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The Spurs starting lineup is struggling ... again

So far the bench is carrying the Spurs, just like last season. The PtR staff discusses that and more in this week’s round table.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

After a perfect start of the season, the Spurs came crashing back to earth, dropping three of their last four games. The losses were not pretty, as they revealed an all too familiar propensity to not play well for the full 48 minutes, something that haunted last year’s version of the team.

Fortunately it’s still incredibly early in the season and there have been a lot of positives so far. Dejounte Murray looks like a potential star; Trey Lyles has emerged as a decent stopgap starter; the Spurs have a winning record despite shooting poorly. There’s clearly a lot of work left to do, but San Antonio should keep improving.

In this week’s edition of In The Bonus, PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos and Jesus Gomez join Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco to look at the good and the bad to figure out what’s worth worrying about and what isn’t. Let us know what you think in the comments.

It’s early, but the bench is carrying the team once again so far, just like last season. Is that something to worry about?

Marilyn Dubinski: I’m willing to withhold judgement on the starters until Dejounte Murray is off minutes restrictions, plus LaMarcus Aldridge has a tendency to start seasons a little slow before he gets going. I’m also intrigued to see if this is the starting line-up for the entire season. Not that Trey Lyles has been a negative, but eventually if Pop decides this unit needs an offensive infusion, he’ll likely be the odd man out. On the bright side, how about that bench?

Mark Barrington: I think the lack of productivity of the starters is a bit of a concern, but training camp and preseason is so short, I’m willing to cut them a bit of a break. The starting lineup is filled with rhythm players like LaMarcus and DeMar who need to find their groove, while the bench group has guys like Patty Mills who just let it fly. Not to mention that Patty and Derrick White played in the FIBA tournament and were more likely to hit the ground running at the start of the season. But that theory doesn’t hold water for Marco Belinelli, who was terrific in China this summer, but has been awful so far for the Spurs. Check back with me around mid-December. If the starters are still struggling then, it’s time to [tank for a lottery pick/fire Pop/move the team to Seattle] (pick one).

Bruno Passos: It’s definitely something to keep an eye on, to say the least. I don’t like to pay too much attention to individual plus-minus, but if a starting unit is fundamentally not putting the team in a position to succeed — and last year’s didn’t exactly, for a few reasons — then it’s worth looking at and trying to understand why. It’s too early to be actually concerned, and thus also premature to pick apart why it may be, but we should be prepared to look at it with a critical eye in the weeks ahead if the team continues to depend on the boost it gets from the second unit.

Jesus Gomez: It’s definitely concerning, because it feels like a continuation of last year, when the starters just couldn’t outplay opponents consistently. I’m still optimistic that with more time to gel they can become more cohesive on both ends, but I’m not sure the pieces fit as seamlessly as we’d want them to. It’s still early, though, so I’m not panicking yet, especially since the bench has fortunately continued to be good enough to help the team get wins so far.

J.R. Wilco: While I agree with Marilyn (and even though my default mode is optimistic) I’ll put it this way: It’s worth worrying about until DJ is able to play without every second he’s on the court being counted. Then I’m happy to give the team a portion of the season to get used to the changes to the rotation that will follow Murray playing a half hour or more per game. Now, watch the trainers tell Pop that Murray’s minutes restriction should last the entire season!

The Spurs are attempting the same amount of threes as last season but hitting fewer. Bad luck on a small sample size or expected regression?

Dubinski: I expect that to improve. Only two of their three-point shooters are meeting/exceeding expectation from three so far — Derrick White (50%) and Patty Mills (44%) — while everyone else is under-performing, admittedly in a small sample size. Even if Mills and especially White regress to the mean, I expect the others to rise up. Assuming he keeps playing, Marco Belinelli will improve from 19%, Rudy Gay from 29%, Bryn Forbes from 35%, and hopefully with more consistent minutes Murray (28%) will find his niche from beyond the arc and get closer to 35%.

Barrington: I think the team just hasn’t hit its stride yet. I expect both attempts and percentages to increase over the next month. Forbes looked improved over last year in preseason and in the early games, but he’s been in a mini-slump recently. I expect him to bust out in a big way once Dejounte Murray is off minutes restriction. Derrick White has been shooting the ball well lately, and somehow Pop has got to convince him to take more shots when he’s left open by the defense. I don’t think the Spurs will even reach the league average in three-point attempts, but they won’t be at the bottom by the end of the year.

Passos: On paper, a drop could’ve probably been expected given the loss of Davis Bertans and a bit of regression from Rudy Gay after a career year. Some players, such as Forbes and Belinelli, should trend upward, but I think this is more or less the profile of this team unless Carroll usurps Lyles in the rotation or some other unforeseen shift occurs.

Gomez: I think it was expected. The Spurs lost Bertans and haven’t really replaced him and in general shot lights out last season. I think they’ll improve their percentage, since a lot of players are underperforming from outside, but I doubt they’ll be able to pace the league in three-point shooting efficiency this year.

Wilco: It’s not like Belinelli and Forbes forgot how to shoot over the summer, no matter how much it may look like that — especially in Marco’s case. As for Gay, he was so much better last season than he’s ever been from deep, that I was sitting on pins and needles all of 2018-19 hoping that he wouldn’t regress, and thankful that he didn’t. Now through 6 games, San Antonio’s “we don’t shoot many threes, true, but we make the ones we take” isn’t a thing anymore, and we’d all better hope it’s just a small sample size. If our bombers don’t bounce back, it could make for a long season filled with games like the stinker in Atlanta.

