The Spurs ended their three-game homestand to start the season with a perfect record. They didn’t always look sharp but they still managed to get wins against inferior eastern opponents and a solid western team, which is what they’ll have to do to secure a good playoff position. It’s early, but San Antonio is in a good spot right now.
Elsewhere in the league, other teams have surprised as well, both by outperforming expectations or collapsing unexpectedly. Just like the Spurs, the rest of the NBA is figuring itself out, which makes for great entertainment.
In this edition of our staff round table, In The Bonus, PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos and Jesus Gomez join Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco to break down the Spurs’ hot start and take a look around the league to see what’s new or unexpected about the 2019/20 NBA season.
What would you say is the biggest reason for the Spurs 3-0 start?
Marilyn Dubinski: The offense. Even though they still aren’t letting it fly from three and have been sloppy with the ball in two of the three games, so far they are creating more efficient looks than last season’s team by driving to rim and finishing. The return of Dejounte Murray has a lot to that, as does DeMar DeRozan deciding to stop deferring after a game-and-a-half of too many giveaways on drive-and-kicks and just finishing at the rim himself.
Mark Barrington: I should point out some kind of basketball-related reason, but I think it’s their mental toughness. They lost a lot of these close games last year, and they’ve done just enough to win under pressure this year. Except for the game against the Blazers, where they got a little lucky.
Bruno Passos: I've been limited in what I've been able to watch live to start the year, but I think it's fair to highlight a schedule with games against the Knicks, Wizards and the Blazers on a SEGABABA — all at home — as a contributing factor. The Spurs probably aren't as good as their record suggests, and that's fine as long as they eke out wins in the meantime.
Jesus Gomez: Probably the schedule. Three home games against two hastily put together East basement-dwellers and the top-heavy Trail Blazers on a back-to-back are a great way to start the season. The Spurs looked really good for stretches on those matchups but also had some big lapses that could have probably cost them against other opponents or in different circumstances.
J.R. Wilco: I’m going with E: All of the above. It’s better to be lucky than good, and the Spurs have been all of these things. They’ve benefited from the schedule, from poor teams, from tired teams, from lucky bounces — and they’ve made some of their own luck. Also, it’s better to have three guys bringing it nightly than it is to have just two. Getting DJ back is a massive factor, and there’s no way San Antonio sits at 3-0 without Murray running rampant through the open court.
How surprised are you that DeMarre Carroll hasn’t played yet?
Dubinski: Pretty surprised, primarily because I never saw Trey Lyles starting coming into the preseason and therefore assumed either Rudy Gay or Carroll would be the starting PF if Pop ended up going small (which he has). If there was any reason I saw for Carroll not getting minutes, it was Jakob Poeltl starting. I did not see Lyles usurping him.
Barrington: I’m really surprised, but I guess I should have known by how little run he got in the preseason. A lot of it may be because of the matchups they’ve faced so far, and I’m hoping he gets minutes against the Warriors or the Clippers this week.
Passos: Pretty surprised! I imagined him getting Lyles' minutes early and having a role carved out for himself to start the year. This happening after Lyles missed part of the preseason recovering from a bout with pneumonia makes it even more curious.
Gomez: I’m shocked. Carroll didn’t do particularly well in preseason and didn’t seem to be in the rotation at one point, but I just assumed that as a veteran and the team’s biggest summer acquisition, he was taking things easy and had Pop’s trust. Apparently not! It’s a long season so Carroll will probably come in handy at one point, but so far his addition is not looking like a positive.
Wilco: I’m puzzled and quizzical, but not stunned. Curious and befuddled, but not shocked. I’m mildly surprised, but in a way that I kind of want to leave it alone and hope it matures into a full grown thing with its own reason for being. That said, I’m a bit afraid it will run its course after a handful of games and become one of those, “Hey, remember when Lyles started all those games early in the season? Whatever happened to that!” things.
The Spurs have been playing a lot faster than last season. Do you expect it to last?
Dubinski: As long as Murray is out there pushing the pace they will, and for good reason. With the somewhat limited offensive versatility of the starting unit, creating chaos for the defense right away to keep them from getting set is a good foundation. It also doesn’t hurt that Bryn Forbes has the Danny Green Light Special to let it fly from three in transition.
Barrington: They’ll play fast whenever Dejounte is on the floor. He’s the turbocharger for the offense.
Passos: It is a little jarring to see the Spurs among league leaders in both transition frequency and scoring efficiency. They seemed to hint at it during training camp, and it's nice to see things actually trend in that direction. We'll see if they remain as proficient (they're also top 10 in pace) and how much of this is a product of competition or an emphasis on exploiting poor opponent transition defense in the early part of a season.
