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Now What? – San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are down right now. Matt John examines how out they are and how they can get back in in the latest installment of Now What?

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Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ Now What? Series. If you aren’t fully caught up, feel free to read some of our most recent installments such as Indiana and Minnesota first. Today, we take a look at the San Antonio Spurs. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Spurs have missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season, which sounds inconceivable after all they’ve accomplished.

It’s not like the Spurs routinely won the championship year after year, but they were always in the title discussion for what seemed like an eternity. To know that they’re currently not there anymore blows the mind. Granted this large infusion of talented youth has overshadowed San Antonio’s fall from grace, but the postseason doesn’t feel the same without them. So, where are the Spurs at now if they’re not among the NBA’s titans?

Strengths

This comes when you have DeMar DeRozan as the offensive focal point, but, the Spurs drew free throws at a pretty excellent rate this season. They averaged 22 a game, which was good enough to tie for 11th overall in the league according to Basketball-Reference. Admittingly, that’s grasping at straws because not a whole lot about their offense was impressive this season. But this is the strengths section so we won’t dwell on that just yet.

Another strength is that their youth is coming along somewhat. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, and Lonnie Walker IV all took a step forward scoring-wise with bigger roles.

Murray
2019-20: 10.9 points a game
2020-21: 15.7

White:
2019-20: 11.3
2020-21: 15.4

Johnson:
2019-20: 9.1
2020-21: 12.8

Walker:
2019-20: 6.4
2020-21: 11.2

That came at the expense of their field goal efficiency but, again, we’re not going to dwell on weaknesses here. Better yet, progress in all areas takes time.

Lastly, among all that went wrong with the Kawhi trade, Jakob Poeltl has evolved into one of the league’s most effective rim protectors. Opponents’ field goal percentage around the rim dropped by 11.6 percent when he protected the rim this year. So it made sense when they started him at the five full-time over LaMarcus Aldridge.

As you can probably tell, the Spurs don’t boast any notable strengths. Fortunately for them, they don’t boast any glaring weaknesses either.

Weaknesses

Despite NBA offenses being centered around the three, the Spurs still refuse to fully embrace this. According to Basketball-Reference, they ranked dead-last in threes attempted on a nightly basis (28.4) which has been the case for the last few years. This will probably change *if* DeMar DeRozan changes teams this summer. Should that be the case, San Antonio will probably have to be more reliant on taking threes.

Unfortunately, the days of Davis Bertans and Danny Green are long gone. In the past, the Spurs’ made up for their lack of three-point attempts with incredible efficiency. Not anymore. Of all their rotation players, only two of them shot over 36 percent from three – Patty Mills and Rudy Gay – both of whom, much like DeRozan, are best-suited playing for teams competing right now.

The lack of attempts and efficiency in that department played a major role in the Spurs’ 21st-ranked offensive rating this season. If the defense held its own, maybe the Spurs’ issues offensively could have been mitigated a tad, but nope. San Antonio’s defense fell all the way that they tied for 17th overall in defensive rating (112.8) according to Basketball-Reference. That’s not bad enough to be considered a weakness – it’s average – but these are such off-putting numbers for a team coached by Gregg Popovich.

Whether DeRozan stays or not, the Spurs must become more inventive to boost their offense again.

Opportunities

San Antonio’s opportunities are limited, to say the least. Unless they shock the world with their low lottery odds, they probably won’t get an upfront special talent.

So where does that leave them? Well, reading the tea leaves, DeMar DeRozan seemingly has no interest in spending the rest of his prime with the Spurs. In the grand scheme of things, that’s probably what’s best for both sides. All of San Antonio’s best players are 26 and younger. At 31 years old, DeRozan’s talents are probably best used on a team that’s ready to win now.

Besides, with him gone, that gives their youngsters more room to stretch their legs. Dejounte Murray is a jack-of-all-trades oversized point guard who made NBA All-defense his rookie year. Derrick White’s scoring went up once he saw an increase in minutes and usage. Lonnie Walker IV has had his promising stretches. Then there’s Keldon Johnson.

Johnson was a bubble boy wonder last year. Even if it was brief, he showed a promising three-ball, a bag of tricks in iso, and energetic defense. Many thought perhaps the Spurs had another bright star in their midst. That played a role in giving him some unfair expectations coming in. Much like other individual players this season, Johnson may have benefited enough from the bubble’s atmosphere that not taking another step forward in a COVID-shortened should have been foreseeable.

That doesn’t mean his potential does not intrigue anymore. Much like Murray and White, all it may take is time for him to reach it. If taking two steps forward requires taking one step back first, why not?

Threats

Usually, when writing these, we’re required to highlight each team’s strengths and weaknesses. In San Antonio’s case, that’s precisely their problem right now. Nothing about them, good or bad, is truly remarkable. They’ve been reduced to being the NBA’s quintessentially average ball club. They’ve entered the paradox of being too good to be “bad” and too bad to be “good”.

A core of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, and Jakob Poeltl is a solid one to have. No one’s denying the raw potential that some of them have. At the same time, do any of these guys project to be anything special? For years, a Kawhi-type or a Duncan-type or a Robinson-type led the charge on the Spurs’ title hopes. As of right now, none of the players on this roster has that trajectory.

What they have to ask themselves is how do they, at the very least, get back to owning a timeshare in the postseason as they did for over two decades? Sadly, there’s no quick fix for them. They metaphorically won the lottery when they traded for Kawhi Leonard on draft night and literally won the lottery when they drafted Tim Duncan and David Robinson.

The threat to San Antonio is not the lack of talent itself. It’s how they can get more.

To some, San Antonio’s downfall is a welcome change of pace seeing how long they were at the top. Honestly, it’s sad that their reign ended as prematurely as it did because Kawhi wanted other things. It only got worse the following year when they sacrificed Davis Bertans to make room for Marcus Morris before Morris reneged on their agreement.

They’re not completely bankrupt of young talent. But when you compare any of their young players to the likes of Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, or Zion Williamson, do any of them bring the same excitement as those three? Coach Pops has worked too many miracles to count, but much like any elite player, he needs help.

So their options are to either see how their young core turns out or start from scratch for the first time since the eighties. They’re good enough to give this young team a shot for now, but their immediate future is uncertain in the Alamo.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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