SAN ANTONIO — The 2021-22 regular season is over for the Spurs, who overperformed expectations and earned the right to play postseason basketball while setting themselves up for a bright future well beyond that.
San Antonio finished 34-48 and made the play-in tournament as the 10 seed, and unless they beat the odds and make the playoffs, they'll have the ninth-best odds in the upcoming lottery for a stacked draft class. They're heading to New Orleans to test their mettle in a win-or-go-home contest.
For this episode of the Big Fundamental Podcast, we asked Spurs fans for their thoughts on the regular season and their wishes for the play-in, and talked about the most popular answers.
Best part of the season
Competition is the ethos of this particular Spurs team, who we saw start the season 4-13 through growing pains, collapses, and close losses.
"We're close in all these games. We're there, but we hurt ourselves more than the other teams hurt us," Pop said after a loss to the Mavs early in the season.
"They are working hard, but it’s a work in progress. We need more habits. Those mistakes we make, we hope we can make less and less,” he said. “But they've never played together basically, and they're learning the game, so we need to be patient."
The patience paid off, eventually clinching the 10-seed with a 10-5 stretch where they showed better chemistry, control, and closing.
The first of those wins came against the Lakers, and tied Pop with Don Nelson for the most wins by a coach in NBA history. When they broke the record the next game against Utah, it was the team's first win of the season when they entered the fourth quarter trailing their opponent. As far as individual moments go, this piece of history and turning point toward the team's best basketball has to be at the top.
The team celebrated around Pop, who couldn't help but smile. He may have been more happy about the huge comeback, or relieved that it was finally out of the way and he didn't have to talk about it anymore. He acknowledged that the accomplishment didn't belong to just him, and shared it with his players, assistants, bosses, and the city of San Antonio.
Pop would be the first to say that it wasn't the best part of the season, though. It got about 16% of the 1,200 votes in our unscientific twitter poll, which you can still participate in.
The more meaningful results of the 82 games to most fans had to do with the development of the players on the court. 38% of respondents pointed to Dejounte Murray's leap to All-Star status as their favorite part of the season, while 45% cited the overall growth of the team.
Not all fans were happy when the team parted ways with DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay, and Patty Mills. Gregg Popovich spoke before game 82 about how that was necessary for the growth of the young core.
"We made a big decision last year, gave up 60 points a game by not bringing back three or four guys, that was 60 points, and we didn't add anybody to replace those 60 points," Pop said. "I wanted these guys that we have now to experience that, and have that pressure."
"Otherwise, we'd be still going to those other guys, and these guys would not be growing," he said. "It's not like we're gonna win a championship, so why not grow these guys?"
Devin Vassell has become a viable starter in his second year, Jakob Poeltl is making his contract look like a bargain, and Keldon Johnson's game is reaching another level. Rookie Josh Primo has been thrown in the fire with a month of late-season starts, Tre Jones got hot at the right time, Zach Collins is healthy and playing some of his best basketball.
Every one of the young players has their biggest role yet, and they're all producing at career-high levels while refining their individual skills and meshing as a group.
Grow they have, and Dejounte Murray is at the forefront. He averaged 21 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds, and 2 steals per game over the season, which had never been done in recorded NBA history. Bump the qualifiers down a bit, and you get one season of Magic and one season of MJ, and that's it.
He had 13 triple doubles, most ever by a Spur in a season as he passed David Robinson for most in a career for San Antonio, and second-most in the league this season behind only the likely MVP Nikola Jokic. He led the league in steals and steals per game, finished fourth in assists per game, and led the Spurs to the best assist to turnover ratio in NBA history.
Perhaps more importantly than all of this, he established himself as a true leader for this team on and off the court.
For the first time in decades, this Spurs team's main focus was development, not necessarily competing for a deep playoff run. Vegas had them at 28.5 wins for the season.
Gregg Popovich was pretty clear about development being the goal, but said that tanking is something he can't do personally, and called it a disservice to players if they were not allowed to go out and perform to the best of their abilities.
"We're gonna go ahead and compete, and I think the young players gain a real understanding of just a philosophically moral space where it's the right thing to do to continue to compete," he said. "I think the lessons to be learned are very important as their careers advance, and you hope that in the end, in the long run, that value they gained from that will help them compete at an even higher level later. I understand the opposite, I just can't do it."
Biggest surprise of the season
This season was unlike any other for San Antonio, and three main answers popped up for the most surprising part of the 82 games.
Let's start with rookie Josh Primo, the youngest player in the NBA, who got 11% of the 1,500 votes in our unscientific poll. It was certainly a shock that the Spurs drafted the then-18-year-old freshman from Alabama with a lottery pick, but that's not what fans are surprised by any more.
It's how solid and exciting his all-around game is, how calm and unafraid he looks at the NBA level after spending some time in the G League, and how Pop has let him start 16 games. He hasn't been the most efficient scorer yet, and that's to be expected, but he's showing an improving ability to make plays for himself and others and earning time on the floor by deploying his long arms and impressive instincts on the defensive end.
A bigger development surprise, getting 28% of the vote, was Keldon Johnson's breakout year. He started 3-22 from deep, and finished as a 40% sniper on over 5 attempts per game, getting closer to 8 in the final months of the season. That forces defenders to close out, and he has expanded his driving repertoire beyond simply going through the guy.
He finished the year with nine games in a row with at least 20 points, averaging 23 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists while hitting 38% on over seven three-point attempts per game.
He leads the league in rambunctiousness and yell power, and the gold medalist has become a legitimate wingman for Murray.
By far the biggest surprise, however, getting over 57% of the vote, was the Spurs-sized blockbuster trade that sent Derrick White to the Celtics for Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, a 2022 first-round pick, and a 2028 first-round pick swap.
White had become part of the fabric of this team culture, and fans were largely very sad to see him go. An all-around guard who is competent and competitive on both ends, his tenure sharing the starting backcourt with Murray ended sooner than anyone expected.
GM Brian Wright made four in-season trades, the first time San Antonio had multiple since the 80s. The Spurs acquired an additional first-round pick from Toronto for Thad Young's expiring deal, and flipped Bryn Forbes for a pair of seconds.
All the activity set San Antonio up for an aggressive offseason, but perhaps the most surprising part is that the Spurs seemed to get better after trading away one of their most important players.
Walking good vibe Josh Richardson has been a huge part of that, providing versatile defense and microwave scoring off the bench while becoming a veteran leader in the locker room. He's about to enter the last season of his contract after a career year, and based on the flurry at the deadline, you can expect that Wright will be getting some calls about his availability. Many fans hope he stays with the team, and it's hard to blame them.
With 82 games in the books San Antonio will get at least one more road game, though they're packing for four and hoping they only come home for games three and four against the Suns.
First they'd have to topple New Orleans, then the Los Angeles Clippers, and if they did that, they'd be handing over the ninth-best lottery odds and a 20% chance at a top four pick for a first-round date with 64-win Phoenix and pick number 15.
The players clearly want to go, fight, win. They achieved a goal of making the play-in, but they don't want to leave it there. The ethos of this team is competition, and they will give it their best effort and maybe even pull off a pair of upsets.
For fans, the preferred result is a little more complicated. There are pros and cons to both sides, and it can be hard to pick between a playoff berth and a decent lotto pick. Over 1,500 Spurs fans responded to our last non-scientific poll, and it was nearly a coin flip, but one side had a slim advantage.
53% of respondents preferred the playoff berth. Whatever happens will help the Spurs continue to grow, one way or another.