What’s the Plan? is a weekly series where we usually look at the long-term outlooks for teams that aren’t immediately contending for a championship, but I’ve already talked about all of the bad and middling teams, so now I’m looking at the contenders. This week, we’re examining a team making a transition from one of the most successful cores in NBA history: the San Antonio Spurs.
Tim Duncan will retire at some point, right? I mean, eventually the U.S. government has to shut Duncan’s career down before the public realizes he’s an alien when he continues racking up double-doubles past the age of 40. I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords and think Duncan should play for as long as he wants before he enslaves the human race with his stoic efficiency and good teamwork.
But in all seriousness, the Spurs will some day have to face life without the players who’ve been iconic members of their recent championship teams. Duncan will be turning 40 during the playoffs next season, Tony Parker will be turning 34 at the end of the season and Manu Ginobili, at 38, is already playing in a minimized role with the team.
The Spurs have signed LaMarcus Aldridge as a premier big man to take the place of Duncan when he moves on from basketball in 2020. San Antonio hasn’t made any moves to find a potential long-term replacement for Parker, but they do have a framework for future success in place that should keep the team afloat when their three veterans move on.
Kawhi Leonard is exactly the kind of player the Spurs were looking for to smooth out their transition when they traded for him after he was picked 15th overall in 2011. This has been cited as one of the classic cases where the rich get richer: the Spurs end up with one of the five best players in the draft with a guy in the middle of the round. Meanwhile, many teams picking earlier in the draft are kicking themselves for missing out on taking Leonard, who’s one of the best small forwards in the league.
It’s not entirely an accident that Leonard has blossomed while many of his draft mates are struggling. The Spurs have a very particular system and are very good at picking players they know they can develop into effective pieces of that system. Leonard fit into that system well, and he’s put in the work to become one of the most effective young perimeter players in the league on both ends of the floor. It’s hard to say for certain that Leonard wouldn’t have been as successful on a team other than the Spurs, but the team deserves credit for identifying, coaching and helping him develop his talent.
The Spurs are banking on this system continuing to work for them with future young players to help keep them relevant once Duncan, Parker and Ginobili leave. The team will also be among the many teams with cap space next summer, and they could use that money to further augment and add players to their roster. If the team can find young players who fit well into their system, and if they develop those players as well as they have with guys like Leonard and Danny Green, they should be able to mitigate the losses of their championship core better than most teams would be able to do.