Lowe: Where Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs go from here

    Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.

AN INSIDE JOKE drifted through the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March 2020 — the last gathering of executives from all 30 NBA teams before the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic: If the NBA canceled the rest of the season, would the San Antonio Spurs’ — then 12th in the Western Conference — 22-year playoff streak technically remain intact?

Even San Antonio executives chuckled. It was a macabre attempt to deflect fear of the virus, and an acknowledgement that the NBA’s gold standard was entering the wilderness for the first time since an injury-aided tank job ended with the selection of Tim Duncan in 1997.

Between 1987 and 2011, the Spurs drafted five future Hall of Famers: David Robinson, Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard. They found them at the top of the first round, in the middle, at the bottom, even toward the end of the second round in Ginobili’s case. It was a remarkable run for a franchise that built through the draft because it had limited free-agency appeal and seemed allergic to trades. The 2011 draft-day deal for Leonard seemed to position the Spurs for an unprecedented three-decade run near the top of what for 29 other teams is a boom-and-bust league.

After one title and six great seasons, it went haywire; Leonard wanted out. A perfect storm left the Spurs with perhaps less leverage than any team ever to trade an MVP-level superstar in his prime.

Three weeks after LeBron James bolted to the Los Angeles Lakers without pushing them to also acquire Leonard, San Antonio traded Leonard (plus Danny Green and $5 million in cash) to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and one first-round pick — later used on Keldon Johnson, a rising power forward who attacks the rim as if it hurt his family.

The Spurs turned down several offers heavy on future first-round picks, sources said. Choosing to pair DeRozan with LaMarcus Aldridge — who turned 33 the day after the Leonard trade — seemed to prove the Spurs would never rebuild until Gregg Popovich retired.

No one is sure if Popovich will coach beyond this season, but several sources who know him cautioned in recent weeks that it would not surprise them if he returned for 2022-23. Popovich is 26 wins from Don Nelson’s all-time record, but he is not running out the string just to claim it.

(The most common heir apparents mentioned in league and coaching circles today: Will Hardy, the longtime San Antonio assistant now working under Ime Udoka in Boston; Brett Brown; and Manu Ginobili, who rejoined San Antonio last week as an advisor. Becky Hammon will and should be in the mix along with mystery candidates and perhaps other members of the Spurs tree. Ginobili’s appetite for coaching is unclear. Bill Self, head coach of Kansas, has faded out of the rumor mill.)

DeRozan and Aldridge are gone. So are Rudy Gay and Patty Mills — the final link to teams that made back-to-back Finals in 2013 and 2014.

The Spurs have drafted well recently in the back of the lottery and the end of the first round. Fans are excited to see what those young players do without DeRozan and Aldridge soaking up possessions — and, it should be noted, keeping the Spurs’ midrange-heavy offense afloat.

But it’s time to ask: What, exactly, are the Spurs doing here? Are they at risk of being trapped in mediocrity? Should they search for a star?

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