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Why the Spurs’ offense is still elite

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The PtR staff discusses how San Antonio is still scoring at a high level, whether Jakob Poeltl should start, which failed comeback was the most painful, and more.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs’ losing streak now stands at six, and it includes some real heartbreakers. Failed comeback attempts and defeats at the hands of other reeling teams have become all too common early in the season and could threaten San Antonio’s playoff hopes.

Fortunately even in this dire time there are some positive signs. A lineup change against Dallas seemed to spark some life into the starting unit and despite the glaring defensive issues the offense is still among the top in the league. There’s still time to turn things around.

In this edition of PtR’s weekly round table, contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passo and Jesus Gomez join Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco to talk about the good and the bad, discuss Tim Duncan’s debut as head coach and try to predict the future of two of the league’s brightest young stars.

Gregg Popovich benched Trey Lyles in the second half against the Mavericks, and the Spurs did better. Should that be an option going forward?

Marilyn Dubinski: Not that I specifically blame Lyles for the starting unit’s slow starts (that’s on the entire unit and coach), but something has to change with this starting lineup. The Spurs have been atrocious in the first quarter lately, leading directly to at least four losses. Consider these stats, with the opponent, first quarter deficit —> final deficit:

Memphis ( -13 —> -4), Orlando (-7 —> -2), Portland (-18 —> -5), Dallas (-14 —> -7)

In other words, all other things being equal, they would be at least 9-5 instead of 5-9 right now if they were starting games stronger, and we’d be singing a much different tune. I don’t know if benching Lyles for Jakob Poeltl is the answer, but something has to change to break this rut they’re currently in.

Mark Barrington: If it gives more minutes for DeMarre Carroll and Jakob Poeltl, sure. I think it was situational in the Mavericks game. I think that Lyles isn’t really the problem with the starting lineup, so benching him isn’t going to solve anything. He’s been a good rebounder, and his offense is picking up. I’d reduce his minutes in favor of Poeltl, but not bench him.

Bruno Passos: I think something has to change with that starting lineup, although his insertion of Poeltl — which he’s done in other 2nd halves, as well — wouldn’t seem to be the best long-term solution. I’ve suggested it being Forbes that’s replaced with someone else given his having the worst net rating of any other starter by a good margin, but that’s hard to do after nights like the one in Dallas where Forbes was in the closing lineup and played a role in the team’s 2nd half comeback.

Jesus Gomez: It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense in theory. Playing Poeltl and Aldridge together forces Aldridge to defend the perimeter more, which is not a good idea. But at this point everything should be on the table when it comes to the starting lineup. Ultimately I think the big man pairing is not the problem, but if it benching Lyles happens to change the dynamic of that group for the better in the short term, it might be worth a try.

J.R. Wilco: I’m sure this is a bit too simplistic but when you’re on the cusp of a seven game losing streak, anything that has worked for even a little bit should be an option. But Lyles has played so well (eye test wise) that I wouldn’t be surprised if Pop discards this alternative judging that there was something specific the success was due to, and not anything to be tried long term.

What was your reaction to hearing that Tim Duncan and not Becky Hammon was acting head coach when Pop got ejected against the Trail Blazers?

Dubinski: My first thought was this is a massive troll job by Pop, not allowing anyone to accuse him of getting ejected on purpose so that Becky could make history (and he somewhat admitted as much when he said making history is not his goal). I alluded to this in my appearance on Superfluous Popycock, but the initial announcement was it was a “head coach by committee” approach, and maybe Pop’s later announcement that it was Tim was like a teacher picking a winner from an assignment. My guess is there will be a rotation, and next time it will be Becky. (And there will be a next time based both on how this team is playing and the unusually high number of times they’ve been on the wrong end of crucial calls/no-calls lately.)

Barrington: It seems like kind of an arbitrary designation, since all of the coaches were obviously collaborating during the game. Given the fact that Tim has been with the Spurs since ‘99 and Becky has only been on the staff since 2014, I guess it makes sense based on seniority. But I really hope she’s designated the head coach at some point, because I believe she will be the next head coach of the Silver and Black.

Passos: Pop’s post-game confirmation seemed to more or less confirm what we saw on the court in the way that Tim was on his feet and coordinating things, but the whole thing was pretty bizarre in itself. The team’s explanation that the Blazers were Duncan’s scouting job and that’s why he took over does track, but the Spurs (and Pop in his more dismissive tone after the loss) could’ve certainly done more in the way of transparency and optics — not that that’s ever been a priority with the organization.

