. “Getting rid of masks seems ignorant to me,” said Popovich. “We already went through this once. We have to do it again?”
Same as they ever were, San Antonio, the franchise with the highest winning percentage in NBA history (61.8%) adding to it against New York, tattooing the white-hot Knicks 119-93, a win that came just hours after grinding through a tough overtime loss to Brooklyn. They won how the Spurs win, with accurate shooting (48.3%), low turnovers (eight) and a stingy defense that held New York to 40.7% shooting.
“It was an impressive win after a back-to-back,” Popovich said. “They just keep on trucking.”
The win solidified San Antonio’s grip on a top-five seed and, really—who saw this coming? This was the rebuild year, the transition year, the year the Spurs joined the ranks of all contenders past its expiration date and sold off its assets (DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge) for draft picks. Yet San Antonio is 18-13 after the win over New York and barreling towards the playoffs.
What a season for DeRozan, who headlines any All-Star snub list. DeRozan is scoring (20 points per game), which is no surprise. But he’s also playmaking (career-high 7.3 assists per game) while committing the fewest turnovers (1.6) since his rookie year. Against the Knicks, DeRozan handed out 11 assists—without turning the ball over once.
What a season for Johnson, Dejounte Murray and the Spurs' entire player development machine. Murray chipped in six assists against the Knicks, against just one turnover. Murray’s shooting has been erratic but he’s scoring at a career-best 15.8 points per game clip and emerged as one of the NBA’s top rebounding guards (7.2 per game).
Johnson embodies the Spurs. The 29th pick in 2019, Johnson played 17 games for San Antonio last season. He’s at 28 (and counting) in this one, averaging a tidy 14.3 points and 6.8 boards. The 29th pick has produced players for San Antonio in recent years, with Murray (2016), Derrick White (2017) and Johnson falling in that slot, three solid starters—or future starters—who along with Lonnie Walker, Devin Vassell and Jakob Poeltl form the core of the suddenly baby-faced Spurs future.
What a season for Popovich, though is anyone that surprised? Popovich appeared prime for an exit last summer, when San Antonio’s two-decade playoff streak ended in the NBA bubble. With the Spurs in flux and COVID-19 threatening to paralyze another season—and with rumors swirling that Popovich planned a post-USA Basketball exit anyway—the timing seemed right to walk away. Instead, Popovich is a Coach of the Year candidate, preaching the same principals to DeRozan, Murray and Johnson (“Play together, defend, have your teammates back,” said Murray) that he did to Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
The Spurs could still strip the roster down, of course. DeRozan, 31, and LaMarcus Aldridge, 35, are both on expiring contracts, and it’s fair to wonder if either has a future in San Antonio beyond this season. Aldridge has struggled since being shifted to the second unit, and has acknowledged the learning curve could be a steep one. Moving off either—or both—could reinforce the front office with draft capital for the future.
But the Spurs don’t see themselves as a plucky overachiever. They see room for improvement. They see a top-10 defensive team still has another level. “I think we can be an even better defensive team,” said Murray. They see a recent battle with COVID-19 as a reason to be patient as players come back. They see a starting backcourt of Murray and White getting better as the season goes one. They see Walker, after showing flashes of brilliance in DeRozan’s absence earlier this month, playing with more consistency in the second half of the season.
“We got a long way to go,” Murray said. “We haven’t done nothing. Obviously, I think we’re going in the right direction. We’re growing. We’re learning.”
And winning. The Spurs way.