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The good and the bad of the Spurs’ offense so far

After an explosive opening night, the Spurs’ offense has displayed the strengths and weaknesses everyone expected it to have. Can the they make tweaks to improve in key areas?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

After three games, the Spurs are in the bottom five in the league in three-point attempts and three-point percentage. Do you expect significant improvement in either category going forward?

Marilyn Dubinski: I don’t expect them to rise too much in three-point attempts, especially if the goal is to keep pushing in transition for layups, but they can definitely do better than shooting them at just a .312 rate. The only ones sitting about where they are to be expected are Derrick White (.375) and Devin Vassell (.364). Lonnie Walker (.263), Bryn Forbes (.111), Dejounte Murray (.100), and Keldon Johnson (.000) should all average back up to their respective means at worse (which would be above .300 for Murray and Johnson, above .350 for Walker, and .400 for Forbes), which would offset any loss from Doug McDermott (.556) coming back down to earth a bit. Bottom line: it’s too small of a sample size to take much away from, but they should at least be closer to 20th in the league in percentage when all is said and done.

Mark Barrington: I hope so? I think putting bit players in the spotlight as primary creators is exposing the weakness of this team, but it is my hope that guys like Devin Vassell and Lonnie Walker will rise to the occasion once they get comfortable. It looks like after a few shaky games, Doug McDermott definitely found his shot in the game against Milwaukee, and those other guys are up next. Of course, I wish Pop would give Primo a little more run, because as we’ve seen in his limited time on the court, that kid has no fear and no conscience, and will shoot without hesitation and regret.

Bruno Passos: It was an area of concern I laid out here, so I’m not really surprised this is how they’re looking in the early going. Dejounte Murray’s struggled tremendously, and Keldon’s not found his stroke yet either as he expands his game inside the arc. I don’t expect the volume to jump up too much but they certainly can’t shoot much worse percentage-wise, so I imagine we’ll see players not named Doug regress to the mean in a good way and lift up the collective accuracy a few points.

Jesus Gomez: The attempts will likely remain low all season, because the Spurs simply don’t put an emphasis on taking threes the way other teams do. The percentage is concerning, because it seems like Murray and Johnson haven’t made much improvement in that area yet, and they will likely get the most minutes out of everyone. Maybe it’s just early and they’ll show more consistency later on, but the two of them missing puts more pressure on White to take and make more, which could be scary, since he’s mostly been a league average marksman so far in his career. McDermott aggressively looking for his shot on hand-offs and the bench guys letting it fly should help the Spurs have adequate spacing in a lot of units, but if they hover around the bottom third of the league in three-point percentage, it could be hard to keep up with more explosive offenses.

J.R. Wilco: I wouldn’t say I expect significant improvement. I hope for it, but I expect some improvement. Perhaps modest improvement? The kind of long range shooting an entire team is capable of sustaining is not an easy thing to move the needle on. While it’s true that three games aren’t a large enough sample size to know what this season’s squad is capable of, there are a lot of players from last year‘s team still getting big minutes. And anyone who spent much time with them is painfully aware of the downtown struggles of ‘20-21 squad.

The Spurs are in the bottom five in the league in free throw attempts. Do you expect significant improvement in that category? Who has to lead the charge?

Dubinski: This one is harder to answer. The Spurs struggled to get free throws even when they had players who were decent at drawing them in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, and fairly or not a big part of getting free throws is having the “star power” to persuade the refs. They currently have none of that, but hopefully they will start getting more calls considering the amount of driving to the rim they’re doing. Still, I wouldn’t expect them tor rise much in that category.

Barrington: I don’t know, since Keldon has been taking a bunch of punishment in the paint and hardly ever seems to get any trips to the line. Is it because he doesn’t have the respect of the officials yet, or is it something mechanical in his game which makes it less likely for them to see and call the fouls? Overall, the team has to stay aggressive and not try to play finesse ball, because they can’t win at that game. I think that over time, it will even out, but I’m basing that on nothing but the idea that the law of averages eventually will have to take over.

Passos: The last year of the DeRozan Spurs they were 9th in % of points that came from the line and 11th in free throw attempts, but the DeRozan qualifier is important. The logical person to lead the charge is Keldon Johnson, who’s 4th in the whole league right now in FGAs off drives and relishes contact around the basket. 4.3 attempts per game isn’t bad for most players but feels on the low side for him, and maybe it’s about working some craft into his angles/lunges to better draw those whistles from refs. It’s also wild that Jakob Poeltl has only attempted 2 total free throws over 3 games given his work on the glass and role as a rim runner, although he does so much else for them right now it’s hard to pick nits. Overall the Spurs are going to need to find a path to more easy points — otherwise they’re in for a long year.

Gomez: Not really. The Spurs simply don’t have a lot of crafty players who can get opponents off balance with good ball handling and creative finishes or athletic freaks who just explode to the rim. Johnson is a bulldozer but he’s also predictable because he drives in straight lines, and even when he draws contact he doesn’t get star whistles because, well, he’s not a star yet. Murray and White play mostly below the rim. Poeltl sometimes avoids contact because of his free throw shooting woes. Vassell doesn’t have the handles to get to the rim consistently. Walker could be the one guy who gets to the line often, because when he drives, he’s unpredictable, so if he can be more in control, opponents might have to foul him. But in general, I don’t expect the Spurs to get a lot of free throws, especially in the half court.

Wilco: I’m too relieved that they’re able to score points well enough to stay in the game against the league’s best to get picky about how they’re scoring. That said, I don’t expect them to suddenly start making refs’ whistles purr as they shoot. (Are any of these questions going to be about something I can be positive on?)

The Spurs are among the best teams in the league at creating turnovers and scoring off them. Can they keep it up going forward?

Dubinski: This is the entire MO that the Spurs are basing their style of play around, so I expect them to keep it up. They have put so much emphasis on drafting players with sneaky good defensive instincts and long wingspans over the last several years, and the results are starting to show. It also doesn’t hurt than some teams may not expect it considering in the past, Gregg Popovich has been known to prefer organized defense and minimal gambling on steal attempts. Such actions used to result in getting benched, but he seems to be just letting them play for the time being.

Barrington: They’re going to be an above average defensive team, but the pace of the first couple of games probably isn’t sustainable. Offensive execution and passing in the league is still not quite there for anyone this early in the season, and most teams will get better at taking care of the ball as the season progresses, which reduces the opportunities for steals and breakaways. The Spurs will also need to improve their offensive execution, which will be a huge challenge for Pop and the coaching staff with all of the young players on the roster. They’re going to stay in games with their defense, but until the offense starts to gel, they will have trouble winning against good teams.

Passos: I don’t see why not. It’s easier to project sound defense and rotations rather than actual steals and blocks generated, but this is a roster built to make plays on the perimeter, anchored by a reliable presence down low. That should make for a strong formula for deflections and steals on a nightly basis.

Gomez: I think they should be among the best in the league at it, for sure. They have a lot of disruptive defenders and they seem to have made it a priority to pounce on live ball turnover situations. Their pace is not high and their points in transition are not great at this point, but when they get a steal, they try to got for it on the break, which is exactly what they need to do to make up for the easy points they can’t get from the line.

Wilco: (Aha! Finally a question I can be optimistic about.) Yes, this is a good defensive team. They’ll keep picking pockets and turning unsuspecting offenses into poster boys as they swoop and score. That’s not questionable in my mind. What I’m wondering is whether they’ll be good enough in their own end to offset the struggles we outlined in the first two questions.