2018 Preview — San Antonio Spurs

2018-19 San Antonio Spurs


Projected Record: 45-37 (9th in West)

Over/Under: 43.5

2016: 47-35 (7th in West)


Key Additions:

  • DeMar DeRozan (Trade)
  • Jakob Poeltl (Trade)
  • Marco Belinelli (Free Agency)
  • Dante Cunningham (Free Agency)
  • Quincy Pondexter (Free Agency)
  • Lonnie Walker IV (Pick #18)
  • Chimezie Metu (Pick #49)

Key Subtractions:

  • Kawhi Leonard
  • Danny Green
  • Kyle Anderson
  • Tony Parker

Summary

Strengths:

  • They’re the Spurs
  • Depth on wings
  • Versatile guard rotation

Weaknesses:

  • Defense will regress
  • Perimeter shooting could be awful

In the original draft of this preview, I discussed how this was likely to be one of my more controversial previews. Even as stacked as the Western Conference is, people were heavily resistant to the idea that the Spurs might not make the playoffs. I get it — they made it last year without anything from Kawhi Leonard, and with the eternal Gregg Popovich is still running the show.

But now, things are getting ugly in San Antonio.

A torn meniscus for exciting rookie Lonnie Walker IV was no doubt unfortunate, and a season-ending ACL tear for second-year guard Dejounte Murray even moreso. Both together? Absolutely crushing.

This will be the toughest test of Gregg Popovich’s illustrious coaching career since… last season, when he coached San Antonio into the playoffs without one of the best players in the NBA. It’s as if the universe decided it needs to keep turning up the difficulty slider, just to bring the Spurs down a peg. One of the Spurs’ two actual point guards spent most of last season in the G-League, and now, there’s talk that he might start. That’s how far we’ve come.

Prior to the injuries, the common refrain surrounding the Spurs was that they actually improved from last year. They turned nine games of an injured Kawhi Leonard into a full season from an All-Star DeMar DeRozan. This is sort of true, in that they did indeed trade those two players for each other, but it generally disregards the other players who departed San Antonio this offseason. Looking at the bigger picture of their offseason, I think you can make a case that the Spurs got worse, even before injuries virtually ensured that was the case.

Obviously Leonard provided virtually no value last season, but Kyle Anderson and Danny Green provided a great deal. Trading Green was the price of doing business in the Leonard deal, and that deal was probably a win, but refusing to match a reasonable four-year, $37 million contract for Anderson? That’s a head-scratcher. With Murray and Walker sidelined, losing Anderson starts to hurt even more.

In essence, the stingy defense that powered San Antonio into the playoffs last season has been almost entirely crippled. Murray was going to be crucial to the Spurs’ perimeter defense, and in his absence, defensive needle-movers are just hard to find. Pau Gasol can hardly move these days, Patty Mills is tiny, Marco Belinelli has always been sieve-like — it’s basically just LaMarcus Aldridge now. As good as Aldridge has become defensively (which he doesn’t get enough credit for), he can’t do it alone.

Things look a fair bit less bleak on the other end of the court. Aldridge will be bludgeoning teams to death with his midrange attack for the rest of time; with DeRozan in town, the Spurs will likely lap the league in 15-footers. The Spurs don’t have a proven point guard beyond longtime reserve Mills, but they don’t really need one. Passing will be a collective effort here, with Aldridge, Gasol and DeRozan (a much-improved playmaker last season) paving the way. Spacing won’t be an issue, considering half the roster can shoot threes, and they’re skilled in the paint. This could be in the ballpark of a top-ten offense.

Will it be enough, though? In this Western Conference? Ultimately, I don’t think so. The Spurs have always been inevitable, a force of nature embodied in a franchise — it’s a testament to my respect for the organization that I still think they’ll get THIS close — but for once, the obstacles may have piled up a little too heavily.


Most Valuable Player: LaMarcus Aldridge

After the events of last season, it’s a little crazy to consider how, two summers ago, LaMarcus Aldridge asked to be traded away from the Spurs, and we all thought it was the most tumultuous thing to happen to the franchise in decades.

Well, while most of the San Antonio spotlight was focused on the ongoing Leonard drama, Aldridge is still here — and last season, he came to play. After working through his issues with Popovich and inking a long-term contract extension, Aldridge posted the most impressive season of his 12 year career. Name your favorite advanced stat, and odds are this was his best mark in it; scoring, defending, rebounding, playmaking — he was at or near his best in every phase of the game.

Offensively, Aldridge was the most efficient he’s ever been, on one of the highest usage rates he’s ever carried. Popovich finally seemed to find the right balance, working to get Aldridge to his favored spots in the midrange rather than fighting to “modernize” him. The result was a career-best 57% true shooting percentage. Defensively, Aldridge used to catch flak for not filling the traditional “rim protector” role, because he doesn’t block shots, but those standards have changed — he controls the paint through physicality and excellent positioning.

For Aldridge, last season was a test that no one really expected him to face, and he passed with flying colors. His reward, unfortunately, is an even more daunting challenge. If the Spurs want to beat the odds and keep the playoff streak alive, they’ll need their franchise center to find an even higher gear.

