It’s been a fantastic week for the Spurs, who are in the middle of a six-game winning streak. Their defense has been good, Derrick White seems like a difference-maker, and even without Rudy Gay the offense has looked fine. With a four-game homestand on the horizon, they could not only cement their place in the playoffs, but aspire to move up the standings.
In this week’s edition of In The Bonus, PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Charlie O’Charles, Bruno Passos, Jesus Gomez and Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco try to figure out if the progress we are seeing is legitimate, discuss whether Derrick White has a chance to get an award for his improved play, consider if there’s a need for a big man addition and share their predictions about the East’s playoff race.
Drew Eubanks has gotten some minutes recently. Are you comfortable with him as the Spurs’ third center going forward?
Marilyn Dubinski: I am. He’s all effort and hustle out there, and he doesn’t look outmatched. Plus, he’ll only see minutes if either LaMarcus Aldridge or Jakob Poeltl are out or in foul trouble, so it’s not like he’s being thrust into a rotation spot. He would be a good insurance policy at center if needed . . . better than Davis Bertans, who would be the next man up by default, and imagining him at center is cringe-worthy, at least on defense.
Charlie O’Charles: A handful of minutes here and there is fine. He’s good enough to soak up some playing time without punting a game, and he needs the reps. But the Spurs are much better with Rudy Gay or Davis Bertans playing as the 2nd “big” alongside LaMarcus Aldridge or Jakob Poeltl, so unless someone is injured or in foul trouble, he should continue in his primary role as the breakout star of the bench mob.
Bruno Passos: In an ideal game, the Spurs’ third center is getting as many minutes as the fifth point guard, but I’m fine with him being that Break Glass In Case Of Emergency big. He knows the system well enough to facilitate the offense, has a little bit of craft with finishing, and isn’t shy about contesting shots and using up all 6 of his fouls if necessary.
Jesus Gomez: I wouldn’t be if I thought he’d actually get minutes. I don’t think he’s an NBA big yet. But since he’s probably going to play in garbage time unless someone gets injured, I guess it’s fine. He at least knows the system and seems stronger and more reliable on defense than Chimezie Metu.
J.R. Wilco: I’m with Bruno in making Drewbanks (Dreubanks? DrEubanks? Dr. Eubanks? Doc?!) San Antonio’s glass-breaking emergency big. As a stop-gap, he’s everything you want. He plays confidently, makes moves quickly, challenges strongly, and fouls with aplomb. That last one is very important. I hate it when guys know their job is to stop a score at all costs, and end up allowing the and-one. I’m willing to bet that almost never happens to Doc. His block attempts are so vigorous that he’s either sending it back, or taking someone’s arm off. I like that about him.
What is more likely, for Derrick White to finish top three on the Most Improved Player race or for him to make an All-Defensive team?
Dubinski: Neither is likely, but I’ll go with All-Defense as having a better chance. While it seems counter-intuitive, MIP voters want something to compare from the previous season when picking candidates, and almost nothing isn’t something . . . or something like that. If he makes another leap next season, like to the 15 ppg range on offense, I could see him being in the conversation. Being the best perimeter defender on the Spurs gives him a better chance at making All-Defense, but he’s still on the outside looking in as a mostly unknown commodity, and due to the the Spurs being a fringe bottom-third defense (as of Monday they are 20th).
O’Charles: He has a case for both, but the MIP typically goes to more seasoned players having breakout years. Derrick’s emergence feels a lot more like natural growth, something that’s expected with the Spurs, which might actually hurt him a little in the national conversation. All-Defensive team, on the other hand, is an easy fit. Impact metrics love him and the eye test is even better. The Spurs’ defense actually looks okay with him on the floor, and no other candidate has such a pronounced effect. That said, he’ll have to beat out several players with strong defensive reputations - Jrue Holiday, Marcus Smart, Patrick Beverley, Danny Green, Cory Joseph, Klay Thompson and Kyle Lowry - despite having played ~15 fewer games than any of them while playing for one of the worst defenses in the league.
Passos: Either one feels like a longshot, but I’ll go with All-Defensive Team. As bad as the team in the aggregate has been on that end, White’s numbers — a team-best defensive rating and the 2nd-best DRPM among all NBA point guards — make a fairly strong case for one of the Spurs’ most impactful players.
Gomez: Paskal Siakam and D’Angelo Russell are probably the only two guys with a chance to win Most Improved Player. If voters want to go for a young point guard, De’Aaron Fox probably will be their pick. White is on a third tier for that award, at best. I do think he should make an All-Defensive team. He’s been phenomenal on that end — better than Dejounte Murray was last season in my eyes, and Murray got it. He might not make the cut, but he should at least be in that conversation.
