Just like any other coach, Gregg Popovich has his weaknesses. His ability to maximize the talent of his players is clearly not one of them. He’s proved it over the years, turning limited prospects and journeymen into valuable contributors.
That’s why it’s so surprising that he never found a way to make the most out of Davis Bertans. In his two seasons with the Spurs, the Latvian sharpshooter has had good stretches, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that he could be doing more.
As he’s about to enter restricted free agency, it’s something to consider. If the Spurs simply want a shooting big man, they might find better options in the market. If they are committed to fully unlocking Bertans’ offensive skills, however, they would be foolish not to bring him back.
The Spurs use Bertans mainly as a floor spacer. Shooters of his caliber help even when they don’t touch the ball. Opponents have to account for him at all times. He often enters the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge in the post and stays in the strong side, keeping a defender tethered to him. When he’s on the court he also allows non-shooters like Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson to occupy the dunker spot, which helps hide their lack of shooting and leverage their offensive rebounding while maintaining floor balance. Bertans’ mere presence serves a purpose, even when he doesn’t shoot.
Fortunately, he doesn’t settle for that passive role. He’s assertive when looking for his shot. In his rookie season Bertans actually tried too hard get involved, often moving constantly without much direction, occasionally running into other cutters. Now he’s settled a bit and mostly tries to set screens early on the clock, move around the arc when he’s spotting up around a post up or drift to the perimeter to make himself available for kickout passes after drives. Thanks to his aggressiveness, the Spurs’ lack of other shooting options and the garbage time minutes he plays, Bertans gets enough shots.
So Bertans does help with spacing and does take and make threes. Clearly his talent is not completely squandered. Yet both in his time overseas and for stretches in his young NBA career, he’s showed he has the potential to do more.
Back in Europe, Bertans was not used simply as a standstill shooter, but as a threat coming off screens. Some of the plays run for him involved complex routes, some were straightforward and mostly relied on his quick, high release. Since he’s not an off the dribble threat, that was a way of making sure he got touches and put pressure on the defense. NBA teams use their elite shooters this way, too. JJ Redick, Kyle Korver, Wayne Ellington and Bojan Bogdanovic are just some examples of players with little off the bounce juice who are still valuable to an offense thanks not only to their shooting but the attention their off ball movement commands.
The Spurs have rarely tried using Bertans in that same way. In the few occasions in which they have, the results have been terrific. Bertans ranked in the 90th percentile as a rookie and in the 99th percentile last season on off screen plays, according to Synergy Sports data. Those numbers probably wouldn’t hold on more attempts, but there’s no reason to think they would plummet either. He’s showed himself to be a proficient shooter on the move. And since Bertans is often guarded by power forwards who might have trouble keeping up with him, even if he doesn’t get a shot up, he might force a switch.
While the lack of opportunities for Bertans as a shooter off screens seemingly stems from a lack of trust from Pop, the other area in which the Spurs have failed to use Bertans to his full potential is systemic in nature.
Bertans is built to thrive on a running team. He’s really good at either filling a lane or trailing the play for an open outside look. While it’s often hard for him to be an effective finisher near the rim in the half court, his athleticism allows him to do a better job before the defense is settled. With the shot clock between 22 and 18 seconds, his field goal percentage is 58 percent, despite only shooting 36 percent on three-pointers. He also rarely turns the ball over in transition despite being unselfish enough to make the extra pass.
Unfortunately, the Spurs are not a team that emphasizes running. They finished second to last in the league in pace and 22nd in fastbreak points last season. They had over 1,000 possessions ending in the post, over 100 more than the team with the second most. They need time to set those up. San Antonio’s current identity is that of a purposefully slow, post-oriented team that runs when it can but doesn’t hunt early shots. It makes sense for them, considering their roster, but it limits the impact of the few players they have that could actually excel on a faster team.
As mentioned, Bertans can still be of use on a slow-paced, methodical, almost robotic old-school offense. The Spurs scored at about the same rate when he was on the court as they did when he was off. They did slightly better on defense. As a change of pace option off the bench in limited minutes, he proved valuable. He was cheap enough to be an asset even in that small role. Since he’ll be a restricted free agent, he could continue to be on a new deal. If Pop wants a bench shooter who spaces the floor and largely stays out of the way otherwise, he could continue to mold Bertans to be that player.
Yet it would be a shame to see the Spurs settle for an unrealized version of Bertans instead of trying to unlock his entire skill set. Especially when doing so would simply involve introducing a few modern traits to an offense that clearly needs some tweaks.
If Bertans is in San Antonio next season, hopefully he’ll get an opportunity to show off his ability to shoot on the move and will play with some lineups that push the pace. If he isn’t, both he and the Spurs will fail to reach their full potential.