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Predicting how good the 2020/21 Spurs will be

As the season approaches, the PtR staff takes a shot at predicting what the strengths, weaknesses and ceiling will be for this iteration of the Spurs.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at San Antonio Spurs Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What do you think will be the Spurs biggest weakness this year?

Marilyn Dubinski: I think their biggest weakness will be three-point shooting, at least until proven otherwise. The loss of Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli may be helpful in other areas (see the next question), but it certainly hurts them in this department until the young guards prove they are ready, willing and able to take and make more threes for an entire season. Derrick White and Keldon Johnson showed out from three in the bubble, but an eight-game stretch where they were completely free and playing with almost nothing to lose is not a big enough sample size. LaMarcus Aldridge being willing to take more threes and the eventual addition of Devin Vassell to the rotation (whenever that is) may turn this into a strength (or at least not a weakness) down the line, but we’ll have to see it for an extended stretch first.

Mark Barrington: I think the team is well-balanced this year, so it’s hard to target a specific weakness. Last year they had an issue with spacing the floor, and their best two floor spacers, Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli are no longer with the team, but I think the improvement in Derrick White’s shooting will more than make up for that, along with increased playing time for Lonnie Walker IV, with the added benefit of no longer having to put guys on the floor who can’t defend. Their biggest weakness is that they don’t have any superstar players, which is needed in the NBA for a title run. The Spurs have a lot of good players, and even have a go-to guy in the clutch with DeMar DeRozan and a volume scorer with LaMarcus Aldridge, but they need another star to be a contender.

Bruno Passos: There’s a chance the three-point shooting could be pretty bad. They already come in with the challenge of matching last season’s volume, when they finished 28th in attempts, after losing 3PAs from Forbes and Belinelli. Those two also happened to be among their most versatile shooters, capable of pulling up coming around dribble hand-offs or catch and shoot curling around a screen. Them being gone will help on the defensive end, for sure, but we also know how much a defense suffers when the offense isn’t putting the ball in the hoop — there could be an unforeseen domino effect that curbs the defensive improvement. To get back to last season’s level the Spurs will depend on at least two of these three things happening: Aldridge completely buying into the three ball (and probably diversifying how he gets shots off), Derrick White building on his bubble performance (and remaining not only as accurate but as confident as he showed in Orlando), and a significant jump from one of the other young guys as threats either shooting off the dribble or on the move. The latter point is really the swing potential for the season: if someone like Walker or White breaks out in a big way, a lot of pieces fall into place and the upside for this season (and obviously the team’s long-term future) shifts. For now, though, it feels like the team is sitting on an OK hand but mostly chasing the river.

Jesus Gomez: There will be many weaknesses, since this is not a good team yet, but the biggest one will probably be spacing. It’s undeniable that the Spurs simply don’t have enough shooters that scare opponents, but their problem goes beyond that. It would be possible to mask a lack of outside threats if they had a lot of smart players who are always on the move, screening and cutting, but instead guys like DeRozan, Lonnie Walker IV and Dejounte Murray have a tendency to stand around when they don’t have the ball. We saw that change a little in the bubble, and ball movement is contagious, but I’m afraid we’ll see the offense stall for long stretches when opponents pack the paint.

J.R. Wilco: Gotta go with experience. San Antonio will be relying on guys to carry loads in ways they’ve never had to before. Can LMA become an accurate, high-volume deep threat? Will Walker IV be able to consistently produce with the minutes he gets? How will the team tread water while waiting for their injured guys to mend. Then there’s the chemistry changes that come with the departure of major rotation pieces like Bryn and Marco. The continuity that had been such a huge strength for so long took yet another hit this offseason. Inexperience hurts late in games, and in high-pressure situations, but the antidote is playing together and learning from the mistakes that come — the kind of things that young teams have to deal with that make them either frustrating or exciting to watch.

What do you think will be their biggest strength?

Dubinski: I’ve already discussed how continuity and rest combined with their experience from the Bubble could be an advantage (and therefore strength) of this team, so I’ll again go with something on the court. As weird as this feels to say after the last couple of seasons, I believe it will be perimeter defense, and the reason is pretty simple: replacing Forbes and Belinelli’s minutes with some combination of Lonnie Walker IV, Johnson, and possibly Vassell. If the Spurs even have a “weak link” perimeter defender anymore, it’s either Patty Mills (a.k.a. the Tasmanian Devil, whose energy and speed helps him overcome his physical shortcomings) or DeRozan, who is more neutral than bad as a defender (even be when focused), and he can now be hidden on defense among the starters.