Dejounte Murray was averaging 21 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and over three steals per 36 minutes before the Hawks game. Can he become an All-Star this year if his minutes restriction is lifted soon?

Dubinski: It’s possible, and there just might be an opening or two in there for him to snatch. I have trouble seeing both James Harden and Russell Westbrook making it now that they are on the same team (although that’s never stopped it from happening in the past), and depending on his hand and whether he can lift the Warriors off the mat once he returns may determine whether Steph Curry makes it or not. Ultimately I wouldn’t count on DJ making it this year, but you never know. The NBA loves themselves a surprise/feel-good story.

Barrington: Not this year, but probably next. I could see him making it as a coach’s pick this season if a couple of the highest vote winners can’t play.

Passos: He’s probably a year away from earning the kind of clout required to actually make the ASG, but it’ll be a coup just to see him enter the conversation. I’m not sure he hits those numbers post-minutes restriction (mostly because 36 minutes a game is always high for a Spur), but nothing in the way he’s producing right now (which is, in its own way, unprecedented) feels unsustainable, either. The guy really seems to be the real deal.

Gomez: I really doubt it. He likely won’t get the minutes to put impressive enough numbers even after the restriction is lifted and, just like with any other young player, there will probably be ups and downs in his production throughout the year. But he has looked like someone who will make a few All-Star teams in his career, which is extremely encouraging.

Wilco: His hot start had me daydreaming about him earning an All Star spot in his 4th season, but I’m starting to think that maybe the scouting report on him is working its way around the league, and feasting in transition might be difficult to sustain on a nightly basis. And his half-court game isn’t yet strong enough to merit his inclusion. (Man, I hope I’m wrong about this.)

Trey Lyles appears to have secured the starting power forward spot. Do you expect him to hold on to the job for the rest of the season?

Dubinski: As mentioned above, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pop eventually decides he needs more offense in the starting lineup, and unless Lyles starts showing a propensity to shoot (and make) some shots, he would be the odd man out, likely for someone like Gay. His defense and rebounding has definitely been a plus for the starters, but if all that does is draws them even with most respectable opponents, then there may need to be a change.

Barrington: I hope not. He’s been really good at rebounding, but he gives the team nothing on offense, and when the other team doesn’t need to defend him, there’s not a lot of room for LaMarcus or DeMar to operate. I think the Spurs should probably give a lot of his minutes to Rudy Gay, who should open up the offense with his shooting and mobility.

Passos: It feels like the early-season rotations represent what the team sees as its highest floor right now but not its ceiling. The ideal version of the Spurs probably includes Lonnie Walker getting rotation minutes and showing that he belongs, Derrick and Dejounte wreaking havoc together, and the team starting smaller at little expense to defense and rebounding. If at least two of those three developments take place, they should be in pretty good shape. My guess is Lyles isn’t the starter at the end of the year, but that’s also assuming we don’t see him improve and develop in ways he very well can as the season rolls along.

Gomez: Only if he proves he can be a threat from beyond the arc. Despite some talk in the offseason, Aldridge and DeRozan have not started taking more threes and Murray has not been able to hit many. The starting lineup needs more than one shooter. If Lyles can prove that he’ll at least always take open looks and make them at a league average rate, he might be the starter throughout the season. If he can’t, he probably won’t.

Wilco: Now that he finally made a three-pointer, I’d bet he has the job for life.

The NBA suspended Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid for two games for a kerfuffle and the Instagram trash-talking that followed it. Was the punishment adequate?

Dubinski: I thought so. If anything it sent a message to Embiid, who seemed oddly confident he wouldn’t be suspended since he felt he wasn’t the instigator and relished the moment with the crowd too much. Those two have been going at it for a few years now, and considering their age and status in the league, it’s too childish and sets a bad example. I hope the NBA also told them from here on out, any more incidents will result in incremental suspensions (like three games next time, four after that, etc).

Barrington: The actual fight wasn’t much, it was just a bunch of jawing, followed by some very weak half-hearted wrestling. I thought Embiid was the instigator, and should have been given a more severe punishment than KAT. If this continues into the next game between the teams, there should be a much longer suspension, but I have a feeling that the teams don’t want their best players to be off the court and will keep that from happening.

Passos: It’s fine given the severity of the scuffle and neither player having a history of it (despite Embiid’s known trolling). Fans don’t want to see their players suspended for long stretches, and I don’t think players are into getting suspended, either, so I think this sends enough of a message without coming at the cost of the fan experience.

Gomez: On the one hand, the fight itself wasn’t that serious, so one game might have been appropriate. On the other, the league needs to send a message that fighting is unacceptable, and a two-game suspension probably is not severe enough to do that. It’s just a tough situation to handle because it’s all fun and games until someone actually connects on a punch. I’d say two games was a fine compromise for now, but both Towns and especially Embiid should be watched closely from here on out and punished more severely if they continue to instigate physical confrontations.

Wilco: No one was in danger of being hurt, so I wouldn’t expect more. At the same time, Embid was shadow boxing as he left the court, so I certainly wasn’t wanting any less.