It’s been a sobering week for Spurs fans. The return from the All-Star break led into three straight losses to close out the least successful Rodeo Road Trip in San Antonio history. The team showed some fight in a hard-fought game in Toronto only to let the win slip away in the most painful way possible and followed that heartbreak with a couple of bad performances in New York.
In this week’s round table, PtR contributors Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos, and Marilyn Dubinski, join Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco and me to break down what ails the Spurs while also keeping an eye on the race to the postseason.
This is clearly the worst defensive team of the Gregg Popovich era (96/97 season excluded). Scheme, personnel or lack of effort: which is the biggest culprit?
Mark Barrington: I don’t think it’s a lack of effort, it’s a combination of personnel and lack of coordination. I mean, Marco couldn’t stop a turtle from crossing a busy highway, much less stop an NBA-level point guard from driving to the basket. Bryn Forbes has improved his defense a lot from last year, from abysmal to merely bad. But even though the individual defense is bad, it would be tolerable if the team defense would be in position to ameliorate some of the worst individual failings. But any team with good ball movement can get a wide open shot with just a few passes, and NBA players aren’t going to miss too many of those.
Marilyn Dubinski: The two games in New York aside (which I certainly blame at least partially on a lack effort from everyone outside The Mid Three), I’d say it’s the personnel more than anything. You’re replacing your only defensive ace (Dejounte Murray) with Bryn Forbes, and Derrick White is your only other respectable defender on the perimeter. Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl are good defenders at their positions, but a lot of their defense is coming in or near the paint, resulting in teams playing inside-out or around the perimeter against the Spurs, and they just don’t have the personnel to deal with that.
Bruno Passos: Personnel. On nights where the seemingly invaluable Derrick White has sat, the Spurs are cobbling together a perimeter defense around Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and Davis Bertans who have good basketball IQs but leave a lot to be desired as individual defenders and playmakers. The Spurs have been dead last in deflections per game in 2019, and opponents know they can either go at them one on one or put them in a couple of screens and a breakdown will occur.
Jesus Gomez: All three have been factors, but I think the lack of defensive chops on the roster is the biggest reason why the Spurs struggle to get stops consistently. We knew from the start that the perimeter defense was going to be bad. There’s just not enough length there. Some players are good team defenders but struggle individually and can be exploited. There’s only so much that non-disruptive bigs like Aldridge and Poeltl can do when those around them can stay in front of their men. Effort makes up for some weaknesses but this roster doesn't have the talent to be actually good on defense.
J.R. Wilco: No amount of effort or scheme can make up for players who aren’t good defenders. I don’t necessarily think that any of the guys getting play time are incapable of becoming decent on defense, but we have enough data to be confident saying they’re not there now.
Considering how it happened, was the loss against the Raptors the most painful one of the season? If not, which has been the most painful one?
Barrington: It was gut wrenching for me, because being up by one with 25 seconds left is a very good position to be in, you should be able to win in that situation about 95% of the time. But DeMar got no help bringing the ball up the court, and Kawhi did to the Spurs what he did to so many other teams while he played for the Silver and Black. It was all so predictable and so avoidable. While I think that Pop is the best in the business in putting together a team and an organization that knows how to win, sometimes I think he doesn’t take control of the game as much as he should. Most other coaches would have had the team call a timeout as soon as they got the rebound and advance the ball. Pop let the players play, and it didn’t work out.
Dubinski: They way it ended (and the symbolism) behind it was definitely one of the more painful moments of the season, but in the grand scheme of things the Spurs weren’t expected to win that game, and quite frankly between the way they’ve been playing on the road and the fact that I was expecting a revenge blowout, the result itself was better than expected. For me, the most painful losses are all the ones they’ve blown to the bottom of the league. Those are the games that are physically hurting them in the standings that we’ll be looking back on during the rest of the season and summer wondering what could have been.
Passos: It was for me. On a team level and personal one for DeRozan, it was such a precipitous emotional drop that felt both unjust and inevitable.
Gomez: It shouldn’t have been, since the Spurs were expected to lose that game. But to me it was, for two reasons. First, the fact that DeRozan’s great night ended the way it did was devastating. Second, that would have been such a great win had they pulled it off, one that might have even motivated the team to close the RRT better. A moment out of a nightmare prevented the Spurs from returning from the break with victory. It was just awful.
Wilco: I guess I’m the only one who wasn’t heart-broken, and I’m certain that it was because before the game, I had been able to temper my expectations. I’m rarely able to do this successfully, but I was so certain that something was going to happen to pull the rug out from under the team that I never allowed myself to believe that the game was in the bag. I was pulling for them, but it was pretty much a hope against hope situation. So when The Nephew made that play, I mostly thought, “Well, that’s what he does. Too bad, really.” Honestly, I was more bummed out watching the team be unable to compete with NY and BKN on a BABA. My morale really took a hit on Sunday and Monday — Friday, not at all.