X Factor: DeMar DeRozan

Much like with Aldridge, last season was the best of DeMar DeRozan’s career, at a time when his team needed him to step up more than ever. Unlike Aldridge, though… things didn’t quite turn out as well in the end. While the Raptors raced out to one of the best regular seasons in franchise history, when the postseason came around, they ended right where they always do: out in the second round, at the hands of LeBron James. The rest is history; GM Masai Ujiri shipped out the franchise mainstay to take a gamble on Kawhi Leonard, and now DeRozan will wear a different uniform for the first time in his career.

DeRozan has been a polarizing force through his nine seasons in the NBA, an old-school gunner trying to find his way through an NBA that has largely left his archetype in the past. He’s a volume scorer who thrives in the midrange, in a league that frantically tries to push every player back outside the three-point line.

While Aldridge hit his stride by playing to his strengths, DeRozan’s success was keyed by modernization. He didn’t necessarily improve as a three-point shooter — his 31% mark only slightly outpaced the 29% he’s shot for his career — but he learned the value of making the attempts. If you shoot it, defenses will guard you; call it the Marcus Smart Rule. Playmaking also grew into a legitimate strength; while he’d always been a capable passer, he took greater responsibility for running the Raptors’ offense. Ticking his assist rate up past 25% eased some of the responsibility on Kyle Lowry, and the Raptors’ offense hummed as a result.

The Spurs will no doubt expand on these traits in the way they always do. Aldridge taught Popovich the value of malleability when it comes to a player’s role, and I would expect to see DeRozan utilized in much the same way as he has been before. If he can further mature as a passer and scorer, he’ll be a valuable piece of the Spurs’ offensive toolkit — and they’ll need all hands on deck to compensate for what they’ve already lost.

Don’t Forget About: Derrick White

Three years ago, Derrick White was balling for the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, a Division II college basketball program. Last year, he spent most of the season in the G-League. This week, he’ll be the starting point guard for the San Antonio Spurs. Talk about things escalating quickly.

In the wake of the Murray and Walker injuries, the Spurs are thin on guards, and what was supposed to be a more conservative bench role for the 24-year-old has become much more substantial out of sheer necessity. At least he’s had time to acclimate — in the G-League last season, he took 16 shots per game and posted a 20-5-3 line for the year.

In reality, White will likely still be on a short leash. Most of San Antonio’s offensive sets are going to be initiated by DeRozan, and run through Alridge and Gasol in the paint or on the elbows. White will part of a collaborative effort to support the Spurs’ stars and keep the ball moving, and if he can knock down threes with consistency (he took over six attempts per game in the G-League, but made only 32% of them), he’ll carve out a role for himself.

And really, if he suddenly becomes a legitimate NBA starter, wouldn’t that just be the most Spurs thing ever?


Second Opinion

Matt Moore, The Action Network (@HPbasketball)

“Up the hill, sheep bleat, oblivious to human empires rising and falling.” – David Mitchell

The Basketball Gods are angry, my friends. Like an old man sending back soup in a deli. I don’t know what it was, but between Kawhi Leonard pulling all the stuff he did last year (whether you think he was justified or not), Lonnie Walker IV’s injury and now a devastating ACL tear for second-year starting point guard Dejounte Murray, stuff has gone wrong in spectacular, tragic fashion in a series of depressing dominoes for the Spurs. For years we’ve stuck to “Death, Taxes, Spurs,” but there have never been more questions than there are this year about San Antonio.

Here’s what we know. LaMarcus Aldridge will be brutally efficient at inherently inefficient shots. He will play great defense (something that was an issue for him when he was younger, something to remember about some other young bigs in the league). The Spurs will at once feed into what DeMar DeRozan does while making him slightly more efficient. Derrick White, Jakob Poeltl, and Davis Bertans will be the kinds of players that analysts and hardcore fans talk about in terms of their positive impact while no casual fans have any idea who they are outside of San Antonio. The Spurs will beat bad teams, because to do so you don’t need that much talent, or spacing, you just need discipline and consistency. The Spurs will wear down teams with brutal indifference, and teams without the ability to stand up to them will wither and fall like chafe.

In the past 10 (TEN!) seasons, the Spurs’ record against teams that finished under .500: 303-51.

They win 86% of their games against teams that finish under .500.

But beyond that? Man, I just don’t know. There’s just been an avalanche of unfortunate, negative outcomes. Tim Duncan’s gone. Tony Parker’s gone. Manu Ginobili is gone. Everyone thought Rome would stand forever until the barbarians were at the gate. They need young, non-elite players and two heavily flawed superstars to carry them. They need Pau Gasol to play like he’s a living person. They need Patty Mills to run point. The Spurs have always made it easy to have faith in them, but as with most things to believe in, the more evidence comes in, the harder it is to stand with the power of things unseen. What we see with the Spurs? It’s hard to say what it is, but it doesn’t seem great. We’ll find out if the empire’s ready to slide away, or if the pillars of what made them great still stand.


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