The 2019-20 Spurs were a problem—not in the good way, mind you, but the kind you stare and turn your head at and attempt to posit a solution for. From the rotations and defense to stylistic decisions, there was no shortage of nits to pick from a 32-39 campaign that landed the Spurs out of the playoffs for the first time since many fans have been alive. That result, and the need to make changes because of it, hasn’t been lost on coach Gregg Popovich:
“The bottom line, in all frankness, I don’t remember winning a championship last year. I don’t remember being in the playoffs. So it’s time to make a change, play a different way, demand it and move forward.”
Some of those tweaks manifested in the Orlando bubble, where the Spurs played at a faster pace, traded set plays for more fluidity and improvisation, and made do without LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles by playing much smaller lineups than usual. The response to the 5-3 showing in the bubble was overwhelmingly positive (even if the competition was largely underwhelming), and Pop himself suggested we would be seeing more of the same carry over into the 2020-21 season. For Aldridge, whose absence sparked questions of how he’d mesh with a style that didn’t welcome his post-up game, the time has come to fully actualize the transformation he’s been working on over the past few years.
“We want to get back in the playoffs, and [LaMarcus] is committed to taking another huge step as far as becoming more of a 3-point shooter, which is necessary in this league for success we all know.”
Aldridge said the same thing—in his own muted way—and to his credit, he bombed away more than he ever has in Saturday’s preseason opener, attempting 10 threes and hitting 3 in just 25 minutes. It’s a figure that blows his average of 3 last season (a career high) out of the water, obviously. Barring a few touches in the post against OKC, his buy-in at year 15 of his career seems legitimate.
Aldridge’s evolution is not only welcome this season, it’s needed. With Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes now gone, the big man is probably the 2nd best three-point shooter on the roster. The young wings need to expand their games there as well, but more than anything they need all 250 pounds of Aldridge as far away from the left block as possible to give them space to drive, kick, and hopefully get to the rim, something the Spurs were terrible at last season.
When it comes to upgrades and evolutions, it’s the team’s few vets that have made all the headlines through training camp: Aldridge and his three-point game, Rudy Gay dropping 10 pounds, and Patty Mills boldly introducing Spurs fans to his Australian national team iteration that functions as the head of the snake on offense. Mills led all Spurs in the preseason loss to the Thunder with 24 points on 9 of 16 shooting, which included at least one aggressive drive to the basket that we don’t normally see from the diminutive guard.
The hope is that the young players follow suit and do what young players typically do: get better. Dejounte Murray needs to show more, either with the ball in his hands or not; Derrick White needs to sustain his bubble aggressiveness; Lonnie Walker IV’s finishing around the rim and consistency as a defender and decisionmaker are due for a leap; Keldon Johnson feels like house money right now, but has room to grow on both ends; and so on. By continuing to play the faster-paced and more egalitarian, formless style from Orlando, the Spurs can facilitate that granular development and get a better idea of what they have in this young core—and that matters far more than winning this season. Bubble Ball won’t save the Spurs’ season, but it can shape their future.
If Saturday’s exhibition was worth anything (beside heralding Devin Vassell’s arrival), it was a reminder that the on-court product doesn’t look much different without Gregg Popovich allowing it to. While preseason wins and losses don’t matter, the window they provide into the team’s process and preparation does. The Spurs will only go as far as Pop’s imagination will let them.
So, when the Spurs started out the game with Jakob Poeltl at the 5, LaMarcus Aldridge at the 4, and Rudy Gay at the 3—against a team playing small and with a stretch center on the floor, no less—it was fair to raise half an eyebrow, exhibition or not, even with a short-handed group. (As a reminder, the Poeltl-Aldridge pairing has posted net ratings of -7.7 and -9.1 the past two seasons, respectively, and Gay is probably closer to a 5 than a 3 these days.) The lineup precluded the Spurs from switching liberally on one end as they had in the bubble, stunted the pace that had defined them in the bubble, and limited how competitive they could be overall. Maybe Pop wanted to give the new Aldridge one last look next to Poeltl to see if the spacing made any difference in their effectiveness; maybe the absences of White and Johnson threw rotations off too much. Either way, the hope is that Saturday’s preseason opener amounts to the meaningless blip that it can and should be.
But the clock is ticking. Between the laundry list of contract (or trade deadline) decisions to address and a seemingly imminent handover of leadership at the coaching position, the Spurs need to treat this year much like they did the bubble: as a chance to develop, reflect, and project. It won’t be easy following up one of the most storied eras in sports history, but for the new-look Spurs to start their own era, they must first find their new identity.