The Spurs’ offseason was largely uneventful, as the only new additions to the main roster have been rookies Devin Vassell and Tre Jones. San Antonio also re-signed Jakob Poeltl and Drew Eubanks and guaranteed Trey Lyles’ contract to retain its big man depth, but it didn’t do much else.
In that context, the departures take on a bigger dimension. Chimezie Metu played too little to be considered a big loss, but Marco Belinelli and especially Bryn Forbes had sizable roles that will have to be filled by others. Whether those getting their minutes represent a big upgrade or not could determine the Spurs’ ceiling.
It’s tempting — although honestly, not entirely inaccurate — to say that losing Forbes and Belinelli could easily represent addition by subtraction. Forbes had one of the worst net ratings in the league among starters while Belinelli, who is now out of the NBA, was maddeningly inconsistent as an outside shooter, his only skill. Both were a disaster at defense, which means the Spurs should improve going forward on that end now that they are gone if for no other reason than because they will have more size and athleticism at the guard and wing spots, even if the young guys are still not savvy enough to utilize those physical tools to their full potential.
The problem could come at the other end, as Forbes and Belinelli provided something that most of the players expected to take on their minutes will likely struggle to replicate: shooting.
Of San Antonio’s 2021 three-point attempts in 2019/20, 559 came from the now two former Spurs, and so did 215 out of their 760 makes. The Silver and Black, already lacking on marksmen, lost two guys who accounted for over a quarter of their outside shooting and didn’t replace them. And it’s not just threes in general the team will need, but specific kinds. Forbes and Belinelli ranked third and fourth in shots coming off screens and led the team in shots coming off hand-offs, according to Synergy Sports. They were also second and fourth on pull-up threes, according the Second Spectrum tracking data. Even if we project improvement in spot up shooting from others, that alone won’t do if San Antonio wants to have a varied offense.
The easiest way to alleviate the loss of two shooters would be to increase the role of Patty Mills, who was the Spurs’ leader in both attempts and makes from beyond the arc and was arguably their best shooter off screens and off the dribble last season. However, if the idea is to play the young guys more, Mills’ minutes should be reduced, or at least not increased. If that’s the case, Derrick White might be San Antonio’s best hope of getting some off the bounce threes, as he showed signs of confidence in his pull-up last season, especially in the Orlando Bubble. When it comes to the other young players, a bigger leap might be necessary.
Dejounte Murray took just 15 pull-up threes last seasons and hit just two, while Lonnie Walker IV took 14 and made just a couple as well. It would be a big adjustment, but the hope is that those guys will extend their range and pull up from beyond the arc as confidently as they do from mid-range to keep defenses honest. It might actually become a necessity for them to do so, since Keldon Johnson and DeMar DeRozan can’t be counted on to suddenly develop that skill. Starting Vassell instead of one of Murray or White or going small with the rookie in Trey Lyles’ place could potentially help by adding a more dynamic and versatile shooter to the starting lineup, but considering how the Spurs deal with first year players, it seems unlikely to happen, at least not right away.
A bigger predicament than replacing the pull-ups and spot-ups could come with hand-offs, an action the Spurs used a lot to free up their shooters but that might now become somewhat obsolete since they’ll lack the personnel to execute it. Unless the young players prove to their defenders that they’ll fire from deep if they go under screens to stop a drive, it could become hard for San Antonio to use Poeltl as a playmaker in the way they used him last season. Mills will always remain an option in these actions, but we saw how a bigger role limited Forbes’ positive impact last year and, once again, ideally Mills’ minutes would not increase. Similarly, finding shooters other the Mills who can fire after using off ball screens could prove tough. Someone will have to step up in that role, but there are not any good candidates at the moment.
The challenges will be real when it comes to outside shooting, but if necessity truly is the mother of invention, we might see the Spurs’ offense change in creative ways next season to make up for their lack of marksmen. A faster pace, fueled by a more disruptive defense, could help make up for a lack of spacing in the half court. As we saw in Orlando, that approach could play to the young guys’ strengths. A more democratic distribution of possessions could encourage off ball movement and crisp cuts that punish defenses for ignoring non-shooting threats and overloading the strong side. We won’t see a return to the Beautiful Game Spurs because the personnel just isn’t there, but by necessity the team will likely have to rely less on ISO-ball now that not even the bench has enough proven shooters to make up for the often sluggish starting unit.
The departure of two reliable outside threats could also force the young guys out of their comfort zone, which could be a welcomed sight. White being forced to take more pull ups could complete his already advanced pick-and-roll game and elevate his ceiling. Murray might not only shoot more but also discover the importance of cutting to prevent defenses from leaving him alone. Walker could trade some of those long twos he sometimes launches for threes while hopefully not just standing around looking disinterested when he’s off the ball. Johnson won’t be able to shy away from firing after kick-outs. We might even see Vassell deployed earlier than most Spurs rookies if nothing else works.
It would be foolish to ignore the very real weakness that three-point shooting will likely be next season for the Spurs after the departures of Forbes and Belinelli, but as long as we see inventiveness from the coaching staff to make up for it, it might not prove to be their undoing.
In fact, in a roundabout way San Antonio’s inability or lack of interest in addressing one of the biggest problems of the last couple of years could weirdly end up being blessing in disguise. If a scarcity of shooters forces the Spurs into adopting a new identity, the likely struggles in the short term could be worth it.