It’s been a bittersweet week for the Spurs. They had two close losses, including one to the Rockets, and a great away win against the reeling Celtics. It wasn’t the best three-game road trip they’ve had all season, but it could have been worse. Now a three-game homestand awaits in which San Antonio will have the chance to make a push up the standings.
To do so the Spurs will have to open and close games well, which means figuring out how to make the starting lineup perform better and finding ways to score late. In this week’s roundtable, In the Bonus, PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinksi, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos and Jesus Gomez, and Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco discuss those topics as well as offering their thoughts on the latest addition to the roster, Manu’s legacy and the team’s chances of finishing the season with 50 wins.
The four usual starters (White, Forbes, DeRozan and Aldridge) have posted much better numbers with Davis Bertans as a fifth as opposed Rudy Gay and Jakob Poeltl. Should Pop make another tweak and try starting Davis?
Marilyn Dubinski: I’m a big believer in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra, and this falls under that category. It seems like an unnecessary “just because” change, and it’s pretty late in the season for those. This also seems like a good time to point out that the Spurs are only 4-8 when Bertans starts this season, so something about him starting just isn’t clicking with this team. Granted, starting some of those games usually meant Rudy Gay and/or Derrick White were out, so it’s not all his fault, but it’s a straight forward stat that says the Spurs are better with Bertans coming off the bench.
Mark Barrington: Whoa there! You want to change the starting lineup with just a few games left in the regular season . . . Sure, why not!? It’s been that kind of season.
Bruno Passos: I’ll say no, with the emphatic qualifier that he should be prepared to turn to this lineup in the playoffs when the matchup allows. Bertans isn’t a universally good matchup, but you can only ignore his net rating for so long. The guy makes a legitimate impact on games, even when he’s not bombing away, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pop turn to him more often and earlier than usual in the postseason.
Jesus Gomez: Going by the numbers, it seems crazy that Pop hasn’t given that unit more run. It’s arguably the Spurs’ best medium-to-high usage lineup and so much better than the two other such five-man combinations featuring four of the usual starters. Unfortunately I think it’s a little late to make changes. The new starting lineup isn’t really working — the Spurs are getting outscored when those five guys are out there — but it’s clear that Pop likes what he sees, so I’m fine with him giving those guys more time to gel.
J.R. Wilco: I love me some Davis, but I also really like the way the team plays defense with two bigs. I also am pretty irrationally attached to the idea of the Spurs zigging when the league zags. It’s probably not healthy, but there it is. I’d like to see them stick with Poeltl as the starter. Then, in matchups that he’s expected to struggle, go with Bertans instead of Rudy Gay.
Manu’s jersey retirement is almost here. If you had to describe his legacy in one word, what would it be?
Dubinski: Competitor. If I were allowed two words I’d add “fierce” in front of that. One of his biggest traits (and one that is the most missed today) is he was not afraid of the moment. He never gave up, you trusted his instincts, and you wanted the ball in his hands at the most crucial time. Best of all, he was able to balance his competitive nature while still being endearing to his teammates: something not all stars are able to do (*cough: The King.) As a result, we not only got the best out of him, but he got the best out of his team as well.
Barrington: There isn’t any one word big enough to embody Manu’s greatness. If I had to come up with something that symbolized Ginobili’s off-the-charts creativity, incredible will to win, inspirational nature, and unconventional athleticism, it would have to be some sort of made-up word like Ginobility.
Passos: Genius. Ginobili’s feel for the game, awareness, and ability to knife through the cracks of what we and his opponents expected are what immediately set him apart — and what continued to give him an edge into his late 30s. He had plenty of layers, but that’s what I usually come back to first when reflecting on him.
Gomez: Selflessness. Manu always put the team first. Even when he tried to do too much it was because he thought that was the best path to victory. We’re talking about “the ultimate competitor,” as Pop called him, accepting sixth man role and then recognizing he needed to rely more on others as he aged. All the while he also took teammates under his wing and did what he could to keep the group as united as possible. He helped build the culture we now associate with the Spurs by leading by example. That’s more significant than any individual awards.
Wilco: Uncategorizable. Too good for the bench, but only started a third of his career games. Not enough raw stats, but still a cinch to be a first-ballot HOFer. Never the hands-down best player on his team, but delivered in countless crunch times on the biggest stages imaginable. The absolute heart and soul of more than one team. A man for all seasons; a man nature stooped to kiss. You can’t define him in any way but to say that he’s Manu. That’s sufficient, but it’s not a category.
DeRozan has been a really good clutch player this season by the numbers. Do you trust him to be the team’s closer with the game on the line?
