One of the biggest what ifs of this Spurs season revolves around the Davis Bertans trade. Bertans emerged as a Most Improved Player candidate in Washington, essentially posting career highs in most categories. Could that leap have happened in San Antonio?
The short answer is “probably not.” Bertans would have not have had the green light as a Spur the way he does with the Wizards, and Washington’s faster pace fits his play style much better than San Antonio’s half court focused attack.
The more interesting question, however, is why did the Spurs crater this year without Bertans, the only rotation player from last season’s team to depart? Was he actually, in his San Antonio form, more important to their 2018-2019 success than previously suspected? To find out the answer we have to look at what went wrong after he was sent away.
The Spurs underestimated the importance of outside shooting
It’s impossible to start any discussion about the Bertans trade without addressing this first: three-point shooting is beyond important in the modern NBA, and the Spurs traded one of the best marksmen in the league away and tried to replace him with lesser shooters.
When considering the Spurs ultimate target when trading Bertans was Marcus Morris, who shot 44 percent on six attempts per game in New York and is a superior defender, it looks like a reasonable trade-off on the surface. However, there’s little reason to assume Morris would have had that type of shooting success on a Spurs squad that was lacking in play-making this season. Instead of focusing on that incredibly small portion of Morris’ career (just 43 games), the better observation is that he was a 36 percent career shooter coming into this season, and if his terrible slump since getting to Los Angeles is any indication (also an admittedly small sample size of just 12 games, but still closer to his career average at just 29 percent), he would have likely shot under 40 for the season once he inevitably regressed. Morris is almost surely a better all around player than Bertans, but his shooting isn’t in the same league.
The same applies to the player the Spurs added after Morris reneged on his agreement to join them. Trey Lyles shot a surprisingly good 39 percent on three-pointers, but volume matters greatly, and he falls short there. In his last season as a Spur, Bertans attempted over 10 three-pointers per 100 possessions while Lyles only attempted slightly over six this year. Almost 75 percent of Davis’ attempts came from beyond the arc while around 50 percent of Lyles’ did. As is the case with most good-not-great shooters, Lyles had to be open to connect while Bertans can hit contested shots. Bertans was simply a much greater threat from outside and was treated as such, which also helped with spacing.
On a team that had an excess of elite shooters at every position, losing one without replacing him wouldn’t have been a big deal. Unfortunately, the Spurs were not such a team.
San Antonio’s best snipers were all backcourt players, which is a problem because Patty Mills, Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli play the same positions as the young guys with questionable outside shots but excel in other areas of need. The only front court shooter, other than Lyles and persona non grata DeMarre Carroll, was Rudy Gay. In 2018-19, Gay shot an impressive 40 percent from three with the Spurs, but he was a career 34 percent shooter before that and he immediately regressed to the exact same efficiency from outside he posted in his first year in San Antonio. Making matters worse, everyone but Mills slumped in the first few months of the season. In November, Forbes, Belinelli and Gay shot a combined 33 percent from outside; that same trio went cold again in January, combining for a 34 percent conversion rate.
Bertans made 145 threes last season on 45 percent shooting. Lyles, Carroll and Gay have combined for 126 so far on 34 percent accuracy. San Antonio led the league in three-point shooting percentage last season, which was a big reason why they had the sixth best offense in the league. This year they rank sixth in three-point shooting percentage and have the 11th best offense in the league.
Shooting matters, and the Spurs didn’t value it enough.
These Spurs were not good enough to build for the playoffs
There’s a valid criticism of Bertans and players like him that probably led the Spurs to be fine with moving him: they are helpful during the regular season but not so much in the playoffs. Bertans was completely neutralized by the Nuggets last postseason while more physical, versatile players like Morris, Carroll and potentially Lyles will typically remain productive.
The problem with that thinking is that it assumes the Spurs were (are?) going to make the playoffs in the first place. Before the regular season was suspended, there were few signs that this wildly inconsistent squad had a season-saving run in them.
In the past, adding toughness and defense made sense in San Antonio because there was a structure in place that essentially assured a postseason berth. The Spurs used to have Hall-of-Famers instead of flawed stars, and reliable veterans instead of young players. Not anymore. On top of that, they typically had continuity on their side, so they could tinker with the supporting cast without hurting their team chemistry much. That all went away when the Big Three retired and Kawhi Leonard forced his way out.
Looking at how the pieces fit in this new version of the Spurs, it’s clear that despite his flaws, Bertans definitely fit. He posted the best net rating among rotation players and was featured in some of the team’s best lineups last season. He also worked well with the young lead guards. In 2017-18, the Spurs outscored opponents by a whopping 10.7 points per 100 possession when Bertans and Dejounte Murray shared the court, and in 2018-19 it was an even more obscene 18.9 points when Bertans shared the court with Derrick White. In both cases, the sample size of around 500 minutes feels too small to draw any definitive conclusions, but it does make sense that having a forward who can shoot at an elite level next to ball handlers with little proven range would be mutually beneficial.
Bertans’ skill set also helped lubricate the friction between the games of the stars. The best three-man lineup in terms of net rating that included both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge last season featured Bertans as the third piece. The worse three-man lineups featuring those guys included Jakob Poeltl and Dante Cunningham. DeRozan and Adridge need shooters around them — not guys who might hit a high percentage on a low number of attempts like Cunningham and Lyles — but actual threats. Having fewer of those this season put a lot of pressure on the other shooters, especially Forbes, and eventually forced Aldridge to embrace the role of a floor spacer at the expense of his traditional strengths.
A relatively small change in personnel had a lot of unexpected consequences, as tends to happen with teams that are still looking to establish an identity. Messing with what worked — and having Bertans around worked extremely well in the regular season — carries big risks. The reward could have been worthy in the playoffs, but the front office might have overestimated the team’s ability to get there.
The Spurs missed Davis Bertans dearly this season not because he is secretly a star or an irreplaceable role player; they missed him because he had the talents they needed. He was their best front court shooter and made life easier for the young players and the stars alike.
The Silver and Black are in danger of the lottery for the first time in two decades not just because they lost Bertans in the off-season, but by moving him without securing an adequate replacement, they significantly reduced their margin of error.
Hopefully the front office will learn from this and realize that teams need shooting to survive the regular season, and seventh seeds that are still figuring out their identity should be building more to improve their regular season win total before making tweaks designed for the playoffs.