Wilco: MIP is one of those weird awards that goes to a certain type of player that’s firm in the minds of the voters, not the player that has actually improved the most. So Derrick is more likely to make All Defense, but he’s an extreme dark horse. (How about next year’s chances for a healthy DJ and White to put the lock-down on the first team all defense guard positions?)
Since the RRT the Spurs have been great on defense. Are they actually peaking at the right time or just taking advantage of a home-heavy schedule to trick us once again?
Dubinski: I would like to think they’re actually improving, and while I won’t bet my savings on it, there are little aspects to point to that can explain it. The home schedule certainly helps from an effort standpoint, but adjustments like having two bigs out there appears to be helping (especially when one is a mobile 7-footer who can get out on the perimeter in Poeltl), plus a healthy Derrick White never hurt anything. Also, while he’s still not a great defender, DeRozan has at least been better now that he’s healthy and rejuvenated. That doesn’t suddenly make them world beaters, but every little bit helps.
Passos: That’s the question on the minds of everyone, including Gregg Popovich. They’ve done this to us before but, if it’s happening again, it’s at least happening in a different way, with a simplified rotation and a return to starting with two true bigs. The home-heavy schedule absolutely helps, but we might also be seeing a meaningful shift that allows them to play more defensive-minded, competent basketball on the road, too.
Gomez: I’m not buying it until they do it on the road. For some reason they are a disaster away from San Antonio, and I’ll only believe they’ve found a solution by starting two bigs when they prove it. I really hope they do, but I’m not particularly confident.
Wilco: I’ll go this far and no further: they’re a good defensive team, at home. Time will tell if they can prove that I should remove that qualifier.
The Spurs are very close to the sixth seed. Do you think they can finish that high?
Dubinski: I wouldn’t have thought so a week ago, but that Jazz’s sudden mini-slide has given at least a glimmer of hope. That being said, the Jazz still own the tie-breaker, plus they’re one of two teams with an easier closing schedule than the Spurs. I’m not counting on it happening, but nothing is impossible.
O’Charles: There’s a chance, but it’s slim. Since the Jazz own the tiebreaker, and have such an easy remaining schedule, the Spurs will likely have to get to 50 wins to have a shot. That means winning 12 of their last 15, which includes games against 4 of the top 5 teams in the West.
Passos: That spot should be the Jazz’s to lose, but anything is possible with 15 games still to go. Utah has one less loss than the Spurs, a slightly easier final stretch to the season (going by Tankathon), and the tie-breaker on San Antonio to boot.
Gomez: The Jazz have underachieved so much this season that I really wanted to say there was a chance. But they have so many cupcakes ahead of them that it would take a disastrous end of the season from Utah for the Spurs to get the sixth seed. I’m not completely ruling it out, but I wouldn’t bet on it happening.
Wilco: I think it’s less about whether they CAN take the 6th, and more about whether they SHOULD. The playoffs are all about matchups, so for my money, I’d rather they finish at the 7 (or the 5) so they can avoid the Warriors and get the Nuggets (or the Thunder).
Three teams are fighting for the eighth seed (and the chance to be swept by the Bucks) in the East. Who do you think will get it, the Heat, the Magic or the Hornets?
Dubinski: I’d be lying if I claimed to have any knowledge of how those teams are playing right now, but if I had to pick one I’d say the Heat just because they have gone 5-5 instead of 3-7 (Hornets) over the last ten games, plus the Magic have two more losses. That being said, I’ll root for the Hornets, Tony Parker, and James Borrego every step of the way.
O’Charles: I’d like for the Hornets to make it, for obvious reasons, but they’re heading in the wrong direction, having won just 3 of their last 10 games. The Magic have a much easier remaining schedule, but the Heat appear to have pole position, with a 2 game lead in the loss column. It’ll likely come down to who wins the final game of their season series on March 26th in Miami. I think the Magic will take it, giving them the tiebreaker and the inside track to a postseason annihilation.
Passos: Every time I try to treat this question with the sober, detached analysis it deserves, I get a little sadder. As an over-correction, and because any choice feels like a crapshoot anyway, I’ll go with the team I’d be most delighted to see in there — the Hornets — who can extend Tony Parker’s postseason streak and give a positive spin to James Borrego’s first coaching season by sneaking in.
Gomez: Wow, that is a sad race. I think the Magic have the upper hand, since they have an easier remaining schedule, including four at home after their matchup with the Wizards. The Heat’s recent play seems unsustainable and the Hornets just don’t seem to have enough to make a big push, unfortunately for Tony.
Wilco: As much as my heart is pulling me toward Charlotte, I gotta go with the Heat. They’re the far better road team of the three, and when the whole season comes down to focusing on a single game, I like the squad that can keep their heads away from home.