This may not last. It probably won’t. But it might.
For now at least, the Spurs have proven they’re up to the challenge of this Disney restart. Down three starters (LaMarcus Aldridge lost to shoulder surgery, Trey Lyles to an appendectomy, and Bryn Forbes out with right quad tightness), they’ve turned to a faster pace and a looser, more egalitarian offense to get past the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies.
It begins with a starting lineup that didn’t share the floor for one second until last week. The four-guard group of DeRozan, Derrick White, Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV, plus Jakob Poeltl, has put up a +30.5 net rating in 15 minutes of action through two games. Bigger teams will continue to test how well they can rebound and protect the rim with DeRozan as the de facto 4, but Sunday’s 108-106 win against a backline of Jonas Valanciunas and Jaren Jackson Jr. showed promise, with some intuitive switching and scrambling.
The size of the Spurs’ perimeter players allows them to switch 1 through 4, relying on communication and Poeltl’s rotations to limit the kind of breakdowns we routinely saw all season. On the other end, they’re looking to run more than ever, making use of their quicker lineups and the unprecedented amount of youth Gregg Popovich has had to rely on.
“I loved [the pace], and it’s necessary,” the Spurs coach said on Sunday. “We need to play with pace. We don’t have one-on-one players. We don’t give the ball to a player and say, ‘beat your guy and go score’. That’s not the kind of players we have on the team. We’ve got to do it as a group. We’ve got to have movement and pace goes along with that.”
With an increased focus on development has come a shift in the team’s playmaking hierarchy—in that there really isn’t one anymore. DeRozan, the team’s leading scorer, leading assist man, and usual fulcrum of the offense, has relinquished many of his touches to guys like White, Murray and Walker—especially in the beginning of games. In lieu of a DeRozan-centric attack, the Spurs starters are largely running familiar motion sets, as players drive, kick, read and react. The big difference is the greener light we’re seeing for White, Murray and Walker to shoot from deep, while DeRozan looks to generate breakdowns and swing the ball around.
“I don’t see how you can scout us,” said DeMar DeRozan on Friday. “We’ve got a lot of wild pitbulls out there running around, and on any given night, those guys can explode and do something amazing.”
As a result of that (and with Aldridge’s 15 FGAs per game up for grabs), Walker has averaged 7 more attempts, while White has his two highest career totals for three-point attempts (8 and 9) in his last two games. Murray (up from 9.5 to 15 FGAs) attempted the most field goals of his career on Sunday (19) en route to a 21-point, 10-rebound game. Poeltl’s remained his usual hard-screening, low-usage self but has been invaluable playing double his minute load, putting up a +30.4 net rating through two games.
Murray’s place as another piece in this egalitarian attack may be noteworthy to you, or not. It depends on how much you bought into the idea of him being groomed as a playmaker, or not, through his first four seasons. The term “point guard” feels dated and unnecessarily open-ended these days, but teams still feature primary ball-handlers (who are occasionally of the traditional point-guard mold) and it did feel, once upon a time, like a torch had been passed from Tony Parker to Murray. Anyway, I found Pop’s pregame quote on Sunday, at worst, a novel self-assessment of the roster:
“There’s no such thing. There are no point guards—just perimeter players. There’s no such thing as one guy who’s running the show.”
Whether by design or not, DeRozan appears to benefit from the redistribution of touches and fresher legs down the stretch, giving San Antonio a needed focal point when the game matters most. Here’s a breakdown of his usage as those contests have progressed (and gotten close):
1st half: 4 points on 4 FGAs, 1 FTA
2nd half: 16.5 points on 7.5 FGAs, 6.5 FTAs
With a less-taxed DeRozan and more young players empowered to score, there’s a levity to San Antonio’s offense, and with it less predictability. Walker is getting corner threes, executing dump-offs on dribble penetration, and finishing ATO alley oops; White is bombing away from three and being asked to do more off the dribble; Murray is looking more comfortable thinking shoot-first.
“I’m just enjoying going out to compete with my teammates and trying to make something happen,” said Murray. “Obviously, a lot of people count us out not having a bunch of our guys, but at the end of the day, we’re all pros and it’s next man up leads and he has to be ready to go.”
Others have emerged amid the next-man-up situation, including two-way big Drew Eubanks and rookie Keldon Johnson. Eubanks has been the emergency 2nd center (whenever Poeltl takes a seat and Pop hasn’t played Rudy Gay at the 5), providing energy and doing his best to hit his spots on defense. Johnson meanwhile has looked right at home in the Spurs’ more frenzied style, moving bodies, chasing after loose balls, and playing within himself in ways you seldom see from a first-year pro. He’s also made 3 of 6 from beyond the arc over these two contests.
Going into Monday’s matchup against the Sixers, the Spurs sit in 9th place in the West, just two games behind the Grizzlies. That puts them in the pole position to qualify for the 8-9 play-in game and, if Memphis really bottoms out, a theoretical chance at sole ownership of 8th. If the odds still feel against them to outpace the more experienced Blazers or talented Pelicans, it’s because they probably are. But predictions just seem a little harder to make against this group.