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The trends that are shaping the Spurs’ identity

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What numbers have defined San Antonio so far?

Boston Celtics v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

San Antonio has climbed back into the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture at 10-8 with a quarter of the regular-season schedule under their belt. And while that sample size is still relatively small, the Spurs are gradually creating an identity on both sides of the ball.

We explored a handful of intriguing topics in Noah’s Notables a few weeks ago, so let’s see which trends are starting to stick for the Silver and Black, which streaks were merely pretenders, and if any fascinating new statistical developments have surfaced over the last ten-game stretch.

Dejounte and DeMar at the Rim

Dejounte Murray and DeMar DeRozan have continued to swap skills at the rim, with the latter finishing at an uncharacteristically ineffective 54.7% in the restricted area through 18 games. Although that number would be a career-low for the four-time All-Star, there’s no reason to believe his numbers from that range will hold for the remainder of the season, and fans should take solace in this 6.1% improvement from the last time we gathered all this information.

As for Dejounte, the fourth-year guard has mostly maintained his impressive percentage at the rim. Despite seeing a 7% decrease in success from that zone, the lanky floor general is converting at an impressive 65.7%. For reference, that’s good for ninth in the league among guards who have taken at least 50 restricted area attempts. And this may come as a surprise, but that’s better than elite finishers like Luka Doncic, Ben Simmons, James Harden, and Jayson Tatum.

Do I expect this reversal to become the new norm for San Antonio’s leading scorers? Not really, though I have faith in Dejounte to hover around 62-65% this year after making noticeable strides in this area of his game. He’s shielding the ball, utilizing his length, and changing gears better than ever before.

DeMar is steadily inching towards a return to form. And I hate to blame the officials because they rarely decide the outcomes of any event, but if the refs showed him more respect, he might not be struggling so much. A lot of contact has gone unwhistled, and DeRozan has earned a few technical fouls for showing his frustration.

Rudy’s Defensive Renaissance

Rudy Gay has proceeded to defy conventional logic with his play thus far, maintaining his newfound status as an analytics darling while putting forth some of the best defense of his career. His numbers on the other end are near career lows across the board, yet the 15-year advanced statistics insist he is one of the most impactful pieces of San Antonio’s hodgepodge roster.

The veteran combo forward belongs to all four of San Antonio’s positive net rating lineups, leads the Spurs in Box Plus-Minus (+101), and owns the third-best primary defender field goal percentage on the team (41.9%). It can be painful to watch a sputtering offense resort to a Rudy isolation in search of points, but there’s no use denying his effectiveness within a second unit that has posted the second-best point differential in the NBA (+177).

Proper context is crucial when digesting any stats, and Gay undoubtedly benefits from his role and the teammates that surround him off the bench. Keeping that in mind, you can’t discredit Rudy for making the most of a favorable situation. I’ve expressed my doubts whether he can keep this act up, and he’s already regressed a bit in a few categories, so keep an eye out for any momentum in either direction.

Vassell’s Defensive Impact

San Antonio has outscored opponents by 57 points when Devin Vassell is on the floor, and while the rookie swingman no longer leads the Spurs in that category, that’s still good for fourth on the team. We discussed how important it is to contextualize plus-minus numbers last time we spoke, but seeing as the situation surrounding the 11th overall pick hasn’t changed, there’s no need to rehash monotonous details.

As we touched on earlier in the article, San Antonio’s second unit is among the best in the league, and Vassell is one of the key cogs that make it run so smoothly. His discipline and preternatural feel for the game on this end of the court has allowed him to rack up more steals than fouls and more blocks than turnovers, and he ranks third in Defensive Rating (97.9) out of the 471 players to suit up in the NBA this season.

While Devin hasn’t been as impressive as we shift gears for a look at his offensive contributions, his long-range shooting, unselfish passing, and aversion to coughing up the orange has kept him on the hardwood. The 20-year-old has seen his three-point percentage dip from 53.3% to 40% over the last ten games, which sort of confirms my theory that it would settle in around the low 40s of upper 30s.

According to NBA Math’s Total Points Added model, no rookie has been more impactful as a defender than Devin Vassell, and only four first-year players have contributed more to their team’s success. That leads me to believe the Florida State product should retain his role even once Derrick White makes a return this Saturday, and if that means siphoning and reallocating minutes from Rudy Gay or Patty Mills, then so be it.

Struggling Inside the Arc

Surprise surprise, the Silver and Black still rank first in the NBA in two-point attempts per game (62.8 2PA) this season. Barring any considerable change in philosophy, head coach Gregg Popovich and crew should retain the crown in this very Spursy statistic for the second year in a row. And though the good guys were the least-efficient franchise from inside the arc last time out, they have raised their field goal percentage to 49.7% (25th in the NBA) with some much-improved finishing at the rim.

Gregg Popovich may not be perfect, but neither is San Antonio’s roster. I’m not suggesting he serves a pass for any poor strategic or personnel decisions, and up until the bubble, last season was arguably his worst showing as a lead play-caller. However, I never bought into the notion basketball had left the three-time NBA Coach of the Year behind. Could stubbornness be the culprit behind his insistence the Spurs stay devoted to a limited outside attack? Sure, though, with only three players shooting above 38% from three, it doesn’t make much sense for them to fire away from long-range.

Keeping Opponents Off the Glass

The Spurs are losing the rebounding battle (-2.5) in most of their matchups this season, and it’s something that’s caught my eye on several occasions. It doesn’t seem to be the deciding factor in determining the outcome of every game. Still, San Antonio is 5-1 when beating their opponents on the boards and just 5-7 when they don’t, and considering grabbing a rebound is the easiest way to win back possession of the ball, it would make sense to hone in on cleaning the glass.

For owning one of the smaller everyday rotations in the NBA, the good guys are surprisingly skilled at reeling in the rock after a missed shot, ranking eighth in total rebounding (46.1 RPG). However, their perpetual height disparity leaves them liable to giving up an excess of offensive rebounds, points in the paint, and second-chance opportunities. The Silver and Black ranking ninth in offensive boards allowed (9.7 OORPG) is a bit of a shock, though their 25th (OPITP) and 26th (OSCPPG) ranking in the latter categories falls in line with what you might expect.

Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson pacing San Antonio in rebounds only highlights their all-hands-on-deck approach to repossessing the ball. But it probably also explains why teams like the Jazz, Lakers, and Pelicans, who lay claim to world-class glass cleaners like Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, and Steven Adams, have dominated the Spurs in that area of the proceedings. I would need to go back and watch the film to see how true that is, but Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets should be a valid litmus test for my unproven hypothesis.

Topics on the Back Burner

  • LaMarcus Aldridge’s Influence on Winning
  • San Antonio’s Poor Transition Defense
  • Jakob Poeltl’s Early-Season Struggles
  • Playing Down to Lesser Competition
  • The Spurs Spreading the Wealth (Shoutout to StoneHammeringCowBoy)

Are there any important trends I missed in Noah’s Notables? Let me know down in the comments so I can make sure to include them next time!