Here we are, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The Spurs season has officially begun. They hold a 2-1 record after starting the season with a win at the AT&T Center, and splitting their two-game road trip that ended with their first road win in eight months by way of a nail-biter in Los Angeles against the LeBron James-led Lakers.
DeMar DeRozan has already started setting records for points scored by a Spur in his first three games as well as breaking his own personal record for assists on Monday night. Meanwhile, he’s looking right at home in Silver & Black and connecting with LaMarcus Aldridge like this was always part of their master plan.
This week PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Bruno Passos, Jesus Gomez, Mark Barrington and editor-in-chief J. R. Wilco share their thoughts on the Spurs offense, first impressions of the team’s start as well as how fans treated the Minnesota Timberwolves on opening night, and how the NBA is seeing increased scoring right out of the gate.
Teams are scoring significantly more this season thus far, and the Spurs are right in the thick of the offensive explosion. Is this a trend that will persist?
Marilyn Dubinski: Maybe not to this extreme, but I expect to continue seeing a rise in NBA scoring in general because that’s what the league wants, and the proof is in the rule changes. Defenders can’t make as much contact with players who are moving off the ball, the shot clock is resetting to 14 instead of 24 after an offensive rebound, which adds more possessions to the game, etc.
Bruno Passos: That definitely seems to be the case. It’s jarring to see halftime scores in the 70s and 80s, but that seems to increasingly be the new reality in the NBA.
Jesus Gomez: It sure seems like it. The rule changes, the emphasis on the three ball and the ridiculous pace at which the game is played now —the 7SoL Suns would rank last in pace this season — all help create this high scores. If you haven’t embraced defensive and offensive efficiency stats before, this is the time to do so. Points scored and allowed per game tell you very little right now.
Mark Barrington: Sure, the shot clock resetting to 14 on an offensive rebound instead of 24 means that there will be more possessions per game, and the new emphasis on calling fouls for any restriction of player movement also favors scoring. I think defenses will adjust some, but increased scoring is here to stay.
J.R. Wilco: Patty Mills had two if not three fouls called on him Monday night that would have certainly been charge calls last year. Instead: made basket and one. Those are points that are literally appearing out of thin air. Add in the shot clock changes and it’s evident that the elevated scoring is here to stay this year.
What has been your first impression of the Spurs?
Dubinski: I unfortunately could not watch their loss to the Trail Blazers, but the lack of perimeter defense was definitely palpable in all three games. Hopefully the eventual return of Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV will help alleviate that. So far each game has boiled down to if the Spurs can outscore their opponent, and in two games they did (and in shocking fashion vs. the Lakers). The offense has already looked more fluid and free-flowing than at any point last season, and that’s in no small part thanks to DeMar DeRozan already setting scoring records for the Spurs while at the same time being their best distributor. With some more time to gel and getting a more ideal starting line-up out there when White returns (although kudos to Bryn Forbes; he has stepped up to the challenge), I still believe this can be a solid playoff team, all things considered.
Passos: Small sample size aside, the lack of (healthy) defensive talent on the perimeter is a legitimate concern. The Spurs gave up a combined 70 points to Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler on Wednesday, then 53 to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Better system familiarity will elevate them from the 27th ranked defense they have right now, but that can still be exposed in the pick and roll and in isolation. The worst defense Pop has had since drafting Tim Duncan was ranked 11th — they’re more than likely going to eclipse that this season. The good news would appear to be that the offense seems much more dynamic than last season.
Gomez: They appear to be a bad defensive team with no length in the perimeter. That was likely going to be the case even with Dejounte Murray healthy, but it’s been made evident by his absence. Offensively, they lack ball handlers. Hopefully the returns of Derrick White and Lonnie Walker will help there. Overall, they are pretty much what I expected: a third-tier team that will look good some nights and not so much on others.
Barrington: They are who we thought they were. This is a team that is going to struggle early in the season. They really don’t have a traditional point guard, and are trying to make do with a converted shooting guard and a backup who is a shooting specialist. But DeMar DeRozan is better than advertised and smooth as silk. This team is going to struggle early as all of the new players learn to play together and they wait for the return of Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV. But the talent is there, with both LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan playing at an all star level, and they should be able to contend later in the season against most of the teams in the west as they try to snag a playoff spot.
Wilco: Dual first impressions: surprised by both DeRozan’s assist totals and Forbes’ holding his own. Bryn has had multiple good plays on defense, and hasn’t been exposed as I feared he’d be. He’s no Murray, of course, and he’s unlikely to ever be. But he’s been (I can’t believe this is a compliment, but I expected him to be so bad on D that it is) delightfully competent. And his threes are falling, so I’m happy to say that — so far — I was wrong about him.
Last Wednesday the Spurs hosted their season-opener against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Spurs fans booed Jimmy Butler. There hasn’t been a lot of that behavior at the AT&T Center over the years. Did the Kawhi Leonard situation change the fanbase?
Dubinski: I actually didn’t notice that; it must have happened during a commercial break. It’s not like Spurs fans have ever been above booing, and I guess booing Butler was their way of showing their disapproval of superstars handling trade demands poorly (which is more often than not). That being said, I hope the fans don’t boo Leonard when he returns. Don’t give him or his uncle more reasons to say “See? San Antonio was a bad place for me.” If anything, give him the silent treatment while cheering Danny Green and make it awkward for him.
Passos: I don’t think Spurs fans are necessarily anti-booing — especially thinking back to, say, the Lakers rivalry days — so it wouldn’t seem there’s been any fundamental change from the fanbase in that regard. That said, there was an Uncle Dennis jersey in the crowd, and there’s probably more to the post-Kawhi fan experience that will reveal itself moving forward.
