There’s no bigger training camp cliche than a team vowing to play faster. It’s even more ubiquitous a talking point than players putting 10 pounds of muscle over the summer. It simply sounds good to say that there will be more pace and everyone will look to push the ball, so almost everyone does it.
The Spurs are not the exception. During media day,several players made sure to mention how Dejounte Murray’s return could mean an increase in pace and even Gregg Popovich highlighted the way the speed of the young players could affect how the team plays.
It was all great to hear, since it would do the Spurs a lot of good to play faster. With disruptive perimeter defenders but not a lot of shooting, it might actually be vital. In all likelihood, little will come from that talk — but a man fan dream, at least until the games actually start.
It all starts with Murray
Since his time in college Murray has been at his best in the open court. The hope is that he’s tightened up his handle and developed a mid-range pull-up jumper (even half as good as the one in his off-season Instagram posts) to the point of being a threat in the half court. But even if he truly can shoot now, unleashing him in transition seems like the best way to maximize his skills. Since he’s a good rebounder, he might even be able to do a decent Russell Westbrook impersonation — minus the egregious stat-padding — and create fastbreak opportunities out of opponent misses by pulling down the board himself and immediately pushing. Last season the Spurs were one of the teams who played slowest after defensive rebounds, per Inpredictable, so there’s a lot of room for growth.
Turn ‘em over
Running after stops could be smart, but the best fastbreak opportunities come after live ball turnovers. San Antonio ranked dead last at causing opponent turnovers last year, which meant few opportunities to run in advantageous situations. As a result, the Spurs sported the third lowest fastbreak points per possession in the league. None of that is surprising considering the personnel available in ‘18-19. Bryn Forbes, for all his talents, is one of the least disruptive defenders in the league. The bench was filled with guys who don’t really force steals or pressure opponents into mistakes. The last line of defense was often LaMarcus Aldridge, who is a stout defender but not an intimidating force who makes opponents change their plan and improvise once they get into the lane.
But this season the Spurs will have more defensive playmakers. Murray is a terror on that end thanks to his quickness and length. Derrick White is an irritant that, with a year of experience under his belt, should be able to play even more aggressively without getting into early foul trouble. DeMarre Carroll’s steal numbers have been declining steadily as he’s aged, but he used to be good in that area, andif he doesn’t bounce back, he should get at least as many as Davis Bertans did. We don’t know if Lonnie Walker IV will get rotation minutes but if he does, he could be a huge asset when it comes to creating turnovers, if what he did in Austin and in limited minutes in San Antonio is any indication.
Help for the starter’s offense
More pace wouldn’t only increase role players have more of an impact but could also help the stars. DeRozan remains among the most athletic wings in the league and he was always good in transition in Toronto. Whether he’s filling a lane next to a ball handler or attacking himself, he should get good looks near the rim or increase his free throw rate as defenders hack him to avoid layups and dunks. As for Aldridge, he could set up deep in the post if he runs early or get open looks beyond the arc or from mid-range as a trailer in secondary transition as the defense sinks in to prevent dribble penetration. Either could make hay one-on-one in the type of cross matching that typically happens when the defense doesn’t have time to set up.
That’s a bold move, Cotton
The Spurs have the personnel to play a much more aggressive style of defense next season and it would actually make some sense to use it to power a transition-heavy attack, yet it’s so hard to imagine them actually doing it. More pace often means more turnovers as well, which is not something Popovich would approve of. It’s also hard to compel players who’ve never been a part of truly fast to suddenly change their ways. Both Aldridge and DeRozan have become perennial All-Star by working in the half court, so asking them to suddenly change their games would be tough. The bench might be more likely to keep running, just like it did last season, but in general the Spurs will probably remain one of the more plodding teams in the league.
Fixing what ain’t broke?
Which is fine, of course. For all the hemming and hawing about their slow, mid-range oriented offense — including some from me — San Antonio scored the sixth most points per possessions in the league last season and had no trouble keeping up that average in the postseason. Murray’s return and Davis Bertans’ departure will only increase the concerns regarding the lack of outside shooting but Gregg Popovich has proved adept to finding solutions to such issues that are not apparent to the rest of us — nor require a complete change in offensive identity.
Goodbye, wishful thinking
We’ll know soon enough how the 2019-20 Spurs will look like. I’d love to see an aggressive defense that pressures the ball and plays passing lanes, then runs as much as it can to leverage the athleticism of its perimeter players while hiding their suspect shooting; but I probably won’t get that.
In all likelihood, the new iteration will look a lot of the last one, probably with some slightly better defense and worse offense. As long as the result is another trip to the playoffs, and I’ll have to be happy with the actual version of the team instead of my idealized one.