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The Spurs have twisted themselves into a pretzel

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San Antonio is a far different team than they will be when they get healthy.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to watch the Spurs and not pine for the team they were supposed to be.

Kawhi Leonard was expected to lead their transformation from one of the last teams starting two legit bigs, into a small-ball juggernaut. The front office loaded up on perimeter players, surely in the hopes of getting quicker and more versatile. Leonard’s two-way brilliance and ability to play different positions was expected to be at the center of it all.

Alas, we are 18 games into the season, and Leonard has yet to make his season debut. San Antonio is playing slower than it did last season, relative to the rest of the league, while taking only one more three-pointer a game. The two most played five-man units — by far — include two big men, and no other squad posts-up more frequently.

The Spurs have reverted to what’s most comfortable to them, which is understandable. After all, they are in survival mode.

“A team just has to play in a sense like [Kawhi] doesn’t exist,” Pop told The Express News’ Tom Osborn. “Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the ‘poor me’ thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

That approach is working so far, at least in terms of wins and losses. San Antonio is on pace for 50 wins. The team isn’t all that aesthetically appealing, but Spurs fans have seen their share of ugly basketball. If this were it, everyone would embrace it. But this version of the Spurs only exists because Kawhi is not playing, and it will change immediately and significantly when he returns. That knowledge makes even the most exciting parts of what we are seeing seem irrelevant.

Take Kyle Anderson’s play as an example. He has gotten a bigger role with Leonard out and he has clearly made a leap. But he’s almost exclusively played with the starters. That’s going to be Leonard’s role, while Rudy Gay is set to be the main sub at the forward positions. So will the fact that Anderson has been good have any kind of impact on the Spurs’ ceiling? It doesn’t seem likely. Knowing that, it’s easy to think of him as the new Cory Joseph, a sub that showed value when he had to fill in for a starter, but a player who will lose his rotation minutes as soon as the team is whole.

Leonard’s return will in all likelihood completely change how LaMarcus Aldridge plays, too. Aldridge is closer to the usage percentage he sported in Portland than the one he logged with the Spurs in the past two years, and he’s been amazing in that extended role. Surely part of his increased involvement on offense has to do with the talk he and Pop had. Getting him more touches has no doubt been made easier by not having another featured option around to take possessions away from Aldridge. That’s going to change once Leonard is back.

Everyone wants to see the real Spurs, the ones who have one of the five best players in the league in their lineup. For now, we are stuck with this parallel-universe version of the team San Antonio was supposed to be.

Since the closest to a return date we have is a purposefully vague “sooner rather than later,” it’s tempting to do what the Spurs are trying to do and pretend like Leonard doesn’t exist. But fans aren’t wired that way.

The Spurs’ season officially kicked off a month ago, but in a way it hasn’t started yet. And it won’t until Leonard is back and speculation gives way to certainty.

More of this, please

Minutes for Davis Bertans

The Spurs are a deep team, even after being ravaged by injuries. Someone was bound to fall out of the rotation early. Davis Bertans was that casualty. It was somewhat justifiable considering how the other subs kept performing. Joffrey Lauvergne was doing well as third big and both Bryn Forbes and Brandon Paul were giving the team solid minutes at the wing, pushing Kyle Anderson and Rudy Gay into more playing time at power forward.

But Bertans is good enough to always be an option. His skill set has the potential to change games. He proved that recently with his terrific stint against the Thunder, in which his shooting and ability to switch on defense helped propel a huge comeback. That performance showed that at the very least he needs to remain in a “break glass in case of emergency” role even after Leonard returns.

Sure, the lanky Latvian is still hyper kinetic on both ends. Yes, that’s especially damaging on defense at times. Yet it’s exactly what the Spurs need some days. There are many complaints to levy at Bertans, but he always plays with infectious energy and is not afraid to pull the trigger. Those attributes make him a perfect change of pace.

When nothing else is working, he needs to be on the court.

A closer look

I’ll be honest and confess that I picked this play because it reminds me of the Summertime-era Spurs. But it also illustrates perfectly two ways in which the Spurs have empowered Aldridge this year.

LMA will always be a pick and pop threat, but he can also be a weapon as a dive man. He’s typically been asked to space the floor for a center, but he’s now playing that position more, along with four perimeter players. So he’s free to attack the paint after setting a screen.

Against teams that defend the play aggressively, like the Hawks, he’ll get the ball in the short roll and be forced to make a play. That’s exactly what happens. Aldridge barely makes contact on his screen before heading towards the paint. He catches the ball and knows where to pass. The ball moves around the perimeter until Danny Green gets an open look and launches a shot.

That’s when, typically, a Spurs’ big would start running back on defense. Not this year. The Spurs are crashing the offensive glass. They rank third in the league in both offensive rebound percentage and second chance points. Aldridge ranks 20th in the league in offensive rebound percentage and almost five of his team-leading 22 points per game come off offensive boards.

The Spurs are still moving the ball looking for open shots. This year, they are also mixing in some bully-ball to go with their ball movement. So far, it’s allowed Aldridge to make a bigger impact on the game.