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How the Spurs can use Bubble Ball’s chaos to find their new order

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Faster pace and fewer plays may be the team’s best path to a brighter future. Expect a few bumps along the way.

San Antonio Spurs v Houston Rockets Photo by Cato Cataldo/NBAE via Getty Images

Much of the talk heading into the new Spurs season has revolved around their running back of Bubble Ball, a style of play that made use of a smaller active roster that was missing two starting bigs by focusing more on pace and space (the latter being more theoretical than practical, as the team actually attempted fewer threes).

With both LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles back in the mix, San Antonio isn’t wavering from that new direction, one that led to a 5-3 record in Orlando and drew positive words from most members of the team during media week. Some variation of Bubble Ball will seemingly be the new normal in San Antonio.

But what does “Bubble Ball” mean to the Spurs? Here’s how guard Patty Mills described it: “Other than the (faster) tempo... I guess a little bit more a free style of that was less structured to what we were used to—or ever, I should say. I think that’s key and, when you look at Keldon Johnson and Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, Lonnie Walker who play with that determination, up tempo, open court... in addition to more threes... it’s putting all those pieces together... It’s a fun way to play, it’s an exciting way to play.”

“We were just more comfortable and free in a sense,” said DeRozan. “Just going out and played freely, and it showed.”

Added Dejounte Murray: “We still had a lot of plays when Coach wanted play calls, but Pop said he was gonna let everybody loose.”

To sum up: expect a more uptempo style, an offense that attacks from the outside-in rather than inside-out, drive and kicks and quick reads supplanting post-ups and, perhaps most importantly, less set plays overall — the kinds that typically funneled possessions into Aldridge 18-footers and DeRozan isos. For Aldridge, that translates to more time spent on the perimeter; for DeRozan, a little less time with the ball in his hands anchoring possessions.

How does that new style suit the team’s youth movement? According to Gregg Popovich: “We’ve got more athleticism on the team and the style of play that suits them is a faster pace and a bit more freedom, bit more random nature to what’s going on... I think is appropriate for this group.”

At face value, such a change is an easy sell. The Spurs are young, far from contention, and, more importantly, unsure of what kind of hand they have on their roster. Set their fresh legs loose and see if havoc can lead to harmony, reallocating reps and usage from the vets to the players that ostensibly will form part of the team’s future. Just like in Orlando, there are going to be games, or at least quarters, where the turnovers they create and pace they push will lead to nice clean looks at the rim or three-pointers off the catch—which is a far better way for this group to bomb away than pulling up off the dribble. Preseason standout Devin Vassell should fit right in with the offensive versatility he’s shown thus far.

To be clear, putting the ball in the basket hasn’t been the problem in San Antonio the last two years. The Spurs have finished both of those seasons in the top 10 in offensive rating and lost most of their games on the other end of the floor. The bigger catalysts for Bubble Ball are, likely, threefold:

  • How do the Spurs cobble together lineups that work on both sides of the ball? The exits of shooting specialists (and defensive sieves) Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli tie in here.
  • How do the Spurs rely less on the vets who don’t project to remain in San Antonio that much longer? (All four of Aldridge, DeRozan, Gay and Mills are off the books next summer)
  • How can the Spurs play a more egalitarian style that fosters buy-in and development from everyone on the team, specifically the younger players?

A looser style makes sense as much for the youth movement’s weaknesses as its strengths. You’re not going to have much success drawing up high pick and rolls for Murray, who still struggles as a lead guard, or asking Walker to isolate in the half court and create in the same way as DeRozan—not now at least. But ask them as a unit to simply be aggressive and probe defenses, and hopefully enough secondary opportunities are created where players can more comfortably attack breakdowns and score. If all shakes out right, every young guy rounds out a bit more, the front office has a better understanding of players’ strengths, and—who knows—maybe one of them has the air of a higher-usage scorer or creator.

That’s the theory at least. In the preseason, we saw mostly the bad side of that free-flowing style, leading to three losses against the Thunder and a remade Rockets team with a disgruntled star. The offense routinely stagnated, struggling to create quality looks near the rim or at the three-point line. The Spurs’ numbers in their 0-3 preseason: an offensive rating of 98.4 (26th in NBA), a 112.5 defensive rating (27th), 40.3 FG% (28th), 31.4 3PT% (24th), and an effective field goal percentage of 46.2 (29th). Especially in the final game against Houston, the Spurs’ well-meaning combination of weaving and dribble-drives did little against a switching defense that they’ll likely see plenty of in the regular season.

You can make the case the team could still accomplish its true goals of development, evaluation and modernization by adding at least a few tentpoles to its Bubble Ball philosophy— tweak the system to the strengths of each player, run a few more set actions, etc. We’ll probably see some of that incorporated as the season goes along, and they’ll probably help.

Will that lead to the Spurs sneaking back into the playoffs? Maybe, but probably not. This season seems a bit more far-sighted. What Pop and the Spurs seem committed to is bringing an uncharacteristic level of unpredictability to their system this season, one that may or may not surprise opponents but will most certainly challenge their own young players to realize their potential. We’ll see what fruits it bears.