Inspired by Jeph Duarte’s invitation to help construct New Year’s resolutions for the Spurs as we enter 2019, I decided to create my own for each player, with the caveat that I’m taking a decidedly positive approach. Each player will get one sustain: a thing that is going well, and an improve: a thing that maybe isn’t going so well and how they or the team could do it better.
Without further ado, here we go.
Lonnie Walker IV, #1
Sustain: Lonnie is a tantalizing wing prospect who’s already showing promise. While many want to see him called up to the show immediately, he has shown patience and maturity beyond his years. His willingness to buy into the program is a great sign that along with Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Bryn Forbes, the Spurs’ back-court rotation will continue to be among the league’s best for years to come.
Improve: While Lonnie’s on-ball defense is already outstanding, he isn’t nearly as impactful as he could be off the ball. That’s not surprising at all for such a young player, but it is noticeable. Fortunately, he seems to recognize when he’s made a mistake, so this is likely high on his own list of priorities. It’s also likely one of the reasons he hasn’t gotten any run with the big club just yet, as that type of discipline and awareness is a prerequisite for success in San Antonio.
Quincy Pondexter, #3
Sustain: QPon’s return to the league is nothing short of inspirational. That he’s able to contribute on a team that’s playing so well after those trials and tribulations must be rewarding. For the Spurs, the timing of his arrival coinciding with the decimation of its guard corps from injury was extremely fortuitous, though. Alongside Rudy Gay, the team has two excellent examples of what it takes to rehab from serious injury, a process far more challenging for athletes than most realize. While QPon has played only 95 minutes outside garbage time so far this season per Cleaning the Glass (CTG), his value extends well beyond his plus/minus.
Improve: He’s played 30% of his non-garbage time minutes at PF so far this year, and they haven’t gone well, with the team getting outscored by nearly 30 points per 100 possessions over that time, per CTG. As the team has transitioned to playing only 1 true big for most of the time, having another wing who can soak up minutes at the 4, alongside Rudy Gay, Davis Bertans, and Dante Cunningham, would be valuable. But Quincy doesn’t appear to bring much value in that role, and at only 6’6” with much less athleticism than he once had, it’s unlikely he’ll improve much. Barring injuries that force their hand, when Quincy’s on the floor, he should be playing alongside two bigger players.
Derrick White, #4
Sustain: With Derrick on the floor this season, the Spurs’ defense is 4.4 points per 100 possessions better. That’s especially impressive considering he started his first 5 games back from injury in a lineup that got blown off the floor (Derrick, Bryn, DeMar DeRozan, Dante, and LaMarcus Aldridge), giving up 114.1 points per 100 possessions. Since reentering the starting lineup on December 9th against the Jazz, Derrick leads the team in steals, and is 2nd in blocks behind only LaMarcus. He also sports the team’s best +/-, with a +137 over 318 minutes through those 12 games. He disrupts the other team’s offense without giving up easy bucket’s while generating turnovers and easy opportunities for the Spurs.
Improve: Derrick can’t get a foul call to save his life. Whether it’s getting run over by James Harden, or run over by Kyrie Irving, Derrick has made a habit of forcing the refs to make tough calls. It’s unfortunate to consider it this way, but he just needs to stick with it. Once he develops a reputation in the league as a tough defender with good timing, he’ll get more of those 50-50 calls (the Irving one was understandable, but I still can’t believe Harden didn’t get called for an offensive foul). The more he does it, the more he’ll get the calls. That said, he leads the team in charges drawn this season, so this should be an easy resolution to keep.
Dejounte Murray, #5
Sustain: Everything. The Spurs’ perfect son just needs to keep his nose to the grindstone and get back as healthy as possible for next year.
Improve: Keep working on that jumper. It had a pretty wet look to it in the preseason, but there’s always room for improvement.
Chimezie Metu, #7
Sustain: Chimezie’s unique physical abilities make him a rarity on the Spurs’ roster. While the secret to success for most of their players is starring in their roles, even defining what Chimezie is and/or could be is extremely difficult. Is he an undersized big who needs to develop into an elite roll man with much better touch around the rim to survive? Or is he a wing with a ton of skill development ahead of him before he can contribute at the NBA level? The answer is: who cares? Being different is fine, and that he’s different makes Chimezie a fascinating potential pivot point for the franchise. If they hit the jackpot, he’s both a wing and a big, with enough quickness and length to switch across all 5 positions on defense. Rather than try to fit into a mold, he should continue splitting time between Austin and San Antonio while he develops the full breadth of his game.
Improve: See above.