Dubinski: I’m fine with him taking the final shot(s). He’s hit some big ones this season and is not afraid of the moment. That being said . . . LET SOMEONE ELSE BRING THE BALL UP THE COURT! He has fumbled away too many big possessions in the open court this season. (At least three come to mind that either led directly to or solidified losses.) Let White, Patty Mills, or even Bryn Forbes bring the ball up the court, and after that I’m fine with setting up the possession for DeRozan to go to work.
Barrington: I know the numbers show him to be good, but his late game turnovers are maddening. I sort of trust him, but I think he takes it too much on himself in end of game situations, when he could be passing the ball to LaMarcus before he gets double or triple-teamed. Maybe it’s the scheme, but I would prefer the offense to be less predictable in the final possession of the game, where the defenders don’t know in advance who they need to stop.
Passos: If it’s a two-point game or less, I’m not sure there’s a better option, although I agree with Marilyn that White might be the guy to get the ball up the floor.
Gomez: This is kind of fascinating, because he’s the anti-Kobe. The numbers say he’s good but you can tell most fans get a little nervous when he’s the one taking the shots, dating back to his Toronto days. It has to be him, though. Aldridge would immediately be double teamed and White doesn’t have the clout yet to wave someone like DeMar off. So I guess I have no option but to choose to trust him.
Wilco: I guess this is where I should admit that I don’t trust him, while specifying that I don’t really trust anyone on the team like that right now — but that’s probably a topic for another day so I’ll explain myself this way. I like it when the Spurs generate open shots at the rim or the three point line in crunch time. To do that, it’s good if they can force the other team to double-team . . . and teams regularly trust their best defender to stop DeRozan 1x1. So I’d like them to change their current last shot philosophy.
The Spurs are reportedly signing Donatas Motiejunas. Is it a good use of the 15th spot?
Dubinski: I have no problem with it. He was a solid role player with shooting range extending to the arc for the Rockets before injuries got the better of him. I know I’ve been advocate for Drew Eubanks getting that spot, but if the Spurs truly believe they can make some noise in the playoffs I’m happy giving it to a player with both NBA and playoff experience who also happens to add some offensive dimension to the team. Whether he’ll play or not is another story, but I feel better now that we have an insurance policy behind Aldridge and Poeltl.
Barrington: John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president, once famously said that the office “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.” The 15th roster spot is of similar value. Especially this late in the season. The Spurs’ roster was a little thin at big men, and Motiejunas is insurance in case Jakob Poeltl or LaMarcus Aldridge get hurt. Let’s hope that’s not needed. Pop might want to play Montiejunas and Drew Eubanks (who won’t be playoff eligible) in the final couple of games just to preserve LaMarcus and Jakob. After what happened to the Trail Blazers with Jusuf Nurkic, I would think that a lot of coaches in the league are going to be very cautious with player minutes late in the season.
Passos: As someone who has not exactly kept his finger on the pulse of the Chinese Basketball Association the last few years, I can’t say. The idea of Motiejunas? Sure, let’s see how he’s looking, what kind of contract the Spurs signed him up for, and see what happens.
Gomez: I like the signing. This season Motiejunas will be nothing more than a big body Pop can throw out there in case one of the other two centers gets into foul trouble, but he’s also just 28 years old and seemed on his way to a long NBA career before an injury derailed it. If he’s healthy, and the great number from the Chinese league at least suggest he is, he might be someone to consider for training camp next season. That’s not a bad use of the 15th spot.
Wilco: I love DoMo and think a serviceable big man is an excellent choice to finish out the roster. He’d be much better than suffering short-handed in the case that one of the bigs comes down with the flu that stole a week’s worth of games from Rudy Gay .
The Spurs will face just one opponent with a winning record the rest of the way. What do you think their final record will be? Is 50 wins a pipe dream?
Dubinski: It’s starting to feel like a pipe dream. They’d have to go undefeated the rest of the way, and while the schedule says that’s doable with only one game left against a team with a winning (which, granted, is at Denver), but it’s just hard to imagine them getting it done.
Barrington: I don’t think it’s going to happen, because Pop isn’t going to play his starters much after he locks down the 7th spot, which is where he wants to be.
Passos: 50 is doable! I wouldn’t consider it a likelihood, but the Spurs should be considered favorites in most of those final games, and it wouldn’t even be all that surprising to see them steal the game in Denver given how they’ve matched up. The trick is for it to come together and a little luck to be on their side.
Gomez: It’s not crazy to think they’ll win 50, but I don’t think they will. This team is too unpredictable. I can easily see them dropping a couple of winnable games. We also know that Pop has traditionally prioritized health over record, so he might rest some guys. It would be neat to get back to 50 wins but we might have to wait one more season before it happens.
Wilco: As long as it’s mathematically possible, I’m holding out hope. Bonus faith points granted by the fact that they’ve already won 9 games in a row this season, so 8 on the trot shouldn’t be deemed impossible. Right?