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The Spurs as we knew them were done long before the Kawhi Leonard trade

San Antonio hasn’t been the same since Tim Duncan retired.

San Antonio Spurs v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Everyone writing obituaries for the death of the San Antonio Spurs As We Knew Them would be wise to double-check their timelines. The Spurs did not die on July 18 when they traded Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round pick.

The Spurs As We Knew Them met their demise in the summer of 2016 when Tim Duncan retired from a 67-win team after 19 brilliant seasons. There’s a reason why players like Duncan are considered once-in-a-lifetime cornerstones. The Spurs have just happened to have a couple of them over the years.

Even without Duncan’s steely, low-key demeanor to steady the ship, it was still tempting to chart a direct course from one era to another without pausing to consider that things had irrevocably changed. Thanks to the presence of Leonard’s steely low-key demeanor, it was assumed that the Spurs would continue on ad infinitum.

We know now that this assumption was incorrect. For reasons that have never really been made clear, Leonard wanted out of San Antonio and now he finds himself about as far from his preferred destination of Los Angeles as one can get in this league. It’s a shocking conclusion only if you pretend the last few years never happened.

With Timmy around to patrol the paint and the locker room, the famed Spurs culture was allowed to take root. Over the years, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich spoke reverently about what Duncan allowed him to install. Without Duncan, the Spurs have gradually become just another well-run basketball team.

New Orleans Pelicans v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

When Duncan was reaching his twilight, Pop played the part of free-agent recruiter with LaMarcus Aldridge. That was a pivot point for a franchise that has built mostly through the draft, and it required special care and attention not normally associated with the Spurs.

When Aldridge bucked at the Spurs Way and asked for a trade, Pop went out of his way to mend fences and forge a stronger relationship. That was viewed at the time as further validation of their unique standing, but we’ve known for more than a year that the Spurs are not immune to the whims of the league.

The unraveling of the Spurs took place over an incredibly awkward season in which the accumulation of so much bad faith made the situation untenable. Leonard’s trade to Toronto was merely the final chapter of a bizarre saga.

Kawhi’s messy exit includes an extensive amount of collateral damage. Green, an invaluable contributor to the 2014 champs, is gone. So is Tony Parker, who signed with the Charlotte Hornets for veteran backup money, which is where he is in his career. There’s no word yet on what will happen with Manu Ginobili, but Manu has always danced to his own beat so we will await word from the man himself on his future plans.

What should not be lost in all of this is how resourceful the Spurs have been over the years. Thanks to the combination of Popovich and R.C. Buford, they have managed to stay one step ahead of just about everyone. They scouted Europe as well as anyone ever has and embraced analytics long before it was widely accepted. They have a long history of drafting well and unearthing hidden gems among the legion of discarded vagabonds.

What the Spurs have done best over the years is evolve. To be sure, that last version of the Duncan Spurs was a lot different than the first incarnation with David Robinson. Just as it was different from the middle Aughts when Timmy, Manu, and Tony won three titles in five years with ruthless efficiency.

It wasn’t even that similar to the glorious pace-and-space Spurs of the fifth and final Duncan championship team of 2014. With Duncan and Aldridge in the middle, the Spurs had returned to the ground and pound style that had been so successful almost two decades earlier.

The next evolution was even starker. While everyone else was playing for the 3-point line, the Spurs claimed the forgotten middle of the court to do their work.

The current roster led by DeRozan and Aldridge plays into that philosophy. Both players are experts at working the mid-range and they have All-Star nods and All-NBA resumes to prove it. As it stands, the Spurs remain a good, although certainly not great, team.

Given a reasonable amount of good health, they still have the outline of a playoff contender. Veterans Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay still have some game left in them, and point guard Dejounte Murray emerged in his second season as Parker’s replacement. Young players such as Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes are ready for larger roles.

No one would reasonably argue that July 18 is a good day for the San Antonio franchise. Any time you have to cut ties with a great player, it’s not an occasion for celebration. Yet, the Spurs will endure so long as Pop and R.C. remain. What made them special was Duncan, and those days have long been over.