The Spurs had a roller coaster of a week. A win against the Clippers signaled that perhaps things were starting to turn around, only for San Antonio to play one of the most uninspired games of the season and get routed by the Pistons. Then, just as pessimism was starting to set in again, they somehow came back from a 22-point deficit to beat the Rockets in an instant classic.
Lonnie Walker IV was the star of that comeback, having a breakout game in his first night as a rotation player. It was a fantastic performance that hid the fact that the LaMarcus Aldridge-less Spurs are razor thin at center and the young point guards have not been as consistent as fans would like them to be.
In this week edition of In The Bonus, PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos, Jesus Gomez and Charlie O’Charles look at the good, the bad and the weird in the last week of Spurs basketball and try to make sense of it all. Let us know what you think in the comments.
The Spurs recently beat the Clippers and Rockets, but were routed by the Pistons. They are 5-8 against +.500 opponents despite an 8-14 overall record. Why do they seem to play better against good teams?
Marilyn Dubinski: It’s usually a matter of focus. They are coming into games against better teams with a little more focus, and perhaps become less prone to their tendencies of starting slow or letting up when they get a lead. At least in the Clippers game, they avoided both (although in fairness Kawhi will always bring an extra level of motivation). The reality is the Spurs are better than their record indications, but for whatever reason they are prone to long lapses, and the bad that happens in those stretches usually outweighs the good stretches.
Mark Barrington: I wish I knew the answer to that. Maybe they take the bad teams for granted, but they aren’t good enough to take ANYONE for granted. The effort level between the bad games and the good ones is striking, they actually looked like a different team in the Rockets game than they did in Detroit. For sure, Lonnie Walker IV was a big part of the difference, but just about everyone played better in that game. Pop coached better. The beer I drank during the game tasted better. It was like a different alternative reality. I wish I could live there all of the time. But I think the inconsistency is going to last for a while, but hopefully the good efforts will start to happen a little more often, instead just against teams that they get emotionally up for.
Bruno Passos: I think it comes down to a bit of variance combined with what the players and coaches have harped on about as being real difference-makers right now: effort and execution. This team is better than 8-14 on pure talent, and it still feels like it can make up some ground by being more consistent on the intangibles and recognizing the necessary changes in who’s on the floor.
Jesus Gomez: It’s a bit of a mystery to me. There are basketball reasons, like the Spurs taking and making more threes in wins, but that still doesn’t explain why they do that against good teams. I know that players are human and will be more motivated on big matchups, but it’s hard to reconcile how much more focused the Spurs look in certain games, considering they actually need all the wins they can get against bad opponents to make it to the postseason. It’s just strange and a little disappointing.
Charlie O’Charles: This team has a razor thin margin for error. Some of that has to do with not having the best player on the floor most nights, which makes effort and focus all that much more important. But some of it is also a matter of style of play. Even when they’re locked in, they’re grinding out possessions on both ends. Other teams get hot and explode for huge chunks of points, but this version of the Spurs just doesn’t seem to have that in them. So when they aren’t all the way engaged for even a few minutes at a time, they can lose contact with even the weakest of opponents.
Lonnie Walker IV has clearly earned a rotation spot. What should his role be? (Should he start or come off the bench? How much should he play? Who should he be on the court with? etc.)
Dubinski: If nothing else, he should be getting Marco Belinelli’s 16.1 minutes per game. As for what role, starting him right now may be throwing him into the fire a bit too quickly, and he’s more free to do what he wants when playing the bench, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him usurp Bryn Forbes eventually. The starters need an infusion of energy and effort on defense, and he’s showing he can provide both. Also, if he can maintain a good three-point percentage (6-14 as of Wednesday, although 4-7 came in one game against Houston), there will be an offensive role for him with the starters.
Barrington: I don’t think he’s a starter yet, but he’s certainly earned all of the minutes that Marco Belinelli used to play. He might be a starter by the end of the season.
