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Dewayne Dedmon could make the Spurs great

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The Spurs are very good, but their ability to contend may be tied to a seven-footer’s untapped upside.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

As impressive as the Spurs’ record is (18-4), it’s still hard to place them in the conversation of legitimate title contenders. Not with the defense still shaky (11th in Def Rtg), a mediocre (16th ranked) rebound rate and their need to adjust against small-ball lineups. And that’s not a knock — the fact that PATFO has been able to put together what is a very good team in the wake of Duncan’s retirement is incredible. But since greatness is the perennial watermark in San Antonio, it’s worth considering what could get this team there.

Execution and chemistry will improve on both sides of the floor as the season rolls on, even if the minutes distribution were to stay as it is. But Pop has been constantly kicking the tires on various lineups to see what works best. He’s tried every big-man combination thus far, including Pau and David Lee together (not bad) and Pau and Davis Bertans together (not very good); he’s started games with Nicolas Laprovittola; he’s closed games with Patty over Tony, or Lee over Pau, and even Jonathon Simmons has seen crunch-time minutes.

The tinkering’s yielded some intriguing numbers, but none as promising as the +19.1 net rating next to Dewayne Dedmon’s name.

That stat is often misleading, for obvious reasons: a bench player getting less than 15 minutes a night isn’t consistently facing the toughest competition. Dedmon also benefits from playing alongside other super subs like Patty Mills (+13.7 net rtg), Manu Ginobili (+9.0) and David Lee (+8.6).

And yet, the case for the big man’s role to increase is clear: he addresses most of this team’s glaring deficiencies.

That begins on the defensive end, where the starters will likely continue to be vulnerable along the perimeter and against the pick and roll. The Spurs as a team appear to be switching more than they have in the past, and that’s a major problem with the lead-footed Gasol. Even Aldridge will often sag off a wing enough to give them the jumper. The pair have a 108 Def Rtg when they share the floor.

Dedmon has the foot-speed and length to keep up with most guys on the three-point line. When they drive, he has the footwork and instincts to time his contests. Against the Cavs, it means staying with someone like Channing Frye, who’s anchored one of their most potent lineups. Against the Warriors, it means much better switching on, well, everyone. Opponents’ shooting numbers thus far reflect the impact he can continue to make all over the floor.

Opponent shooting with Dedmon off the floor: 45.1 FG%, 34.6 3P%

With Dedmon on floor: 37 FG%, 25.6 3P%

As a rim protector, his combination of length and athleticism is invaluable. Players shoot 33% around the basket when he’s around, and his 1.3 blocks per game is already a team-best.

Being a great rebounder adds to Dedmon’s impact. The Spurs starters pull down 46.9% of available rebounds, down from 53% in Duncan’s last year. With Dedmon, that number jumps to 56.9%.

Dedmon is the rare 27-year-old that still has some upside. That’s because he only got into organized ball at 18 (I highly recommend the 8-minute Sports Illustrated story on why that’s the case) and has spent most of his pro career at the end of the bench. His familiarity among this group will only grow, as should his ability to contribute offensively. Despite that raw-ness, the Spurs attack doesn’t really take a step back when he’s on the floor. He’s a solid screener, crashes the offensive glass, and commits few turnovers. His leaping ability makes him a threat for the lob, which forces his defender to make a decision when a Spurs ball-handler penetrates -- contest, or stay at home.

The Spurs aren’t used to having a true rim-runner, and that showed early in the season. Manu and Tony struggled to put the ball where Dedmon needed it in the pick and roll, usually opting for bounce or chest passes instead of the preferred lob. As a result, Dedmon’s early advanced numbers as a roll man weren’t great.

Against Milwaukee, we saw how effective he can be in that role, as a small-ball lineup found him on back-to-back alley oops. He’s now the Spurs’ most efficient roll man, despite the roster having two of the league’s best at the pick and pop.

Dedmon’s underrated mid-range game makes him a bigger handful in the half-court. He hasn’t turned to it much in San Antonio, but you can see the confidence in his stroke as he faces up and hits this shot against the Timberwolves.

He also runs the floor well. At the very least, doing so forces defenses to collapse on him in transition, allowing the Spurs to get easier looks as they bring the ball up. At best, teammates can find him for the easy finish.

The fact he can hit his free throws (75% last year, 65% so far this year) means he can close games without worrying about intentional fouls. The number that could keep him off the floor, though? His own foul rate, which has hovered around six per-36-minutes his entire pro career. That could be the function of being a reserve player who has more freedom to foul, but it’s still something that will be tested as he gets more playing time.

The eye-popping advanced stats will go down as Dedmon’s minutes rise and he faces tougher competition. There’s also the question of where those minutes come from, and how that affects Gasol’s role, especially in closing games. Pop seems game for finding the best version of this team, though — and there’s a strong chance that Dedmon is a part of that picture by the end of the year.