Derrick White is out indefinitely after suffering a broken toe. It’s a big blow to the Spurs’ chances of being competitive nightly this new season, as they have now lost arguably their best defender and second best perimeter creator for what will likely be a while.
The fact that White only got to suit up once before re-injuring the same toe is incredibly unfortunate and puts the Spurs in a tough position. The sizable extension to which they signed White suggest they view him as a major piece going forward, and now he’ll be gone at a time in which the team is trying to find its identity.
We are only starting to see how San Antonio responds to White’s absence and what it really means for the season. There will be adjustments to be made and trends to follow until White is back, but two factors appear to be clear even now.
As tempting as it might be, the Spurs shouldn’t roll back their offense in White’s absence
One of the points of emphasis for the Spurs this season has been pace. They are running more in hopes of empowering their young players instead of catering to the preferences of the older stars. It’s been a good decision for the long term health of the franchise, even if the short term results haven’t been great.
So far, the Spurs have a mediocre offense, for various reasons. Chief among them is that they don’t have a lot of natural initiators to lead the way, which combined with the fast pace, has resulted in a negative effect on floor balance after live-ball turnovers or even after made shots. White was supposed to help fix that issue by becoming a more reliable creator both on the break and especially in the half court, allowing San Antonio to have a more traditional pecking order when it comes to ball handling. With him out for a while, and unless Dejounte Murray makes a huge, unexpected leap, a middling attack plagued by empty possessions could be on the horizon if the Spurs keep playing fast.
Under those circumstances, and with LaMarcus Aldridge now back, it could be tempting for the Spurs to revert back to playing slower. Since White is not going to be around to help stabilize the half court offense, Gregg Popovich could decide to get Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan more touches in the spots they prefer, essentially leaning back into the attack the team has used in past years. After all, that offense performed well and reinstalling it would allow Aldridge to avoid having to adjust to a more perimeter-oriented style of play. We saw how that would look in the win against the Clippers, when in the first and third quarters (when the starters played the most), the pace was glacial. Yet despite Tuesday’s game being the slowest of the season for the Spurs, it was also their second best offensive outing. There could be short-term benefits to playing like that.
However, this season is not about short term benefits. It took the Spurs two years to embrace a more guard-oriented, fast pace style that utilizes the athleticism of the young players, and shelving it just because White is out would be a mistake. The growth of players like Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson is more important than moving up a few spots in offensive efficiency, and the empty possessions, as painful as they might be at times, are a small price to pay for their development. Staying the course would even help the currently struggling Aldridge, as adjusting to a new role that could allow him to remain relevant late in his career would be preferable than getting better numbers as a featured option.
If the Spurs lose a few games in a row — a clear possibility considering their January schedule that includes a long road trip — it could be appealing to revert back to what worked on offense in the past. They should resist that temptation and suffer through the growing pains that White was supposed to alleviate and hope that the payoff will be worth it.
Devin Vassell should be the Spurs rookie with most minutes played since Kawhi Leonard
Offensive order might have to be somewhat sacrificed to keep the young players as involved as possible, but that doesn’t mean the defense should follow along. So far the Spurs have showed very little improvement over last season in that area, especially in terms of communication and transition defense. White was supposed to help there, too, but with him out the Spurs will need to lean on a player who can at least mask his absence a little: rookie Devin Vassell.
Vassell, despite his enormous potential as a defender, has his ups and downs, like all rookies. Yet despite those momentary lapses, he has a skill set that no one else on the Spurs has and one that could help immediately. Part of it has to do with size. Vassell is a little bigger and longer than Lonnie Walker IV, and he already has showed that he can use that length. His steals and blocks per minute make him by far the most disruptive of San Antonio’s defenders, and he’s managed to accrue them without fouling much. He’s similar to White in that regard, and while he won’t immediately represent an upgrade over him, he’s certainly more likely to help on defense than others who might be getting too many minutes in White’s absence, like Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and even the erratic Walker.
Weirdly enough, even Vassell’s offensive skill set and preferences could indirectly make him a good addition to the rotation if the hope is to shore up the defense. The Spurs rank second in the league in drives so far, which is not surprising considering how many slashers they have. All that driving, however, has a negative side effect, as it often destroys the floor balance of the team when a player or two inevitably end under the rim, leading to fastbreak buckets for the opponent when San Antonio doesn’t display the necessary urgency running back.
Vassell is more of a shooter than a driver at this point, so his presence alone could help out with that, and he always plays with urgency on defense, which is not something all the Spurs wings do. He was also extremely turnover averse in college, which should translate as he gets acclimated to the speed of the NBA,
Vassell should be able to help stop the bleeding in transition defense somewhat while also providing a more disruptive presence in the perimeter. White would have surely done a better job of it, but with him out indefinitely, the Spurs will need someone else to fill that void. If Vassell proves to be that player, something good will come out of this predicament.