Gomez: I’m not too concerned about it, but it did feel a little unfair to Hammon. Pop could have just said from the start that Duncan was going to be acting head coach whenever he was ejected this season and all the scrutiny about Hammon becoming the first female head coach would have vanished. By playing coy and deflecting when he was asked he brought a lot of unnecessary attention to the situation. But maybe Becky doesn’t mind and she’ll get a chance to take the reins at some point later in the season, so none of this will matter.

Wilco: Like so much to do with the inner workings of the team, this incident is another reminder that nearly everything that happens behind closed doors in San Antonio, stays behind closed doors in San Antonio — until it has to be unveiled on the court in which case we get to see it and ask questions about it. I expect that everyone involved was already clear on what would happen should Pop be ejected, and it was only all of us who were left in the dark. Absent something like Pop naming Timmy the head assistant, I like Marilyn’s idea that they’re on a rotation and Hammon will have her turn in the future.

The Spurs keep making pushes that come up short. Which failed comeback was the most painful?

Dubinski: That’s a tough one. The Grizzlies one hurt because it was such a meaningful night, and the team couldn’t make some late magic for Tony like they did for Manu last season. That being said, the fact that they came from so far behind to get up by double-digits in fourth quarter against Portland, only to blow that lead, makes it the worst. (The overlying theme here is this shouldn’t be an issue at home.)

Barrington: They all hurt, but the Mavericks game was particularly painful because of the awful execution for the last minute of play. The team had fought so hard to get back into the game, and played like a bad pickup team when the game was on the line.

Passos: They all sort of blur into one right now, but the Blazers loss definitely felt like it a potential pivot for the season that the team could’ve rallied around.

Gomez: The Memphis game was probably the most painful to me, because of the importance of the night, the quality of the opponent and the missed opportunity to bounce back after getting shellacked by the Celtics.

Wilco: In this context, pain is based on expectations, and although I do my best to be relentlessly optimistic over the long haul, I’m frequently of the opinion that the Spurs have little to no chance in the moment. So the most painful one for me was the first one, because I was holding out hope that they’d pull one out late.

San Antonio still has a top five offense. What is the biggest reason for their success on that end so far?

Dubinski: That’s a somewhat mind-blowing stat considering how badly they’ve been shooting to start games, but it goes back to the previous point that if they just weren’t starting so slow they’d be fine, because once they get out of the early slumps they’re taking off. The bench seems to have something to do with that, and afterwards the line-ups have been staggered for the most part, creating more offensive balance. So I guess the biggest reason is not overplaying that starting lineup outside of the first quarter?

Barrington: I hate to get negative with this, but allowing the other team to score quickly gives them more opportunities to score. DeMar DeRozan has been really good for them, but he’s also not a good defender, which would be OK if he didn’t play with a lot of other defensively-challenged guys like Bryn Forbes and LaMarcus Aldridge. LaMarcus is a good paint defender, but he lacks range.

Passos: Responding with “the bench” seems a bit reductive, but they’re fairly representative of how well this team can click when the floor is space, the ball is moving, and everyone has a role that maximizes their skills. The same can’t be said for the starters right now.

Gomez: It’s the bench. It has a primary ball handler, a secondary ball handler/scorer, an off ball threat, a scoring forward and a rim running center. Three of those guys can shoot from outside at a high level, no one is selfish and there’s some familiarity within that group. Those are all the ingredients you need to have a functioning offense. The individual play of Patty Mills and Rudy Gay has clearly helped elevate the second unit’s play, but the subs just work well together and it shows.

Wilco: I know this is overly simplistic and nowhere near the full story, but I want to say that they’re still successful because there are still a number of guys on the team who know how to play like this.

Spurs fans were on the wrong end of standout performances by both Trae Young and Luka Doncic. Which of the two budding superstars do you think will have the best career?

Dubinski: I’ll go with Doncic. He has the body to be the most well-rounded player of the two, the second best coach in the league to help him develop, and a better attitude. (That last bit may be inaccurate, but Young soured on me this summer when he dropped out of Team USA and basically admitted it was because he didn’t like that he was actually having to compete with Derrick White for a spot. Pretty selfish, if you ask me.)

Barrington: I think they’re both great, but I think Luka Doncic will have the better career. Trae Young is Steph Curry-lite whose game is based on shooting, and Doncic is a more complete player, even though he lacks elite quickness. And size matters, people.

Passos: Both are dynamic guys that are fun to watch, but I’m a little higher on Doncic due to his size and ability to get to the line.

Gomez: Doncic seems like a safer bet. His size will make him easier to hide on defense and will allow him to impact the game in different ways. Both are amazing, but Doncic is already the superior player and might also have a higher ceiling.

Wilco: I’d say Luka, because his game is going to age like a fine wine since it’s not based on his athleticism. I can see him getting a guy off-balance and stepping back into deep threes until he’s in his late-30’s, at least.