Bryn Forbes is in a terrible shooting slump. Considering his defensive limitations, should he see his role decrease once White is all the way back or should the Spurs just hope he shoots his way out of it?
Barrington: Bryn is a great story, but he’s a marginal NBA player. He can’t defend, and he doesn’t have a great handle. Literally the only thing he can do is shoot. He can be valuable coming off the bench as a scorer, but he should never start unless the team is really bereft of talent at the guard position. Which has been the case this year with White missing a lot of games to injury and Dejounte out for the year.
Dubinski: He’s a shooter, and shooters find their stroke eventually. The one issue I have with reducing his role too much he is a part of that nine-man rotation that has worked well this season when healthy, and I hate the idea of messing with that rotation too much. (Kinda like how I hated Pop starting Davis Bertans over Rudy Gay against the Nets when Bertans is a much better fit with the bench unit. Why mess with that?) When Forbes is hitting his shots he’s valuable to the starters because he spreads the floor, and having White present doesn’t take that away from him. He will see less playing time next season when Murray is back and hopefully Lonnie Walker IV has a role, but this season is what it is, we know what rotations work, and at this point I’d rather just stick with them than tinker some more.
Passos: In theory, I’m definitely open to it, but it would have to be for a pretty clear defensive upgrade. I think his shooting will come around, and he brings a kind of tough-shot making that has bailed this team out on countless possessions. In the long run, though, he’s not quite a quality NBA starter, and there’s much to lose in exploring new options.
Gomez: I wouldn’t mind seeing his role reduced, since the Spurs have such a thin margin of error, but I honestly don’t know who’d get his minutes. Marco Belinelli is also struggling with his shot. White should probably be brought along slowly. That leaves Patty Mills, but he’s already getting around 25 minutes a game, which sounds about right for a player of his talent. I’m not convinced Lonnie Walker is the answer here, either. I think the Spurs have no choice but hope Forbes just goes back to hitting his shots.
Wilco: Who else do the Spurs have to play instead? Nah, I say let him shoot his way back into a groove.
Gregg Popovich called out his team after the loss against the Knicks and there was no response against the Nets. Is he at risk of being tuned out by the players?
Barrington: I don’t think the players care what he says to the press. I think the team is engaged, they just aren’t very good right now.
Dubinski: I don’t think he’s being tuned out. This team just isn’t good on the road. That’s a whole other issue that has many reasons behind it, but I doubt it’s because they’ve stopped listening to Pop. This may be a flawed roster, but they are all respectable personalities and coach-able players, and I would never expect either of them to pull a LeBron and tune out their coach.
Passos: Nah. He’s calling these performances out for what they are, but ultimately he doesn’t have the roster we’re used to seeing take care of business against non-elite opponents.
Gomez: It’s a little concerning that the rants don’t seem to motivate players like they used to, but I don’t think they’ve tuned him out. They still try to execute what he asks of them. I do think that maybe Pop might not know exactly how to get to this new batch of guys. There has been so much roster turnover that it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s still trying to figure out what makes the new guys tick.
Wilco: He didn’t call them out after the loss to the Nets because it was a failure on offense. The team held a good offense to 101 points, but the shots simply didn’t fall. That’s when you take your lumps and look to the next one. He called them out after the loss to New York because they couldn’t get stops against a team that’s tanking. That’s about as embarrassing as it gets.
On the bright side, the Spurs now have 12 games left at home and only eight on the road. Are you still confident they’ll make the playoffs, even after going 1-7 in the RRT?
Barrington: Maybe? Let’s see how they do in their first few home games. I don’t believe they’re as bad as they looked on the RRT, but if they continue to play like that, hello lottery.
Dubinski: I’m pretty confident they’ll make it, I would just feel better if their chances at being above the 8th seed were higher. The last thing I want is another first round against the Warriors (or frankly any round outside the WCF) in which expecting a gentlemen’s sweep is a positive outlook. Any other match-up, and there’s a chance.
Passos: I’ve dropped from 70/30 “yes” to about 55/45. I’m still leaning towards expecting to see them there, but nothing should surprise us at this point. Even at home, there are a handful of games against tough teams that are equally hungry to improve their playoff positions.
Gomez: I’m not as confident as I was before those three bad losses in the second leg, to be honest. But the teams below them haven’t exactly been killing it and there are some home games coming up. I still think they’ll make it.
Wilco: “Still confident” is binary, so my answer is yes. I still think they’ll make the postseason. If the question was whether I’m as confident as I was before the RRT, then it’d be a big honking NO.