For most of the illustrious Gregg Popovich Era, the San Antonio Spurs have been known for being a defensive powerhouse. Just type “Spurs defense overwhelms” into Google. You’ll see a list of articles from the last two decades talking about how San Antonio’s defense smothered their opponents.
Seeing articles like these will have many Spurs fans reminiscing of an apparent bygone era when San Antonio would lock up opponents on the other end of the floor. It sure has been a while.
In recent years, the Spurs have slipped in defensive ranking. While every NBA team gets blown out from time to time, it’s hard to imagine a Tim Duncan-led Spurs team losing with scores like 121-108 as they did last season to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Closer inspection of the Spurs’ offseason moves to this point shows that they are working back to what made them great for so long – Defense. When all is said and done, the true title of the Spurs’ rebuild may be “How Coach Pop Got His ‘Nasty’ Back”, and it would be sparked by key moves in the summer of 2022.
Keldon Johnson’s Extension
Coming off a great season where he averaged 17 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists, the Spurs signed the 22-year-old Johnson to an $80 million four-year extension, including unspecified but unlikely bonuses. According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, Johnson’s salary will descend over those four years. It will slide from $20 million in the first season down to $17.5 million by the fourth.
Being told Keldon Johnson’s extension with San Antonio is for 4 years, $74 million, with $1.5 million of bonuses for each season to reach that possible $80 million total. Johnson’s salary also declines in value: $20M for Y1, then $19M for Y2, $17.5M for Y3 and $17.5M for Y4.— Jake Fischer (@JakeLFischer) July 19, 2022
This deal is very team-friendly. Future CBA agreements are expected to raise the salary cap in the coming years. This contract sets the Spurs up with the flexibility to make moves for the future, moves ideally centered around Johnson. He will also likely return to playing small guard this season, so we can expect his defensive rating to improve.
Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili all famously took pay cuts to keep salary cap space for role players to fit in for a championship-caliber team. Johnson’s extension feels like an ode to that era of Spurs basketball, to the sacrifice of those leaders. Hopefully, this is a sign that Johnson is willing to work with the organization through the rebuild.
The Draft Picks
The 2022 NBA Draft was a crucial part of the Spurs’ offseason moves, and they fared well. With three first-round picks the San Antonio selected Jeremy Sochan (9th), Malaki Branham (20th), and Blake Wesley (25th). The NBA Summer League gave fans their first looks at Branham and Wesley, and both showed great potential to be core parts of the Spurs’ rebuild.
Headlining the class, Sochan is expected to join the starting lineup at some point in the season if not immediately. Known for his defensive capabilities, Sochan was able to guard positions 1-5 at the collegiate level. At Baylor, he averaged 6.4 rebounds a game which led to fans drawing comparisons to Dennis Rodman and Kawhi Leonard’s defensive abilities on the court. A power forward that can crash the boards and guard anybody will be a welcome addition to the Spurs.
Branham and Wesley don’t have a reputation for their defensive capabilities like Sochan does. Still, both are known for being very coachable. They’ve shown that they have the work ethic to take their game to the next level.
With a history of striving for perfection in his game, evidence shows that Branham performs better when challenged by his coach too. He is the type of player that can thrive in the Spurs’ system. It will be fun to watch him develop over the next couple of years. Notre Dame’s first “one and done” player, Wesley has a ton of raw talent. Perfect for what the Spurs will need this season, he will be a shot of energy off the bench. He recently told the Jim Rome Show that he believes he should’ve been taken higher in the draft and has a point to prove.
Claiming Isaiah Roby On Waivers
A move that drives this point home is claiming Isaiah Roby on waivers. Snagging him could be the one of the biggest Spurs’ offeason moves when looking back in a year.
While with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he was the second-best defender on the team. In the 2020-21 season, Roby earned a 112% defensive rating. With a little development from the Spurs’ coaching staff, San Antonio could see Bruce Bowen-esque performances from Roby soon. At 24 years old, he is slightly older than the core of this young team. Still, his contributions, particularly on defense, will help the Spurs find their footing in this rebuild.
A Fresh Start
This is San Antonio’s opportunity for a fresh start to return to the defensive-minded approach that brought them decades of success. It may take some time to get back to playoff-level basketball, but the Spurs’ offseason moves this summer secured some strong pieces. As with all good things, it won’t come without putting in the work now.