Last night the San Antonio Spurs lost very badly to the Houston Rockets, 99 - 126. I think there remains a good chance that they win the series. And there will always be a little voice in my heart that says they can win the title. But if I'm honest, the Spurs are in a rebuild mode. They are in just as much of a rebuild mode as many teams that missed the playoffs entirely. Vital pieces need to be added. I won't go so far as to say they are in the same boat as the Lakers or the Sixers, but the overall term can be used for each team. However, unlike those obvious rebuilding projects, the Spurs rebuild is deceptive:
It looks like 61 regular season wins.
It looks like the best regular season defensive rating in the league.
It looks like landing a #2 seed in the loaded Western Conference.
It looks like Kawhi Leonard putting up an MVP-worthy season.
But don't let those signs fool you into thinking the Spurs are championship-ready.
Last year when the Spurs were dismantled by the Thunder I was very disappointed, but I also knew that the better team had won. San Antonio took a 2-1 series lead by riding Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge’s combined scoring average of 57.6 points per game in the first three matchups. In the following three games those numbered teetered off to 42.3 and San Antonio dropped all three losing the series 2-4. The Spurs simply didn't have a healthy premiere point guard or enough young firepower on the wings. Durant and Westbrook had ripped the reigns away from Leonard and Aldridge combining for an average of 59.3 points over the last three games. Rim protection was lacking and Steven Adams ruled the paint like a bully in a sandbox. As a Spurs fan, it was a sobering experience made even more potent by Tim Duncan’s retirement two months later in July. But at least we knew what roles the team needed to fill for a championship the next year.
In the offseason the Spurs revitalized the point with... a raw, athletic rookie in Dejounte Murray? They added rangy athletic wings such as... rookies Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes? They locked down the paint by signing old man Pau Gasol and Dewayne Dedmon? That is what rebuilding looks like. Adding undeveloped young talent and older veterans to ease the transition. Yet I never think to associate the word “rebuild” with the Spurs because they have been winning 50+ games every season going back to when Hoya-legend Bill Clinton was in the White House. Yet now, this postseason the Spurs have the same exact problems against the Rockets that they had against the Thunder in 2016, except they have brought three promising rookies along for the ride.
If the Spurs are going to win with Kawhi and LaMarcus, then they need a star middleman between the two. Unlike many fans, I have not given up on LaMarcus Aldridge. However, I do believe he can only be maximized as a third-option scorer. That is why striking out on Kevin Durant continues to looks like a massive loss for an otherwise championship-ready Spurs roster.
Ultimately, I'll enjoy this series and hope the Spurs can make enough adjustments to handle the Rockets’ high-powered offense. But I wouldn't be too surprised if Houston continues to feast on this Spurs squad, closing the series in 6 games or so. If that happens I'll be sad for the guys, especially Kawhi, but I won't be as disappointed as last year. Because I also wouldn't at all be surprised if in a year or two, we are witnessing a perfectly crafted Spurs team led by peak-Kawhi Leonard. I wouldn't be surprised if Dejounte Murray has developed into a Shaun Livingston-esque point guard to lead the second unit with Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes ready for catch-and-shoot threes. I also wouldn't be surprised if the Point-God Chris Paul signs with San Antonio and finds a post-prime renaissance under Pop's system.
Most importantly, I wouldn't be surprised if in the next couple of years I look back and think, "wow, those disappointing playoff exits were part of a process for something great". Right now, as a Spurs fan, I need to trust the process. But not the kitschy kind of “Trust the Process” that has defined the tanking-rebuild in Philadelphia. I’m talking about trusting that the Spurs will continue to win while adding pieces and building on the basketball culture that has developed out in the southernmost parts of the Lone Star State. Let’s not lose faith and keep the bigger picture in mind, but still go out and crush the Rockets in game 2 tomorrow. Go Spurs Go!