SAN ANTONIO — First the good news, all you Spurs fans out there: Your team is going to be much better this season and, barring injuries, and will have a good shot of winning at least 50 games.
The bad news: The Silver and Black still will play in the NBA’s ultra-competitive Western Conference, which now has arguably the two best teams in the league – the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers – and six others that won more games than San Antonio last season.
The return of point guard Dejounte Murray plus the addition of veteran free agents DeMarre Carroll and Marcus Morris, both gritty forwards who will shore up a Spurs’ defense that was woefully inconsistent last season, have raised the hopes of a fan base spoiled by the franchise’s success the past 20 years.
While the Silver and Black dropped from the ranks of the league’s elite teams last summer after they traded disgruntled Kawhi Leonard to Toronto, the upgrade of their roster this offseason gives them a legitimate chance of finishing among the top four teams in the West.
I know that may be a reach. But with an all-in commitment to defense, the return of point guard Dejounte Murray and the continued improvement of their core of promising young players, the Spurs could surprise some folks.
You’ve got to figure that the Clippers, with Leonard and Paul George, and the Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, will duke it out for the conference’s top seed. That will leave Golden State, 57-25 last season, Denver (54-28), Portland (53-29), Houston (53-29) and Utah (50-32) – seeded 1-5 in the playoffs – and San Antonio (48-34) as contenders for the West’s other six other spots.
Oklahoma City (49-33) took the No. 6 seed last season, but with George gone in the blockbuster trade that sent him to the Lakers and Russell Westbrook’s future with the team uncertain, the Thunder will struggle to make the postseason as they rebuild.
Despite the biggest turnover of the Gregg Popovich era, the seventh-seeded Silver and Black took the Nuggets to seven games before losing in the first round of the playoffs for the second year in a row.
As noted here recently, the Spurs will become a stronger team the moment Murray, who missed the 2018-19 season after tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament, steps back on the floor. Murray has done exceedingly well during his long, arduous rehabilitation and should be good to go for the start of training camp in late September.
Selected by San Antonio in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft, Murray will make the Spurs better on both ends of the court. Long and athletic, Murray earned a spot on the league’s All-Defensive Second Team after the 2017-18 season. He and guard Derrick White, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2017, will give the Silver and Black two of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA.
Popovich acknowledged after the season that the return of Murray and the development of White, who subbed for Murray, and the continued development of guard Bryn Forbes and 2018 first-round draft pick Lonnie Walker IV could create a numbers crunch at the guard position.
“That’s always a challenge for every coach, minutes for players,” Popovich said. “But I’d rather have that challenge and Dejounte back than have him gone again, because minutes weren’t a problem. If we have a minutes problem, that’ll be a good one.”
Popovich said Murray is an important piece to the puzzle because he was an All-NBA defender the last time he played.
“Everybody forgets that, I think,” Popovich said. “That’s where the defense begins and ends, with him at point guard or two guard, wherever he ends up playing. I’m sure he’ll do both. Adding him back to the team and having Lonnie hopefully healthy and ready to go will give us more depth, more athleticism, that we really didn’t have this season.”
I think Spurs fans are really going to like Carroll and Morris, two high-energy guys who were signed to shore up a frontcourt that was thin last season.
San Antonio obtained Carroll in a three-team deal that sent forward Davis Bertans, one of the team’s best three-point shooters last season, to Washington and gave the Spurs the salary-cap flexibility to sign Morris.
Carroll, 6-foot-8 and 215-pounds, is a 10-year NBA veteran who turns 33 on July 27. Morris (6-9, 235) has played eight seasons in the league and will be 30 on Sept. 2.
Bertans, who shot 42.9 percent (145-338) from beyond the arc, averaged 8.0 points and 3.5 rebounds in his third season with San Antonio. Morris made one more three-pointer than Bertans and shot 37.5 percent (146-389) from long distance. Morris averaged 13.9 points and 6.1 rebounds last season with Boston, where he played the past two years.
The Spurs will miss Bertans’ three-point shooting, but as the stats indicate, Morris also can hit the long shot and is a tougher defender. Carroll, who averaged 11.1 points and 5.2 rebounds for Brooklyn last season, also will bolster the San Antonio defense.
The Silver and Black’s days as title contenders are over for the foreseeable future, but that’s not to say they can’t be a factor in the Western Conference race this season and develop into the kind of team that could win a playoff series or two next spring.