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Breaking down the Spurs’ hot start

The Spurs have exceeded expectations to start the season, but is their success sustainable?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs are 2-1 after their first three games and have the ninth best net rating in the league. It’s an unexpected start to the season for a team that is missing one of its best players and was supposed to be in a transition period.

What do you think is the main reason why the Spurs have played so well so far?

Marilyn Dubinski: I give a lot of credit to the scheme and personnel change. The quick pace is allowing the Spurs to get past defenses before they can get set. Just like in the Bubble, the young guns are slashing to the rim and either finishing or forcing the defense to collapse and finding the open man. The ball keeps moving, there are few iso plays, and DeMar DeRozan has struck a good balance between when to defer and when to take over. All this makes imagining what they’ll do when Derrick White returns rather intriguing.

Bruno Passos: When the Spurs have been good, it’s because they’re getting to the rim with effective dribble penetration, meaningful contributions from the vets and a heavy dose of Good Dejounte Murray. In particular, Pop spoke about the importance of applying rim pressure on the defense this season and how attacking north to south can open things up for the rest of the game. They’ve also shown a good balance between the urgent style of play of the young guys and the patient play creation of the Olds.

Mark Barrington: I think it’s mostly because of the improvement of Dejounte Murray, who has upped his skill initiating and orchestrating the offense immensely, while remaining a good defender. The increased confidence of Lonnie Walker IV makes him a much more credible offensive threat. DeMar DeRozan is playing at a very high level, too, and Keldon Johnson has been great. I mean, KJ was pretty good in the bubble, but he’s been even better mentally and physically in the first three games this year. The three young guys (KJ, DJ, and LWIV) all showed flashes last year, but the first three games are the first time I’ve seen them all playing well at the same time, and the synergy has been great.

Jesus Gomez: I think on offense, pace and space has been the key. It turns out that the people who criticized the Spurs for playing slow. ISO-ball and for not taking enough threes were right. San Antonio currently ranks ninth in pace, third in assist percentage and 19th in percentage of points coming from three-pointers after ranking 14th (with the help of the bubble), 21st and 28th in those categories, respectively, last season.

The fact that they have been able to modernize their offense to make it less reliant on stars while playing guys who bring athleticism and defense has allowed them to not only have a less predictable attack but also have fewer liabilities in their own end. Basically, the reinvention has worked so far, better than anyone could have anticipated.

J.R. Wilco: I’d break it down into two main categories: good offensive initiation and improved defense. First, the Spurs with the ball in their hands to begin an attack (primarily DeRozan and Murray) have been making good decisions, while finishing possessions well. That kind of decision-making combined with execution (scoring and creating assists) has been elite, and the rest of the success of the offense has grown from there. — Plus, Patty Mills has been practically perfect.

On defense, while the mistakes have been abundant (from rookie-type miscues to the occasional lack of urgency) the team has been able to disrupt the opposition offense during the game, and also get the stops it needs in big moments.

Do you think their current level is sustainable?

Dubinski: It’s early, but I think it is. Everyone seems to be playing with a chip on their shoulders and determined to prove doubters wrong. Better yet, unlike last year, they have the personnel to maintain this current level. They might still suffer through inconsistencies that come with being young and learning a new style, and it may still not be enough to make the playoffs, but if nothing else this team should be more satisfying to watch than last year’s wildly inconsistent, slow one.

Passos: I’m not sure I’ve seen enough from these early games to rethink how I viewed this team to begin the season. I definitely need to see a larger sample size of Murray to believe he can positively affect, and control, the game with the ball in his hands, and I question whether this team can keep getting to the rim and finish well for most of a season. Also: is the new Aldridge going to be this much of a variable from one night to the next? That said, the return of Derrick White should only help across the board, and that’s reason enough to keep an open mind.

Barrington: In a word, no, I think it’s inevitable that the Spurs will return to Earth in the near future, especially since they have a series upcoming against the Lakers, who have enough talent to expose almost any team’s weaknesses. I think the Spurs will play hard, but I don’t think DeMar DeRozan’s current high level of play can be maintained over the season. Keldon Johnson is going to be really good, but sooner or later, Spurs opponents are going to realize he isn’t that tall, and are going to start crowding him. Dejounte is playing great, but he hasn’t reached a level of consistency to be great every night. I’m not sure about Lonnie, I hope what we’ve seen from him the last three games is what we’re going to expect from now on, but I remember last season when he had a massive breakout game against Houston, and then disappeared for most of the rest of the season. I have hopes that Lonnie can keep up the aggressiveness and level of engagement he’s had in December, but it remains to be seen if it will actually happen.

One argument in favor of sustainability is that Derrick White should be returning soon, and his addition to the rotation should allow the Silver and Black to have a chance to compete against good teams even if one of the other guys isn’t having their best game. I can’t wait to see how that’s going to work out.

Gomez: It will depend almost entirely on individual performances. I remember how Brett Brown had the 76ers playing hard on defense while having a modern shot profile in his first years in Philadelphia, but couldn’t get wins, since the talent wasn’t there. Something similar could happen to these Spurs. If Lonnie Walker IV stops being a flame thrower from outside; if Keldon Johnson can’t continue to hang with bigger forwards; if Dejounte Murray goes back to struggling to finish inside, it could all come crashing down quickly.

If the seemingly unsustainable individual performances prove durable or if at least the drop-off isn’t huge, then there’s a chance, because reinforcements should arrive soon, as Derrick White gets healthy and LaMarcus Aldridge finds his place within the new offense.

Wilco: It’s a good-news-bad-news situation. The bad news is that it’s unlikely that the Spurs can sustain their current play, at least in the way they have so far — just look at the number of wide open jumpers their first three opponents have missed in crunch time. They can’t take credit for that. But the good news is that help is on the way in Derrick White. His measured, intelligent approach on both ends of the floor will go a long way toward filling in the gaps this roster has. It won’t really be fair to talk about what’s sustainable until we see how the team plays with their whole roster intact.