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What it means when a former Spur thrives on a new team

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Davis Bertans’ hot start in D.C. has prompted some valid questions about how he was used and valued in San Antonio.

San Antonio Spurs v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

“If you kept everybody you wanted you’d have a team of 37 people,” Gregg Popovich said last Friday. “It’s sort of foolish to spend time worrying about that.” The question, fielded before a home game against the Clippers, was about JaMychal Green, who’s carved out a solid career for himself since moving on from his mostly forgettable time as a Spur, but Pop was likely aware of its wider application. The veteran coach has seen a number of players come and go through San Antonio — some have seen their careers remain steady or trend downward; others have gone on to reach new heights in another team’s colors.

Former Spur Davis Bertans belongs to the latter group so far. Now in D.C., the 27-year-old Latvian sits 8th in all the NBA in three-pointers through a quarter of the season, making use of the most minutes of his career to put up career highs nearly across the board, including in points (13.2), rebounds (4.4), assists (1.8), and field-goal percentage (46.5%). Most importantly, he’s continued to excel at the singular skill that brings great value to any NBA team, attempting a career-high 7.6 shots from beyond the arc and hitting them at a career-high 45.6% clip. In two games against his former team, Bertans has averaged 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting from deep.

His success this season shouldn’t be all surprising, either. No Spur in 2018-19 came close to Bertans’ net rating of +7.6, and few players and even fewer big men (although “big” is generous given his slight of frame) can shoot the ball as well as he can. Those are two reasons the advanced stats both loved him and hated the team losing him over the summer.

Him thriving while the 7-14 Spurs sputter out the gate will inevitably lead to some hyperbole. While the 6-10 shooter wasn’t exactly “shackled” in San Antonio, he is an interesting case study in a player being the inverse of what fans expect from PATFO, with his talents going underutilized on the roster and then undervalued on the market. The reasoning why is partially about some mismanagement on the Spurs’ side but also about the rigid realities of the post-Kawhi era.

The Spurs’ didn’t just trade Bertans away — they essentially gave him and his remaining 1-year, $7.25 million contract to the Wizards as part of a cap-clearing effort to sign Marcus Morris. Setting aside the unfortunate and unforeseen nature of Morris backing out of a verbal commitment, shedding Bertans for nothing is selling short on him.

The path for regular minutes for Bertans never seemed clear through his 3 years in San Antonio, and it’s likely the team considered his relative value to them far more than his objective value when making the move. Although his playing time steadily went up through that period, it included a handful of DNPs in 2018-19 as the team still seemed unconvinced of his place in the rotation.

Morris represented what the flawed 2019-20 Spurs couldn’t make Bertans into: a stout body that the team could throw at big wings and plug up the fundamental defensive deficiencies with the roster. Although overall performance improved with him on the floor, his impressive net rating was probably shadowed by the optics of Bertans being unable to hold his own when banging with a true power forward or center around the basket. Positions mean less than ever in today’s NBA, but matchups still define games, and the Spurs couldn’t seem to make sense of how to use their best floor-spacer. In the 2019 playoff series against Denver, Bertans’ playing time went up and down — including just 5 minutes in Game 3 — before not appearing at all in Games 6 and 7.

Whether the Spurs could’ve been more creative in maximizing lineups that included Bertans or more liberally used his offensive strengths to make up for his defensive weaknesses are valid questions. So, too, is if the team should’ve pulled the trigger on sending him off with a mind to bring in Morris (who’s also having a great shooting year, albeit on the league’s most depressing team). PATFO’s recent track record has had enough misses to allow a measure of criticism.

It’s worth noting that the Washington Wizards aren’t world-beaters right now. They’re 6-12 as of this writing and have easily the league’s worst defense, an area of the floor that Bertans will probably never be a game-changer. Yet, acquiring him last summer has undoubtedly paid off for them. They’ll be able to decide on retaining his services next year or attempt to flip him at the trade deadline for an asset. In the meantime, he spreads the floor as well as anybody and brings a nightly three-point punch that the Spurs, who have dropped from 1st to 21st in three-point percentage, could really use.

Ultimately the Spurs were probably realistic in trading away a player who wasn’t going to realize his potential on their roster. But why he didn’t do so, and what they got out of moving him, are also the product of the team’s own shortcomings.