The 2019-20 Spurs continue to be a mystery. They’ll beat a strong opponent one night and fail to show up against a basement-dweller the next. Since their five-day hiatus, they’ve played three close games but their performances were wildly different.
The starting lineup and the rotation keeps changing, which might contribute to the team’s inconsistency, but it’s hard to blame Gregg Popovich for trying to find something that works. Fortunately, playing in the West has been forgiving this season. Since the bottom half of the playoff picture features a bunch of flawed teams clustered together, the postseason remains a possibility.
In this edition of In The Bonus, PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos and Jesus Gomez join Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco to make sense of the mercurial Spurs by focusing on the play of their young guards and wings while also keeping an eye on the playoff race.
Before the game against the Rockets, Derrick White and Dejounte Murray have both scored in double digits in the same game just twice this season. Why do you think it’s so rare for both to get buckets in the same night?
Marilyn Dubinski: Without looking, it may have something to do with whoever starts not getting as many shot opportunities in the iso-heavy unit. Or maybe it’s Pop’s need to stagger the two, resulting in short stints on/off the court with different units and little time to find a rhythm. Or, and perhaps most likely, they both have work to do. White needs to be more assertive every game and less tentative to shoot the ball, and Murray needs to be more in control. 2.2 turnovers on 22 mpg (or 3.5 per 36 minutes), usually on strips or wayward passes, is too many.
Mark Barrington: I’m guessing the hot hand gets the minutes, and the guy who scores gets more time on the court. I would have to look at game logs to verify that theory, and I’m fairly sure it’s not true, anyway. I think we have a Space Jam situation here, except for the Monstars stealing player’s talents, we have players from the same team swapping the same talents back and forth. That makes as much sense as the first explanation. The truth is, I don’t know why that happens, but if I did, I’d tell Pop, because I’m sure he wants to know.
Bruno Passos: We can go on about spacing issues or some cryptic reasoning Pop may have for separating the two, but I think it’s fairly obvious we have a Hancock-Mary situation here. For the few readers who haven’t seen it, here’s the description of Charlize Theron’s character from the 2008 Will Smith movie, Hancock:
“Mary Embrey is the wife of Ray Embrey and was also the wife of Hancock 80 years ago (she does not age, just like Hancock). Mary and Hancock belong to a species of immortal beings that were called gods and angels by numerous cultures thousands of years ago. She and Hancock existed 3,000 years ago, and each of their brethren were paired in twos. Whenever they are near by, they lose their powers, but when separated, they regain them again. They are the last of their kind, and they were destined to be together.”
Jesus Gomez: It is strange, because it’s not like they play together and have to share touches. Points might not be the best way to measure their impact, but 10 is a low enough threshold that it shouldn’t be hard for either to cross it regularly. I don’t really have an answer that explains why they’ve rarely had good scoring nights at the same time other than the fact that their roles have changed too often for both to be comfortable at the same time. Hopefully that will change soon, because the Spurs would be so much better if it does. Both White and Murray are at their best when they are driving to the rim and the team desperately needs dribble penetration. Pop needs to find a way to get them both going on the same nights.
J.R. Wilco: I think this is an example of Small Sample Size Theater exacerbated by DJ’s minutes restrictions and the aforementioned continual tweaks Pop’s making to the rotation. I think it was a big move for him to go with White as the starter over Murray. That’s the kind of decision I doubt he takes lightly, which makes me think he’d think it over for a good long while to make sure it’s the right decision. So once he makes the move, it’d makes sense for him to sticks with White for a while. But that’s not what happened. Murray’s back starting again after just a few games, and ... I’m sorry, what was the question?
Bryn Forbes has the worst net rating on the team and (even after his first-half explosion in Houston) is shooting 34 percent from three in the past 10 games. Should he continue to have a prominent role in the rotation?
Dubinski: The starting lineup continues to be a disaster (aside from the first half in Houston), and under the assumption that DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldrdige are untouchable from a starting standpoint, Forbes is the only other starter Pop has yet to tinker with. Bryn did an admirable job last season, but his sole purpose out there is to space the floor and hit threes. No matter how hard he tries, he’s a complete liability on the other end, so when he’s not scoring enough to offset that, he’s useless as a starter. I hate saying this (but I already have and can’t go back now), but it’s time to bench Forbes and start Lonnie. (Or even start White and Murray together. I’d settle for that.)
