Nothing like a couple of games at home to get the Spurs back on track. After a disaster of a Rodeo Road Trip the team has looked solid in its return to San Antonio, stringing together three wins in a row against playoff teams, including two possible first-round matchups.
The turnaround has come at the perfect time, as the team prepares for the home stretch. Gregg Popovich has been making some tweaks while the roster is taking its final form after the departure of Pau Gasol. Meanwhile, the race for the playoffs seems to have lost a competitor, as the Lakers continue to struggle.
PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos and Jesus Gomez and Editor-in Chief J.R. Wilco break it all down in this week’s edition of our round table, In The Bonus.
Pau Gasol is no longer a Spur. How will you remember his tenure in San Antonio?
Marilyn Dubinski: I don’t have the negative view of him that some do. He came to help transition from the Tim Duncan era, and it felt like he would be an upgrade on offense without too much drop-off on defense. In his first season that was pretty much true, and with the nephew in MVP form he didn’t have to do much more. Unfortunately, injuries derailed his last two seasons, and his contract made him an easy target for criticism. However, I’ll remember the professionalism and class he brought to the organization, his public presence, and contributions to the community. My dad and his dog even volunteered alongside him once at the Methodist Children’s Hospital, giving the kids the surprise of a dog and NBA player all at once, and both were equally loved. My dad had nothing but good things to say about Pau, and I feel the same way even if his time here will barely be a flicker on his shining Hall of Fame resume.
Mark Barrington: I remember him as a consummate professional, and an all around solid presence, but he never was able to live up to my expectations on the court. Maybe it’s because he missed a lot of time to injury, but he never got into a rhythm as a core contributor for the team. He was a solid backup, but he got paid starter money. His body of work for his career was impeccable, but his tenure with the Spurs is just a footnote in it.
Bruno Passos: As the Express-News’ Mike Finger put it, the timing didn’t end up quite right for Pau and the Spurs, a pairing which for so long made all the sense in the world. People will gripe about his contract, but it didn’t really limit the team financially as much as people think and, as should always be noted, he remained a class act regardless of how many minutes he got. Being closer to the team these last few years, I was able to see firsthand how forthcoming to the media he was with his time and thoughts. He was also an outspoken supporter of the arts scene here in San Antonio, and remains an owner of one of the most positive Twitter accounts around.
Jesus Gomez: It was bittersweet. I was outspoken about believing it was a mistake to sign Pau. I didn’t like the contract they offered him when they re-signed him, even if I understood that he was always going to get it for doing the Spurs the favor of opting out. He was simply too past his prime to be the two-way force he had been in the past. Yet I can’t really say his tenure was a failure. He was part of a team that made it to the conference finals, playing a big role in the series against the Rockets in 2017. He was down to take threes when asked to, he didn’t complain when he had to come off the bench and he didn’t create any drama. Pau is both a pro and a good guy. I admired him before he joined the Spurs and I still admire him now.
J.R. Wilco: I’ll remember: how much better he was than I expected, how he killed it from three-point-range and led the league for nearly an entire season, how great he was at passing from the post (especially, but not limited to, LMA), how regularly I defended him against people who were angry about his contract, and how as soon as I heard he was being bought out the first thing I thought about was that contract.
The Spurs now have an open roster spot. How should they fill it?
Dubinski: There’s no reason to waste it on someone just because. If there’s someone available that they feel can help, then go for it. I personally can’t name anyone who would crack the main rotation. If a need ever arises it will probably be because LaMarcus Aldridge or Jakob Poeltl get hurt, and the Spurs are suddenly super small. Chimezie Metu is not NBA ready, so that might make them consider a third big, but again: who? Maybe sign Drew Eubanks to guaranteed contract if desperation time arises?
Barrington: It depends on who’s available. If someone is available who can break the top 10 and get at least a few significant minutes during the playoffs, then fill the spot. Anyone after that isn’t going to get off the bench in the postseason. There’s no need for more towel wavers on the bench, that’s pretty much covered with Pondexter.
Passos: Another true big wouldn’t hurt, although I couldn’t tell you who that would be.
Gomez: Ideally they’d sign a center with some NBA experience to throw out there for 10 minutes in case of emergency. Is there someone who can handle that role available? Marcin Gortat and Greg Monroe could, if they are still in shape. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if PATFO either leaves the spot open or uses it on a G-Leaguer it can ink to a two-year deal with the second season being non-guaranteed, as they’ve done in the past.
Wilco: Not only am I dubious that they’ll sign anyone, I’d actually be surprised if they do.
Pop is experimenting with bringing Rudy Gay off the bench and starting Jakob Poeltl. Are you liking the results so far?
Dubinski: It has gone smoother than I would have expected, especially on offense considering Poeltl and Aldridge tend to occupy similar space. As long as Aldridge is hitting his mid-range shots, it can work. The question is will it work against smaller teams. So far we’ve just seen it against the larger Pistons, Thunder and Nuggets. Will it work against, for example, the Warriors? As for Gay, he has always been reliable both as a starter and sixth man, so I’m not concerned about his role.
