The regular season is here. The Spurs are this close to their opening night against the Knicks. The real games are about to start, and the offseason will become a distant memory as soon as the the breakneck pace of the NBA kicks in.
That’s why we are taking one last look at what happened over the past few weeks, which could actually be helpful in predicting what will happen next. During the preseason we saw the Spurs improve from game to game while trying to figure out a rotation that works. New additions had to find their comfort level, while some holdovers saw their roles change. We got a glimpse as to what the 2019-20 version of the team will look like.
Before the season officially starts, PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos and Jesus Gomez join Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco to break down what happened during the sometimes confusing preseason period. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Which Spurs player impressed you the most in preseason?
Marilyn Dubinski: I have to give it to Bryn Forbes. As if all the videos over the offseason weren’t enough evidence, it’s obvious he’s been in the gym all summer. He appeared to be in the best game shape of anyone when the preseason started, leading them in the first few games before everyone else joined the party for the last couple of matches — and even in those last two wins when he wasn’t the focal point, he “quietly” averaged 13.5 points on 52.6% shooting. He’s quickly climbing the ladder towards greatest Spurs success story.
Mark Barrington: Bryn Forbes has looked ready to go from the first preseason game, and he adds new stuff to his game every year, so it’s easy to say he’s the most impressive. LaMarcus looked unstoppable in a game or two, but he wasn’t as consistent as Sparty.
Bruno Passos: Forbes was obviously excellent, but I’ll go with Dejounte Murray. Not only did the shot look real, but he looked far more comfortable as a creator, too. The latter is especially impressive given how far removed he was from playing actual organized basketball.
Jesus Gomez: I’m going with Bryn Forbes. The biggest reason why fans were not clamoring for White to start was probably Forbes’ play. He fits perfectly next to Murray and DeRozan as a gunner who doesn’t need the ball and defends well enough to stay on the court. At this point he’s proved that last season was not a flash in the pan and he’ll play a key role in keeping the starting lineup afloat on offense.
J.R. Wilco: I said it at the beginning of last season when Murray went down: it’ll all be worth it if he comes back in 2019-20 with a halfway decent mid-range jumper. Now that we’re through the preseason, I have to admit that his reconditioned shot might be even better than halfway decent. The defense is still there, but now there are also accurate pocket passes. As crazy as Forbes was in the games that don’t count, it’s DJ that I’m most excited about.
Derrick White and Dejounte Murray didn’t share the court in preseason. Do you expect that to continue in the regular season?
Dubinski: It makes sense that Pop would want to stagger them considering they bring similar attributes to the court (ball-handling, leadership, ability to drive and create for others, defense, etc), and it allows players like Forbes and Patty Mills to play off the ball where they are at their best (and not together, for the sake of the defense). That being said, I expect both White and Murray to eventually average more than 24 minutes per game (both were on their own versions of “load management” during the preseason), so eventually overlap will be inevitable. I also expect them share the floor in clutch defensive situations.
Barrington: Pretty much so. They both serve the same role when they’re on the floor, so playing both of them at the same time would be redundant. What I’m really excited about is that with Derrick going to the bench, it frees up Patty from the duty of bring the ball up the court and starting the offense, so that he can concentrate on being a pure scorer, which is a much more natural role for him.
Passos: Injuries and matchups throughout the season should make it happen one way or another, but I expect Pop to at least head into the first few months looking to get the two main units settled first. Still, count me among the surprised to not see a second of it in preseason. Sure, there are spacing concerns that exist in theory, but are they as bad as, say, the defensive issues of playing Mills, Forbes, and Belinelli at the same time?
Gomez: For the most part, yes. I explored this in depth, but essentially the two can’t really share the court if DeRozan is also on of the floor if the Spurs hope to have enough spacing on offense. I’m sure they will get some minutes together, but I expect them to spend most of their time apart, running their own units.
Wilco: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all these years of watching Pop work his magic, it’s this — what you see in preseason is what you’ll get. Barring TIMS (trade, injury, or a major shakeup) the platooning of DJ and Derrick will continue as a major factor this year. I’m not saying that they’ll never share the floor, but Spurs fans who (like me) were drooling over the idea of a backcourt White and Murray running roughshod over backcourts all year, get used to disappointment. (If either of them wakes up one morning and suddenly can’t miss from deep, all bets are off.)
DeMarre Carroll was the Spurs’ biggest free agent addition this summer. What did you think of his play in preseason?
Dubinski: He had one standout performance against the Pelicans, with 13 points and 4 rebounds, and while he’s still going through the usual growing pains all new Spurs do, he looks like the solid addition to the forward rotation the Spurs were looking for. The one oddity was seeing him share the floor with Rudy Gay so much since neither started. It’s not a bad pairing, just unexpected. If Pop keeps starting “small”, I expect one of them to eventually get the starting PF spot.