Passos: This is a really interesting one for the Spurs to look at, because all the factors mentioned have to be considered. I think Walker’s versatile enough to fit into any box the Spurs envision for him right now, but the best role of him practically and developmentally is probably as a high-usage scorer who gets the ball in his hands and is given room to work. It makes most sense to start fostering that on the bench, but even then you’re needing to tweak how that movement-heavy unit operates so that you create sets that put him in position to score.
Gomez: I think he should continue to come off the bench as the backup small forward. He can get minutes with Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray, who both like to push the pace, and get opportunities to act as a creator if Rudy Gay continues to start. Lonnie is a scorer at heart, so I don’t think he’d fit well in the starting lineup right now, but that could change in the near future if he continues to hit spot up threes and play with intensity on defense.
O’Charles: I’ve never really cared much for the distinction between starter and bench player. What matters is the minutes and the role (See: Ginobili, Manu). Lonnie needs to get reps with the ball in his hands and he needs to have opportunities to match up with the opponent’s best wing scorer on a nightly basis. There’s no reason that can’t happen in the starting unit, but it’s probably best to expand his role slowly, so I’d start off with giving him Marco’s 16 minutes and go from there.
LaMarcus Aldridge’s absence has exposed the Spurs’ lack of quality depth at center behind Jakob Poeltl. Should they try to solve the issue via trade or trust that Chimezie Metu and Drew Eubanks will step up?
Dubinski: If Aldridge’s thigh continues to be an issue they should definitely consider it. I honestly haven’t known what the Spurs see in Metu from day one, but I also know their goal when signing him was to convert him into more of a forward, not a center. I love Eubanks, but he’s a two-way player for a reason and will likely never be more than a third-string big in the NBA. As long as Aldridge and Poellt are healthy the Spurs can survive as is, but it’s a big risk, as Aldridge’s absence is currently showing.
Barrington: Against the Pistons, Drew Eubanks showed that he’s really not big enough, strong enough, or talented enough to stay with top-level NBA talent. I’m glad he’s on the team, because he’s a good guy and is excellent on the bench, but he should never play any minutes that aren’t garbage time until he gets a whole lot better, which doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. In the limited minutes that he’s played, Metu has looked like a player. He’s a little small for a center, but he’s not bad in spot duties. My major concern has been that he’s been pretty injury prone and he’s missed a lot of time with foot injuries. I think they try to roll with Metu as the third string center behind Poeltl and Lyles. They may be forced to add somebody if Metu continues to miss time, but good centers aren’t easy to find for the minimum, so Metu might be the only viable option there.
Passos: Metu still doesn’t seem ready (and I think the team knows it) and Eubanks, for all his effort, will probably be overmatched by even your average backup big. While a trade definitely shores up some deficiencies, I don’t hate going small with Lyles and playing five-out basketball when necessary. You give up rim protection and some rebounding, but it may still be a net positive without needing to make a move.
Gomez: I don’t think it’s a huge issue, but I do believe it would need to be solved via trade. I’m all for trying out small lineups with Lyles or Gay at center, but it would be reassuring to have a traditional veteran big behind Aldridge and Poeltl. The problem is the Spurs don’t really have a lot of tradable pieces that are truly expendable outside of Marco Belinelli, because I doubt anyone would take DeMarre Carroll’s contract without a sweetener. Figuring out a trade that works could be tricky.
O’Charles: Drew will be fine in short stints in some match ups, but was obviously completely out of his depths against Andre Drummond. If the Spurs are going to go small instead of watching Drew get chewed up, I’d prefer they stick with Trey at the 5 over giving Chimezie any significant run. The only real advantage he has over Trey at the NBA level is a little bit of rim protection, but he gives up position so often going for the block that it probably wouldn’t be that beneficial at this point. As for a trade, I doubt the Spurs could get much of an upgrade with what they have available.
Despite some great moments, Derrick White and Dejounte Murray have not made the big leap that was expected from them yet. Are you at all worried about their upside?
