For over two decades, the San Antonio Spurs have been the gold standard.
The epitome of stability and consistency on and off the court, they have been the envy of every other franchise in the NBA. The winning, the culture, the professionalism, the respect... the Spurs always compete and they always do it on their terms.
For year, the Spurs have flat out denied the age old saying that all good things must come to an end, though, one transaction has placed their 22-year postseason streak in serious jeopardy.
When Kawhi Leonard returns to San Antonio on the day after Thanksgiving, it will have been 500 days since the most successful franchise in the modern era decided to trade away their dynamic two-way superstar.
July 18, 2018 was the day 'The Kawhi Era' in San Antonio officially came to a close, as the Spurs traded the 2014 Finals MVP to the Toronto Raptors.
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We may never know the full intricate details of what happened during the 2017-18 season, but we do know that Leonard's final go-around with the franchise that pegged him as the torch bearer post-Tim Duncan was filled with frustration for all parties, in a situation that clearly devolved and became untenable.
Leonard played just 210 minutes across nine appearances in the final campaign before the transaction was completed that paved the way for the Toronto Raptors to make a historic championship run.
▪️732 PTS (3rd most ever)- NBA (@NBA) June 16, 2019
▪️14 30+ PT games (6th Player to reach that mark)
▪️Game 7 #TissotBuzzerBeater in the Conference Semis
▪️Named Finals MVP for 2nd time
The BEST PLAYS from 2x NBA Champion Kawhi Leonard's (30.5 PPG, 9.1 RPG) historic run in the 2019 #NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/v4G2kXivrL
Leonard was packaged with Danny Green in the trade, while the Spurs received DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick that San Antonio used to select Keldon Johnson, a six-foot-five wing out of Kentucky.
The health concerns that plagued Leonard's final season as a Spur remain, as he has quickly become the poster boy for 'load management', having not appeared in back-to-back contests since April 2017.
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Despite Leonard's longevity in the game being under a legitimate cloud, this transaction is heading in a direction that has it sitting comfortably on any 'worst trades of all-time' list you compile.
While Leonard led the Raptors to a title, the Spurs were bounced out of the postseason in the first round for the second consecutive season.
In 2019-20, the gap has only widened, as Leonard is the front man on a Los Angeles Clippers team expected to compete for a title, while the Spurs continue to scuffle, running an offence that looks straight out of a 1996 playbook, and a defence curiously leaking baskets at will, despite having a number of talented backcourt defenders on the roster.
With a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers last weekend, the Spurs slumped to their first eight-game losing streak in the Gregg Popovich era. How long had it been since they lost that many games in a row? Leonard five years old and Duncan was still in college at Wake Forest.
This no longer feels like a simple run of bad form for a playoff calibre team. It feels real and the time has come for the Spurs to look to the future.
With Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes and Derrick White, the Spurs have arguably the most intriguing defensive backcourt trio in the league with the complication that DeMar DeRozan sits firmly in the way with the 30-year-old soaking up 34.0 minutes per night.
San Antonio two-man line-up data
Murray was named to the 2017-18 NBA All-Defensive second team, while White was a part of Team USA at the recent FIBA World Cup. It is simply mind boggling that they have only played eight minutes together so far this season.
With veteran guard, Patty Mills also featuring in 22.6 minutes per contest, there simply isn't enough playing time to be go around on a team that desperately needs to find out what they have in their developing talent.
At the time of this writing, the trio of Murray-Forbes-White has played less than one minute together this entire season.
Along with Forbes, Murray and White, San Antonio has Poeltl, Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV, Trey Lyles and Chimezie Metu on their roster under the age of 25.
steal ➕score @DejounteMurray ➡️ @marcobelinelli pic.twitter.com/lhK6rYHtJP- San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) November 1, 2019
There is reason to feel optimistic that San Antonio can once again rise in the Western Conference in the very near future, but they must first maximise the opportunities for the next crop of rising Spurs.
DeRozan has had a terrific career, he's a four-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA player, but he's not leading the Spurs to title contention at this point, and with a $27 million player option for next season, the Spurs may be best suited trading his contract for expiring contracts, young talent or draft capital.
As of November 25, San Antonio ranks 26th in defence, giving up 113.4 points per 100 possessions. When DeRozan is on the floor, the Spurs are giving up a preposterous 116.0 points per 100 possessions. When he is off the floor, that plummets all the way to 101.5. That is quite literally the difference between being the worst and best defensive team in the league. Is it all DeRozan's fault? Of course not. But where there's that much smoke, there's bound to be some fire.
Offensively - the end where DeRozan is supposed to be the biggest difference maker - the numbers are not great either, as San Antonio is actually 1.3 points better per 100 possessions when he is on the bench.
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Despite attempting just four shots from beyond the arc all season, DeRozan is averaging 22.1 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 58.8 percent. While he can not lift the Spurs to contention as their number one option, his scoring ability could still be attractive to a franchise closer to its peak.
This of course, is not to say the Spurs can't turn it around and claim one of the West's final playoff seeds with their current roster. Only a fool writes off Gregg Popovich when it comes to snagging a top-eight finish, but what is truly the benefit of another first-round exit for this roster outside of maintaining the streak?
Ultimately, when Leonard steps foot on the hardwood in San Antonion it will be impossible not to think about the success he has had since parting ways and how San Antonio has found itself in this position less than two years after trading a top-five player in the world. The natural reaction will be to reminisce, to gaze longingly in the rearview mirror when the prudent course of action is locking in on the horizon.
The most logical path for San Antonio to rebound seems clear, though it will likely lead them into unfamiliar territory, one involving ping pong balls and envelopes.
One has to wonder how many rings Leonard will add to his collection in the process and what might have been had they been able to keep him in silver and black.
The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the NBA or its clubs.