The young Spurs are showing us what they can do when Gregg Popovich frees up minute, opens up the playbook and loosens the reins. It’s early, but the performances have given plenty to simmer on.
For second-year guard Lonnie Walker, more opportunities have meant he can take chances without worrying about the inevitable hook to the bench. He’s shown he can knock down threes at a higher volume while serving up a handful of above-the-rim finishes.
For Derrick White, a blinding green light to bomb away has empowered him to shoot with no conscience, suggesting he can be a true threat from all three levels. (By virtue of being a spry 26 instead of a washed 27 like the injured Bryn Forbes, White seems to have been unanimously looped into this youth movement) His four highest attempt totals—8, 9 twice, and 10—have all come in the Bubble, and he’s up to 45.2% shooting on 8.4 tries per game. We’ve never seen such gumption from him before:
Dejounte Murray’s improved jump shot has made appearances in the Bubble, and a simplified offensive role has mitigated his limitations as a primary playmaker and let his other strengths shine.
After getting little run in San Antonio through the regular season, rookie Keldon Johnson is now one of the first guys off the bench, looking every bit the classic late first-round Spurs draft steal. You can read more praise on him here.
Also getting as many minutes as he can handle (when he can stay out of foul trouble) is Jakob Poeltl, whose upcoming restricted free agency should benefit from this Orlando stint. On good nights, he’s showing improved pick and roll chemistry with the likes of White and gobbling up shot attempts around the rim on the other end.
Even two-way players Drew Eubanks and Quinndary Weatherspoon have improved their professional stock, Eubanks being a bit more dependable on the defensive end and Weatherspoon looking equal parts scrappy and savvy.
The Spurs’ decision to showcase and season their youth has already proven to be a positive. The next question, following a better understanding of what pieces PATFO truly have to work with, is seeing how they fit together. Here’s Pop speaking on Friday:
“This is all about development for us—obviously—and the young guys are getting evaluated. We see them playing together. They get more minutes and we get to determine how valuable they are and what guys we want to move forward with.”
As they look to bounce back from their worst season this century, the Spurs are looking in the mirror right now. Most findings lay ahead of them, and we’re not likely to get a candid read on all of them until after moves are made, but we did seem to get a telling admission from Pop earlier this week:
“There are no point guards (on this team)—just perimeter players. There’s no such thing as one guy who’s running the show.”
That’s not a big deal by itself, unless you’re Murray and may or may not have felt that distinction is one you were inheriting. After all, the 2020 NBA is positionless, and some of the best creators on teams these days are big wings (and at least one true big in Nikola Jokic). Play creation can come from anywhere.
The catch for San Antonio is that the best option for that creation remains DeMar DeRozan, who’s capable of being the straw that stirs the drink for another season. The team may not have a surefire option to replace him as a high-level scorer, or a clear route to a to 30-40 player in its immediate future. But DeRozan also just turned 31—happy belated, DeMar—and has a final year player option on his contract. Looming regression and a payday are a tough mix for a front office, especially one with a stable of young players between 6-4 and 6-6.
Beyond that the team would appear to have, for now, a young group of solid secondary creators with little isolation game and, with the exception of White, work to do to routinely beat teams in the pick and roll. Murray can curl around a screen and dribble into an increasingly potent 18-footer, and Walker and Johnson can both capably attack close-outs, but you wouldn’t wager the future of a franchise on those three being the center of an offense right now. The Spurs system can generate breakdowns and advantages through chemistry and heady ball movement, but find me an elite offense today that doesn’t have elite creators.
White is something of an X-factor here. In 5 Restart games his usage has been at an all-time high, and he’s making the most of it, averaging 21.8 points, 5.2 assists, and 5 rebounds—DeRozanesque numbers with the added benefit of the aforementioned three-point threat. Some of the play creation we’re seeing may be mitigated if (like what we saw in the back half of the 2019 Nuggets series), but he’s earned the benefit of the doubt—as well as a spot back in the starting lineup next season. The roles for guys like Walker, Murray, and Johnson are less spelled out and, while you don’t rush these judgments, you also can’t let contract decisions sneak up on you. The Spurs appeared to have a bargain deal with Murray as a point guard with exciting two-way potential, and now he’ll go into that second contract trying to find his place in a murky wing rotation.
The young wings offer a bit more versatility on the other end, but they’re not quite big enough to replicate the switchability that a team like Boston has in the likes of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward. We’re also still not even sure how great the defensive backcourt of Murray and White can be, much less if you ask Walker to share the floor and guard bigger 3s, or if Johnson can hang with true 4s.
Consider that Patty Mills, another secondary creator, is still under contract and that the Spurs have decisions to make on free agents Forbes and Marco Belinelli, both also better suited playing off-ball and neither impactful defenders, and you see why the Spurs are not only thinking development right now, but also forward-thinking evaluation.
While Poeltl’s mostly playing within himself in Orlando, his stronger performances stoke a growing conversation of whether the Spurs are better off with him starting rather than, say, the seven-time All-Star who didn’t come to Disney. Aldridge has his contract guaranteed for next season, while Poeltl may be due starter’s money (or desire a starting role) in the offseason. They remain mostly unplayable next to one another given that they’re both better suited to playing the 5 defensively and that neither can initiate offense. Poeltl’s the more mobile rim-runner, a better rim protector, and the advanced numbers have mostly favored him over Aldridge, bearing in mind they’re not always facing the same quality of opposition. Even if Aldridge remains the better talent, objectively speaking, Poeltl may be the better stylistic fit for his counterparts to continue developing.
Consider all of the above descriptive instead of prescriptive—after all, the front office may or may not see the same redundancies on the wing and in the middle (or view them as issues needing addressing). Either way, some change with the roster and rotations is already imminent, and it’ll come down to how much of a shake-up PATFO feels is necessary to make the Spurs relevant again. Could an opportunity present itself in a draft that many teams are down on? Could we see a similar situation to the summer of 2011, when Pop traded George Hill (a rising player stuck in a positional logjam) for a swing at a greater area of need? As those decisions unfold, we can expect that these Orlando games continue to serve as key data points.