Trends have always shaped how every player, team, and era of the NBA is defined by history. Basketball is a sport of streaks, whether it be minute to minute, quarter to quarter, game to game, or season to season. Some moments are short-lived footnotes in the grand scheme of a larger picture, and other extended showings go on to establish new identities or solidly preexisting perceptions that surround an individual or organization.
The San Antonio Spurs are 4-4 one-tenth of the way through a shortened 72-game regular season schedule. And the franchise and those who play for it could be on course to alter how the league views them from here on out. Which statistical anomalies are mere flashes in the pan, and could any of these recent developments potentially be here for the long haul? Let’s explore a few notable numbers from early on this season.
Dejounte and DeMar in the paint
Dejounte Murray and DeMar DeRozan have seemingly swapped abilities to finish around the rim, with the former converting at a mindboggling 72.7% and the latter a frigid 48.6% through eight games this season. What makes DeRozan’s early struggles so surprising is the four-time All-Star finished third (70.1%) among all qualifying guards in that category a year ago. And the sudden elite efficiency from Murray is just as unexpected, especially considering he ended his 2019-2020 campaign as San Antonio’s worst shooter from the restricted area (55.2%). Dejounte has caught fire and knocked down plenty of circus shots near the basket for short stretches in the past, so I have my doubts as to whether he can make this a year-long trend.
Still, the fourth-year point guard is protecting the ball, taking smarter angles, and showing a greater understanding of how to use a change of pace to his advantage. And while we’ve never witnessed Murray maintain this sort of production for eight straight games, the fact that his numbers look this good despite a 1-of-13 dud with Rudy Gobert protecting the paint bodes well for his future performance. And who isn’t intimidated by the prospects of challenging the former back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year at the rim?
As for DeMar, I have complete faith he’ll make a swift return to form as the season wears on. DeRozan hasn’t shot below 60% from the restricted area since his third season in the NBA, and as long as he’s healthy, I don’t anticipate this abnormal drop off to linger much longer.
Rudy’s defensive renaissance
Rudy Gay has always been a strange player from a statistical, analytical, and aesthetic perspective, so it comes as no real shock that the 15-year pro has provided me with an observational twofer to share with you. When you watch the combo forward on tape, you’ll quickly notice how heavy his feet are on the defensive end and how questionable his shot selection is on the other.
All this combined with a hot-and-cold motor might lead you to believe he’s one of the least impactful rotational pieces on the roster, but according to most computations, Gay is among the best players the Spurs have. His shooting percentages and per-game figures are all near career-lows, yet Rudy belongs to all five of San Antonio’s top five-man lineups by net rating. You can try to discredit his early success by pointing out the small sample size or who he’s been playing alongside, but his contributions as a stopper suggest his inclusion in said-lineups is no fluke. So far, Gay has allowed just 77 points when designated as the primary defender and done so while holding his assignments to a team-low 28-of-82 (34.1%) shooting in 198 minutes.
The league doesn’t give out awards 10% of the way through a season. However, if they did, Rudy would likely get an All-Defensive Team nod. Do I buy into this defensive renaissance from the vet? No, opponents shot 45.6% and scored 719 points when guarded by Gay last season. And a condensed schedule with more back-to-backs isn’t a particularly favorable circumstance when you’re on the wrong side of 30 and have a torn Achilles on your injury history. Losing weight this offseason has already helped his cause, and this situation is one worth monitoring as the season unfolds.
The Spurs have outscored opponents by 47 points when Devin Vassell is on the hardwood, and what stands out most to me is the rookie leads San Antonio in that category. Most people know this statistic by the name of plus-minus. And while it can be a somewhat empty measure of a single player’s impact on the game, it can be telling when provided with proper context.
Much like the impressive net ratings of the lineups that include Rudy Gay this season, the spectacular plus-minus associated with Vassell is by no means a coincidence. As I stated in my in-depth scouting report on the former Florida State wing last May, Devin is among the most league-ready prospects from the 2020 Draft Class, and he’s shown that from the minute he set foot in an NBA arena. His elite length, instincts, and IQ have elevated San Antonio’s team defense every time he’s on the floor, and the kid rotates, stunts, digs, recovers, contests, and helps more like a ten-year veteran than a 20-year-old rookie.
On the other side of the ball, the 11th overall pick has carried his knockdown, albeit wonky, shooting stroke to the next level, draining eight threes at a 53.3% clip. That long-range percentage will undoubtedly settle into the low 40s or high 30s, and with as well as he relocates without the ball, I wouldn’t worry about it falling any lower than that. Not many players generate a positive influence during their first go-round, but not many players are this poised and fundamentally sound entering the NBA. Can Vassell hang onto his role once Derrick White makes his return from another unfortunate foot injury? That’s unclear, though stringing together more reliable appearances versus Western Conference contenders could earn him minutes.
The Silver and Black are 4-1 with LaMarcus Aldridge in the lineup and 0-3 when he doesn’t suit up this season. And if we track San Antonio’s record back to the beginning of the Kawhi Leonard saga, the Spurs are a measly 6-15 with the seven-time All-Star on the sidelines. The unforgiving hands of father time and a season-ending shoulder have slowly chipped away at his explosiveness and mobility. Even if it doesn’t always show up in his column on the boxscore, LaMarcus has learned to use his big body more effectively to benefit others. His screens open up more direct routes to the rim, and his boxouts help teammates secure rebounds. San Antonio was out-rebounded by an average of 11 boards in their three games without Aldridge, and that margin closes to 1 when he plays.
On offense, as his vertical pop has waned, his ability to stretch the floor has improved, and though he won’t score 28 points like he did on Thursday night every time out, he improves San Antonio’s spacing with his outside presence alone. I’m not saying this trend will necessarily continue for the rest of the season. After all, LaMarcus shares the same aging vets faced with overcoming a compressed schedule designation I gave Rudy Gay earlier. Regardless, it’ll be interesting to observe how any future absences from LaMarcus affect the team.
Elite from inside the arc
Here’s a stat that probably won’t astonish many fans, the Spurs rank first in the NBA in two-point field goal attempts this season. And should they continue relying on a heavily inside the arc approach, which isn’t tough to imagine, this would be the second year in a row they lead this category. Now I wouldn’t share such trivial information if not for the unusual fact San Antonio also happens to hold the worst field goal percentage from two-point territory in the entire league. So why would the Silver and Black put up more two-pointers than anyone else if they’re the worst shooters from that range?
Well, I don’t legitimately believe Gregg Popovich would center a game plan around one of his squad’s weaknesses, and for that reason, I’ll go out on a limb and say the Spurs won’t finish the season in last place or even bottom five in two-point percentage. San Antonio struggled to create good looks around the rim without a shooting big to draw out the defense while LaMarcus nursed a knee injury. And as I mentioned earlier,DeRozan is off to an uncharacteristically cold start from that range. A lack of improvement could be a significant cause for concern, but let’s give it some time before hitting the panic button.
Are there any important trends I missed in Noah’s Notables? Let me know down in the comments so I can include them next time!