It’s been a dream week for the Spurs. They not only extended their winning streak to nine, but did so while beating the Trail Blazers and the Warriors, two of the conference’s best teams. Gregg Popovich’s tweaks are paying off, as the team is looking better than it has all season.
In our weekly round table, In The Bonus, PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos, Jesus Gomez and Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco wonder if the improvement is finally real while keeping an eye on the young prospects and getting into the March Madness spirit.
Jakob Poeltl has emerged as a key contributor in the recent winning streak. Has he become the second most important young prospect on the roster after Derrick White? (Let’s use 25 as the cutoff for who qualifies as a young prospect)
Marilyn Dubinski: It definitely feels that way considering center is a position the Spurs have been trying to get younger at for years. I’m actually not even sure when the last time was that they had a “young” big starting. Maybe DeJuan Blair? (Splitter, Baynes, Dedmon, etc. were all 25 or older when they first got here.) It’s hard to say whether Poeltl is a more important prospect that Dejounte Murray in the long run, but this season at least he has been a revelation and fills a big area of need for the Spurs going forward.
Mark Barrington: For the long run, it’s Dejounte Murray. But among the guys who played this year, it’s a little harder to decide. Judging by his play this year, it probably should be Jakob Poeltl, but I think that Lonnie Walker IV is going to be a tremendous player once he learns the pro game. Which will probably the year after next. So it depends on whether you’re measuring what they’ve already shown they can do versus unrealized potential. I hope all three of them (Jakob, Dejounte, and Lonnie) remain on the team for a long time and form the core of the next ten years of Silver and Black dominance.
Bruno Passos: This season, certainly. In the long run, I think placing him a spot below would safely account for Murray’s return to form and Walker’s upside. Still, he’s proven to be more than a throw-in in the Kawhi Leonard deal — he’s a two-way center that is still very playable, either alongside another big or in small-ball lineups, even in the new NBA. From watching him up close, it’s also clear that he’s one of the more nuanced basketball brains to come through SA in a while, which makes me confident he still has good room to grow as a pro.
Jesus Gomez: He clearly is right now, and with the questions surrounding Dejounte Murray’s development after his injury and the uncertainty about what Lonnie Walker could become, he could continue to be the second best prospect going forward. I’m not sure that would be good for the Spurs, however. As great as Jakob has been this season, he still projects to be a fifth starter or killer third big man on a great team. Walker and especially Murray are supposed to be better than that. For now I’m just going to enjoy Poeltl’s leap while hoping the other prospects eventually make their own and leapfrog him in importance.
J.R. Wilco: The way the defense performs while he’s on the floor makes it evident that for the time being, Poeltl is incredibly important to the Spurs. His on/off numbers show how large a role he has played during the winning streak. No one but White in that age range comes close.
The Spurs have now beaten the Bucks, Thunder, Nuggets, Trail Blazers and Warriors in their winning streak. Those are elite teams. Is it fair to assume they have actually turned the corner for real this time or do you still have doubts?
Dubinski: I believe so. They have finally found the right balance between health and enough players hitting their stride at the right time. DeRozan had it going early, but Derrick White was out and Aldridge had a slow start. Then Aldridge found himself, but DeRozan had a mid-season slump, plus White and Gay were in and out of the line-up. Now, aside from Gay’s recent bout with the flu, all four of those guys are playing at a high level, the role players are along for the ride (yes, I have moved White past “role player” status), and they may have found their defense with the addition of Poeltl to the starting line-up. Even if the second round of the playoffs still feels like the most reasonable goal for this group, I’m ready to believe.
Barrington: I think ‘turning the corner’ is a flawed metaphor. They’re a team that’s capable of really solid play, but they’re also capable of extended stretches of really awful defense, especially on the road. If they can put together a good road winning streak, then I’ll start to believe that they’re an elite team. Pop can fashion a win against anyone during the regular season, but I remain unconvinced that this team can hang with any of the top teams in the west in a seven game series.
Passos: Whether it’s the corner or a corner, they’re not the same team they were 3 or 4 weeks ago. The defensive improvement is real, the rotations are more or less set, and you get a sense that the 4 best players each know when it’s time to eat. Combine that with White’s ability to take on the opponent’s best perimeter player, his improved chemistry with DeRozan (who’s playing as well as ever), Aldridge and Poeltl anchoring the defense together or individually, and you can finally see the broad strokes of an actualized Spurs team.
Gomez: I don’t think they are as wobbly as they were a couple of weeks ago. They have a set rotation in which everyone knows their role and they have no injuries. That alone is huge. I think the tweaks Pop made are good and I think the team’s confidence is sky high. In that sense, they have turned a corner. I’m still not sure if they are anything other than first round fodder, though, which is fine. This year’s team was never supposed to be a contender. Just getting into the playoffs is big. Making it to the second round would be a huge success. This version of the team has a better chance to do that than the one from the RRT, so I definitely think we’ve seen progress.
Wilco: I feel like their great record in December could have had a ton of asterisks places next to wins, as they took out one short-handed team after another. And while the recent wins over Portland (CJ McCollum) and Golden State (Iggy and Boogie) came against teams that weren’t fully healthy, the rest of the run has been good teams who aren’t hurting. But the biggest reason for optimism they the corner has been turned is the road games they’ve been winning.
March Madness is here. Since the Spurs have two picks in the next draft, are you going to pay extra attention to the NCAA Tournament?
Dubinski: I tuned out college basketball this year since Texas A&M was horrible after reaching the Sweet 16 last year, so I couldn’t name any prospects beyond Zion Williamson. I promise I’ll do my homework and get back to you on that, but I believe they need to be looking at the forward positions. With their young guards and center looking good, it’s time to shift their focus to that area of the court and start grooming younger prospects for the future.
Barrington: I don’t follow college basketball much during the season, so I’ll form my opinions by watching the tournament games. All I know is that the Longhorns won’t be there.
Passos: I’ll be paying a good deal of attention, both because of the Spurs’ vested interest and my own alma mater, UNC, always being in the mix. To propagate one of my favorite tin-foil hat theories — if you’re wanting to scout potential future Spurs, you could do worse than focusing on West Coast/Pac-12 teams, the part of the country the front office has appeared to set its sights on now that all 30 teams are mining the overseas market. Shoutout to Washington’s Matisse Thybulle.
Gomez: I’ll definitely try. I’ve been reading a lot about this year’s prospects but haven’t been able to watch much of them. From what the experts are saying, it’s not the strongest draft up top but there could be talent that slips past the lottery. My dreams of getting Jontay Porter are definitely not going to come true, but the Spurs will hopefully get a defensive-minded combo forward or a shooter with size to round out their young core.
Wilco: Absolutely not. I prefer to watch sports played at the highest level. The only college ball I’ll likely watch this year is the championship game, if that.