Barrington: I’ve been pretty vocal that Bryn Forbes shouldn’t be in the starting lineup, but Pop blocked my number. I think he’d be much better playing against the other team’s bench, and I don’t think his confidence is so fragile that it would be damaged by a lineup change. Pop hasn’t had any reticence changing the starting lineup this year, but for some reason Bryn has started every game this year. That has to change soon if the Spurs want to have a chance of getting a playoff spot.
Passos: Coaches don’t generally like to bench shooters just because their shot isn’t falling, but the problem with Forbes — who is actually taller than Will Smith but still undersized for a wing — is that he doesn’t do much else to justify being on the floor. With Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker both due more minutes, it could be Forbes (along with Marco Belinelli) that feels the squeeze. The thing with this team is that it may be a slippery slope from his spot in the starting lineup given the depth at guard, and shooters of his mold struggle when their minutes are cut and when they have to enter games cold and hit their looks.
Gomez: I think it would make a lot of sense to bench Bryn, even after his crazy first half against the Rockets, because the starters need a reliable outside shooter and he hasn’t been one this season. He can get hot in a hurry but the games in which he’s cold, he doesn’t really do much to contribute on either end, now that he’s finishing ability at the rim has regressed. The problem is there’s no one else that appears to be a better fit. I think Lonnie Walker IV is better served coming off the bench and playing with a faster unit. Marco Belinelli has been even streakier than Forbes. DeMarre Carroll is not in the rotation. White and Murray shouldn’t be on the court when DeRozan is in it. The best option would be Patty Mills, but such a big change could destabilize the bench unit. I think the Spurs will probably have to continue to start Forbes and hope he can be more consistent going forward.
Wilco: This year’s Spurs team reminds me of this popular puzzle:
A man has to get a fox, a chicken, and a sack of corn across a river. He has a rowboat, and it can only carry him and one other thing. If the fox and the chicken are left together, the fox will eat the chicken. If the chicken and the corn are left together, the chicken will eat the corn. How does the man do it?
So, a coach has to find a way to find five guys who can score and defend but the only players he can use are the 2019-2020 San Antonio Spurs. If he moves Forbes to the bench he may never hit another three again, but if he plays DeRozan and Forbes together the other team will average 15 points per possession. How does the coach do it?
Which loss was worse, the beatdown in Detroit or the overtime loss to the Cavaliers?
Dubinski: The Cavs, without a doubt. It was at home against a bad team that had no positional advantage and coming off plenty of rest and practice. A little rust early was expected, but the fact that they continued their tradition of playing down to opponents (especially at home), pulled it together enough to get a five-point lead with 20 second to go, still managed to blow it both to get to overtime, and showed no effort once they got there made it way worse. Blowouts happen, especially on the road, but there was zero excuse for losing the Cavs game.
Barrington: Emotionally, a close loss that you should have won is always more difficult to take than a blowout where you were never in the game. If it’s a blowout, you can watch the garbage time play and see who’s still trying and get a chance to see players try new things. Watching players fail to execute under pressure is a form of excruciating torture that’s one of the worst things about being a fan. It’s got to be even worse for the players’ confidence.
Passos: It’s hard to know what “worse” implies through the beginning of this season since the idea of “bad” has taken on a variety of permutations. The Cavaliers loss — at home, at full strength, against a splintering lottery team — toyed with our expectations more, but the blowout in Detroit had a feature-length sobering effect, watching the Spurs muster no resistance against the likes of Christian Wood. I’ll go with the Pistons game.
Gomez: The blowout against the Pistons was tough to watch, but witnessing the Spurs fail to beat a Cavaliers team that was coming off an eight-game losing streak, had one of their best players benched for yelling at his coach and used Larry Nance Jr. to guard DeMar DeRozan for long stretches was just excruciating. Oh, and it was at home, at full strength and after getting plenty of rest. At least the Pistons loss came on the road and without LaMarcus Aldridge. The Cavs loss was the worst of the season, to me.
