SAN ANTONIO - At this time a year ago, Spurs fans would have almost unanimously chosen Kawhi Leonard as the player they were most excited to watch.
At this time a week ago, those same fans would have picked Dejounte Murray as the Spurs player they couldn’t wait to see perform.
Murray’s athleticism, his leadership skills and most importantly, the promise of greatly improved outside shooting had transformed the 22-year-old emerging star into can’t miss entertainment.
One awkward fall later and Murray will now contribute as much to the 2018-19 San Antonio Spurs as Leonard, the new face – if not voice – of the Toronto Raptors.
After blowing out his knee last week, Murray is not being counted on to return until next season. A torn right ACL will keep him sidelined.
So where does that leave Spurs fans looking for the “it” guy this year? Who are supporters willing to shell out hundreds of dollars a night to ooh and aah over throughout what could be a .500 campaign?
The temptation is to go with either a) Gregg Popovich or b) no one. But both of those options are misguided.
As much enjoyment as Spurs fans have had watching Popovich lead the Spurs to five NBA championships over the past two decades, he’s not a reason to part with hard-earned cash. Most nights, there’s not much to see, at least publicly, for the viewing public. If the price of admission included a bird’s eye view of his pre- and post-game pressers, then maybe witnessing that bit of drama would be worth a C note.
But unless he either goes off on the referees, gets T-ed up or even tossed, there’s just not enough nightly drama to warrant Popovich’s inclusion in this discussion. Fans don’t pay good money to watch any man coach, even the NBA’s best.
Choosing “no one” would be insulting to a team that is a perennial playoff contender at a level not seen in major American professional sports.
So rejecting both of those notions leads to this short list of Spurs worth paying money to see; DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Derrick White, who is admittedly a bit of a reach.
The rest of the roster is filled with serviceable NBA players. But whether Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Davis Bertans, Pau Gasol or whoever else Popovich trots out this season is worth the price of admission on his own right is highly suspect.
DeRozan, a multiple All-Star at Toronto, figures to lead the Spurs in scoring. Plus, he’s a newcomer. Fans get to learn his game and see how he fits in the team’s system.
His back story is intriguing too. DeRozan was upset with the Raptors for trading him and can’t wait to prove them wrong. He’s a decent quote. And he’s been public about his battles with depression, a brave and inspirational move for an athlete in the public eye.
Those factors put him atop the list of players worth paying to see on this injury and star-depleted roster.
Almost by default, Aldridge is No. 2 on this very short list.
Fifteen months ago, a fair number of locals wanted to run Aldridge out of town. Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed and Aldridge not only rescinded his trade request but turned the 2017-18 season into his personal redemption tour.
He carried the Spurs on his back last season, all the way to the playoffs. It was a magnificent performance by a magnificent player.
However, he’s not the most thrilling player in the NBA. And while he tolerates the media, he’s not a candidate for Sports Illustrated’s “They Said It” either.
Aldridge will be happy to cede his spot as the face of the franchise to DeRozan, as long as he gets his touches on offense.
One way to gauge player popularity is the eyeball test in the stands as in whose jersey do most fans wear? It wasn’t hard to find more Tim Duncan jerseys than Aldridges last year. And Duncan’s been retired for a couple of years. Don’t be surprised if Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker jerseys out-number Aldridges this season.
Aldridge certainly earned fans’ respect last year. Admiration is another story.
Last on the “who would you pay money to see” list is White. He wouldn’t have made the cut a week ago. But as the potential heir apparent to Murray, White is at least a curiosity as the Spurs weigh their options at the point. His 15-point, 6-rebound, 3-assist effort in a starting role Wednesday at Atlanta did nothing to hurt his chances.
White certainly deserves a long look, but the 54 points and 9 assists he produced in limited exposure during his rookie NBA season made it clear the Spurs didn’t think he was ready a year ago. He did tear up the G League, but he didn’t face Chris Paul, Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook in Austin.
That’s the nightly guard lineup in the rugged Western Conference.
Will fans open their wallets to see if White is up to the challenge? We’ll find out soon enough.