Gomez: I wouldn’t blame anyone for still being angry at Kawhi and taking it out on Jimmy. It’s all really fresh, after all. I doubt the Leonard ordeal has profoundly changed the fanbase, though.
Barrington: I think it changed me. I spent the whole season giving him the benefit of the doubt, and making excuses for him not being ready to play or communicating with the team and the fans. I feel now like I was taken for a ride by someone who was dishonest and shirking, and frankly, I feel mad and betrayed by the whole situation. I have issues with the guy, and it feels like I lost some of my innocence last year.
Wilco: One round of booing does not a sea change make. Now, if they boo Santa this December, we’ll need to revisit the question.
Saturday night the Spurs couldn’t contain Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. What do the guards need to improve upon before the next meeting on December 2nd?
Dubinski: Hopefully they’ll have more personnel available, for starters. Bryn Forbes is doing his best, but he just isn’t the type of player who can stop an All-Star guard. (In fairness, how many players are?) Expecting White to be Dejounte Murray on defense is likely asking too much as well, but he should at least be better than Forbes. If Lonnie Walker somehow proves to be the Spurs’ best perimeter defender once he’s healthy, he might even get the Leonard treatment and get plenty of time in the main rotation his rookie year just to shore up the defense.
Passos: Lillard began the night hitting a 30-foot pull-up jumper, so there are certain things no one is really going to be able to stop against him and McCollum — they’re considered one of the best NBA backcourts for a reason. The Spurs are at an even greater disadvantage with the guys they can throw at them. DeRozan has size but lacks the lateral quickness to keep ball-handlers from getting around him. Forbes brings great effort, but he needs to hone his instincts a bit more, and that would probably only get him to push to be an average defender. Against teams like this, the margin of error gets a bit thinner for the Spurs, so they’re going to have to make sure they handle their business in other ways and hope one of CJ or Dame are cold that night.
Gomez: I think they can only realistically improve their focus and discipline. Neither Forbes nor Mills are going to become lockdown defenders. They just don’t have the tools or the technique. The same goes for DeRozan and Marco Belinelli. I do think they can make life harder for the great backcourts of the league by making fewer mistakes. Even small stuff like taking an extra second to switch or not noticing a back screen give guys like Lillard and McCollum all the room they need to hit shots. Being completely focused at all times can be draining, so having extra bodies to throw out there could help. Let’s hope at least one of Walker or White is ready to go by then.
Barrington: Maybe DeMar should take on more of the ball-handling duties, and let Bryn work off the ball and try to get open shots. Sometimes I come off as being very critical of Bryn, but I really don’t want to be. He’s actually been incredible in how hard he’s worked on his game to learn how to be a point guard, and he’s much, much better at it than he was when he joined the Spurs. But he’s just not quick enough or agile enough to run with elite NBA guards like Lillard. Very few players are, but Bryn will definitely look better playing against backups, once the Spurs have someone to hold down the starting point guard job.
Wilco: They can improve their health. If White gets out there, it’ll be a boost. Besides that, it’s just experience and slow but steady improvements.
What are your first thoughts on LeBron James with the Los Angeles Lakers? Any possible adjustments that the Spurs can make before these teams play again at the AT&T Center this Saturday?
Dubinski: “Welcome to the Western Conference, where even the playoffs aren’t a given.” In all seriousness, it was strange seeing him in that uniform, but you can see them being a pretty good team when they get it all together. I’m kind of glad the Spurs get all four games early before they really gel. I’m not sure they’ll make the playoffs this season, but they definitely have the look of “Showtime 2.0” with their fast pace and some dynamic players. The biggest adjustments I’d make going into Saturday: slow down the pace, get back in transition, and stick to Kyle Kuzma like glue (Brandon Ingram will still be suspended).
Passos: They are certainly a better team with LeBron James, and the Spurs will miss having a guy they could throw at him and at least try to slow him down. Beyond that, it’s hard to know what to expect from them this early, although controlling the pace seems to be key. The Lakers want to run — they’re currently number one in the league in possessions per game — and the Spurs (30th through two games) don’t. The more this one suits the Spurs’ slogging, half-court style, the better.
Gomez: I think there’s less pressure for him this year to make a deep run, which has to be nice. Whether he’s happy with a first round exit, however, remains to be seen. As for adjustments, doing a better job in transition defense is a must. Beyond that, going to Aldridge in the post early in hopes of getting JaVale McGee in foul trouble would be smart. Other than that, the Spurs need to hope that LeBron remains in distributor mode and doesn’t take advantage of the fact that they have no one who can stop him.
Barrington: LeBron is the best player on the planet, but the Lakers are a circus right now. I really think they should do pre-game introductions with the players all bailing out of a tiny car on the court instead of coming out of the locker room. I mean, there’s some talent there, but there’s basically zero coherence. I suspect, with the way that the contracts are structured that they’re treating this year as a throwaway, and planning to blow it all up next summer and add more superstars, including a certain guy who wears #2. But you can’t rule out the possibility that Magic Johnson is crazy, and nobody else in the Lakers organization had the guts to stop him from putting together one of the most ridiculous lineups in the history of the league.
Wilco: James to L.A. surprised me over the summer almost as much as competent Forbes has to the begin the season. I was supremely confident that he’d never leave the East as long as he was guaranteed annual trips to The Finals. But since he’s chosen his latest team less for talent than locale, he’ll get his share of losing. If he can drag these Lakers to the playoffs, I’ll consider it the second-greatest thing he’s ever done. (First is getting a championship for Cleveland — and against GSW, no less.)
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