Much has been said about the Los Angeles Lakers’ meltdown this season and their now-infamous elimination from the play-in tournament race earlier this week. While the criticism of this team that embarrassingly tumbled down the standings over these past few months is well-deserved, the other side of the equation has been vastly overlooked.
The Lakers did not just lose their way out of the postseason picture alone. The rebuilding San Antonio Spurs, their archnemesis during the late 1990s all the way into the 2000s, took care of business on their end and assisted in putting the final nail in the Lakers’ coffin.
The 116-97 win of the Spurs over the Denver Nuggets last April 6, despite the absence of their lead guard Dejounte Murray, helped them seal the last play-in berth for the second consecutive year and officially expunge the Lakers from contention. That crucial victory was their third consecutive one and marked their seventh win in eight games.
Although they lost their succeeding match versus the Minnesota Timberwolves, and their 34-46 win-loss record leaves much to be desired, there is a lot to like about this San Antonio team moving forward.
Even if Gregg Popovich, now the winningest coach in NBA history, decides to retire in the offseason, he has pointed this team on the right path in their quest to return to title contention. Long known to be in a class of his own when evaluating talent and developing players, he has built the foundation upon which the next great Spurs team may rise.
Their most notable piece is Murray, who was deservedly named an NBA All-Star for the first time in his career this season. He has taken control of their offense following the offseason departure of DeMar DeRozan and responded to the added responsibility by recording career-highs across the board. Though he has been sidelined over the first week of April due to a non-COVID illness, he is expected to return sooner rather than later.
The 6’4 guard has taken an astronomical statistical leap from a year ago where he tallied an already impressive 15.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. In this current campaign, he has upped his averages in 67 appearances to an elite 21.2 points, 1.4 three-pointers, 7.2 rebounds, 9.3 assists, and a league-leading two steals.
One of the more notable Murray statistics is that his 13 triple doubles this season are second in the league to only the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic, who has 19 to his name. The 25-year-old also broke the Spurs record for triple doubles with the franchise last February when he eclipsed the previous high of 14 set by team legend and Hall of Famer David Robinson.
While Murray is promising, there remains a considerable debate on whether he has the ability to carry a team as its first option or if he is better suited as a second star. It remains possible that he takes another leap and becomes that kind of lead player, especially when considering how much he has improved offensively since he first came into the league as an unheralded late first round pick in 2016.
However, if this is already his ceiling, then it is not a bad one at that. As an elite defender and burgeoning playmaker with decent size, Murray is the kind of player that has historically enabled high-volume scorers to thrive. Bradley Beal and Zach Lavine, two free agents this year, have been recently linked with San Antonio and could benefit greatly from sharing a backcourt with Murray.
Beyond Murray, the Spurs have several other pieces who profile as potential high-end role players that can contribute to a winning situation. Starting center Jakob Poeltl, acquired with DeRozan in the trade that sent Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors, is also averaging career-highs with 13.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game. He has developed into a fine interior presence with soft hands around the basket and the ability to protect the rim at an above average level (1.7 blocks per game this year).
Their undersized power forward Keldon Johnson, who was chosen 29th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft with the pick that came in the Leonard trade, has also blossomed into a solid contributor. Though it is difficult to picture the 6’5 Johnson as a starter on a contender given his size and overall ceiling as a player, he can thrive as a reserve, particularly because of the high level of energy that he brings every time he steps on the court.
Devin Vassell, the 11th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, has also made major strides this year and is turning into the kind of crafty perimeter defender that has long thrived in San Antonio. The 6’5 wing has grown more comfortable on offense as well and looks primed for a lengthy career as a high-end role player.
This team might still be a few, if not several moves away from reliving the glory days of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, but the first few building blocks have already been laid. They are flush with cap space and have a star-friendly roster that is bound to draw serious interest from the league’s top talent. A few more years of Popovich as their head coach could help make them an even bigger draw for free agents and disgruntled superstars, though they should be alright even without him.
The Spurs now have their chance in the spotlight during the upcoming play-in after flying under the radar for most of this season and it will be compelling to see if they can capitalize on the opportunity this time around after a quiet exit last year.