Gomez: I hope so. We covered this before the season, but it’s something the Spurs should do to complement their half court offense. They have the personnel for it, with Dejounte Murray leading the way for the typically more deliberate starters and a a bench that seems built for it. I doubt they’ll remain in the top 10 in pace like they are now, but I think they can avoid falling to the bottom third in the league, at the very least.
Wilco: Murray, Murray, Murray. Who knew you’d be OMFBing your way through the league and into our hearts so soon in the season? Can you keep this up all season? Do you have the energy and stamina? Do you have the heart? (All of these questions — and more — will be answered on next week’s episode of The Next 79 Games.
What are your thoughts on the new rule that allows coaches to challenge an official’s call?
Dubinski: I think it’s somewhat pointless when the coaches can’t keep a challenge that is successful. I get why that is the case — if a coach could challenge every call they knew was wrong we’d be here all night — but maybe at least allow two or three total successful challenges? Otherwise they will rarely be used because coaches are saving them in case they need it in crunch time.
Barrington: In football, where there are usually less than 10 scoring plays in a game, each team gets 3 challenges and an extra one if the challenges are upheld. Only one challenge in a typical NBA game where there might be 100 scoring plays seems pretty skimpy by comparison. The only way it really can make a difference if a significant error happens in the last minute or so of a close game. That’s already happened once this year, in the Portland vs. OKC game, but in most other cases, it’s kind of pointless. Having the rule is definitely an improvement over not having it, but I feel like referees make a lot more than one mistake per game, and the rule should account for that. Or at least give the coach a second challenge if the first challenge is upheld.
Passos: In its current iteration it doesn't do much for me, but there are also so many stoppages of play that it doesn't bother me much either. As coaches get a better feel for how to use them and when to save them, it should make for another way to keep games honest. They should at least give them a challenge flag, or a challenge vuvuzela, though. A bit of pageantry might be fun.
Gomez: I’m ambivalent about it. I think getting calls right is important, so I don’t mind some delay to the action to make sure no egregious mistakes slip through, but it’s been tough to implement reviews without disrupting the flow of the game too much even before allowing for this new potential interruption. Then there are the problems that come with coaches only having one challenge, which they lose even if they are correct when they use it. As it currently stands, I don’t think it’s a good addition, but maybe I’m just not used to it yet.
Wilco: Stotts did it right. Save it all game long in case there’s a huge moment at the end of the game that could make all the difference. Like Marc Gasol launching his entire body onto LaMarcus Aldridge’s shooting arm as the clock ticked to zero in the first few games of last season as all the refs swallowed their whistles. Treat it like so many players do with their best effort: wait to the end of the game once you know you have to use it.
What has been the most surprising team in the league so far? (Can be a good or bad surprise)
Dubinski: It’s still pretty early, but I have to go with the Timberwolves starting 3-0. It may or may not continue, but Karl-Anthony Towns has been killing it, and Andrew Wiggins has been opportunistic on offense. They’re supposed to be one of the few teams who don’t challenge for a playoff spot in the West, but if they’re beginning to figure stuff out up there, the race is getting even more interesting.
Barrington: I honestly thought the Warriors were still going to be good, but they stink. I guess a roster of Steph, Draymond and a bunch of G-Leaguers isn’t really a decent NBA team. But I may regret this comment after they play the Spurs later this week.
Passos: I try not to be surprised in positive or negative ways this early on, but the 3-1 Mavs have impressed me in a way that seems sustainable. Doncic is only improving and Porzingis is looking better than I expected so far removed from playing competitive basketball. Given the potential dropoffs from other West teams, they're in a good position to make some noise.
Gomez: I wasn’t expecting the Kings to start the season 0-4 and have the worst net rating in the league by a mile after some humiliating blowouts. They challenged for a playoff spot last season and they got deeper with solid veterans in free agency. Their young players have one more year of experience. They are not supposed to be so awful, yet here we are. I think they’ll bounce back —their schedule was tough and they showed improvement in their last game — but if the West is as competitive as it typically is, that bad start could really hurt their postseason chances.
Wilco: It’s a cross between the doughty T-wolves’ (leading all the teams that have played 3 games with a 10.0 point differential) and the wilting Warriors (getting blown out multiple times and looking like nothing more than Curry-and-a-bunch-of-stink). Either way, I don’t expect either of those teams to finish on anything close to their current trajectories.