Barrington: He didn’t look all that comfortable in his role in the preseason, but that’s pretty understandable because Pop’s system takes time to learn. I think he’ll be fine by midseason.
Passos: He’s a willing three-point shooter who looked comfortable in the quick-twitch, pass-happy second unit, which is all I could really take away from preseason play. I don’t know if he shores up the team’s defensive weakness against bigger wings, but I like his odds of finding a set role better than, say, Dante Cunningham last year.
Gomez: He looked like DeMarre Carroll: a smart veteran who can defend and shoot well and will move the ball. He’s not flashy in any way and he was a little lost at times, for understandable reasons, but he didn’t stand out in a bad way. Preseason is not the time in which a player like him is expected to shine, anyway. Hopefully when the games counts, his impact will be bigger.
Wilco: Worst case scenario, he’ll be fine. I’ve decided to reserve judgement until I see him get comfortable in the system. Until he does, then I’m saving myself a prime seat on his bandwagon.
In the last few games Trey Lyles started next to LaMarcus Aldridge. Do you expect that to be the starting big man pairing on opening night and going forward?
Dubinski: While I hope it’s a sign that Pop won’t always start Jakob Poeltl, I would be somewhat baffled if Lyles maintains that spot over Gay or Carroll. While he showed some promise in his starts, he was also hesitant to shoot, which is not something the starting unit needs. I know he’s coming off a bout of pneumonia, so that may have played a role, and combined with Gay nursing a sore hamstring I can see why Pop started Lyles to get him going, but I don’t see him maintaining that role in the long term.
Barrington: I’m pretty unimpressed with Lyles so far. I think Pop was throwing him out there to see what he had, and maybe he’ll grow into the role. It’s not that he was bad, but you could hardly tell he was there, especially on offense. But then again, with Bertans gone and Marcus Morris never arriving, the Spurs have limited options at that role. I’ll say the same thing I said about Carroll, I think he’ll take some time to adjust to his role with the Spurs, and if he has what it takes, he should be fine by midseason. It remains to be seen whether Pop is going to be that patient with him.
Passos: I'm not sure it was any more than a chance to give regular reps for a guy who may not necessarily have a role carved out for him for the regular season. Lyles obviously has the potential to be a guy for this team, but I prefer Carroll or Gay as the starting 4 (when the team isn't going big-big), at least to begin the year.
Gomez: If the preseason version of Lyles is the one we are getting, I hope not. He was way too tentative on offense to be a fit with the starters and is not a good enough defender to make up for it on the other end. I understand that temptation to just play him for a few minutes to start each half to preserve the body of Rudy Gay, but he just doesn’t look like someone who should be in the rotation. If the Spurs want a nominal starting power forward to keep Gay on the bench, they might need to eventually make a trade.
Wilco: While I do love me some rabid speculation, weird lineups late in preseason games aren’t necessarily indicative of anything concrete . . . unless there’s nothing much to see from them. While the team definitely played better in the games Lyles started, I’m not convinced any of that is down to him. I’d be surprised if he gets any more prime time minutes early in the season.
It appears Gregg Popovich is leaning towards giving the last rotation spot to Marco Belinelli instead of Lonnie Walker IV. Do you agree with that decision?
Dubinski: Well, it has been said here that Walker still has to earn those minutes from Belinelli. While I would argue that he’s certainly working hard to do just that, it is equally true that Belinelli hasn’t “unearned” his playing time since he’s taking and making his shots, which is always a boon for this team. Walker may eventually start eating into his minutes, but it’s very Popovichian for him to go with his more trusted veteran early, especially with a pretty grueling opening schedule.
Barrington: I don’t think it’s helpful to think of Pop having a fixed rotation, because he seems to switch it up based on matchups. But, yeah, it looks like Marco is primed to take a majority of the minutes early. He honestly looked like himself in preseason, hitting Marco shots and missing Marco defensive rotations. The regular season is long, so I think there’s plenty of time for Lonnie to assert himself and prove to Pop that he deserves minutes on the court. I think he understands that as well as Marco does.
Passos: It makes sense for the time being, given what he brings in experience and shooting, but the goal has to be to find minutes for Walker whenever possible.
Gomez: I do, for now. Belinelli has a skill set that the team needs desperately at the moment. Having him out there will make it easy for the second unit to figure things out on offense, since it’s always better to have spacing and shot making on the floor. But part of me is hoping Walker IV will eventually force Pop to change the rotation by playing well whenever he gets a chance. If that happens, Marco could become an interesting trade piece at the deadline.
Wilco: I love Marco Belinelli and his leaning jumpers of Pisa, but I’d love to see LWIV out there as soon as it makes sense. But I’m certain that Pop won’t put him out there instead of Marco until he’s earned it, and a lot of that earning happens off the court. So I’ll just be patient. Time’s on Lonnie’s side for sure.