Dubinski: Murray has definitely reverted after a strong start, which isn’t unusual when returning from a year off. I trust he’ll find his shooting (layup?) form again, but half of his problem is his lack of improvement as a ball handler, which is resulting in him often losing the ball before he gets to the basket. Until he fixes that, he will be a liability with the ball. I’m less concerned about White since he’s shown he can turn it on and has a higher ceiling than expected (despite the expectations being lower), but he still needs to find a more consistent level of play, and he has until October to prove he’s worthy of an extension.
Barrington: I’m not worried. I like Murray coming off the bench as an energy guy and I expect he’ll start to play more under control after he gets off minutes restrictions and realizes he doesn’t have to pour it all out on the court in just a few minutes at a time. Derrick White’s shooting is improving, and I think he’s the logical choice to run the offense for the starters, which play more of a half court game. He’s going to get better and more confident as the season wears on.
Passos: Until Murray looks completely settled as a floor general, I think you need to remain skeptical about what his floor, ceiling and long-term role really are. While positions matter less than ever in the NBA, your lead ball-handler still needs to be a rising tide, and the team will need to get creative with how they use him if he never approaches that. White I’m less worried about if only because I see him as a solid complementary piece rather than nightly star, and he should remain that through and after what still feels like a transitional season for this team.
Gomez: They both have very clear flaws that could limit their upside, but they also have the tools to at the very least be above average starters. White’s main problem right now is consistency, which is understandable considering how often his role has changed in his short career. Murray is plainly a bad offensive player at this point, but he’s also just 23 years old and coming off a lost season. I doubt either will become a perennial All-Star, but then again that was always probably too much to ask from low first round picks. I still think they are part of the Spurs’ future.
O’Charles: We all frequently underestimate how long it takes to come back from a lost year. Dejounte may look fine physically, but it’s clear his body and mind are still operating at two different speeds. I expect his turnover issues will improve over the course of the year, which will go a long way towards increasing his value on the court. Derrick, on the other had, has looked great since returning to the starting lineup. He’s still a little too tentative and deferential, but the more comfortable he gets in his role, the more aggressive he’ll be.
The NBA’s ratings are down across the board compared to last season. Why do you think that is and is it something that should worry teams?
Dubinski: A good place to start would be wondering if these are global ratings and therefore include China? As far as I know they haven’t made up with the NBA yet. It probably also doesn’t help that the most watched team of the last few years — the Warriors — are injured and tanking, other stars like Kevin Durant are out for the season, and the creation of even more superteams in big markets are making the small market teams even less watchable as their stars move on to the bright lights.
Barrington: I don’t know a whole lot about this subject. It seems to me that the games and the way the league is presenting the game are as good as ever. I think the China situation probably has some impact, but I don’t know how to quantify that. It’s also early in the season, and maybe people are starting to catch on that early season games don’t mean a lot. Another factor is that it’s becoming way easier to watch the games without a TV, and I don’t know if that’s properly accounted for in the ratings. At this point, I have more questions than answers.
Passos: Anything that potentially affects the bottom line, and eventually player revenue and salary cap, should worry teams, but I have no idea where to start with this topic yet. Most of the ratings conversations have to do with the American market, but we also hear about the game’s growing global reach, so I’m curious how much, if at all, international TV rights play into the bigger picture.
Gomez: A lot of different circumstances have contributed to making this season one of the less exciting in recent years, so it makes sense the ratings are down. The Warriors dynasty is done; three of the stars in the LA market (Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis) are not all that charismatic; the East lacks glamour teams, among other factors. I’m not sure if it’s that big of a concern for the league yet that interest has momentarily waned, however. The international market has probably grown and will continue to grow and the current TV deal runs through the 2024/25 season, so there’s time to bounce back before heading back to the negotiation table.
O’Charles: Mark Cuban’s assessment that it has to do with shrinking cable subscription numbers, at least in part, makes sense, though the issues Marilyn and Jesus brought up are certainly relevant, too. It’s obviously a concern, but I don’t know that expecting growth every single year is realistic or healthy. The dip is a great opportunity to reassess the product and make sure they’re selling what they want to be selling in the way they want to sell it.