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Season preview: The DeRozan-Aldridge Spurs must either adapt or fall

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The Spurs have been talking about modernizing their attack and embracing their youth movement. Now it’s time to deliver on those promises.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Another season of Spurs basketball is about to start, and the Silver and Black is at a crossroads. The youth movement continues, but the core still features several veterans on contract years. If things go well, next season’s roster could be similar to this one’s. If they don’t, change will be inevitable and welcomed.

Of course, it’s important to determine what would constitute as things going well. The West is as stacked as ever, and the Spurs have been trending down in the standings over the past two years. It might be too optimistic to expect them to bounce back and make the playoffs outright, but the 10th seed and a play-in opportunity seem within reach. Whether it would be worth it to get there instead of tanking for better draft positioning is an interesting question, but expecting the Spurs to truly be fine with losing is asinine. They will do their best to get as many wins as possible despite not having the most talented team, because that’s just what they do.

So how would they go about doing so? What can we expect from this new iteration of the Spurs? There are a lot of small factors at play, but the success of the team will mostly depend on whether they can evolve in some major ways.

The first significant element at play is the change in shot profile. After refusing to prioritize three-point shooting for years, but more noticeably since the arrival of DeMar DeRozan, the Spurs finally seem ready to embrace it.

We have seen it happen already. The Spurs ranked 23rd in the preseason in three-point attempt per 100 possessions after ranking dead last in the 2020/21 regular season. It’s not a radical change, but it’s nonetheless a step in the right direction. LaMarcus Aldridge has made good on his promise to take more deep shots and is letting it fly at a pace that dwarfs his career numbers while some of the young players are not hesitating as much. In the past, the Spurs relied too much on specialists like Davis Bertans, Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes to provide outside shooting, but have now seemingly made it a priority to spread the attempts around, which is a good thing, at least in theory.

In practice, things haven’t gone that well yet. The preseason has made it obvious that it could take a while for players that are not used to firing often to get as accurate at it as the team needs them to be. LaMarcus Aldridge and Dejounte Murray, in particular, struggled with outside shooting in preseason, combining to go 6-for-29 over the three games. It’s completely possible, if not outright likely, that they simply missed more than usual because they didn’t have their legs under them yet, but it was a little concerning seeing two starters who play off DeMar DeRozan as much as they do, miss so much. The hope is that they will do better in the regular season, which would give the starting lineup a lot more spacing than it’s had in recent years.

Better shooting from players who have been reluctant to fire from deep would not only help the offense, but also the defense. The aforementioned reliance on shooting specialists who struggle on their own end was a necessary trade-off for a team that lacked two-way players and didn’t want to completely give up on three-pointers. This season, the Spurs seem willing to bet on the overall improvement of their young wings in particular to finally shore up their defense without completely compromising their spacing.

Having Derrick White (when he’s healthy) alongside Dejounte Murray in the starting lineup could be feasible if both shoot as well as they did last season, and it would definitely improve the disastrous perimeter defense from past years. With Aldridge becoming a liability every time he’s attacked in space, it will be essential for the starters to have long, tenacious, switchable defenders around him to contain offenses at the point of attack or funnel ball handlers into the paint, where Aldridge is still useful. If they can achieve that, a bench that will feature plenty of long, athletic wings flanking Jakob Poeltl should be able to come in and immediately up the intensity and be disruptive.

The overall improvement on defense will be necessary to fuel the final factor in the Spurs’ projected reinvention: a higher pace. The bubble Spurs had almost no choice but to run, as they were lacking size but had an abundance of athletic guards and wings. It will not come as naturally to this version of the team, featuring Aldridge, to push the pace, but it will be necessary to do so to alleviate with a faster attack the potential issues with spacing and shot creation.

The best way to make sure the team is running will be to get live ball turnovers and to force bad shots. At their best, the 2020-21 Spurs will be getting easy transition buckets off steals and creating mismatches by attacking before their opponent can set up on defense. That will only be possible if the entire team, including the often apathetic DeMar DeRozan, commit to putting pressure on opponent offenses.

There is a blueprint for these Spurs to outperform the low expectations the league has for them. Better outside shooting, spread out throughout the roster, should allow them to play more good defensive players together, which in turn will make them more disruptive and allow them to run more to make up for their lack of dribble penetration on the half court. It’s a simple plan but one that could prove hard to execute, especially early on while they’re shorthanded.

Luckily, there’s no pressure to be great anymore, at least for now. Ideally, the Spurs will be better than expected and return to the playoffs, but if they don’t, no one will be too heartbroken. Thanks to smart cap and asset management they will have the opportunity to pivot in a new direction as soon as next offseason, if it becomes obvious that this core is not good enough.

In that sense, this season will be a hugely important one for San Antonio. Fans and analysts have been trying to figure out how Spurs will look since the bubble ended, but now the time for speculation is almost over. We are about to find out just how good this group can be, which will determine what happens next. The games can’t start soon enough.