The playoffs are over for the Spurs after a valiant effort against the Nuggets. Now it’s time to see what we can learn from their postseason run and start thinking about the future. Eight teams are still battling it out for the Larry O’Brien trophy but it won’t be long before the draft and free agency arrive. It will be a key summer for the reloading Spurs.
With that in mind, PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Brunos Passos and Jesus Gomez join Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco to offer their takeaways from the series against Denver and share their offseason wish list in this week’s edition of In the Bonus.
Does the way the Spurs lost — really struggling early, making a big mistake late — detract from the accomplishment that was forcing a Game 7?
Marilyn Dubinski: Not overly. It doesn’t dismiss the fact that the Spurs were just the sixth 7th seed all time to force a Game 7 against the 2nd seed, and for all the what-ifs in that game, there were plenty of them throughout the series for both sides. That’s just how the playoffs are. The Spurs were never favored to advance and exceeded just about all exceptions from before this season even started, so I’m not finding myself too disappointed that they didn’t go any further. They have had much rougher exits with much more on the line than this, and I can honestly say I was over this one by the next day.
Mark Barrington: My expectations were low, so I’m not disappointed. The late mistake was bad, but not really that costly. If you’re down by 4 with under 25 seconds left, your chances of winning are minuscule, even if you stop the clock by fouling. Both of those factors, struggling on the road and not playing smart at the end are going to be good lessons going forward. I couldn’t be prouder of how the team performed this year. It wasn’t a perfect effort, but nothing ever is.
Bruno Passos: It will add a slightly bitter aftertaste, but the feat is the feat. Regardless of how ugly Game 7 was, the Spurs were in a position in the final minutes to advance to the next round, something few people thought possible between July and early December of last year.
Jesus Gomez: It weirdly did in the moment. During the game I found myself a little frustrated with the effort early on, especially from the stars. Then I got a bit upset that they didn’t foul to extend the game. But honestly, I was over it the next day, just like Marilyn. It was a fun series in which the Spurs showed a lot of mettle before narrowly losing to a superior team. That’s a better ending to a transitional year than I thought was possible, so I’m not dwelling on what went wrong in Game 7.
J.R. Wilco: All series long, they didn’t play like a 7 seed. They played Denver even and acquitted themselves well. It would have been a blast to get into the second round with a chance to get into the WCF, but I don’t imagine that any of would have expected them to make it out of a series against the Dubs or Rox. And they’ve have to have been dodging raindrops to get through four series in which they were underdogs. All of the above tempered my expectations, which left me to simply enjoy the game as best as I could. Something that was difficult to do in the first half, but got easier as the game wore on and they showed their heart. So the ending didn’t detract at all. I rooted for them until the end, but didn’t end up broken hearted like Thaddeus did.
After a seven-game battle, what is your opinion of the 2018/19 Nuggets?
Marilyn Dubinski: They confirmed that they have a strong, young foundation to build upon and should be a force to reckoned with for a good time to come. That being said, while I think higher of their basketball abilities than I did before this series, from an attitude standpoint they turned me off a little. They threw their hands up and complained about every call (Clippers of yore style), and even Pop got to the point that he was so sick of hearing Mike Malone complain about illegal screens throughout the series that he responded before Game 7, pointing out his team was just as guilty. This was very much a “welcome to playoffs” learning experience for them as far as how much more physical things get, but to their credit they adjusted and dealt with it on the court.
Mark Barrington: They’re deserving of their second-seed standing. Jokic is just so talented, and he makes everyone around him better. Jamal Murray is a talented scorer, and if he ever becomes a decent defender, he’ll be an all star. I don’t think they’re a title contender, in fact, I expect them to lose to the Trail Blazers, but they’re a good team and fun to watch, and Mike Malone has done an excellent job making the most of the roster.
Bruno Passos: Nikola Jokic is awesome, Gary Harris is special, and their front office has done a stellar job of building a deep, talented team without bottoming out. I’m not yet sold on them as making much noise beyond this series, and I’m not sure how soon they’ll push to legitimate contender status, but they’re a fun team to follow moving forward.
Jesus Gomez: They are good. They might not be the typical second seed because of their lack of experience and a second star, but Jokic is an offense onto himself and the rest of the team is hungry and athletic enough to be solid on defense, at least for stretches. I think they can get past the Blazers. Making the leap to the type of team that can really challenge the Rockets and Warriors, however, might prove hard for them. Murray needs to become much more consistent and they will have to be more lucky when it comes to health, especially as it pertains to Michael Porter Jr. Even if that doesn’t happen, I expected them to be a high-seeded playoff team for a long time.
J.R. Wilco: Strong but inconsistent. I wouldn’t be surprised if they lost to Portland, and wouldn’t be shocked if they had a great showing in the WCF. But I don’t see them making the Finals, and if they win it all I’ll eat my hat.
This was the first postseason under the DeRozan - Aldridge core. How’d you rate their performances?
Dubinski: I’d give them a solid B. They did enough to have the Spurs on the brink of making a little history, and frankly if I had to pick a reason why the Spurs didn’t advance, it would be the lack of production from the bench more than anything. That being said, while neither Aldridge or DeRozan were bad (and both had some really good moments and outings), they didn’t really do anything to squash their postseason reputations. They were basically their regular-season selves, which is fine, but you expect your stars to find another level in the playoffs, and overall they didn’t do that outside of some spurts.
Barrington: Aldridge gets an A from me. He’s been carrying the team for the last two years with a collection of mostly limited role players. DeRozan has been good, but he needs to be more versatile on offense to get to the A level. Maybe it’s too late in his career to develop an outside shot, but if anyone can get him to do it, Chip Engelland can. I’m happy with DeMar’s effort on defense, hopefully after an off-season of coaching with the team he can improve his consistency and positioning.
