Is It 2014 Again Yet?
In 2014, the San Antonio Spurs won their fifth NBA championship.
Since then, Tim Duncan retired, the Spurs' streak of 18 consecutive 50 win seasons ended, Tony Parker left for Charlotte, and now Kawhi Leonard -- the man who was supposed to take the torch from Duncan the way Duncan took it from David Robinson and extend this run into a third decade -- has been traded.
Four short years have never felt so far away.
It's a lot to process and digest and understand. Most of it can be chalked up to time passing -- San Antonio has been fighting clocks for the last five years at least -- but Leonard's situation can't be understood in such a straightforward way.
There's a scene at the end of Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King in which Frodo and Sam are sitting on a rock surrounded by lava in Mordor. Frodo, after a three movie and 12 hour adventure that saw him travel from the Shire to Sauron's doorstep, had just thrown the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom and destroyed it to save the world. He sits there on that rock relieved, but also emptied, but also peaceful, but also broken.
"It's gone," Frodo says as he looks off into the armageddon surrounding him, "it's done."
"It's over now," Sam says back as Mount Doom erupts more and more violently.
They lay there in each other's arms as the end of all things draws nearer, and Frodo muses over memories of better days.
"I can see the Shire," he says, "the Brandywine River, Bag End, Gandalf's fireworks, the lights in the Party Tree."
They're small things. And unimportant things when weighed against the life and death of it all. But in this moment, they matter. Because in this moment, after having lived through carrying the weight of the Ring, he can finally see them clearly for how precisely perfect they were.
It's an emotional crescendo within one of the most iconic film trilogies ever created, and it's a fitting analogy for what it felt like to be a Spurs fan waking up to the news that Kawhi Leonard had been traded to the Toronto Raptors.
Apart from the destination, Leonard leaving is far from surprising. For the better part of the last 10 months, there have been rumors and reports that he wanted out of San Antonio. As those rumblings turned from noise into facts the only resolution was for Kawhi to be dealt, just as once the existence of the One Ring was known the only choice was for it to be destroyed.
Neither throwing the Ring into the fire nor having to say goodbye to your franchise player are easy things to do. When the 2014 finals ended it seemed as though Kawhi would serve as the bridge between the Duncan-Popovich era and what came next. He was a chance for Spurs fans to wax nostalgically over the good old days while still living in them. He was a reason to hope. And then, faster and slower than anyone could have predicted, he wasn't.
When Frodo threw the Ring into the fire, he was relieved of all the weight and all the awfulness it carried with it. He was able to look back and remember with acute clarity the goodness of the way things once were. He wasn't happy -- not by any traditional understanding of being happy at least -- but in the absence of carrying the worst thing he had to endure, he reached a place of peace because at last, it was over.
Leonard being shipped off to Canada feels the same way. There's no happiness in losing someone who is, arguably, a top five basketball player on the entire planet. But there's also no sadness in it. There's relief. Relief in this saga ending, in not having to worry about seeing the latest Tweet reporting a quote from "Kawhi's Camp", in not having to consider what would happen if the Spurs let Kawhi walk to Los Angeles this coming off-season for nothing, in not having to stress over whether his injury was psychological or physical or both or neither.
The malaise is over.
Without it it's immediately easier to appreciate just how spoiled life as a Spurs fan has been. For the better part of two decades -- long enough for babies to be conceived, born, and celebrate enough birthdays to be legally allowed to drink in Kawhi's new home of Toronto -- San Antonio was led by a generational talent. First there was Robinson, then Duncan, then for a short time Leonard, and through it all the Spurs amassed the highest all-time NBA regular season winning percentage (.622).
Those days disappeared by the end of last summer. Ten months of struggle and confusion took their place, and now there's a future that is more uncertain than it has ever been for San Antonio. But just as Frodo was able to lose himself in musings over simple memories after destroying the Ring -- none of which should have mattered because he was about to die in a river of lava -- it's easier now to appreciate the little things after having endured the Leonard drama even though there's no real chance of the Spurs being great again any time soon.
Remember the intimate way Duncan would hug the ball against his chest before tip off? Or the time Manu Ginobili hit a bat out of mid air? Or the championship parade in which Greg Poppovivh counted off the rings he had won to make fun of the Miami Heat? What a wonderful 20 years it has been.
