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The Spurs are poised to defy convention, again

The Spurs will likely play a throwback style next season, and that’s not a bad thing.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The response to the Kawhi Leonard-DeMar DeRozan trade has been mostly positive for both sides of the deal, even if one emerges with no true sense of the superstar they’ve acquired (or for how long) and the other sits a tier or two below where it once was with said player in tow.

No one’s doubting the Raptors’ outlook on paper if all goes right. Leonard’s two-way brilliance fits seamlessly into any system, and a healthy return for him should have Toronto in a great position to get over the Eastern Conference Finals hump, especially with LeBron James in LA.

DeRozan’s fit in San Antonio has fallen under greater scrutiny, partly because of his aversion to three-pointers but mostly because of how that will look alongside another walking time capsule in LaMarcus Aldridge, who shares the same proclivity for contested long twos. Given their statistical profiles, it’s not surprising that the pair’s closest statistical analogues (according to Basketball Reference) are Bobby Jones and Fat Lever, who retired in 1986 and 1994, respectively. If the Raptors are launching themselves immediately into the shimmering, positionless future of NBA basketball, it would appear that the Spurs are taking a dubious step into its past.

But consider for a moment 2015-16’s 67-win squad, one that’s better remembered for its historically amazing defense (comfortably first that season in defensive rating at 96.6) than for its also-elite offense (third in the NBA with a 108.4 offensive rating). That group featured a younger Leonard — only then becoming proficient from deep — plus Aldridge, David West, a 39 year-old Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Boris Diaw. It finished second in the NBA in percentage of points from mid-range, behind only Carmelo Anthony’s Knicks, and 25th in three-point scoring. Yet, it bulldozed teams on both ends of the floor, producing a number of still-very-Spursy plays along the way:

Gregg Popovich won’t try to change DeRozan, just as he’s leaned into his other star’s strengths. The post-up game has been all but abandoned by the NBA, but the Spurs used it to great effectiveness last season (substantially tops in frequency, fifth in points per possession). There’s all the reason to think the Spurs are among the league leaders in two-point shots outside the painted area — the widely accepted no-man’s land of 2018 — again next season.

What the Spurs get in the All-NBA Second Team guard that they desperately needed last season is an off-the-dribble creator, one that takes the singular defensive attention off Aldridge, takes some of the playmaking burden from Patty Mills, Pau Gasol, and Dejounte Murray, and, yes, also takes those sub-optimal shots when the offense would otherwise be relying on someone like Danny Green or Kyle Anderson to improvise. The Beautiful Game’s worst-kept secret was that it not only took smarts and unselfish play to work — it also required top-end talent to break down defenses and create opportunities to attack close-outs. We saw the limits of a team lacking in those qualities in last season’s 17th-ranked offense.

DeRozan can get buckets, but he’s evolved into a terrific secondary creator, bumping his assists per game to over five last season. He’s an efficient scorer in the pick and roll who will command defensive attention, but who can also set up his teammates as the defense breaks down.

In forcing those collapses, he’ll also create looks for the Spurs’ three-point shooters. The Spurs finished 2017-18 in the bottom fifth in three-point percentage, a drop from first the year before not because of a lack of shooting ability on the roster, but because it didn’t have an elite perimeter player to create easy looks (along with, as I wrote here, the new roles that guys like Murray, Mills, and Gasol had to adopt on the fly). DeRozan will undoubtedly help, even if he’s not taking and making those threes himself.

The Spurs will still need to optimize the spacing with each lineup, since Murray and DeRozan aren’t an ideal pairing of shooters and Aldridge will need room to work inside. That can be somewhat shored up with off-ball movement and by making sure the other two pieces are shooters. Combine that with Pop typically erring towards familiarity and I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts the season with a starting lineup of Murray, Mills, DeRozan, Aldridge and Gasol, with a mind to explore more small ball as the season goes on.

At the one, Murray is a statistical outlier like no other. He’s coming off a sophomore season in which his defense and rebounding were leagues beyond his playmaking and shooting, two essential skills for a modern-day starting point guard. He’s already a net positive on the floor, but if he makes a stride in either of those areas this season, things get interesting for San Antonio.

Across the board, the 2018-19 Spurs will be throwbacks: Gay, like Aldridge and DeRozan, is a player from a bygone era who operates better in isolation; Gasol and (knocks on wood) Manu Ginobili are actually from a bygone era, and the squad as a whole will likely rank in the bottom-third in both pace and three-point rate, even if the latter percentage goes back up. For other teams, any of these might be viewed as a fundamental step backwards — in San Antonio, the past can offer a blueprint for how to move forward.