Wilco: Easy! The game they lost to the bad Eastern Conference team. Oh, that was both games. The game where they allowed their poor-outside-shooting opponent to make way more threes than they usually do. Oh, that was both games. Hmm, guess I’ll have to go with the game they played against a tired team on a SEGABABA when they hadn’t played in 6 days — and still managed to drop the contest. (Please tell me they didn’t do that twice.)
Lonnie Walker IV continues to make highlight plays almost every time he steps on the court. Is he the most entertaining young player the Spurs have had since Manu Ginobili?
Dubinski: He definitely grabs the crowd’s attention when he enters in a way few players outside of Manu has done. The whole vibe in the building changes just when he steps foot on the floor, and that seems to have a positive impact on the players around him. I don’t know if you have to go all the back to Manu, but I have a hard time remembering the last young Spur to get has many crowd chants has Lonnie does.
Barrington: I really don’t like these kind of comparisons. Manu Ginobili was a trickster who used his herky-jerky style and physicality to slither past and into other players. He wasn’t called El Contusion for nothing. Lonnie’s style is much more smooth jazz, he’s past you before you realize he was even there. He’s physical, but instead of bouncing off other players like a Manu Ginobili rag doll, he’s soaring over them like some fantastic bird of prey. But despite the differences of style, they both bring incredible excitement with their athleticism and creativity.
Passos: Walker has the kind of athleticism and fluidity we’ve seldom seen in San Antonio but I’m not quite ready to overlook what that Kawhi guy did here through his early 20s. Still, being able to watch him for 20 (or more!) minutes a night is going to be a nice silver lining in whatever’s to come.
Gomez: If we are only talking about entertainment value, I’d say he has a good case. Kawhi Leonard was never the most exciting player to watch. DeJuan Blair was fun for a second and Kyle Anderson’s game was interesting in its uniqueness but the Spurs haven’t really had a lot of exciting young guys. Even with Murray and White it’s more intriguing to project what they’ll become than it is to enjoy what they are. Walker, on the other hand, is just electrifying in a very obvious way. He glides to the basket and finishes with a flair everyone else on the roster lacks. The only reason I’m hesitant to put him in first place is because he hasn’t played enough, but hopefully that will change soon.
Wilco: Most entertaining player since young Manu? Hands down ... hair up.
The West has six teams vying for the last two playoff spots. Assuming the Spurs grab one, which one of the Kings, Suns, Thunder, Timberwolves and Trail Blazers seems the most likely to secure the other spot at this point?
Dubinski: This is tough. Experience says it should be the Trail Blazers, who are having an equally bad start as the Spurs, although they can point to injuries with Jusuf Nurkic still recovering from a brutal broken leg late last season and Rodney Hood out for the season with a torn Achilles. It’s hard to pick from the rest of that group. The Thunder at least have Chris Paul, but for how long? The Kings, Suns and T-Wolves all have young talent but have yet to prove they can carry a team to the playoffs. At least the Wolves have been there (even if it was on the back of Jimmy Butler), so I’ll give them the slight edge based on nothing else.
Barrington: I like the Kings this year, because they are already in the hunt, and will get a big boost from Fox now that he’s back. I don’t trust the Suns, and the Thunder are tanking. The Timberwolves have talent, but do they have enough heart? The Blazers are interesting, and maybe the Melo experiment will work for them, so they definitely have a chance.
Passos: I like the way the Suns have looked enough to pencil them in for one of the two once they’re back to full strength, but the final spot is tough. I’ll go with the Kings, who have a slight edge in the standings now and should get a big bump now that De’Aaron Fox has returned.
Gomez: It’s tricky to pick, because all those teams are so even, but I’ll go with the Trail Blazers. It’s just hard to imagine a team featuring prime Damian Lillard missing the playoffs. They also have the pieces to make a win-now trade if they need to, although finding the right target is harder than it seems. If not Portland, then I’ll go with the Kings. They have a nice mix of young talent and veterans and also have the pieces to make a move without losing too much depth.
Wilco: I’m going with the Suns. I love Devin Booker, who’s practically unstoppable when he gets on a roll. Ricky Rubio is playing great, and they have Aron Baynes! Ex-Spur FTW.