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The State of the Spurs at the close of October

For Halloween, up is down, left is right, and the Spurs are the worst defensive team in the NBA..

Los Angeles Lakers v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

It’s All Hallows’ Eve and the Spurs have done some tricking and treating of their own. There isn’t a Spurs fan — living or undead — who wouldn’t keep this year’s DeMar DeRozan over last year’s Kawhi Leonard. But with 3 significant injuries to the Spurs line-up, no one could have predicted the viability of Bryn Forbes as a starter and the Spurs ability to turn a 30th ranked defense into a winning team.

The Spurs upset the new-look Lakers twice in the last week, hopefully erasing a dismal outing against the Indiana Pacers. And with a second overtime win in a week, the latest against the Dallas Mavericks, things look to be setting up nicely for the Silver & Black. But hidden in every treat of a win is a trick waiting to spurn the squad’s best efforts. With teams like the Houston Rockets and OKC Thunder sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference, things are not as they normally appear. Be afraid, be very afraid.

This week PtR contributors Bruno Mars, Jesus of Nazareth, Marilyn Monroe, Marky Mark, and editor-in-chief Who shot J.R.? discuss the the starting line-up, last place defensive ratings, and the current standing in the Western Conference as the month of October comes to an end.

The Spurs have now played two games against the LeBron James Lakers that have gone down to the wire. Were those two close, exciting match-ups enough to reignite the rivalry between the franchises?

Bruno “Mars” Passos: Everything about that Lakers team except LeBron feels transient right now, and it’s a little hard to build bad blood against a roster that will probably be dramatically different next July. That said, the Lakers are relevant again, and the Spurs should be hanging around the periphery of the NBA consciousness, as well, and the mere fact that these games matter once again for both teams should do plenty to bring the rivalry back.

Jesus “of Nazareth” Gomez: I’m not sure we are there yet, but those two games were a good start. With the Spurs and the Lakers at around the same level of talent and with the same goals, those games meant something. The two teams will also meet twice once again in a short time span on Dec. 5 and Dec. 7 in a home-and-home. If those match-ups are close and exciting, the rivalry could be reignited. If the Lakers then pick up a certain free agent to be from the Toronto Raptors next summer, things could get heated next season.

Mark“y Mark” Barrington: It’s funny that the Lakers swept the Spurs last year with a much less talented roster, and the Spurs are 2-0 against the reconstructed team this year. I think that while they’re better this year, it’s a more favorable matchup for the Spurs, especially since Ingram has been out so far, which limits their athleticism. Also, this year’s Spurs are in a more positive mindset, because they don’t have the specter of a disgruntled superstar hanging over everything they do, like an angry ghost in a haunted mansion (Halloween themed content, folks). But I don’t think it’s a rivalry any more than any other matchup with any team in the middle of the pack struggling to make the playoffs. These are the kinds of games that are going to be close and fun to watch, but it’s not a rivalry.

Marilyn “Monroe” Dubinski: Seeing the Spurs and Lakers playing so tight in “high stakes” games — it might be early, but these could very well be match-ups that decide who does and doesn’t go to the playoffs, and the Spurs have already avoided losing the first tie-breaker — does bring back some “noughties” nostalgia. (Just learned that term last week, and it’s my new favorite word!) Beyond that, there isn’t much current bad blood between the two teams at the moment. It’s just a shame all the match-ups are so early. A late season game with playoff implications on the line really would have gotten things riled up. I think the rivalry will be re-ignited eventually, but this season’s schedule-makers didn’t do it any favors.

J. R. “Ewing” Wilco: For it to be a rivalry, don’t both teams have to win?

Spurs are dead last in defensive rating in the NBA but are winning games. By comparison, the Oklahoma Thunder have the 12th ranked defensive rating and (as of 10/28) have not won a game. How important is defense in this high-scoring evolution of the NBA?

Passos: Well, the Thunder also have by far (as of Sunday night) the worst-ranked offense in the NBA, so it’s still mostly about how those net ratings shake out. While teams are putting more points on the board, the ratings of the top defenses teams thus far are fairly comparable to years past, meaning that a lack of defensive emphasis isn’t really to blame for the early-season scoring bonanza.

