SAN ANTONIO (AP) — DeMar DeRozan‘s first month with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has been serene, though the All-Star guard acquired in the offseason from Toronto has been warned about provoking “angry Pop.”
“That hurts me,” Popovich said playfully. “I just, just… it hurts me. Our relationship is not starting off well, I guess. I guess I have more work to do than I thought.”
Welcome to the kinder, gentler Spurs?
Popovich is still going to scream at his players on the court and will always be mischievous off it. More specifically, the franchise he built is still going to rely heavily on ball movement and defense, albeit with a whole lot of new faces.
The era of the Big Three is officially over for San Antonio with Tony Parker leaving in free agency and Manu Ginobili joining Tim Duncan in retirement this summer. DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, Lonnie Walker, Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter and Chimezie Metu and a host of others were invited to training camp, which starts Tuesday.
“I still don’t know all the names,” Popovich said Monday during media day.
The biggest missing name is that of Kawhi Leonard, who was traded to Toronto in the offseason in an awkward, uncharacteristic move for a franchise known for stability. Leonard missed all but nine games last season due to a right quadriceps injury that initially flared up last summer and never healed to his satisfaction. The All-Star forward demanded a trade this offseason and the Spurs relented, trading Leonard and Danny Green to the Raptors for DeRozan and Poeltl in July.
As the Spurs were chatting with reporters, Leonard told reporters in Toronto he was ready to play.
“We’re happy to turn the page,” San Antonio forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “DeMar’s here and he’s happy and he’s motivated. He’s going to make us better. You’ve got to look forward.”
After needing two weeks to get over the initial shock of being traded, DeRozan is also happily looking forward after seeing what San Antonio accomplished last season.
The Spurs were a top three seed in the Western Conference for much of the season before dropping to seventh in the final month following various injuries to Leonard, Green, Parker, Kyle Anderson, Rudy Gay and Pau Gasol.
“You seen what they did last year being down one of their best player and what they were able to accomplish,” DeRozan said. “The fight that they had with the young guys.”
Still, the Spurs nearly missed the playoffs last season and the loss of Leonard along with the departures of Green, Ginobili, Parker and Anderson places San Antonio’s streak of 21 straight postseason appearances in danger.
“In one way it’s a little bit melancholy (being without the Big Three),” Popovich said. “Because I’ve been with them for so long and at the same time it’s a great opportunity for a new challenge and new energy, a different route, a different perspective and seeing all the new faces we have to try to put together will make it a really interesting and challenging year, but in a good way.”
Many see this as a rebuilding season, especially with so many new faces, but the Spurs insist they have already been there and done that.
San Antonio spent last season transitioning fully from a team that relied heavily on the Big Three to one that evolved from its shadow. The period to that evolution was Dejounte Murray replacing Parker in the starting lineup and helping guide the team to the postseason despite not having Leonard.
“I think last year was kind of our rebuilding year,” Aldridge said. “Kind of a transitional year as far as putting DJ at point and getting his first year at point and growing with him.”
Murry spent the offseason working with San Antonio shooting guru Chip Engelland, who helped reshape the shooting strokes of Leonard and Parker amongst others. Entering his third season, Murray’s confidence has grown to the point he wants to be a vocal leader, too, if Popovich asks that of him.
“We’re going to build a brotherhood off the court and then it’s going to carry on to the court,” Murray said.