A quarter of the NBA season is in the books and we are starting to see where teams stack up. It’s still early for definitive conclusions, but there is enough information to make some general evaluations. At the very least, we can say that there have been disappointments and overachievers.
The Spurs belong to the latter group. San Antonio, in what was expected to be a transition year, has the seventh best record in the West at the moment. The team has delivered on the promise shown in the bubble, featuring impressive individual performances but also an unexpected cohesion for such a young team in a new system.
So let’s take a look at what these first 18 games have taught us about the Spurs and whether those lessons allow us to project what comes next.
The Spurs are still the Spurs
Three pillars of the Spurs’ identity under Gregg Popovich have been to avoid fouling, rebound misses and avoid turnovers. It’s the reason “they don’t beat themselves” has been a phrase used to describe the Spurs for literally decades. By not giving away easy points or extra possessions San Antonio has traditionally made opponents’ lives hard. This season has been no exception.
The Spurs rank first in the league in turnover percentage and ninth in defensive rebound percentage while allowing opponents the fourth fewest free throws per game. It’s an impressive accomplishment considering the relative youth of the rotation players, the composition of the starting lineup and the team’s new style of play. San Antonio is playing more aggressive perimeter defense and creating more turnovers without fouling, rebounding at a high level despite only playing one traditional big man at a time, and refusing to turn the ball over despite playing faster than ever.
Discipline is not necessarily the first word that comes to mind when describing these Spurs, but amidst the growing pains and in spite of youthful exuberance, the Silver and Black has been able to maintain that part of its identity. At least so far.
The projected flaws have been real
Entering the season there were some potential issues that the Spurs were thought to have after their change of identity. Namely, they were expected to struggle being consistent from beyond the arc and to have a tough time integrating LaMarcus Aldridge into a style and role he’d never played before. For the most part those predictions have turned out to be true.
The volatility in terms of perimeter shooting is staggering. The Spurs have shot over 40 percent nine times, which is only one fewer time than the Clippers, the leaders in three-point shooting percentage, but they have also shot below 32 percent eight times. In the entirety of last season they never shot below 33 percent — in a game. The ups and downs were expected, as the Spurs are asking players that have never shot high volume from outside to up their volume and trusting young players to develop into reliable shooters overnight. The problem is that their poor shooting seems to correlate to losing, at least to a certain degree. In wins, San Antonio ranks 16th in three-point shooting percentage, while in defeats they drop to 21st.
One of the responsible parties of the shooting volatility has been Aldridge. So far LMA has committed to his role as a floor spacer, launching a career-high four threes a night, though he’s only converting on 32 percent of his attempts. He’s also averaging just 14 points a game, the lowest number since his rookie season. Yet despite those struggles on offense, his deficiencies on defense have been even more worrisome.
The Spurs have been leaning towards a more disruptive style on their own end that features a lot of help defense to make up for their lack of size, and while in the aggregate it has worked, it has also exposed Aldridge’s lack of mobility and athleticism. In short, LA can’t switch and his second jump is slow, so he’s not well-suited to play as the lone big in a small unit. San Antonio has been almost 15 points better on defense when he sits. As painful as it is to say, going forward it might be necessary to limit his minutes for the Spurs to solidify themselves as an elite offensive team.
There’s still a lot of room for growth
At this point, the Spurs sit firmly in the playoff picture in the West with a 10-8 record that seemed unlikely before the season. They somehow have a top 10 defense as well and have had fantastic performances from the young guys. Staying where they are, however, could prove challenging. A handful of teams have had rough starts in what is undoubtedly a strange season but project to do better in the future. The Spurs, meanwhile, have arguably been overachieving in no small part because they have played teams featuring half their rosters (Rockets, Wizards) or lacking a star (Clippers, Trail Blazers) and have done well in close games, with 11 of their games determined in the last few minutes. A few bad bounces and they could easily be 8-10.
Fortunately, reinforcements are coming. Derrick White is expected to return soon, which should help steady the Spurs. White can create and shoot from outside, which is something neither DeMar DeRozan nor Dejounte Murray can do with any consistency. His presence should give the Spurs more ball handling and spacing while also fortifying their perimeter defense, as he should represent an upgrade on both ends over the solid but inconsistent Lonnie Walker IV. Hopefully he’ll help turn a starting unit that has been bleeding points into at least one that treads water until the bench checks in. Essentially, White should not disrupt what has been working, but does have the potential to help in the areas that have been problematic.
Internal development, both individual and as a team, should also help the Spurs remain competitive throughout the season. Aldridge should at some point find his comfort zone, at least on offense. Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV have been great but could be even better, considering their potential. Devin Vassell already can be counted on for depth, but has also shown improvement from the start of the season until now and should continue to develop. It’s unlikely that these Spurs find an extra gear that boosts them up the standings, but they do have enough talent and cohesion to remain in the playoff hunt for the rest of the season.
Overall, the Spurs have been a pleasant surprise in the first quarter of the season. The challenge now is to prove that they can maintain this level. Assuming good health and no unpredictable obstacles, there’s no reason to believe they can’t.