This series will look at each of the Spurs’ eight under-30 players with an eye towards how they can improve in or expand their role on the team. Rather than focus on individual skills, for the most part, we’ll concentrate on what the team needs from each player on offense and defense to identify a key opportunity to have more impact.
Davis Bertans’ last shot of the season clanked off the rim, then the top of the backboard before falling to Mason Plumlee, essentially ending the Spurs’ Game 5 loss to the Nuggets. Down by 18 with less than 30 seconds to go, the shot itself didn’t matter at all, but it left one of the team’s best shooters at a woeful 5 for 15 from the floor in the series, and just 3 of 11 from deep.
Davis didn’t play a single second in the team’s Game 6 win or Game 7 loss, despite having posted the best on/off numbers of anyone in the rotation. Even after contributing just 13 points on 4/12 shooting with 8 rebounds and 5 assists, Davis was a team high +9.5 points per 100 possessions in 72 minutes of play excluding garbage time, per Cleaning the Glass (CTG).
The reason he was able to do that was that half of his minutes came with both Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap on the bench. The Spurs understandably feasted in those 38 minutes, outscoring the Nuggets by 28 points but struggled when they tried to keep Davis on the court against a two-big lineup. In the 31 minutes any two of Jokic, Millsap or Plumlee were on the court against Davis, the Spurs were outscored by 20 points.
The explanation for these numbers is relatively straight forward. Despite spending 96% of his minutes at power forward this season, per CTG, Davis isn’t really a big; he’s a 6’10” wing. Unable to guard any of the Nuggets big men, the Spurs were forced to play him alongside some combination of Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl to stay afloat.
That pushed Davis into competition for minutes with DeMar DeRozan and the Spurs’ other smaller but more capable wings: a competition he lost. That’s more than a little concerning for a Spurs’ team with some interesting decisions to make this offseason. If Poeltl is going to stay in the starting lineup, Davis will remain on the bench, and this particular issue won’t likely come back up until next year’s playoffs. But if the Spurs’ offense can’t get going in that arrangement, and especially if they’re unable to bring Gay back, Davis’ struggles might become a bigger problem.
Before writing him off to the scrap heap, though, it’s worth exploring why Davis couldn’t stay on the floor against the Nuggets. The crux of the issue is that he wasn’t providing enough value on offense to offset what he was costing the Spurs on defense.
The most obvious culprit was an ill-timed cold streak that extended all the way back to the All-Star break. He is supposed to hit shots from really far away from the basket really often. When he’s not doing that, there’s little he provides that can’t be easily replaced. It’s not just that he wasn’t hitting shots, he wasn’t even getting them up. After averaging 13.6 field goal attempts per 100 possessions in the regular season, Davis took less than 10 shots per 100 possessions in the playoffs.
Part of that is a testament to how effectively the Nuggets executed their defensive game plan by staying home on the Spurs’ shooters. Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli all saw similar drops in shot attempts, and the team as a whole took only 21% of their attempts from beyond the arc during the series after shooting threes on 26.6% of their attempts in the regular season.
As a result, Davis saw a significant drop in touches himself. After averaging 1.53 touches per minute in the regular season, he got just 1.09 in the playoffs. Comparatively, defending him is much easier than dealing with Bryn, Patty or Marco, all three of whom are a threat in the pick and roll or to pull up if they have an open look. On the other hand, Davis used just 10 possessions this season as a pick and roll ball handler and only took 83 pull up shots all season. Instead, almost two-thirds of his points came from catch and shoot attempts. He hit 130 catch and shoot threes and 5 catch and shoot twos, which accounts for 400 of his 606 points this season.
He generates those attempts by moving a lot — he led the team in average offensive speed in both the regular season and the playoffs at over 5 mph — but he’s not especially fast or deceptive, meaning it takes a lot of effort from both Davis and his teammates to create those open looks.
