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What we learned about the Spurs during the bubble

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The Bubble Spurs were completely different from the version of the team we saw the rest of the season. But did they teach as anything new about this core? The PtR staff discusses.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs At Utah Jazz Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

The Orlando bubble is over and now it’s time for reflection. The most obvious takeaway is that Keldon Johnson was a revelation and should have a stable role going forward. But those eight games might have imparted other lessons beyond that one.

What have we learned about the Spurs during the bubble that we didn’t know before it?

Marilyn Dubinski: Odd as it sounds, I feel like I learned more about DeMar DeRozan in the bubble than I knew before. He showed he can be a stable leader and calming presence when guiding a group of young players. He successfully picked when to defer and when to take over without tanking the rest of the team’s rhythm, and perhaps most surprisingly, we learned he’s not a bad power forward. That fact that he can successfully cover four spots on the floor without being overwhelmed speaks to the versatility of his game and how despite lacking a three-point stroke, today’s position-less NBA may be more suited for him than many realize. Does that mean anything for the Spurs going forward? Maybe so, maybe no, but it’s an interesting new development as the next two offseasons will dictate what direction they choose to take for the future.

Mark Barrington; I think we learned a lot about the players, but we also relearned a lesson about Coach Pop. He’s a master motivator and manager of people and organizations, but as a basketball strategist, his greatest strength is his flexibility. He can coach any style of basketball, and he adapts his style to the personnel. With an athletic lineup of young guys, he changed to a free-wheeling style with some elements of the beautiful game from 2014. The team had focused on a isolation-heavy strategy for most of the last two years with DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, but with LaMarcus out and saving DeMar’s heroics for late game clutch possessions, the team had a new identity in the bubble, and it was fun to watch.

It will be interesting to see if this style carries over into next season. I think the team can do it, but it all depends on the moves the front office makes in the off-season. I think that LaMarcus and DeMar can both be valuable Spurs players, but I would prefer if they weren’t both on the floor for extended minutes together. I’m excited to see how Trey Lyles develops next year, since he has enough quickness and athleticism to play the new faster style of play.

Bruno Passos: I’m hesitant to run wild with too many Bubble implications, as most of the Spurs’ wins came off opponents that were either short-handed or underperformed in there. I do think we learned that Derrick White can be a true off-ball threat and that Johnson should be an early sub off the bench next season—or better. Beyond that, Orlando prompted a handful of questions I look forward to seeing answered in the context of them treating the Bubble as much about evaluation as development. I’m curious if they see the same redundancies I do in a roster with intriguing but not entirely switchable young pieces. I’m curious if they can push Aldridge to lean fully into being a Brook Lopez-esque stretch 5 that fits within the spread-out scheme they turned to, and if the front office would be more pressed to move him if not. I’m curious if DeRozan’s willingness to go into the Bubble as a mentor for a team that was, at least on some level, putting development over competitiveness improves the odds of him opting in or getting an offseason extension.

Jesus Gomez: My main two takeaways from the bubble are that Gregg Popovich somehow managed to keep his team together in exceptional circumstances and that their young core, while intriguing, still lacks the star quality that the franchise desperately needs.

It was impressive to see the Spurs, from usual bench warmers like Drew Eubanks to veterans like Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan look as committed to the team as they did to the task at hand, considering the postseason was always a long shot. I believe Pop definitely deserves some credit for that cohesion. Similarly, changing the team identity so late into a year is tough and getting DeRozan to buy into such a different style could have been challenging. That San Antonio could do it seamlessly speaks to how good the leadership is.

As for the young guys, their performances were extremely encouraging as a whole, but individually there’s still a lot of inconsistency to their games. Even Derrick White, who at times looked like a bonafide star, had moments and even games in which he didn’t make a big enough impact. Which is fine, of course. None of these young players are supposed to be saviors on their own and as a collective they provide plenty of hope for the future. Those hoping that the next face of the franchise would appear in Orlando, however, didn’t get their wish.

J.R. Wilco: I learned that when properly motivated (or sufficiently short-handed) Pop will go young and small. I learned that DmDr’s late-game clutch rating is still fluid, but also positively so — assuming he’s sufficiently fresh. I learned that I could watch games without a crowd and still enjoy myself. I learned that Derrick White and Dejounte Murray aren’t mutually exclusive. I learned that Rudy Gay can still bring it; that the next time Poeltl gets the benefit of the doubt in a referee’s mind while guarding a marquee player will be the first; that Patty Mills Elder Statesman is a thing; that Walker’s speed might be best utilized in simply bringing the ball up and pressuring the defense with the threat of an early score, and that I could watch 8 Spurs games without missing LMA even once.

And I learned that Keldon Johnson is ready for prime time