Patty Mills, #8
Sustain: The team’s captain brings A+ effort every single night. He might be the world’s best towel waver, but he’s also a deadly shooter who can run the offense. More importantly, despite knowing that Bryn and Derrick are playing him out of a job, he’s still their biggest fan. Watching him spring up out of his seat with every made three, every steal and every block to celebrate the contributions of his replacements is to watch a player who is completely over himself, as Coach Pop likes to say. When the vets set that kind of example, the whole team tends to fall in line, and without the Big 3 around to continue providing that leadership, Patty is doing a wonderful job.
Improve: Patty has played best at shooting guard this year, but he’s only spent 17% of his minutes there so far. That’s obviously due to the team’s injuries, but finding a way to get him on the court alongside Derrick White for a few minutes every game would help immensely. The team has a net rating of +16.5 with the two on the court, which is Patty’s best two-player pairing and Derrick’s second-best. That’s obviously difficult with Patty functioning as the team’s backup point guard, but with DeMar spending a lot of time orchestrating the offense in bench-heavy lineups, it should be feasible.
DeMar DeRozan, #10
Sustain: DeMar impacts every game in numerous ways. When his shot is falling, he’s the team’s best scorer and a nearly unstoppable force on the offensive end. When it’s not, he moves the ball quickly or leverages his penetration and post-up skills to compromise the defense and create open shooters for his teammates. His masterful 13-point performance against the Celtics was a great example. His 10 assists and 3 secondary assists in that game accounted for another 34 points, which, with LaMarcus cooking, was exactly what the team needed from him that night.
Improve: DeMar’s defense has already come a long way from his days in Toronto. Plagued by inattentiveness and a seemingly lack of effort at times, his defensive shortcomings frequently wiped away the value he provided on the offensive end. Slowly but surely, the Spurs have erased many of his bad habits. Over the last month, along with the rest of the team’s defense, DeMar is hitting rotations on time, helping when and where he’s supposed to, and fighting his way back into plays. DeMar’s defensive chops may well be closely tied to the team’s ceiling this year. They’ll only go as far as he can take them, should they make the playoffs and their opponents choose to target him as has previously been the case.
Bryn Forbes, #11
Sustain: Sparty is a flame-thrower. His shooting motion is half poetry and half instructional manual. That’s all well and good, but what’s really great about Bryn this year is the improvement in his off-the-bounce skills. He’s already made nearly as many shots at the rim this year as he attempted all last season, per CTG. The extra dimension his dribble-drive game adds to the team’s offense is a game-changer. When you can’t close out hard to one of the best shooters in the league, problems ensue.
Improve: Bryn’s shooting 39.4% on pull up threes. Three players have taken as many threes as he has and made a better %: Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Steph Curry. Let it fly, Bryn. There’s no reason to be only taking 1.5 pull threes per game when you’re hitting that often.
LaMarcus Aldridge, #12
Sustain: LaMarcus has gone full-on beast mode since Thanksgiving.
LA's pre- and post-Thanksgiving splits remain ridiculous pic.twitter.com/9q4NpsKsjY— Bruno Passos (@bouncepassos) December 30, 2018
He should continue to make all of the shots that he takes. I predict the Spurs will win a lot of games if he does.
Improve: LaMarcus is oddly passive at times. He’ll throw a shoulder into some pseudo power forward who would’ve been a big shooting guard 15 years ago, feel a little resistance, and turn over his right shoulder for that pretty fade-away. When it’s falling, everything’s fine. When it’s not, he needs to attack. When he’s aggressive, there are only a handful of bigs in the league who can stand up to him. Poor Daniel Theis got an up close and personal look at what a handful LaMarcus can be just the other night.
Pau Gasol, #16
Sustain: As the team’s elder statesmen, Pau occupies an interesting position. He’s a former All-NBA player and a two-time champion who can clearly still help a lot of teams, but he also plays the same position as the team’s young Austrian, who has come into his own over the last month. As Pau returns to the floor after rehabbing from a foot injury, his ability to find ways to help the team without needing a ton of playing time will be crucial. The good news is Pau’s never been about ego, having excelled playing in the crucible of Lakerland alongside Kobe Bryant. He’s also still incredibly talented with elite passing, an innate understanding of spacing and angles, and range out to the 3 point line — all aspects that set him apart from the team’s other bigs. If anybody can make it work, it’s Pau.
Improve: There’s simply no reason for his brother Marc to have good games against the Spurs. They play the Grizzlies twice in the next week, and Pau needs to take him out for big meal, drink a bunch of wine, then ditch him an hour outside of town. You know, typical big brother stuff. Come on, Pau, be a team player.
