The most tumultuous off-season in Gregg Popovich’s two decades with the Spurs ended with the trade of star Kawhi Leonard to Toronto.
And Popovich says he is fine with that.
The Spurs traded Leonard and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a conditional 2019 first-round pick on Wednesday. It was clear that Leonard was ready to go despite years of success with Popovich and the Spurs.
“At his point, my main interest is definitely not to look back,” Popovich said. “It doesn’t do us any good whatsoever. I’m thrilled to have DeMar and Jakob join us. From that point on, that’s where my focus will be.”
Popovich was jovial and heartfelt in speaking to the media for the first time since his wife, Erin, died April 18. Popovich did not coach the Spurs in the final three games of their first-round playoff loss to Golden State.
Popovich said this off-season has been “difficult” for him, but it has not dampened the 69-year-old’s desire to continue coaching.
“When I can’t do it anymore or don’t want to do it or people don’t want to do it with me, then I’ll stop doing it, but I’m fine,” he said.
Popovich will be coaching a crop of young talent unseen in San Antonio since the early days of the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili _ a roster the result of some big changes.
In addition to losing Leonard and Green, San Antonio also lost Parker and Kyle Anderson to free agency. It was especially tough losing Parker, who Popovich formed a patriarchal bond with since the Spurs drafted the then 19-year-old from France.
Parker signed a two-year deal with Charlotte after Popovich and Spurs general manager R.C. Buford informed the 36-year-old point guard that his minutes would be limited in favour of younger players like Dejounte Murray, Derek White, Bryn Forbes and first-round pick Lonnie Walker out of Miami.
“This was really good for Tony,” Popovich said. “He’ll get more playing time, it’ll kind of rejuvenate him a little bit. I think he’s really excited to be in Charlotte and we’ve got some young kids that we need to develop in Dejounte and Derek White and Bryn and so forth.”
Led by LaMarcus Aldridge’s resurgent season, the Spurs won 47 games last season and reached the playoffs for a 21st consecutive year. They did so despite playing without Leonard for all but nine games due to a right quadriceps injury the All-Star forward suffered last year.
Popovich said he believes this year’s team will be more talented despite the off-season losses.
“I think we’ve sustained a pretty good level of excellence for a very long time, more than most,” Popovich said. “Hopefully that will continue and I’m confident it will with someone like DeMar and a young player like Jakob that can develop.”
The Spurs were able to re-sign Rudy Gay and added former Spurs guard Marco Belinelli. Trading for DeRozan and Poeltl kept with the team’s mantra of short- and long-term planning. DeRozan is signed for three more seasons and Poeltl was selected ninth by Toronto in the 2016 draft.
“I thought our staff did an unbelievably great job bringing back quality players, quality people and in DeMar, a proven All-Star. I have to be thrilled with that, and I am,” Popovich said.
The Spurs are hoping the addition of DeRozan and Walker along with the continued development of Murray, White, Forbes and Davis Bertans along with a healthier Gay will help them in the loaded Western Conference.
“You’ve got to shoot the basketball and DeMar does that well,” Popovich said. “But the rest of the makeup of the team having Derek White develop, having Bryn come back, having Rudy come back, all people who can shoot it. Adding Marco Belinelli is important so those things round out and helps LaMarcus do his thing down there. That shooting will help us a great deal.”
One unknown factor is Ginobili. The veteran guard from Argentina has a year remaining on his contract but has not decided if he will return. Popovich said Ginobili “is chasing bears in the Northwest” while vacationing with his three young sons. Hoping to entice the 40-year-old to return, Popovich sent a picture of Ginobili in his early years, dunking on an opponent.
“He sent me back a picture of me like in my first year here as an assistant,” Popovich said. “I’m not sure what that meant. Like, ”You’re crazy, you’re old, too.