Unfortunately, since he isn’t a threat to take advantage of a mismatch, the Spurs’ opponents can defend him with a much smaller player who is better equipped to navigate the off ball actions designed to free him up from deep and switch with impunity. The Nuggets took full advantage of that, using the 6’5” Malik Beasley and 6’6” Will Barton to defend the 6’10” forward on over 60% of the possessions he played.
And yet, Davis didn’t grab a single offensive rebound in 79 minutes on the court. To be fair, that’s not his game; he averaged just 0.3 offensive rebounds per game in the regular season. Whether that’s a result of the scheme, how he is used (it’s hard to get rebounds at the three point line), or an indicator of something else is hard to tell, but his inability to impact the game on the offensive end when he’s not getting shots up is a problem.
Davis has some issues on the other end of the floor as well. He actually did pretty well at defending both Beasley and Barton, his primary match-ups in the series, although he struggled in space, especially in transition and isolation. But he didn’t stand a chance against the Nuggets’ bigs. Despite weighing in at 225 lbs, he got steamrolled by both Millsap and Jokic in the few instances where he matched up with them. He’s not alone in that regard, but he couldn’t deal effectively with Plumlee either (who has a much more limited offensive game), meaning Davis was in trouble anytime he had to switch onto a big, be it because he couldn’t keep them away from the rim or off the glass.
The conundrum with Davis is he is a either a 6’10” wing who can’t attack like a wing, or a big man who doesn’t do big man things on either end of the floor. Either way, there’s a gap in what the Spurs’ needed from him in the playoffs and what he actually provides.
There is, of course, room for players with unique skill sets to thrive, and Davis really is good enough at shooting to carve out a productive career with little else. But it seems obvious that to be able to contribute on a contender, he needs to bring something else to the table. However, it’s unclear what exactly that might be.
He hasn’t shown the ball handling skills, vision, or passing ability necessary to take on a more traditional wing’s role in the Spurs’ offense, and he doesn’t appear likely to become a force on the offensive glass, either. He doesn’t seem to have an instinctual capacity for grabbing boards, and it wouldn’t make much sense to ask him to do something that moves him away from the three point line anyway. He could take on more screening responsibilities, but if teams continue to defend him with smaller players that opens the door for easy switches.
On defense, Davis doesn’t have the wingspan or athleticism to function as a rim protector, although he obviously has the willingness to try. He could continue to bulk up to help with defending larger players, but he’d need Tim Duncan’s perfect timing and positioning to make up for his lack of size and explosiveness, and it would likely come at the cost of his already somewhat limited agility.
There’s a chance that Davis just is who he is: a phenomenal shooter in the regular season who becomes irrelevant in a playoff series that doesn’t provide a good match-up for his skill set. Then again, maybe the solution isn’t to change him. Maybe Davis and the Spurs should double down on the thing he does best.
He is an incredible marksman. At 6’10” with a high release and quick trigger, maybe he just needs to get comfortable shooting with less time and space, especially when defenders close out to his body instead of contesting.
He wasn’t very good at hitting closely contested shots this season, having made just 11 of his 36 attempts with a defender between 2 and 4 feet away. The willingness to take those shots and the ability to make them could be the key to keeping Davis on the floor.
The thing is, for the most part, when Davis chose not to shoot in this series, he was making the right play.
But there were a few shots in Games 4 and 5 he needed to take and didn’t.
These wouldn’t have been great looks, but the offense isn’t going to generate perfect windows on every play. Sometimes good shooters have to make hard shots — or at least take them.
65 players took more than Davis’ 36 closely contested threes this season, and 34 of them made a higher percentage than his 30.6%. For a shooter as good as Davis, that’s very surprising and an indicator that he still has plenty of room for improvement.
As for the rest of his game, Davis has a unique combination of skills and abilities that make him an interesting puzzle piece within the Spurs’ current construct. With so much talent and athleticism welling up on the other end of the roster, his limitations may become less important. A lineup that includes Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV may not need much in the way of rim protection, for instance.
How the Spurs see Davis fitting alongside those pieces will be the key in determining where else he should focus his efforts in the future.