Looking at what comes next from a purely basketball perspective, the package San Antonio received from Toronto isn't exactly overwhelming. Per Adrian Wojnarowski the trade is as follows:
- Kawhi Leonard
- Danny Green
San Antonio Receives:
- DeMar DeRozan
- Jakob Poeltl
- 2019 First Round Pick (protected 1-20, converts to two second round picks if it doesn't transfer in 2019)
Regardless of what -- if any -- other offers were on the table, there was no package that could replace Leonard. When healthy, he's one of the most dynamic two-way forces in the NBA -- a perennial defensive player of the year candidate who showed during the 2016 season that he could shoulder the burden of leading a team on the offensive end as well. He is the kind of top five talent that the Toronto Raptors have never had and vaults them back into the conversation for best team in the Eastern Conference with Boston and Philadelphia.
Danny Green suffered from nagging injuries and stretches of inconsistency last season but he's among the better budget perimeter players in the league. Per Cleaning the Glass, he finished last season with a 2.4% block percentage -- a statistic that measures the amount of opposing shots a player blocks -- which placed him in the top 100th percentile among wing players. He also averaged 37% on three pointers last season -- jumping up to 45% if the three came from the corner. Which is all a roundabout way of saying he's an easy player to fit into any system because he can shoot adequately and play defense.
Losing either of those two players isn't something any team should want to do and the pieces San Antonio received in exchange, in all likelihood, will not be enough to push this roster back into the upper echelons of the NBA standings.
Poeltl is precisely fine. No better, no worse. At 22 years old and with just two seasons under his belt that could change, but at the time of this trade he appears to be something akin to a modern remix of Tiago Splitter. The draft pick, whether it ends up being a first rounder or two second rounders, will likely only matter if it ends up being included in another trade down the road. Then there's DeMar DeRozan.
DeRozan's flaws and strengths are equally striking.
Last season he re-engineered his offensive game to focus more on distribution and three pointers. He ended the season in the 96th and 85th percentile of assist percentage and assist to usage rate ratio respectively among wing players -- which is a math heavy way of saying that he passed regularly and those passes resulted in points a fair amount of the time.
Compared to the year before he took an additional 11% of his shots from beyond the arc, however that massive increase only brought his total up to 18% -- also known as the bottom seventh percentile of all wing players, which is not a descriptor you want attached to your franchise player. His preference, as it has been his whole career, is to shoot from the mid range. In total, 57% of his shots were two pointers not taken at the rim. That's a lot. And his penchant for mid range jumpers and the issues that creates for building an offence don't even begin to address the question marks surrounding what he will be able to provide on defense -- where he has been ineffective throughout his career.
But despite those flaws, acquiring DeRozan is still telling.
Deciding to accept a package centered around a current all star as opposed to future assets is a defiant -- perhaps to the point of foolishness -- attempt on the Spurs' part to steal time for just a little while longer and avoid a rebuild that has been looming for the last half decade.
DeRozan's contract runs through the 2019-20 season, with a player option for 2020-21, and a salary cap hit of $27.7 million. That timeline is important. Sources close to Gregg Popovich have articulated that there is a chance he could retire after his team USA coaching duties in 2020.
If that is the case, committing to DeRozan is a statement that San Antonio wants to remain competitive for the duration of Popovich's career instead of spending his twilight seasons toiling at the bottom of the conference.
It's easy to say that the rational, calculating thing to do would have been using Leonard as a means of kick starting that rebuild. But there's also an inescapable romanticism in the idea of watching one of the NBA's greatest coaching minds try to unlock new worlds within DeRozan's game; in trying to rearrange the chess board in ways that can make a team built to compete in 2002 be relevant in 2018; in seeing what one of the league's most storied franchises looks like without a generational talent leading the way on the court for them.
None of that is to say the Spurs have an actual chance at a championship this year. The Golden State Warriors still have all the infinity stones, the Houston Rockets are still a 60 win death star, the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture is as cut throat as it has ever been. Short of DeRozan making a Harden-esque leap in a new system with new sets of coaching voices to give him direction, the Spurs' absolute ceiling is likely earning home court advantage and bowing out in the second round.
There's no shame in that. Playoff runs are fun whether they last four games or four rounds. Sooner rather than later, those playoff appearances may halt altogether. The goodbye to this era started with Duncan retiring, and now, with this trade, the end to the way things were is all but here.
In the final minutes of Return of the King, when Frodo has returned home to the Shire and is surrounded by all the simple day to day goings on that once seemed necessary and fulfilling, he finds himself stumbling upon a a similar profoundly hard realization.
"How do you pick up the threads of an old life," he wonders. "How do you go on when in your heart you begin to understand there is no going back?"
Losing Leonard is the ultimate acceptance that there's no going back to the stability that defined the Duncan era, but real endings aren't black and white, happy or sad, tragic or inspirational. They're meant to pull you into all of those different spaces at once.
If these next two years are the actual last chapters to the story Popovich has been penning for the last 22 years, it's been one hell of a read. There will never be another one quite like it.