The Spurs won't have Tim Duncan in their opening night roster for the first time in 20 years. That will present unique challenges at every level of the organization over time.
The impact of Duncan’s departure shouldn’t be felt too strongly on the court, at least not yet. Pau Gasol will take over the role Duncan left vacant and most of the key players from last year are back. On the surface, not much will seem different this season. San Antonio should be able to clear 50 wins for the 18th year in a row and, with a few good breaks, return to the conference finals.
But a closer look reveals that the Spurs really are different. This transition to a new era may not be as seamless as others they have undertaken with Duncan playing.
Youth could (?) be served
In one sense, the youth movement is in full swing. The Spurs have four rookies in their 15-man opening night roster, more than they ever had during the Duncan era. Kyle Anderson, 23, is supposed to play a bigger role this season. Dewayne Dedmon is the backup center and he's logged under 2,000 minutes for his career, fewer than LaMarcus Aldridge played last season. Seldom-used sophomore Jonathon Simmons might start while Danny Green is out with a minor injury.
That's not the proven depth championship contenders typically boast, but it’s a casualty of the Spurs moving between eras. They can't fully commit to reloading as long as Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Gasol and even Aldridge are still around, but they know they have to add younger pieces around Kawhi Leonard to compete over the long haul. They've clearly started to do so, even if it hampers their chances in 2016-17.
There's not only a generational dichotomy at play, but also a stylistic one The Spurs were fueled by their stars in their four first championship runs. They embraced selfless ball movement and quick decision-making only when Duncan and Ginobili started to show signs of a serious decline. That's when the pass-happy, equal opportunity offense that famously led them to their fifth title was implemented.
That identity refused to die when Ginobili, Patty Mills, and Boris Diaw carried the torch last season. With those three on the court, the Spurs averaged over 99 possessions per game and posted an assist percentage of 63 percent.
The starters, meanwhile, played a different style. When Parker, Leonard, and Aldridge were on the court, the pace slowed to just above 94 possessions per 48 minutes, and the assist percentage dropped to around 60 percent.
Obviously, the latter group’s style ultimately prevailed. The Spurs have two top-20 players who excel in the post, so they used that play type with more frequency than any other team in the league last year. That should continue to be the case this upcoming season. Even the bench could see changes as Ginobili's role shrinks and finishers take the minutes that used to go to the multi-talented Diaw. For the first time in years, we’re not quite sure how the Spurs will play.
What happens after this year?
No one should feel sorry for the Spurs in their "rebuilding" year. Sure, they lost Duncan but still have a great core in place that could lead them deep into the playoffs. Gregg Popovich is still arguably the best coach in the league and he will still roam the sidelines. Leonard is 25-year-old MVP candidate who dominates on both ends, and Aldridge, assuming he buys in, is a perfect second option. Twenty-five teams in the league would trade places with them.
Yet as the Spurs move into their next chapter, they’re facing a tricky transition that might not directly affect their success in the short term, but could slowly eat away at what made the franchise special over the long haul.
Popovich built the Spurs' culture, but he'll be the first to say he could only do it because Duncan let him. Over the past two decades, the Spurs underwent transformations, but they always had Duncan around to serve as a stabilizing force. Even with Duncan's selflessness rubbing off on most Spurs, some players just didn’t fit. Can the Spurs remain drama-free as the roster gets younger and the style is more star-oriented?
Those two aspects are interconnected. Ginobili and Parker are still around to help, but now it's on the new stars to take over and lead their younger, less experienced teammates by example. We know Aldridge values his role and his touches and even the unassuming Leonard has repeatedly expressed a desire to be featured. It's not crazy to worry about an erosion in the culture. As the Duncan era fades further into the background, the Spurs might find out that even they are not immune to ego-driven distractions anymore. Heck, they might have already learned that given recent rumors swirling around Aldridge’s happiness. (Aldridge, for his part, denied that he was unhappy).
Same old Spurs? We’ll see
Despite not starting the year as a championship favorite, the Spurs will be one of the NBA’s main attractions. They are a lock to finish with a top-three record in the West and could send two players to the All-Star Game.
Their success, however, won't solely be measured in wins and losses, but on how they handle their first major transition without Tim Duncan. And evaluating that question may ultimately take multiple years.
In an NBA season that seems predictable, figuring out if the Spurs can maintain their unique culture without their talisman of 20 years offers some much-needed intrigue.