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Why the Spurs’ starting unit is suddenly dangerous

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Sacramento Kings v San Antonio Spurs Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The courts in Orlando aren’t actually any bigger than regulation, though if you’ve been paying attention to the Spurs’ offense with their starters on the floor these last two games you’d be forgiven for harboring that suspicion. There is space, that glorious enabler of the beautiful game, all but begging to be filled with drives and cuts.

Only a handful of months ago, that space was solely the province of a reserve unit that boasted a pair of marksmen with 2014 championship pedigrees in Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills. But the current unit (anchored by DeMar DeRozan and filled out by four players who have fewer years of NBA experience combined than DeMar has by himself) is different. They don’t have the same ball movement, for one, but with four athletic playmakers (Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV and DeMar) surrounding a rolling big (Jakob Poeltl), they don’t necessarily need to hit the same levels of creativity and precision.

The most obvious difference between the team’s starting five the first part of the season and the group that has tipped off these last two games is the absence of LaMarcus Aldridge. His ability to play alongside DeMar has always been a concern, and outside of that stretch where he purposefully spent more time at the arc in late December and early January, the on-court results have been stilted and uncomfortable.

But the two other (relative) newcomers to the first five have perhaps been even more important to the rhythm and flow of the team’s offense. Swapping Derrick and Lonnie into the starting lineup presents defenses with two more dynamic guards to corral, both of whom are threats from deep.

The first two 3rd quarter plays from the Spurs’ nail-biter over the Grizzlies provide a pretty good example of how different the offense is with those two on the floor. Right out of the half, the Spurs caught the Griz flat-footed with a simple backscreen at the free throw line.

Dejounte brings the ball across half court and swings it to Lonnie, who’s in the trailer position. Lonnie then attempts to swing the ball around to the opposite wing as usual in the Spurs’ offense. Kyle Anderson, who for obvious reasons is well aware of those tendencies, plays high to deny the swing pass, which would typically trigger the Spurs to transition into something else. They don’t, which makes it pretty clear they’re running a set play.

Instead, Derrick sprints to the three point line to back Anderson up, then resets to receive the pass. That throws the timing of the play off a little, so Jakob buys a little time leaning into Jonas Valanciunas before proceeding.

On the strong side, it looks a little like a potential post up for DeMar, but the real action is the backscreen Jakob sets on Jaren Jackson Jr. Valanciunas stays far too close to Jakob, leaving the paint wide open, and Jakob keeps a solid hold of Jackson to ensure he can’t recover. With Dejounte Murray stationed in the far corner, the last line of defense against Lonnie’s dive to the rim is Ja Morant, who is way too late and way too small to disrupt the play. Derrick’s pass is right on the money and it’s an easy two points.

Those two linked up again the very next time down the court.

The Spurs run this dribble hand off into a staggered screen multiple times a game. It usually generates a switch, and when DeMar is the one with the ball, that usually leads to an isolation up top or on the wing. But rather than switch, the Grizzlies chose to aggressively show on screens for most of the night, which leads to DeMar retreating out to half court with Valanciunas chasing him like a hungry bear while Dillon Brooks tries to recover. Once Brooks gets there, Valanciunas starts to retreat and DeMar reads the situation perfectly.

For a brief moment, he’s got an opportunity to hit either Jakob in the middle or Lonnie on the weak side wing, depending on how Jackson is splitting the difference between the two. So he elevates, checks Jackson’s position and throws the ball back the opposite direction to Lonnie. Jackson is an incredible athlete but he has no chance of recovering to Lonnie without giving up an open look or a drive and Lonnie blows right by him on the baseline side.

From there, the Grizzlies defense initially does a good job of rotating into position. Valanciunas gets back to protect the rim and Morant steps in front of Jakob to prevent an easy drop off, which forces Lonnie to find another outlet. Unfortunately for the Griz, Anderson drops a step too far down to take away the baseline pass and Brooks gets sucked into the paint, leaving Derrick all alone on the wing.

Derrick is the team’s leading scorer in Orlando so far, with 21 points per game. He’s played the 2nd most minutes, just behind DeMar, and is launching threes and racking up assists every minute he’s on the court. His three point attempt rate - the percentage of his shots that come from behind the arc - over these last 2 games is over 62%, which is dramatically higher than the 36% he averaged in the first part of the season. The fact that Derrick now clearly has a bright green light from deep is a huge step forward. He’s a much more dangerous player when he’s letting it fly.

Lonnie’s never had any issues with getting shots up, but his level of comfort with taking quick-trigger threes in real games is important. Dejounte is taking threes (and making them) too, but those are a completely different kind of look. Lonnie’s shooting ability has gravity, and, as evidenced by these two plays, he also brings a dynamic presence to the court the team has sorely missed the last two seasons.

It will be interesting to see how they match up with size and whether they can hold up on the defensive end against teams with two bigs, but initial returns have been good. It’s just two games, so small sample size alert, but after fielding one of the worst starting offenses in the league for much of the year, the Spurs’ starting five can score now, and Derrick and Lonnie are the two most important reasons why.