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Four Spurs made The Athletic’s NBA player tiers project

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Four Spurs were included in The Athletic’s recent NBA player tiers project, but the team’s lack of star power keeps them far from contention.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Utah Jazz Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Man, these really are the dog days of the offseason, isn’t it? After a hectic finish to the 2019-20 campaign, the basketball world seems to have come to a sudden halt, with next season in a state of flux.

Thankfully, there are still plenty of fun topics that could be discussed, such as The Athletic’s first annual player tiers project, which was released by Seth Partnow a few weeks ago. Over the course of a week, he assigned each of the top 125 players in the league into a specific tier, with five in total.

Partnow compiled the list by using advanced metrics such as multi-year versions of Player Impact Plus/Minus (PIPM) and Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) while also factoring in recent playoff performances and asking for input from both media members and team associates.

With the recent lack of NBA news, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the Spurs who made the list and see how far away the team is from contention. It’s not like I have multiple papers due in the coming days anyways.

Why tiers?

Many NBA fans (myself included) loves to rank players individually, but placing them into tiers seems like a more appropriate method. Numbers are arbitrary, and they often make the gap between players seem larger than they actually are. For example, many fans often like to debate whether or not player X is a top 10 player in the league, but is the 10th best player really that much better than the 11th?

In reality, there are large amounts of players who provide impacts so similar that it’s hard to differentiate between them. If you were forced to choose between two players of the same caliber, the answer usually depends on their fit within a specific team, and only players who are undoubtedly better or worse than another should be placed within a different tier.

With that out of the way, let’s get into the four Spurs who made the cut.

Tier 5: Dejounte Murray and Derrick White

According to Partnow, the members of tier 5 consists of “above average rotation players.” In other words, these players should all be decent starters on every team in the league. Both Murray and White were placed in this category, and it seems appropriate given their production over the last few years.

Some Spurs fans might be clamoring for White to be placed higher after breaking out in Orlando, but we need to keep in mind that this list was compiled using stats that spans multiple seasons. White was also having a turbulent campaign before the league got shut down back in March, so we shouldn’t overrate his performance in Orlando too much.

On the other hand, I don’t think many people will quibble about Murray’s placement. He’s still seen as one of the young guns with All-Star potential, but he’ll need to take some big leaps in order to get there. After his ACL tear last season, Murray’s defensive game took a dip this year and he was inconsistent offensively, to say the least.

I believe that both White and Murray can keep improving and could move up to tier 4 someday, which is where the two remaining Spurs slotted in.

Tier 4A: DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge

Tier 4 includes “very good players, some of whom might grab an All-Star slot or two, but are not (or in the case of some are no longer) in the ‘perennial All-Star’ conversation.” This tier is broken into A and B, and as you could probably guess, players placed in A are closer to tier 3 than the ones in B. At this stage of their careers, Partnow’s definition sounds reasonable for both DeRozan and Aldridge.

DeRozan’s on-court impact has been hard to gauge throughout his entire career. When he was leading the Raptors to the top of the Eastern Conference a few years ago, there were many fans who thought that he was a legitimate top 20 player in the league (totally not me). In fact, he even made the All-NBA team twice in 2017 and 2018! That seems absurd now, since some fans can’t figure out whether or not he’s even a good player anymore.

Moreover, there has only been one season in DeRozan’s career when his team has been better with him on the floor than without. The pendulum seems to have swung too far in both directions for him over the last few years, which is why this placement seems appropriate. DeRozan’s definitely better than your regular run of the mill starter, but not quite good enough to be an All-Star. Not anymore, at least.

On the other hand, Aldridge is a more straightforward case. He was once a perennial All-Star but is now in the twilight of his career while still being a very effective player. His refined game has allowed him to age gracefully, but there’s a chance that he could resemble more of a tier 5 player considering he’s now 35 and recently had shoulder surgery.

Five years ago, both DeRozan and Aldridge might’ve been included in tier 3, but who’s living in the past, right? I totally don’t miss the days of watching the Big Three and Kawhi Leonard wreak havoc on the league.

Where does this leave the Spurs?

In comparison, 14 teams had more than four players included in the tiers. This might make the Spurs sound like an average team, but San Antonio was one of only nine organizations that didn’t have a player in tier 3 or higher. Out of those nine teams, only the Pacers and Magic made the playoffs, and they combined for a single win during the postseason.

In order for the Spurs to truly be considered as a serious contender, they will need at least one player in tier 2, one in tier 3, and a couple in tiers 4 and 5. For reference, a few of the lower ranked players in tiers 2 and 3 includes Chris Paul and Jaylen Brown, which roughly translates to a perennial All-NBA and All-Star level talent.

As it currently stands, no one on the roster is projected to reach those heights. If the Spurs are to continue their decades long run of success, the franchise will need to find a players who will become the team’s next defining superstars. Things might currently seem bleak, but PATFO has shown the ability to discover diamonds in the rough before, and there’s no reason to doubt them now.