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Why the Spurs are better than expected

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The Spurs have been good so far, but have they done enough to change the expectations fans had before the season? The PtR crew discusses the surprises, good and bad, and revisits their earlier predictions.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at San Antonio Spurs Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What has been the most pleasant surprise about the Spurs in the first 12 games?

Marilyn Dubinski: I’d say the change in mentality from last season to this, namely this team’s unwillingness to fold when the opponent makes a run, responding quickly when they get down, and not getting as complacent when they face an equal/lesser opponent or build a lead. There’s no telling what made all of these things issues last season, and there hasn’t been enough roster change to blame it on the players who are gone, but this team just has a tougher mentality. Maybe it’s addition of someone like head-strong Keldon Johnson into the rotation, or they just told themselves they aren’t going to have those problems again this season and have willed it away. Regardless, their tough mentality, along with the new offense, has made them much more enjoyable to watch this season, win or lose.

Mark Barrington: I think it’s the cohesiveness and resilience. It seemed like last season, whenever the team had a bad performance, they went into a funk and played poorly for a while, especially on the Rodeo Road Trip, when the team seemed to be demoralized and going through the motions. This team plays with joy and enthusiasm, and even when they have a stinker like they did in the second game against the Timberwolves, they bounce back and play hard.

Statistically, the biggest surprise has been (the lack of) turnovers. Despite playing the young guys a lot more minutes, the team is turning the ball over at a historically low rate. I think a lot of the credit for that goes to Dejounte Murray, who has taken a leap in his floor leadership and point guard skills.

Bruno Passos: The minimizing of mistakes by such a young team has been great to see. The league-best assist to turnover ratio has gotten the attention, but they’re also staying on the team’s brand by keeping their fouls low, crashing the defensive glass (3rd best in defensive rebound rate) and executing well down the stretch, for the most part.

Jesus Gomez: It’s the competent three-point shooting for me. I was concerned about it since the Spurs lost two specialists in the offseason and were going to have to rely on reluctant outside shooters to up their volume.

So far, things have gone better than expected. The Spurs rank a little lower in efficiency from beyond the arc compared to last season but a little higher in attempts. Even more impressive has been the rise of Lonnie Walker IV as a legitimate volume shooter and Keldon Johnson as an actual three-point threat that opponents have to account for. Even LaMarcus Aldridge and, more surprisingly, DeMar DeRozan are letting it fly when they have to in order to preserve spacing, so it’s clear that the team is making an effort to modernize its shot profile.

The Spurs’ offense isn’t great by any means, but it at least has the passable shooting it needs to eventually get good. It’s reassuring to know that.

J.R. Wilco: The most pleasant surprise for me (and there are a ton to choose from) is DeRozan hitting his threes. Before the season, I could see any number of positive outcomes for the team (playing young, playing small, more motion in the offense, better defense) but I had completely given up on DmDr’s chances of ever being average from distance. The shot I’m most confident of his (even beyond a corner three) is the one he takes beyond the top of the key when he receives a pass, gathers himself and is able to jump into the shot, so that his legs provide most of the power for the shot. He obviously can’t shoot it that way every time, the defense pays too much attention on him for that, but even having what I consider to be one reliable outside shot that he can depend on is way more that I thought he’d have this season or ever — and he’s hitting from elsewhere too.

What has been the biggest disappointment?

Dubinski: I haven’t been disappointed in much, but I’ll go with Jakob Poeltl. I still very much believe re-signing him to a team-friendly (and tradable) contract was the right move, but he has been in a funk. His shooting percentage has dipped about 10 percentage points so far this season, he’s only averaging a block every two games after swatting 1.4 per game last season, and he’s shooting an unfathomable 20 percent from the free throw line, having hit just 3 of 15 attempts. He has never reached 60 percent from the line in his career, but a number that bad (plus what has looked like some experimental strokes lately) means it’s in his head. His defense is still there, and overall he isn’t hurting the team when he’s on the court, but he hasn’t been himself.

Barrington: Honestly, I’m not disappointed about anything. I think that Jakob Poeltl should do a better job shooting free throws, but I can’t call that a disappointment, because I didn’t really expect him to improve there.