Gomez: It remains important. The league is teeming with talent and teams are smart about shot selection and pace now, so scoring will be up. I think having a good offense will be a requirement to contend. But having a good, versatile defense that can get stops when needed will always play a huge part in getting deep into the playoffs.

Barrington: Oklahoma’s problem isn’t defense or offense, it’s that Westbrook takes over at the end of games and is . . . not clutch. In the couple of games that I’ve watched, he’s gone into hero mode, and not the good kind of hero. But to answer the question, defense is going to be somewhat de-emphasized this year, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not important. You still need to get some key stops to win games, but nobody is going to be shut down. What’s extremely important is that you can score points off your defense by converting turnovers and blocks into easy points. The Spurs have been terrible on the fast break so far this year, but they’re still managing to win games. If they can start to run better, they will win more.

Dubinski: Previous seasons have shown that elite enough offense can get even the worst defensive teams into the playoffs, but the fact still stands that defense wins championships. Unlike last year, the Spurs have enough offensive fire power that they don’t have to rely almost entirely on elite defense to win games. I expect as they continue to gel and get healthier, the defense will improve. If they can get to being a top-20 defense while maintaining a top-10 offense in today’s NBA, that makes them at least playoff-worthy.

Wilco: The NBA’s pendulum continually swings between offense and defense. In the 90’s, defense dominated, but thing’s have been moving toward offense for a while, but the most recent rule changes have made it as obvious as can be. We are currently in an era of scoring, and that means that even the best defenses will struggle to get stops the way they’re used to.

Bryn Forbes has now served as starting point guard in all of the Spurs’ regular season games. He’s averaging 15 ppg, 2.2 assists, and grabbing 1 steal per game. Has he earned the starting spot over Derrick White while Dejounte Murray is out?

Passos: For now, yes. Let Derrick White ease back into things, play with the starters later in games, and then see how those lineups work in comparison to the Forbes’ ones. There’s no sense in immediately relegating Forbes to the bench when he’s been one of your better players while simultaneously putting that pressure back on White to perform.

Gomez: I’d say yes. Forbes is a good fit on offense with the starters and has not been a complete disaster on defense. Since we don’t really know if White will be much better on at guarding point guards than Bryn is, I’d keep him in the bench where he could take minutes at every perimeter position. If Forbes begins to struggle, there’s always the possibility of going back to White as the starter later on.

Barrington: Essentially, he’s sharing ball handling duties with DeMar DeRozan, which has worked out well for both players. I’d like Derrick to play with the first unit some to give DeMar a little bit of a rest, but that doesn’t mean he should start immediately. As good as Bryn has been as a starter, I think he will be even better coming off the bench, and I look forward to seeing him getting lots of open shots against second-tier talent when White retakes the starting job for good a couple of weeks after he comes back.

Dubinski: If he maintains his current level of play, we’re starting to reach “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” territory. He’s been steady in limited ball-handling duties, and without the ball he has been able to keep the offense spread out and give room for Aldridge and DeRozan to operate by hitting his threes at an elite level. He as also shown some new flare in his offensive game with some driving ability. As things stand now, White might even work better with the bench since they need more help on defense and don’t have a true ball-handler. Unless he falls off a cliff, I’m all for keeping Forbes with starters for now while easing White back into things.

Wilco: Whenever a player is injured, there’s a possibility that he’ll lose his position forever if the team plays well while he’s recovering. If the Spurs continue to win with Bryn, then I can see Pop wanting to leave the starting lineup alone — which leaves White outside looking in. The point is winning, so I’d be good with one of the Monstars starting as long as the W’s keep piling up.

LaMarcus Aldridge’s blocks and rebounds are up, but he has only scored more than 20 points in two out of five games and his field goal percentage is the worst of his career. Is he in a slump, has his role changed or is his age beginning to show?

Passos: He’s back to number two in the offensive pecking order, but I think he has a primary option now who’s far more focused on and capable of getting him touches than, say, Leonard. That’s not a knock on him — just that DeRozan right now is a more natural facilitator who should look to get Aldridge his fair share of touches and keep him engaged on that end of the floor. I don’t think he’s a different player than the guy who carried this team for much of last season, and I’m sure he’ll have plenty of impressive offensive showings as the year goes on.