Barrington: I think it’s coaching and preparation. Gregg Popovich is, and always has been, San Antonio’s secret weapon. And now that he has a roster that can defend, I can see this team zagging where everyone else in the league has been zigging, and shutting down high scoring teams to stay in games.

Passos: With their athleticism and ability to switch 1 through 4, perimeter defense should be a strength, and I hope it’s the kind of thing the team can carve an identity around. I also like what the team should be able to do in transition and whenever they attack defenses that aren’t set. Given the emphasis on pace should only be greater this season, I’m looking to see guys like Lonnie Walker flourish as playmakers in the open floor, while DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay have always been great at seeking out mismatches and using them to create breakdowns and opportunities for the whole team.

Gomez: The Spurs could have a really disruptive defense, which is exciting. Derrick White is a master at drawing charges while Dejounte Murray is really good at getting steals. Those two playing heavy minutes should set the tone, while other young players and even Patty Mills and DeMar DeRozan could get in on the action. It could take a while to find the right balance between aggressiveness and recklessness, since the perimeter guys will have to remember than LaMarcus Aldridge is not the type of intimidating, mobile big who can erase mistakes, but it shouldn’t be impossible. I’m not sure if the defense in general will be a strength, but it should at least create turnovers, which could fuel the Spurs transition attack.

Wilco: I really hope it’s the defense. Now that there aren’t any true defensive liabilities on the team, I’m hungry to see what happens when the Spurs are able to put three or four plus defenders on the court together. It can take time for a team’s D to get to the point where they can regularly make it difficult on offenses to get the opportunities they rely on, but oftentimes that development happens out of sight and teams enter new seasons sporting a vastly improved defense. This may be wishful thinking, but I think there’s a good chance of seeing some pleasant things when San Antonio is in their own end.

What are your expectations for this team in terms of record/wins?

Dubinski: I feel this team’s floor isn’t too far off from a .500 team, and they have shown over the last two seasons they are capable of both extended losing and winning steaks. Hopefully a more stable defense will lead to more wins, but I’ll place them in the 32-40 win range: a four game cushion on either side of .500 just to be safe. They’re capable of more, but they could also repeat last season and stumble.

Barrington: The season is scheduled to be 72 games this year, and I think the Spurs will win somewhere in the range of 30-35 games. The west is tough, and with all of the young guys taking bigger roles, the Spurs are going to lose a lot of games. Despite all the losing, this is going to be a fun team to watch, because of the defensive intensity and the infectious enthusiasm of the young guys. That many wins could be enough to sneak into the 8th spot and start a new playoff streak. Or miss the playoffs altogether and draft another lottery pick.

Passos: The West is tough, and I think the Spurs will take some time to find harmony within their more open and egalitarian offensive style, but I also don’t hate the way the first half of the Spurs’ schedule shook out, which may help. Ultimately I don’t think they’re a playoff team, and I think they’re going to lose more winnable games than they’ll steal from tough opponents. I’ll say 32-40.

Gomez: I’m not expecting much in terms of wins this year. I’m more concerned with the growth of the young players and with Pop establishing a new offensive identity. At this point making the playoffs seems extremely unlikely to me, since it would take a perfect storm of veterans in contract years playing selflessly and young players who have been defined by their inconsistency performing night in and night out to make that goal realistic. I actually expect the Spurs to be one of the worst teams in the West in terms of record, with maybe only the Kings and potentially the Rockets, assuming Harden is traded, ranking below them. Which is fine. I’ll take a year of development and another lottery pick over a chance at the play-in tournament.

Wilco: As much as it pains me, I’m thinking of 25-30 wins as the ceiling. The West is a beast, and there are so many unknown variables for the team. There are many reasons I don’t like making predictions (not the least of which is that I hate being wrong) but I’d love for this team to blow my expectations away and prove themselves so much more than many are thinking. Can’t wait to see how it plays out.