In this April 25, 2017 file photo, San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12), guard Patty Mills (8) and guard Tony Parker (9) celebrate after a score during the second half of Game 5 in a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies in San Antonio. San Antonio won 116-103. | AP Photo/Eric Gay
SAN ANTONIO — The Spurs have been praised for an ability to remain successful for the past two decades without a major roster overhaul, but that constancy appeared to be a step back for the five-time champions following a whirlwind summer in the NBA.
San Antonio stood pat while the league changed dramatically, particularly the Western Conference.
Boston added Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Houston traded for Chris Paul. Oklahoma City acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Minnesota added Jimmy Butler and Jamal Crawford.
“Everyone from the East came over to the West,” Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “Teams that were good got better and teams that were bad got better. The West is definitely looking more tough this year. It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s never easy in the West.”
Signing Rudy Gay was San Antonio’s only major addition, and Gay is still recovering from a torn left Achilles tendon suffered Jan. 8 while with Sacramento. Gay is expected to participate fully in training camp, which opens Tuesday (Wednesday Manila time), but his playing time will be limited initially as he recovers.
So, how do the Spurs plan to keep up with the changes?
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With another year of growth by All-NBA First Team forward Kawhi Leonard, improvement from Aldridge and the development of young players like Dejounte Murray, Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes and rookie Derrick White.
It’s a developmental approach San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich has used in his previous 21 seasons.
“I’m going to say that I’m very excited, but I’ve been excited every single year since I’ve been here,” Spurs forward Manu Ginobili said. “Every year we’ve figured out how to add talent or to keep an unbelievable group.”
San Antonio returns a majority of last season’s team that won 61 games and was leading Golden State by 21 points in Game 1 of the West finals before Leonard was lost for the season to an ankle injury.
Popovich was among those who believed Warriors center Zaza Pachulia intentionally slid his foot under Leonard as he shot a 3-pointer, but Leonard doesn’t think about it. The All-Star forward also hasn’t considered what could have been if was not injured against the Warriors.
“I don’t live life with regrets,” Leonard said.
Leonard sat out two and a half weeks following the season to recover from the injury before returning to the regimented offseason workouts that have helped him become one of the league’s best two-way players. He averaged a career-high 25.5 points per game last season and was named to his third All-NBA Defensive Team.
In addition to working on his 3-point shot and drives, Leonard is attempting to develop his leadership.
“It’s a lot of everything,” Leonard said. “Just everything from talking to showing actions to just talking to coaches more, too. It’s not even just player-wise. It’s overall just trying to get better.”
The Spurs will need that added leadership.
Even with veterans like Ginobili, Tony Parker and Pau Gasol returning, San Antonio will still have one of its youngest rosters under Popovich.
Second-year players Murray, Bertans and Forbes are expected to get significant playing time this season, as will White, who was selected with the 29th pick out of Colorado.
“I hate to praise all the young players too much this early in the season,” Popovich said. “I like to let them show some things and earn some minutes but we’ve had an open gym and they’ve all been here working very hard.”
Murray is in line to start at point guard as Parker continues to rehabilitate from a ruptured left quadriceps tendon he suffered May 8 in the second round of the playoffs.
Parker was expected to miss eight to 10 months, but now expects to be back in mid-to-late November. After being unable to move for three weeks following surgery, Parker could bend his knee after two months and has steadily blown past every rehabilitation projection. Parker is cleared to participate in all activities, but doctors want him to avoid full contact until he strengthens his leg further.
“When I come back, I want to come back like the way I was playing during the playoffs and not come back and you miss three games and play one game and miss three games,” Parker said. “I want to come back and I’m back, you know.”
Parker’s return will be a significant addition for a team that didn’t do much this offseason, even if they tried to.
Aldridge and Danny Green were the subject of trade rumors as the team purportedly sought to add Paul or Irving. Aldridge said he was not upset about the proposed trades, but the 12-year veteran admitted he has been frustrated with his role on the Spurs.
“It was a probably a little bit of frustration at one point on my end because I felt like I wasn’t really fitting into the system as well as I could and I wasn’t helping to the level I felt like I could,” Aldridge said. “But with any relationship, it’s work. I talked to Pop and the staff and R.C. (Buford, Spurs general manager) and I feel like we’ve all tried to be better at it this year. Hopefully things go better.”
Aldridge has averaged 18.0 and 17.3 points in two seasons with San Antonio, which are his lowest totals since 2010.
Popovich acknowledged Aldridge’s frustrations and wants to help the 6-foot-11 forward prosper with the Spurs.
“His concerns are totally legitimate,” Popovich said. “We’ve talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable and to make our team better. But, having said that, I think we’re mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. I thought it was one of his better defensive years in his career.
“Now we’ve got to help him out a little bit more so he’s comfortable in his own space offensively and I haven’t done a very good job with that.”