Gomez: DeRozan’s arrival has changed his role. The Spurs now have someone who can initiate offense from the perimeter and either score by himself or find the open man, so Aldridge is not asked to carry the offense. The absence of shooters has also made life hard for LA. Opponents are packing the paint and even doubling him to force him to get rid of the ball. It wouldn’t shock me to see him averaging under 20 points a game this season. As long as he keeps rebounding and defending like he has so far, I’m fine with that.

Barrington: He’s been double and triple teamed. That happened a lot last year, too, but there weren’t any other places For the Spurs to go on offense, and he did a great job of grinding out points and fouls. This year, the offense is a little bit (a lot, actually) more free-flowing, and he can give the ball to DeMar and other guys like Bryn to get scoring opportunities. As the season goes on, teams will have to back off on the double teams as the chemistry improves with the rest of the team, and LaMarcus will get his opportunities to score. I don’t think he’s going to get quite as many as last year, but it will be enough to land him in the All Star game again this year.

Dubinski: It’s way too early to tell if he’s in decline, and in other aspects of his game he definitely isn’t. He has still been playing very aggressively and appears to be in excellent shape. Beyond that, it’s a new system, and he has an entirely new set of starters around him (literally — even Pau Gasol hasn’t started yet). It will take some time to get used to. That being said, I appreciate that he is exerting his effort on defense, where the Spurs are in most need right now. The offense will come, and he’s not under the same amount of pressure to produce on that end as he was last year. When the Spurs really need him, he’ll step up.

Wilco: He’s missed some shots that normally go down for him. It happened last year for a stretch, and it’s only been six games, so I’m not worried — definitely not when he’s working as hard as he has been. He’s a tough guy who’s proving that he’s mentally tough too. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.

If the playoffs started tomorrow the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets, and Oklahoma City Thunder would all be on vacation. What is your take on the slow start for these teams with MVP players?

Passos: My take is mostly that it’s early and smart, elite players generally figure things out. But the three teams are in fairly different situations. The Rockets should be fine, even if they’re clearly not as good as they were last year. The Lakers should also improve, although I’m not convinced LeBron is ready to dig in and push his body in year one in LA. The Thunder need to get Roberson back — they have an oddly balanced roster, like the Spurs, but without the coaching mind to make it all work — and should be trouble once they’re at full strength.

Gomez: Well, their MVP-caliber players have not performed at that level. LeBron tends to start slow and that has been the case in Los Angeles. He has not taken over games consistently on both ends like he can. Westbrook was hurt for the first two games and then lost the Thunder their matchup against the Celtics with boneheaded late execution. Chris Paul missed two games for fighting Rondo and is turning the ball over at a career-high level. Even teams that have two stars need both to do well and at this point, at least one of the standouts is struggling. Once that changes, those teams will start looking better.

Barrington: The Rockets and Thunder will be fine. The Rockets lost some key contributors, so they aren’t as good as they were last year, but they’re probably still second in the west. The Thunder are less than the sum of their parts but the parts are still too good for them to be actually bad, and they will be a mid-level playoff team this year. The Lakers are interesting this year. I think the key for them might be Lance Stephenson. He has incredible talent, but he’s also a headcase. If he can play well and not do something incredibly stupid, they’ll do really well. If he does something really stupid, it could end up being a weird year for them, and they miss the playoffs. In any case, he and Rondo are gone after this year, so it’s going to be strange for them, as it seems they’re betting everything on free agency next summer.

Dubinski: I was and remain unconvinced that LeBron will lead this group of Lakers to the playoffs in his first year anyway, if only because the West is so stacked, so that isn’t too surprising. Russell Westbrook missed their first two games with a knee issue, and unpredictable as he is (he’s already been his typical roller-coaster self), he’s still their MVP. The Rockets’ slow start probably surprises me the most (although again: it’s super early), but between “Spitgate”, Harden now dealing with a hamstring strain, and all of their losses coming against currently “playoff-bound” teams, they at least have an excuse. I expect them to get back on track soon.

Wilco: I think it couldn’t happen to a nicer group of teams. Here’s to them all staying where they are currently.

Do you have a question for the panel? Or join in the conversation. Feel free to post in the comments.