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Who rounds out the starting five if the Spurs go small next season?

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There’s too much young talent for everybody to be on the court for tip-off.

Denver Nuggets v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs experienced an unexpected level of success in the Orlando Bubble despite missing LaMarcus Aldridge (among others) and going super small with DeMar DeRozan playing power forward. The next question is if this is formula that could work going forward assuming the Spurs come back with the same group next season.

Supposing the Spurs stick with small ball lineup next season, using Aldridge at the 5 and DeRozan at the 4, who rounds out the starting lineup for San Antonio?

Noah Magaro-George: If the Spurs decide to go the bubble route and roll with a small-ball lineup plus LaMarcus Aldridge next season, the logical starters alongside DeMar DeRozan and his All-Star partner would be Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, and Keldon Johnson.

Aside from the fact we saw Derrick, Dejounte, and DeMar mesh rather seamlessly with one another in the Orlando restart, there is plenty of advanced statistical evidence that shows Keldon, not Lonnie Walker IV, fits best with the aforementioned group.

The rookie wing not only dispelled concerns about an inconsistent three-point jumper with his 11-of-17 (64.7%) showing from deep over the eight seeding games, but he also averaged 14.1 points per game on the 13th lowest usage percentage (15.6%) on San Antonio’s roster.

Those numbers tell the story of a player who can score and knock down the long-ball at a high clip without needing a play drawn up for him. That’s something that should come in handy when LaMarcus rejoins a starting five with a handful of players in need of touches to get going.

And if you needed more evidence for swapping Lonnie Walker IV with Johnson, consider this. Despite an admittedly small sample size of just 19 games, Keldon led ALL rookies in Player Impact Plus-Minus in 2019-2020 (+1.56), an advanced metric defined below.

Player Impact Plus-Minus (PIPM for short) is a plus-minus impact metric that combines luck-adjusted plus-minus data with the value of the boxscore and a handful of interaction terms to estimate a player’s value over the course of a season.”

The five previous first-year PIPM leaders include Mitchell Robinson, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Nikola Mirotic. Three All-Stars, a solid role player, and the guy who broke Wilt Chamberlain’s 47-year-old record for highest field goal percentage in a single season (74.2%) is an encouraging collection of players to be a part of.

Jesus Gomez: If the Spurs start DeMar DeRozan at power forward they are doomed. DeRozan has a career defensive rebound percentage of 10.7 percent, a guard’s figure. Even in the last two years, when his rebounding improved mostly due to a change in position, the vast majority of his boards (84 percent) were uncontested, per NBA.com/stats. He’s also ranked in the bottom third in the league in post-up defense in the past two years, per Synergy data, and opponents have been taking advantage of his lack of competitiveness guarding the block on switches for a while now.

DeRozan is barely passable as a small forward on defense, which requires Keldon Johnson to start as the actual power forward for the small unit to be viable. Johnson is a more physical player who as a rookie posted essentially the same rebound percentage (14.6 percent) as DeRozan did in his best year in the category (14.7) and should be able to at least compete inside, freeing DeRozan from those responsibilities.

That leaves three players for two positions. The easy answer here would be to go with Derrick White and Dejounte Murray, as they are more dependable at this point than Lonnie Walker IV. But with such a unique lineup, fit matters more than talent or dependability and playing both White and Murray with the rest of the starters might not be ideal.

The biggest issue is usage. Even if LaMarcus Aldridge accepts a smaller role as a floor spacer, he’ll still need some touches. The entire unit is designed for DeRozan to be the main creator, so he will either maintain or increase his already significant usage. There’s simply no room for two more players who need the ball, and both White and Murray do. Murray ranked fourth in the team in usage during the season, trailing only the stars and Rudy Gay, and created 62 percent of his own buckets, a gargantuan number compared to White’s 48 percent of unassisted makes. But what made White stand out in Orlando was his ability to create, so we can expect a climb in both usage and unassisted buckets next year.

Walker IV, on the other hand, has a more modest usage percentage (18 percent) and is at his absolute best in catch and shoot situations, converting 47 percent of shots coming after no dribbles and a combined 27 percent after putting the ball on the floor at least once. Two traditional role players like Walker IV and Johnson along the two stars and one of the young guards seems like the way to go.

So, it comes down to White vs. Murray. Dejounte’s outstanding offensive rebound percentage for a guard makes him an intriguing fit on a five-out unit, but ultimately I have to go with White because he addresses the two biggest deficiencies of that potential starting lineup better. By every advanced metric, be it Real Plus Minus, Defensive PIPM or even the simpler on/off numbers, White has a bigger positive impact on defense than Murray does. White is also a much more prolific three-point shooter than Murray (39 percent of White’s total field goal attempts came from beyond the arc, to Murray’s 17) and his 39 percent on catch and shoot opportunities is good for his volume and similar to Murray’s 41 percent. The starters will need defense and shooting, and White provides more of both.

Bruno Passos: There’s a line in Forgetting Sarah Marshall where Russell Brand, in a uniquely powerless moment, already forced into wearing a gifted Tommy Bahama shirt and drawn into an awkward double date, throws his hands in the air and says, “So this is actually happening. We’re gonna let this happen.” Anyway, I don’t know why the crux of this prompt reminded me of that.

I’m building this starting lineup in the image of what the Bucks do with Giannis Antetokounmpo, which means making sure the floor is as spread out as possible for my primary ball-handler, DeMar DeRozan, giving up a healthy amount of three-point looks to (the right kind of) opponents in order to limit clean looks near the basket. (Continuing along his trajectory towards being a true stretch five, LaMarcus Aldridge shirks the left block even more for attempts from beyond the arc. His three-point rate was just under 0.2 in 2019-20; in 2020-21, it’s closer to Brook Lopez’s 0.484.) This not only gives you a philosophy, it gives you an identity to work towards.

With that framework in mind, you aren’t benching Derrick White anymore, especially after what he’s shown in Orlando, so he’s in. That gives you secondary shot creation, newfound floor-spacing (he made 42.2% of the threes he attempted off the catch in the Bubble), and elite defense at the point of attack. You don’t need to squint hard to see some kind of Eric Bledsoe/Kris Middleton hybrid in a more confident and empowered (and newly extended?) White.

That’s not a bad trio, but you’re still needing to account for DeRozan’s lack of a three-point shot and limited defensive activity and Aldridge’s lack of shot creation. The group needs off-ball movement and scoring on offense and someone who can get hands on balls and muck up those driving lanes on defense. That’s Bubble breakout player Keldon Johnson, who averaged 3.1 deflections per 36 minutes, is a savant at attacking close-outs and scoring around the basket, and put up a hilariously unsustainable 97.5% eFG shooting off the catch in limited games through his rookie season. I’m unsure what kind of player Johnson evolves into but I’m confident enough in his baseline to insert him here.

There’s no perfect fifth piece here, in my opinion, which speaks a little to the redundancy I’ve alluded to previously. The Spurs need a better option than Johnson or DeRozan to guard big 3s and 4s, and neither one of them is ideal for playing down against shifty ballhandlers. They also want an offensive profile that keeps defenses honest and can potentially lift their ceiling when DeRozan’s off. (I’m also looking off the possibility of Gay here, given we’re plugging DeRozan at the 4) I think the Spurs’ best all-around (and shoot-the-moon) option is probably Lonnie Walker, who showed enough scoring off-ball in Orlando and can be given enough of a diet of isos and downhill attacks for the Spurs to better evaluate his upside as an eventual number-one option.