We’ve already analyzed how DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl could fit in San Antonio. Now it’s time to do the same for Marco Belinelli and Dante Cunningham. The two free agent additions have not gotten much attention but could play a huge part on this year’s team.
Both players have their flaws, but they also bring skills that could really help the Spurs as long as they are used properly. Let’s take a look.
Belinelli’s ability to shoot on the move gives the Spurs a different dimension
San Antonio’s lack of three-point shooting was a huge problem last season. They not only took too few but also missed an uncharacteristically high percentage. It’s hard to build an efficient offense while ranking in the bottom five in both attempts and three-point field goal percentage. Ideally, they’ll get both numbers up next season.
Belinelli should help greatly, and not just because of his career average of 38 percent behind the arc. He can shoot on the move coming off screens and occasionally make shots off the bounce. Those two skills were seriously lacking in last season’s squad. Belinelli ranked in the 85 percentile when scoring off screens, better than everyone on last year’s team except for Davis Bertans — and Belinelli had way more attempts than the Latvian forward. He also shot 37 percent on pull-up three-pointers, a mark that only Patty Mills eclipsed last year.
Marco is also able to create his own looks in a pinch, either by pulling up or using a screen to get open. The Spurs didn’t have a lot of ways of creating open spot-up three-pointers in 2017-18. LaMarcus Aldridge is not good at it, partially because of the spots he occupies on the court. There won’t be a ton of dribble penetration, unless Dejounte Murray takes a gigantic step forward. DeRozan’s addition should help, as he’s been good about finding three-point shooters, but he won’t move the needle much on his own.
The Spurs needed a guy who could not only shoot but do so from all over the floor and without having to be set up perfectly; a guy that could get open on his own through off-ball movement and bail out possessions with a pull-up. Belinelli fits the bill.
Dante Cunningham could be the glue guy the Spurs have been lacking in the front court
The Spurs’ big man rotation was a weakness last season. While past iterations have featured do-it-all backups bigs like David Lee and Boris Diaw or physical players like David West and Dewayne Dedmon, last season Gregg Popovich had to rely almost exclusively on Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge whenever he wanted to use a traditional two-big unit. Joffrey Lauvergne simply wasn’t good enough to provide rotation minutes and the rest of the players who spent time next to a center were combo forwards. The Spurs lacked versatility up front.
Dante Cunningham could change that dynamic. The 31-year-old veteran is not particularly good at any one thing, but he can handle several tasks at a high enough level to be an asset in the right lineups. He’s the type of player that won’t make a big impact on his own but can handle himself well enough to allow his teammates to shine.
If he’s paired with Aldridge, Cunningham should be able to space the floor by standing in the corner on offense, where he shot 37 percent last season, while being interchangeable on defense against most opponents. If he’s next to Gasol, he could do the dirty work while Pau takes on a bigger offensive role, then chase the opponents’ most mobile big man so that Gasol doesn’t have to. In small lineups in which he plays center (like he did late last season in Brooklyn) San Antonio should be able to respectably switch most screens on defense, while having a supercharged offense in which no one is clogging the paint or demanding inside touches.
Cunningham is not talented enough to regularly carry the action on either end, but his presence gives Pop more options in the front court. The Spurs have lacked a well-rounded big man rotation recently. This year, that shouldn’t be the case.
Neither is a solution at backup small forward, but both can help in shot bursts
The Spurs have a huge hole at backup small forward. Rudy Gay will likely start. Beyond him, there’s no one who is a natural fit for the position. Belinelli and Cunningham could give Pop some minutes at that spot, but only: a) against the right matchups, and b) in short bursts.
In an ideal world, Belinelli would largely defend spot up shooters his size. Bigger players who can score regularly destroy Marco, as Jayson Tautm showed in last year’s playoffs. But if the opponent doesn’t have a scoring threat at the wing, the Spurs might get away with playing Belinelli there for short stretches. The upside of doing so is that it would allow Pop to play an extra shooter and playmaker. The 76ers were really good at scoring with Marco at small forward in the regular season. So could the Spurs. As long as the team doesn’t actually rely on him to take heavy minutes at that spot against good scorers, he can play some minutes there.
Cunningham can also spend some time at the three, although it’s clearly not his best position. His inability to shoot makes him a tough player to slot on the perimeter unless he shares the court with four other three-point threats. The Spurs can’t really do that, so he should only be an emergency sub when the team needs size and defense at small forward. He played that role in New Orleans at times, and had decent results on the defensive end and on the boards. He’s not quick enough to be a stopper, but he can hold the fort against bigger wings for a few possessions. He could be a lesser version of P.J. Tucker in that role.
The Spurs didn’t use their resources in free agency to address the lack of a backup small forward, but the players they brought in could help them mask it until they have a better solution.
Despite not making any flashy additions in free agency, the Spurs accomplished something noteworthy: in Belinelli and Cunningham, they signed a couple of players who should help make them a more well-rounded team.