Barrington: I like it. Gay can anchor the bench unit and provide points even when the offensive flow stalls by taking his defender one-on-one. And Jakob has been a revelation on defense, especially at home. He should play a ton of minutes, because even if the Spurs don’t go anywhere in the playoffs this year, he’s going to be a key contributor later on, and he needs playing time to develop.
Passos: The Spurs seem more settled defensively with two bigs, which mostly has to do with them lacking plus-defenders on the perimeter. It limits the starters a bit offensively with spacing, but the defensive improvement probably offsets that. Gay’s fit on the bench is not without its seams, given he’s not quite the screen-setting, off-ball moving, floor-spacing archetype, but it’s looked pretty good so far.
Gomez: I don’t like it, but so far is has worked. Over the past three games that starting lineup has done amazing. It’s a throwback unit that could struggle against a bunch of smaller frontcourts but probably matches up well against the Thunder and Nuggets, two likely playoff opponents. I just want to see how it works on the road. Everything seems to go well for the Spurs at home only to fall apart the second they are away from San Antonio. Let’s see if this tweak is different.
Wilco: I’m wary but optimistic. I’m also curious how well they’ll be able to continue rolling big as they get into a really difficult part of their schedule. If we’re still seeing Poeltl with the starters and Gay with the reserves two weeks from now, it’ll be because they had a really good run against the Bucks, Trail Blazers and Warriors.
The Spurs have five of their next seven at home, and the two away games (against the Hawks and Mavs) are winnable. Is this the stretch that will determine whether they make the playoffs or not?
Dubinski: The Spurs just need to take care of their own business, and they’ve shown they can do that when they’re in the right mindset. They currently have a two-game cushion over the Kings, but with the losing bouts this team is capable of it’s pretty precarious. What the Clippers and Kings do (I think we can eliminate the Lakers at this point) will matter just as much, but the Spurs still control their own destiny. One thing is for sure: it’s looking more and more like they need to outdo the Clippers if they want avoid a third playoff series in a row against the Warriors. They tied the series with LA, so it looks like it will come down to conference record, where the Spurs currently have a 1.5-game advantage. (Meanwhile, they match up pretty well with the Nuggets for a 2-7 series. Just sayin’.)
Barrington: It’s not a lock if they play well, but it could be the end of the road of they go on a swoon like they did in February. If they go 2-5 or worse, the Kings could catch them for the final playoff spot. If they go 5-2 or better, they’re in good shape for the postseason. Anywhere in between will have Spurs fans watching the standing closely for the last week of the season.
Passos: It all depends if they win them or not!
Gomez: I think it might be, yes. If they can win at least five, they’ll be in great shape to face the last stretch, which features two three-game road trips and a matchup with the Kings. It seems like this is the time for the Spurs to get some Ws to put a little more distance between them and Sacramento or at the very least maintain the lead they have now.
Wilco: The way the Lakers, Timberwolves, and Kings are playing right now, I’m not sure the Spurs could miss the playoffs if they tried.
After losing to the Clippers, the Lakers are now 4.5 games back from the Spurs, who hold the tie-breaker. Is this going to be the first postseason without LeBron since 2004 or can they still make a push?
Dubinski: I think if they had the drive to get back in the hunt they would have done it already instead of continuing to fall further behind thanks to teams like the Suns. LeBron only seems half interested at this point, and the young squad around him can’t seem to put it together. “Rumor” has it that he has shown more interest in the Hollywood lifestyle there and building towards his post-playing career than his team. It was always obvious this was why he chose the Lakers, knowing the odds of continuing his finals streak in the West were basically zero (at least this season), but I also wondered if this move would hurt his drive to win, and it appears that it has. Even Carmelo Anthony found things too dysfunctional to sign with them, if that tells you anything. Personally, I’m enjoying watching it all unfold.
Barrington: They’re more done than my grandma’s meatloaf. She always said “charcoal’s good for you,” but it sure didn’t taste like it.
Passos: They’re done. They’ve probably been done for a while, and it’s just taken us getting over our legitimate belief in LeBron for us to catch up with reality. In their defense, Lakers fans have some strong statistical evidence to Lonzo Ball’s value being similar to their team as Derrick White’s has been for the Spurs. Still, that doesn’t excuse any LeBron squad for underachieving like this one has. It will be a weird postseason indeed.
Gomez: It certainly looks that way, which is frankly a little surprising. They were good before LeBron went down with a groin injury and at different times the young guys have showed some game, so their struggles are not about talent. They are just incredibly dysfunctional at this point. Some players reportedly clashed with Luke Walton, the trade rumors wrecked locker room morale and LeBron has been shockingly bad at rallying the troops. If they miss the playoffs, big changes should be in the horizon.
Wilco: From the moment James signed with the Lakers, I wondered why he was taking this season off from being competitive. Now people are discussing whether L.A. should shut him down for the year. I think it’s become clear his decision last off-season was about lifestyle (for his family mostly) and not basketball. I can’t see them coming back from five-and-a-half games down with just 17 left to play.