This was always going to be a strange season for Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are gone, traded to the Raptors in a blockbuster deal that brought back DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. So too are Tony Parker, who signed with the Hornets, and Manu Ginobili, who decided to call it a career.
But now, in addition to a number of franchise-altering changes, Popovich and the Spurs are facing an injury crisis that could dismantle their season. First, their first-round pick Lonnie Walker IV went down with a torn meniscus. That was a tough blow, but nothing the Spurs couldn't deal with. But then, starting point guard Dejounte Murray -- who everyone around the team expected to enjoy a breakout season -- that will keep sidelined all season. At that point, things were already getting rough.
And then more bad news came. Derrick White, the little-known second-year guard who was supposed to step in as the starter, injured his heel, and could be out six-to-eight weeks. Popovich said late Friday that White could return sooner -- perhaps in just two-to-four weeks -- but that remains to be seen.
But if losing three key members of the backcourt for a significant period of time wasn't enough, the Spurs may have another issue on their hands. Rudy Gay sat out Friday night's preseason finale with a heel issue of his own. While Gay said afterwards that Popovich was just being cautious, this was a problem Gay dealt with almost all of last season. Should he have to start missing regular season games, the Spurs would really be in trouble.
In any case, the Spurs are already in a really tough spot. Patty Mills is the only true point guard left healthy, but Gregg Popovich has always preferred to bring him off the bench. Hence why Derrick White -- who barely played last season -- was going to be the starter after Murray went down.
Popovich is now left with a tricky situation. Does he move Mills into the starting lineup, leaving the second unit exposed? Or does he insert Bryn Forbes as the starter, hoping that the surrounding talent can make up for the fact that Forbes isn't really a true point guard? Popovich commented recently that DeMar DeRozan has "turned out to be maybe the best passer on our team," and these injuries may result in the All-Star taking on an even bigger responsibility in the offense. Still, while he improved his playmaking in recent seasons, DeRozan isn't a point guard.
How Popovich manages this roster crunch, and how the Spurs respond to the adversity may well define their season. In years past, they may have been able to ride out these injuries, hoping to simply stay in the mix and then take off in the second half once they were healthy.
But this isn't the same Spurs team, and this isn't the same Western Conference. They still have some talent in DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, but the supporting cast is not as strong as it has been in the past, and the Western Conference is extremely deep. With at least 10 teams having a legitimate shot at the postseason, a slow start could doom the Spurs to their first playoff-less season since 1997.
Given Popovich's track record, you have to give him the respect he's earned, and thus it's unfair to bury the Spurs before we see how they respond in the regular season. But there's no doubt that this will be one of the most difficult coaching jobs of Popovich's career.