The magic ran out on the Spurs to an extent in 2020. San Antonio was in 12th place in the West when play was suspended, four games out of a playoff spot and only two games ahead of the perennially cellar-dwelling Suns. Given the unlikelihood of finishing the whole regular season, it looks like the Spurs will miss the playoffs after 22 consecutive trips to the postseason under Gregg Popovich. And while the legendary coach has given no indication that he’s on the cusp of retiring—he signed a three-year extension in 2019–will Popovich stick around for the long haul if a rebuild is unavoidable?
It’s impossible and unappealing to imagine a world in which Pop isn’t coaching the Spurs. He means too much to the game. He’s been embroiled in too many classic battles, both on the sidelines and during in-game interviews. He’s probably the most respected person in the NBA, and if anyone deserves to go out on top, it’s him. But basketball doesn’t bend to the nostalgia of past successes. And the Spurs are in a tough spot. The 2020 draft isn’t considered to be superstar laden, and San Antonio still has a good amount of money tied up in veterans next season, particularly if DeMar DeRozan opts into his deal. (At this point, I would assume every player is opting in if they can.) How can this team realistically and quickly become a contender again?
I’m not trying to push Popovich out the door. I want him to coach as long as I’m watching basketball. But it’s getting harder to figure out the Spurs’ path forward, and how Pop fits into those plans. The pandemic may encourage him to stick around for another year and use the 2021 Olympics as his swan song. And then what? Is San Antonio ready to become one of those teams that tries its luck in the lottery for a few years? Will R.C. Buford stick around for the rebuild as well?
The almost certain end of the postseason streak will mean it’s time for the Spurs to answer some hard questions. Does Pop have a plan he’s keeping tightly guarded? Is the organization ready for a full-scale rebuild? Will players around the league still hold the franchise in high esteem? The first big domino to fall will be Popovich, no matter how quietly he may try to walk away. Once he does, the outlook for this franchise will change dramatically. While no one may be looking forward to a post-Pop NBA, how the Spurs prepare for that reality will be their biggest challenge over the next couple years.