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The Spurs’ role players must elevate their game for the playoffs

The Mid Three have been as consistent as ever, but the Spurs need more from everyone else.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

LaMarcus Aldridge has become the force the Spurs were expecting when they signed him in the summer of 2015. Sure, there’s questions about his defense, but regardless of what the real plus/minus numbers suggest, I feel his regression has more to do with the players surrounding him than it does an individual decline. Aldridge is allowing his highest defensive field goal percentage in the painted area in his tenure with the Spurs, but he no longer has the benefit of playing alongside lengthy wing players capable of excellent help defense.

Offensively, Aldridge is having arguably the best season of his illustrious career. He’s bullying any team foolish enough to not double team him in the post, and he’s efficiently knocking down shots from anywhere inside the arc.

DeMar DeRozan made a lot of us nervous after the Spurs’ emotional win against the Toronto Raptors on January 3rd. For the rest of January, DeRozan scored only 16 points a game on 40% shooting, while averaging nearly four turnovers a game. Lucky for us, that poor stretch of play appears to have been merely a blip in the radar. DeRozan is averaging nearly 22 points on over 50% shooting in the months of February and March, while reducing his turnovers to 2.3 a game during this span.

DeRozan’s issues come in the clutch, where he has made a career out of resorting to hero ball instead of playing team basketball. In games that have a point differential of three points or less with two minutes to go, DeRozan has gone 14 for 35, good for 40%. That percentage doesn’t seem great, but it is ninth best out of the 26 players who have taken at least 25 shots in clutch situations this season. For comparison, Russell Westbrook and Paul George are both shooting 30% or less. The sad truth is that most teams resort to hero ball down the stretch, and as a result, defenses can focus on the ball handler, and field goal percentages drop.

The problem is, I don’t know what other option the Spurs have. Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, and Davis Bertans all have higher field goal percentages in the clutch, but their shots come from spot up possessions generated by DeRozan penetrating the defense. Giving the ball to Aldridge sounds good in theory, but teams in the playoffs will almost certainly double him the moment he touches the ball, forcing him to pass out of the double team. The Spurs have still proven incapable of punishing defenses for deploying such a tactic. Rudy Gay is another option, but he’s only 2 for 6 in such situations this season, and for better or worse, I can’t see Pop calling plays for Gay over DeRozan in the clutch moments of playoff games.

Speaking of Gay, he’s been incredibly consistent for the Spurs this season. He’s having a career year from an efficiency standpoint, and he’s been a solid addition to both the starting and bench units. He does have the tendency to disappear for long stretches of games, but he seems to have a good feel as to when the Spurs need instant offense.

While Aldridge, DeRozan, and Gay have been mostly great, it’s simply not enough.

Starting lineup net ratings

Team Starting Lineup Net Rating Minutes
Team Starting Lineup Net Rating Minutes
GSW Curry, Durant, Thompson, Green, Cousins 5.5 228
DEN Millsap, Barton, Harris, Jokic, Murray 11 343
POR Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic, Aminu, Harkless* 8.9 744
HOU Paul, Tucker, Gordon, Harden, Capela 3.1 355
UTAH Rubio, Gobert, Favors, Ingles, Mitchell 5.1 501
LAC Gallinari, Beverley, Gilgeous-Alexander, Zubac, Shamet 10.2 240
SAS Aldridge, DeRozan, Gay, Forbes, White** 0.4 349
OKC Westbrook, George, Adams, Grant, Ferguson 8.5 864

* Jusuf Nurkic is out for the season due to injury

** Replace Gay with Jakob Poeltl and the Spurs’ net rating drops to -2.9 in 153 minutes

The unfortunate truth is that the Spurs do not have the firepower in the starting lineup to compete with the starters of the other teams in the Western Conference playoffs. As the graph above illustrates, if the Spurs’ starters are able to play the opposing starting lineup even, it’s considered a win for the Spurs.

The lineups the Spurs will be facing in the playoffs are going to be consistently tougher than the teams they faced during the regular season, so expecting better results will likely lead to disappointment. The Spurs are most likely to match up against the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, or the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs. The only team on this list that the Spurs’ starting lineup has had success against has been the Denver Nuggets — one of the many reasons I hope the Spurs end up playing the Nuggets in the first round. The Spurs’ starting lineup has been especially bad against the Rockets and Blazers, though the Blazers’ injuries make them more vulnerable the rest of the way.