Marco Belinelli, #18
Sustain: Marco induces a sort of shared exasperation in everyone who watches him play. Whether a teammate, an opposing player, or a fan of either team, watching Marco pull up from the worst spots, while leaning forward and floating to the side is a moment of shared apprehension. Nobody but Marco and the guy defending him actually believe he’s going to hit the shot, even after watching him do it hundreds of times. Marco shoots with the same conscience Manu Ginobili brought to his floor game, and to paraphrase Manu’s famous line to Coach Pop: this is Marco, this is what he does.
Improve: If Marco’s typical shot profile is enough to make your high school basketball coach queasy, the shots he takes after he’s made a couple in a row would cause instant ulcers. As much as that unconscionable confidence has to do with his success, toning down his worst impulses would give the Spurs another possession to work with in those games. Of course, given how well their offense has scored this year, when Marco’s going off they probably don’t need that extra possession all that badly.
Rudy Gay, #22
Sustain: Rudy’s playing the best two-way basketball of his career.
If you're of the mind that Rudy Gay is playing the best basketball of his career this year, here's some evidence for you courtesy of PIPM (ty @JacobEGoldstein) pic.twitter.com/crfSAvOBmf— CharlieOCharles (@CharlieOCharles) January 3, 2019
His health is critical to this team. He has the highest Real Plus-Minus on the team and the highest Player Impact Plus-Minus. More importantly, he presents a match-up problem. Put a traditional big on him and he’ll eviscerate them off the dribble. Try a normal wing and Rudy will drag him down into the torture chamber and feast on dunks, layups, and virtually uncontested 8-footers. Having a healthy Rudy Gay as the team’s third option has turned out to be a nightmare for opposing defense. To that end, the team needs to continue managing Rudy’s bumps and bruises as cautiously as possible. Losing him for a game or three at a time is survivable, but in this Western conference, an extended absence might not be.
Improve: Be more careful, for Tim’s sake. In fact, take a page out of Timmy’s book and never do anything even remotely dangerous again, unless there’s a playoff game on the line.
Jakob Poeltl, #25
Sustain: Jakob’s growth so far this season has been remarkable. After a decidedly underwhelming start to the season, his developmental curve has shot right by expectations and has him looking like a viable starting center in the very near future.
Extrapolating from 3 data points is good math, so we can confidently say that at this rate he’ll be as good as the Admiral around this time next year.
Improve: Box out more, especially on the defensive end. With Jakob on the court, opponents grab more offensive rebounds and score more efficiently off those rebounds than they do when he’s off the court, per CTG. That’s unacceptable for a 7-footer as athletic as Jakob. The problem appears to be related to boxing out. Both LaMarcus and Pau box out on the defensive end more than 9 times per 36 minutes, but Jakob’s down close to 8. That doesn’t sound like much, but at over 1.2 points per play, cutting out even one potential put-back each game could move the Spurs’ defensive ranking up a couple of spots.
Dante Cunningham, #33
Sustain: Dante is the Spurs’ handy-man. He patches holes wherever they appear. Need somebody to defend LeBron James (good luck)? Dante’s your man. Need somebody to start when a teammate’s hurt or just had a baby? Dante’s got you. Need somebody to come in for 1 minute while you take advantage of teachable moment with one of your young players? Dante’s all over it. He’s a professional basketball player, and like with QPon, it’s hard to have too many of those around.
Improve: That said, the Spurs’ offense has struggled with Dante on the floor, scoring 12 fewer points per 100 possessions. Despite shooting 50% from three, opponents don’t respect his outside shot and help aggressively off him. He doesn’t help matters by frequently cutting to the rim, even when that space needs to be free to give DeMar or LaMarcus room to work. He needs to spend a little more time out at the three point line when he’s in and let it fly when he has an open look.
Davis Bertans, #42
Sustain: Davis is burning up the nets, so much so that he should seek a sponsorship from a basketball net manufacturer. (That’s probably a thing, right?) So far, he leads the league in 3-point % for all players who’ve taken over 100 attempts. After a rough November, he shot 57.1% from three in December, and hopefully he’ll carry that sniping into 2019.
Improve: His shooting, interior defense, and willingness to contest anything more than make up for it, but he still misses reads on defense from time to time, helping when he doesn’t need to and closing out incorrectly. These aren’t uncommon issues, but they can be a killer for a team like the Spurs that lacks defensive stars who can erase mistakes. Davis can do better, and most of the time he does. A little more consistency would go a long way towards getting him the minutes he needs for the Spurs offense to be its absolute best.
Most of all, the whole team needs to continue enjoying the game they’re playing together. There’s such a huge difference in how they look on the court and off from just a month ago. If they can keep it going, it’ll be a lot of fun seeing just how far they can take it in 2019.