This was supposed to be Davis Bertans’ year. With some NBA experience under his belt, a new contract and the power forward position wide open, the Latvian sharpshooter was expected to have a big role.
So far that hasn’t happened. Bertans is excelling at the skill that got him a spot in the NBA — outside shooting — yet he’s still a bit player. Dante Cunningham has clearly leapfrogged him in the rotation and you could argue that Gregg Popovich has Quincy Pondexter higher on the depth chart at times. Now that a concussion is forcing Davis to miss time, he’ll likely slide even further.
Bertans is definitely partially to blame for losing ground to two journeymen even before this latest setback. He got off to a slow start and has been plagued by some familiar struggles. Yet on skill and upside alone he should have gotten every opportunity to make up the ground that he had lost. That didn’t happen.
Pop and Davis
It seems like the real reason he was fading from the rotation in the first place is that Pop simply doesn’t trust him — or even like his game. Unless something changes, Bertans and the Spurs don’t seem like a long term fit.
By now we know Bertans’ strengths and weaknesses on offense. He’s an elite shooter who doesn’t have the ball handling ability to attack the rim in traffic, but can hurt a scrambling defense when he pump fakes and attacks closeouts. Davis has always played to those strengths in the NBA, almost to a fault. This season he’s even focusing on making the extra pass as often as possible while keeping his turnovers in check. A guy that was used to having plays run for him to come off screens and who often took risks on offense in Europe has essentially become exactly what Pop wants in a role playing stretch big: a low usage, mistake-averse floor spacer. That transformation, however, has not translated into a steady role in which he can actually make a positive impact.
Shooters aren’t Featured in San Antonio
Part of it is the system. As we’ve seen with Danny Green, who struggled last season in San Antonio and has been killing it in Toronto, the Spurs’ offense is not all that accommodating to shooters. Pop hasn’t embraced running Bertans off screens to generate looks for him, or using him as a decoy. Instead, we can see Davis standing around making entry passes on the strong side or running constantly trying to get open on the weak side for an offense that is simply not looking for him. When he pump fakes and drives with conviction, good things tend to happen, but opponents can typically rotate away from a non-shooter and force him to pass the ball out. He should still try to get to the rim more on offense, but he seems terrified to make a mistake and get pulled from the game.
Despite those issues, Bertans is shooting 45 percent on three-pointers while launching over seven per 36 minutes. Even if he was resigned to be a unidimensional offensive player, Bertans has that dimension mastered. Any team should be able to find value in such a great shooter, no matter the system. So the only reason Bertans isn’t playing more has to be his defense.
The Fly in the Ointment
There’s some merit to Pop’s decision to go with other, more reliable defenders: the team is over three points better on that end without Bertans. Inconsistency is an issue at the individual level for Davis. It sometimes takes him a play or two to figure out how to guard someone, with great pull up shooters often exploiting his natural tendency to backpedal. He’s also an extremely conservative defender who doesn’t reach and doesn’t go for blocks as much as he used to, likely at the request of the coaching staff. Since he’s not disruptive, when he’s not containing and contesting he contributes little. Bertans is simply not the type of defender that can improve bad defensive lineups on his own. In fact, he often makes them worse. As Pop has tried to figure out the rotation amid a myriad of injuries, it’s understandable that he’s been apprehensive about throwing Davis out there.
Yet Bertans is not so bad on defense to the point of being unplayable. Far from it. He does the little things at the team level. Opponent points in transition and opponent free throw rate plummet when Davis is on the court, at least partially because of his presence. No one on the team runs back on defense as diligently as Bertans does and, after struggling to defend without bumping players in past years, he’s cut down his fouling. At his best, Bertans is also a decent individual defender. The Spurs typically have him switch screens on the perimeter, where he uses his length to avoid playing opponents too closely to stay in front of them. His lack of strength occasionally hurts him, as opponents go at his chest to get him out of position on drives, but he typically manages to contest without fouling.
The eye test is kinder to Bertans than the stats. Yet some of his numbers are so bad that they appear to be an anomaly. In his first two years in the league, the Spurs were better with him on the court than off, with the defense being particularly stingy with him playing. Some terrible individual numbers from this year seem primed for regression, too. Opponents are shooting 57 percent on three-pointers in which Bertans is the closest defender. (For comparison, the league leader in three-point shooting percentage, Joe Harris, is shooting under 53 percent.) Bertans is also posting the worst rim protection numbers of his young career despite looking much more polished in the way he contests shots near the basket. Those figures are bound to get at least a little better.
The Bottom Line
It still might not be enough to get Bertans a permanent spot in the rotation. Despite Cunningham’s severe limitations on offense, Pop seems determined to keep giving him steady playing time because of his solid defense. If Rudy Gay keeps coming off the bench, he might take some backup power forward minutes on lineups featuring three guards. As mentioned, even Pondexter has been getting minutes in units in which Bertans’ skill set would be useful. Davis appears to be headed back to a specialist role only once he returns. The Spurs clearly believed in him at one point, or they wouldn’t have re-signed him. But the leash has always been short with him, even with no apparent superior options available. That remains the case now.
It’s a little frustrating to realize that even in a time in which the status quo clearly isn’t working, Bertans won’t likely get 20 minutes a game once he’s back — even as an experiment. Though he seems like the type of player that could help any team with his shooting, if nothing else, it appears like there’s something about his game — about his weaknesses — that the coaching staff simply can’t look past.
Hopefully that will change going forward. Who knows, maybe this forced absence will be the catalyst that causes Pop to reassess, which would be fantastic. The Spurs don’t really owe Davis Bertans anything, but instead of assuming he’s not the type of player they need, it would be great if they at least gave him a real chance to prove to them that he might be.