Derrick White’s impact on the starting lineup

The Spurs have gone 2-4 over their past six games, but DeRozan, Aldridge, Gay, and Forbes have all played well during this stretch. The only outlier has been Derrick White. He has struggled with his shot, resulting in a less-aggressive version of the White we saw earlier in the season. Much to my surprise, his struggles have not had much of a negative impact on the starting lineup. In fact, the lineup of White, Forbes, DeRozan, Gay, and Aldridge have a +6.7 rating in 52 minutes during this six-game stretch.

Back in January when DeRozan was struggling and White was averaging 15 points on a ridiculous 60% shooting, the Spurs’ starting lineup had a -12.3 rating in 76 minutes. White playing well on offense is a bonus, but DeRozan and Aldridge must be good on offense for the starting lineup to stay afloat. The only time this season both White and DeRozan were playing good on offensive at the same time was the first part of March, but Poeltl was starting in place of Gay during that span. This makes it difficult to know how a starting lineup of White, DeRozan, Aldridge, Forbes, and Gay would look with all cylinders firing at the same time, or if that’s even a possibility.

The Spurs’ bench is the key

Outside of the Los Angeles Clippers’ dynamic duo of Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams, I believe the Spurs’ bench — in particular Mills, Belinelli, Bertans, and Poeltl — have the best bench unit in the Western Conference. In fact, this foursome has a net rating of +18 in 41 minutes against the Clippers. Overall, they have a net rating of +20.6 in 349 minutes this season. Mills, Belinelli, and Bertans have a net rating of +12.3 in 704 minutes. In other words, the Spurs’ bench has been exceptionally productive this season and has played a major role in the Spurs’ success.

Because none of these players are gifted play-makers, they rely on either ball movement or the ball-handling of someone like DeRozan or Gay. For much of the season, this has proven to be a winning formula. Over the past six games, however, this foursome has a net rating of -2.0. For a team with such a small margin of error due to the starters’ inability to build leads, a struggling bench unit has made it difficult to win games.

When looking at the numbers of the past six games, one thing stuck out. The Spurs average 25 three point attempts a game this season, but have averaged just shy of 30 a game during this six-game stretch. That would be fine if the shots were dropping, but they aren’t. Forbes and Gay have been solid, but the threesome of Mills, Belinelli, and Bertans in particular have struggled.

Bench shooting statistics

Player 3PA - Season Open 3PA - Season % Corner - Season 3PA - Last Six Games Open 3PA - Last Six Games % Corner - Last Six Games
Player 3PA - Season Open 3PA - Season % Corner - Season 3PA - Last Six Games Open 3PA - Last Six Games % Corner - Last Six Games
Mills 5 3.8 26.9 6 5 41.7
Belinelli 5 4.2 22.4 5.7 4.4 11.1
Bertans 4.5 3.9 17.2 6 5.8 14.7

When looking at the numbers, 78% of the three pointers taken this season by Mills, Belinelli, and Bertans are considered open. That number has increased to almost 86% over the past six games. Because Marco is Marco, he has actually made a higher percentage of three pointers when guarded than when he is unguarded. Mills and Bertans, on the other hand, shoot a much better percentage when unguarded. The offense is still generating open looks for our bench unit, but the shots are just not falling.

Another criteria I look at is the location of the three point attempts. Our bench trio — like the majority of the players in the NBA — shoot a higher percentage from the corners than they do above the break. Mills has actually taken a higher percentage of corner three pointers over this six-game stretch than he has throughout the season. In theory, that should result in a higher shooting percentage, but that hasn’t been the case. Belinelli’s corner threes have dropped over this span while Bertans’ have stayed relatively the same.

Overall, I don’t really see anything in the numbers that would indicate a drop off in shooting percentages. There are a lot of reasons that players’ shooting percentages vary over time, but the biggest factor is that they are all humans capable of error. Maybe the Spurs were shooting at an unsustainably high percentage for the majority of the season and are now just regressing back to the mean at the worst possible time. Hopefully that’s not the case. Hopefully it’s just a shooting slump that will turn back around over the next week or two. If not, the Spurs are going to struggle to make it out of the first round regardless of their opponent.