Passos: I came in with relatively low expectations, so it’s mostly been pleasant surprises with the way the pieces have come together. That said, Derrick White’s injury is certainly a downer. With the direction this team is headed, we were all hoping to see how White would build upon what he did with Orlando over a whole season.

Gomez: The defense. I was never naive enough to assume that not giving minutes to Bryn Forbes was a magical way for the Spurs to become an elite defensive team, but I was excited to see what a more athletic and disruptive perimeter defense would look like.

At this point, the younger guys do get steals and sometimes smother opponents, but just as often they are a little out of position. It’s completely understandable, since they are still learning to play together, but it’s sometimes a little frustrating to watch. By far the most infuriating aspect of all in terms of defensive ineptitude, however, has been the effort in transition. The veterans set the tone there and they don’t always run back hard, but even the young guys often look either disinterested or clueless when trying to defend the break.

Hopefully fixing the transition defense will become a priority going forward, because this team has the talent to be solid, if a little inconsistent, in the half court.

Wilco: Like Gomez, I’m somewhat disillusioned by the defense, but in my case the disappointment is a bit more specific. LaMarcus Aldridge’s mobility has taken a huge hit this season —especially after he missed those games with knee soreness— to the point where he’s not a deterrent in even the least significant meaning of the word. We’ve seen him play competent if not above average defense before, so if he’s too hurt to play defense well, then he should be too hurt to play. If he’s too old, then put him on a minutes restriction, say four to five minutes per quarter, and just ask him to play his hardest for those minutes. It hard watching other teams take an endless procession of drives to the basket while seemingly making every single one LMA defends.

We did some predictions before the season. Have your thoughts about how good the Spurs will be changed at all after watching them play?

Dubinski: I felt they would be roughly a .500 team record-wise, and so far that is exactly what they have been despite a brutal opening schedule. I now feel like they can actually do better considering they have shown a semblance of consistency that was lacking last season despite having yet to play with a full roster. At least one (and in some cases two) of LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan and Derrick White — arguably their three best players — have missed every game so far, so there’s reason to believe they can eventually improve once they’re finally at full strength (hopefully sometime in February). I hate to admit it, but this team has raised by expectations. Now don’t let me down!

Barrington: The Spurs are better than I expected. Dejounte Murray is looking much more comfortable leading the team from the point and Lonnie Walker IV is becoming a consistent offensive threat and a solid defender. Devin Vassell, who I thought would be good eventually, is already contributing solid minutes. DeMar DeRozan has given the team the solid leader and clutch scorer they need. LaMarcus Aldridge hasn’t really hit his stride yet, but he makes the team better. Keldon Johnson has been incredible. I predicted the team to be maybe a 30 win team, but they look like a playoff team to me now.

Passos: I had them at around 32-40 before the season, I think. Between them looking a bit better and other teams in the conference looking worse, I’m definitely higher on their chances. I’m inclined to nudge them closer to .500 and am open to the possibility that they have enough fight to be at least a play-in threat, especially with how weird this season should continue to be. Get hot for a long-enough stretch, catch a team or two that’s depleted by COVID protocol and that can change everything over a 72-game season.

Gomez: I thought the Spurs would probably finish with the 13th best record in the West. Now I think they can be better than that, but I’m not sure how much better. There have been a lot of close games that could have gone either way, so their record could be worse than it is now. At the same time, they have been decent without Derrick White and with Jakob Poeltl and Rudy Gay playing poorly. When one of the young guys inevitably goes through a slump, maybe those vets will step up. The playoffs don’t look like a complete pipe dream now.

In any case, what I said before the season is that I was more interested in development than wins and I stand by that. In that regard, the young Spurs have definitely exceeded my expectations.

Wilco: With how tough I expected the West to be, I had the Spurs at 25-30 wins, which I think they’ll certainly eclipse. If they’re not a .500 team this year, I think they’ll at least be near it. As nice as a high draft pick would be, an entire season of fun basketball to enjoy is nothing to sneeze at. And you never know when a quality pick-and-roll PG or a stretch-four might drop for us to pounce on.

Yeah — I know I’m being delusional, but I just can’t root for this team to lose.