Loser: The Spurs
in a separate part of the building"?)" data-reactid="40">Look, there are many things to say about everything that's happened in San Antonio over the past 12 months. Most of this unfolded in ways that Spurs fans and even Spurs management never could have predicted or prepared for. Now that Kawhi is really gone, I'm excited to see how much weirder the anecdotes from last season can become. (Will we top "sequestered in New York City hiding from Spurs front office members in a separate part of the building"?)
One basic takeaway in the meantime: This lineup makes my head hurt.
Spurs projected starting lineup for 2018-19 season
PG - Dejounte Murray
SG - DeMar DeRozan
SF - Rudy Gay
PF - LaMarcus Aldridge
C - Pau Gasol#GoSpursGo— ???? (@julianrcreyes17) July 18, 2018
The Spurs have made an art of zigging while the rest of the league zags, but man. I don't know. Doubling down on a ball-stopping midrange offense with LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan is going to be quite a journey.
It's safe to bet on San Antonio winning something close to 50 games with this lineup—always bet on that—but it may not be pretty, and it certainly doesn't look as healthy as, say, rebuilding around Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart. On the other hand: San Antonio never had any leverage with the Lakers, the front office turned down offers from the Celtics during the season, and by this point in the summer, getting back any kind of star is probably the best the Spurs could have hoped for.
There will be people who claim they got fleeced by Masai Ujiri, but I can't really blame them for bringing back 50 cents on the dollar. The Spurs lost this battle months ago, and if they made mistakes in this process, the greatest error was not admitting defeat earlier. By July, Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford were trading a player who: skipped an entire season, alienated everyone in the building, made trade demands through back channels, may not be 100% healthy (at least in the eyes of prospective trade partners), and has made it clear that he plans to leave for Los Angeles next summer. The Spurs' leverage wasn't just cut in half, it was cut in half about four different times over the past six months. Of course they lost this trade in the end. The more interesting question is when—and why—this all began to spiral.
Winner: Masai Ujiri
On the one hand, Ujiri has overseen the most successful stretch in Raptors franchise history, and he's built a culture of sustained excellence that roughly 20 teams around the NBA would trade places with in a heartbeat. So Masai is bulletproof. He's got a job for life. But even so, the end of last season left everyone looking bad, and Masai was no exception. His roster was locked into mediocrity, the Serge Ibaka deal was a disaster, firing Dwane Casey was obviously not a meaningful solution, and the next steps were unclear.
Now he's found a path forward. The Raptors should be very good next season, and if they're not, the story will be about Kawhi, not the general manager. From there, either keeping Kawhi or losing him next summer, this team will have a lot more clarity about what they're building in 2019 and into the 2020s. Masai was able to keep Toronto's favorite long-term projects, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, and the Raptors will enter next year with more buzz than they've had in years. No one is talking about the Ibaka deal, and no one is asking what the plan is.
Siakam and Anunoby may never be better than the fourth– or fifth–best players on a good team, but in the abstract, keeping them is a big win. And while this gamble can go many different directions, right now, the Masai mystique is back.
Winner: Gregg Popovich
The Popovich side of this deal is much harder to read. In some ways, I'm sure the breakdown with Kawhi will bother Popovich for years to come, and it's a bittersweet coda to one of the most successful careers the NBA has ever seen. But aside from that grim reality, it's also fair to say that Pop is retiring in the next few years, and Wednesday's trade adds a silver lining to the twilight.
There's a version of this story where the next year's Spurs would have tanked and Pop would spend his final season watching Dejounte Murray and Davis Bertans get drilled by 30 every night. Instead, there's a chance we'll watch Pop use DeRozan and Aldridge to stubbornly invert every lesson of the modern NBA, exceed league-wide expectations, thrive without the superstar who betrayed his team, and find a way to succeed all over again. For someone as competitive as Popovich, that's a lot more fun than punting the final few years of his career and playing for 2023. And for a small market team like San Antonio, rebuilding comes with a world of questions that don't have clear answers. There's nothing wrong with waiting a few years to head down that road.