Passos: They might both average out to B-minuses, or something. Aldridge’s inability to leave an imprint on many offensive possessions in a tighter playoff environment really stood out opposite Jokic, who could initiate things, break the defense down, and freely attack his man or set up teammates. DeRozan carried the offense for stretches and finished with numbers similar to the regular season, but the team could’ve really done with more playmaking on the other end of the floor, and that’s just not who he is. That said, both had their moments and both played a role in the team’s last stand gritty late, and it’s hard for that to not leave a lasting impression, in a good way.
Gomez: They were fine. If I had to give them a grade, it would probably be a C+. They both struggled on defense too much for my liking, despite not lacking for effort, which is a concern, and did little to change the narrative about being better in the regular season. DeRozan in particular had an extremely bad net rating, reminiscent of his Toronto days. That being said, there was still plenty to like. The best way to describe how I feel about DeMar and Aldridge might be to just say that they will be under contract for at least one more season and I’m fine with it. They are not a championship core, but those are rare. With some more corporate knowledge and some tweaks in the roster, I feel like they can lead the Spurs back to the postseason and maybe a little deeper into the playoffs as well. That’s not bad.
Wilco: What does it mean that the first grade that came to mind is down there close to what Gomez gave them? Am I turning all curmudgeonly in my old age? How can I both feel like they overachieved, and still find them wanting to the point that I don’t want to give the core a B? I guess it’s the lack of consistency and poor defense that push me that far. In the end, I’ve got to give them an “I” for Incomplete due to losing the entire season’s worth of Dejounte Murray. (Man, I hope he comes back with a rock-solid jumper, even if it’s only reliable out to 10 feet!)
What would the Spurs have to do to have a successful off-season, in your eyes?
Dubinski: They need to find more wing depth, specifically with players who can defend the perimeter. Beyond that, I would like to start seeing them fill those third string spots with promising younger players over aging vets who we already know what they are (unless of course it’s a really good vet who would be willing to take a discount). Simply put, a successful summer would be getting younger on the fringes, better on defense (they’re already halfway there with Dejounte Murray returning), all while continuing to develop the core of players they already have.
Barrington: They need to develop their young players and have them come back as full participants. If Lonnie Walker IV isn’t a part of the regular rotation next year, I’m going to be disappointed. DeMar and Dejounte hopefully will improve their shooting in the off-season, and I’d like to see Derrick White improve his confidence shooting from outside. The Spurs need to pick up some good players in the draft, but I don’t expect them to contribute much in their rookie year, because Pop. They might already have picked up their veteran backup big in Donatas Motiejunas, but I hope they explore their options and try to pick up a high energy player in the Montrezl Harrell mold.
Passos: Whether or not they make big moves this summer, I’d like to see the front office err a little more on the side of youth and bring in the type of defensive playmaking on the wing that they hemorrhaged last summer. That can be through the draft or in free agency — either way, Pop needs more to work with there so that he can cobble together a team in the mold he’s more used to.
Gomez: They need re-sign Rudy Gay, then find a two-way wing who can give them 15 minutes when called upon, which means upgrading from Quincy Pondexter and Dante Cunningham. Maybe Lonnie Walker IV is that guy. I do believe they need to bet on internal development, so I’m certainly hoping he gets a chance to crack the rotation. Other than an extra wing, a third big man is needed. Maybe it’s time to bring over Nikola Milutinov, who has been a rebounding machine in Europe and could do a reasonable Jakob Poeltl impersonation as a roll man.
Wilco: As long as White, Walker and Murray all come into training camp sporting new cool additions to their game, I’ll be happy. I mean, of course I want them to get a great pick, but who expects that anyone they get in the draft will contribute in 2019-20? And I absolutely want them to grab a talented free agent, but their cap situation isn’t what you’d call pretty, and who’s going to be beating down the door of the team that doesn’t shoot threes? We know SA is a great place to play, but PATFO is picky and free agents aren’t known to give the Spurs a discount. So I’m focused on seeing the young guys develop and anything more than that will be a bonus.
Now that the Spurs are out of the race, who are you rooting for to win the title?
Dubinski: I usually lose interest once the Spurs are done. More than anything it comes down to who I don’t want to win, which is mainly just the Warriors and Rockets. (I know, I can be a bad Texan at times.) If I had to pick from the remaining six teams, I’d probably root for the Bucks just because of all the former Spurs, Coach Bud, fellow Texas A&M Aggie Khris Middleton, and their status as a team from an unattractive market for FA’s that has mostly built from the ground up. I guess I actually do have someone to root for.
Barrington: I’m pretty much checked out for the rest of the season. I will probably watch Portland play because Damian Lillard is amazing. I’m interested in the 76ers, because of Boban, but they definitely seem to be less than the sum of their parts. If I had to cheer for anyone, I’d probably go with the Bucks, because I really like watching Giannis play. They’ve already dropped a game to the Celtics, so it will be interesting to see how they respond to adversity.
Passos: Anyone (but Houston). I’m trying to use the opportunity granted by the Spurs’ exit to enjoy a bit of impartiality and just soak up the competition. That said, my equanimity usually goes by the wayside as soon as I turn on the Rockets, whose philosophy I’ve generally found to be too cynical.
Gomez: Any Eastern team except for the Celtics. They’ve won enough and I still haven’t forgiven Kyrie for the flat earth comments. The Bucks and Sixers are coached by Brown and Bud, so it’s easy to root for them. It’s harder to cheer for the Raptors, for obvious reasons, but I always had a soft spot for them and I’m trying to let go of my residual Kawhi hate. Also if they win the title, maybe he’ll stay out East instead of changing conferences and creating yet another contender against which the Spurs will have to battle for the next five years.
Wilco: Anyone but the Warriors.