The Spurs face LeBron James and the scrappy, new-look Lakers for the first time on Monday, with the action tipping off at 9pm CT on NBA TV. In anticipation of the early-season matchup, I spoke with writer, TV analyst and host of the Hang Time podcast, Sekou Smith, who was nice enough to give his thoughts on both teams, including how the Spurs fared in the Kawhi-DeMar trade, their playoff chances, and when their throwback style of basketball might prove to be an advantage.
(Note: we spoke before the scrum during the Lakers-Rockets game, which resulted in suspensions for Brandon Ingram (4), Rajon Rondo (3) and Chris Paul (2).)
Bruno Passos: What was your reaction at the time to the DeRozan trade from the Spurs’ perspective?
Sekou Smith: I thought they came out of it pretty well. Not often are you gonna trade an All-Star player and get an All-Star in return. And the Spurs got a healthy All-Star player in return. Kawhi played 9 games last year, so we weren’t sure what that would be for him in Toronto this year. But we knew DeMar DeRozan was gonna be a healthy, in-his-athletic-prime All-Star that you were getting in San Antonio. Jakob Poeltl is a quality player but you don’t know if he’s a difference maker or not at this stage of his career, while DeMar is clearly somebody you can craft a starting unit around. In that situation where you’re trying to make the best of a bad situation if you’re the Spurs, I don’t think you can complain about the way you came out of it with DeMar DeRozan as one of your center pieces.
BP: The Spurs are once again built to play a style that’s not in line with the analytically driven modern era in a number of ways — plenty of mid-range shots and post-ups, etc. Does that automatically cap their potential, in your opinion (due to what the efficiency numbers say), or are there potential advantages that a team like that could have in this era?
SS: I think — and this is an extreme example — it’s a bit like being an option team in a pass-happy football scenario. The Spurs have always gone against the grain, really. They embraced the ball-movement, space-the-floor style when it hadn’t become the rage in the league, and it won them a championship. That series against Miami remains one of the five most beautiful stretches of basketball I’ve ever seen —the style, the aesthetic quality of how they played.
I think it’s more that you have to play to your strengths in terms of your personnel. LaMarcus and DeMar DeRozan are probably two of the best mid-range players at their position in the league. You’d be crazy to try and craft a system that caters to anybody other than those two guys. As far as an advantage, I’d say it only becomes a significant advantage for them in the postseason, when you get to lock in and try to execute that style night after night against the same team. In the regular season you’re gonna get drawn into all sorts of battles, in terms of, you know, you’re gonna get out there one night and you might be sluggish and the other team might be playing with better energy, and how you wanna play is gonna be negated by the fact that you just don’t have it, or your legs aren’t there, or you’re on a back to back and whatever the case may be. When you’re talking about doing it schematically, and the time you would really take advantage of it, I think it’s the postseason... Only then do you see what the limits of that style really are.
BP: The Spurs and Lakers meet on Monday in LA. It’s super early in the season, and both of these teams are extremely different from years past, but what is maybe one thing you’ll look for in each team’s performance that could serve as a meaningful takeaway?
SS: The Lakers are working with a much more disjointed group of players, when you look at the young guys, the veterans they brought in around LeBron, how you make those pieces connect. The Spurs have a bit more of a seamless transition in terms of integrating personnel into what they want to do. Both teams are looking for some similar things early on in the season, in that you’re just trying to find the right chemistry and the right mix of guys in terms of your rotation that allows you to play your best basketball. That’s a process that tends to take teams 20 to 25 games. — I always say, “Wait ‘til Christmas.” Christmas is when you can take a step back and really evaluate what you have when you have new personnel or a new coach. It’s not until you get to the Christmas Day games that you can really make a sound evaluation of that.
For both of these teams, the sheer spectacle of it all is great. You love the early season matchups. You wanna see the best matchups, you wanna see what Pop does against LeBron because of the mutual respect those two guys have for each other. Obviously they’re gonna put their best on display against each other. It doesn’t matter when they play — it could be five minutes of LeBron on the floor in preseason, and you know Pop is gonna enjoy every bit of it and LeBron is gonna do the same. The natural rivalry between the two — the Lakers and the Spurs, who dominated an era. These teams are so radically different than they were a year ago, it makes it difficult to know exactly what you’re looking for. You kind of hold them up to the light to see what stands out to you this early in the season, and I’m pretty sure there will be plenty of those taken both sides. Who knows each other better in the Western Conference over the last 20 years, than the Spurs and the Lakers?
BP: I agree, and I’m interested in how the pace of this game shakes out, with the Lakers making it known that they want to play as fast as humanly possible and the Spurs typically a bottom-five team in that stat.
SS: I’m guessing, too, that as much as the Lakers want to speed it up, LeBron does his best when he’s probing and playing more methodical, and that’s probably gonna force them to play a little bit slower than they might want to. But I think it’s their best option based on who they have on that roster.
BP: What are your expectations from the Lakers through year one of the LeBron era? Given all the new pieces, is it a positive for the Spurs to have all four matchups against them by early December?
SS: I think it’s a pro for anyone playing the Lakers — catching them before they get comfortable, before LeBron gets into his groove and adjusts to being in the Western Conference. In addition to seeing different teams more often, he’s gotta get adjusted to West Coast trips and traveling back and forth when your home base is as far away as LA is from the East Coast. That’s a new existence for him. The more you get your hands on the Lakers between now and Christmas, the better.
Many experts’ projections for the Spurs going into this season were already uncharacteristically low before injuries to Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker. In your mind, are they a playoff team?
SS: Yeah, they’re one of the teams that I just expect to be in the playoffs. I don’t understand how you can assume they’re gonna be out when they have two guys who were All-NBA players last year. It’d be different if Aldridge or DeRozan were out. And that’s not to knock the contributions they expected from Dejounte Murray or anyone else, but there’s a reason you have a pecking order on your roster — the stars are the guys that carry you and the role guys are the ones that fill in the blanks. They don’t have a star that’s injured. That’d be a completely different scenario, if they had one of those big guys out. I think we can look back to last season. That Spurs team without a healthy Kawhi Leonard wasn’t a threat. They came dangerously close to not making it but you didn’t take them seriously as a top threat in the West.
I think this year, after Golden State — and I include Houston in this mix — it’s wide open in the Western Conference. I think it can go a bunch of different ways. I think there are gonna be three or four teams scrapping for those last couple of spots, so to me, if you’re the Spurs, you’re not gauging yourself against the Warriors right now. I think you have to look at it from a perspective that you’re battling from those teams from 2 to 8, or 2 to 12, even. Those are the teams you have to be conscious of and make sure that you are looking to your side and behind instead of looking ahead to the Warriors.
Given that Murray is out for the season and their non-contender status, what would a reasonably positive season for this team look like?
If you’re a playoff team and have been in the playoffs as many years as the Spurs have, a good season is continuing that trend and staying on that streak. I’ve always said that whenever you get to the playoffs, everything changes based on the matchup. Just getting there is enough to qualify it as a good season. A great season is when you play beyond that first round and have a chance to play your way into the Conference Finals. That’s a great season for a lot of teams. There are only two teams in my opinion this year where it’s championship or bust: Golden State and Houston. I’m not even including Boston in that list. I think the mark to reach is different for different teams around the league. For the Spurs, it’s not the standard they’re used to in terms of competing for the West’s top spot, but it’s certainly playing into the postseason and taking the roll of the dice once you get there and seeing if you draw that one team you can take advantage of, or is it a deal where you draw Golden State and basically start making plans for Turks and Caicos.