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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Mavericks

The Spurs don’t yet know how to win.

San Antonio Spurs v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

I haven’t been this happy with a losing record in 25 years. Granted, that’s a bit rich coming from a Spurs fan. After all, what does a Spurs fan know about losing records? There was the one in the 1996-97 season. It turned out to be the losing record to end all losing records for the next 22 years. And if it wasn’t for the most recent two seasons, the concept of a losing record would be nothing more than a very distant childhood memory for me. Some franchises peak lower than the Spurs have sunk since the Uncle Dennis incident, some franchises even sell tickets to people for games they don’t even try to win. No such travesty in San Antonio. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t disappointed with how the last two seasons turned out.

In terms of expectation, it’s a bit different this season. I fully expect a losing season, and the instant the schedule was released, a losing record by the end of October was practically guaranteed. When you play against the reigning champions, or other legitimate contenders, or a team that has Luka Doncic, then you’re very likely to lose. On top of that, when your core of the roster is a seven-man rotation of which six players have no prior experience in winning basketball games without veterans, then you’re also likely to not win. No more veteran scoring punch from the bench to murder opposing second units, no more crunch time go-to-guy to kill off games — the young Spurs must learn how to do that themselves.

It’s therefore no surprise the Spurs have a losing record five games into the season. What is surprising, however, is how these losses came about. Not one blowout so far. The Spurs competed until the end in each of the (scheduled) losses. They did so with three players on rookie contracts (all of them picked by the Spurs), another three on rookie extensions, (two of them picked by the Spurs), another at least partially developed by the Spurs, two undrafted players brought into the league and developed by the Spurs, plus a free agent signing from the 2021 off-season.

Due to the small sample size of only five games, this is a premature statement, but I’m making it nonetheless: there isn’t much wrong with these Spurs. They are closer — much closer — to winning than I thought. I guess some analysts would agree, though the consensus opinion in their season outlooks was this: You need a star to win, and the Spurs don’t have one. But what I’m trying to learn from the loss against the Mavericks, and the three losses before that, is this: Could this already be a winning team if it had a go-to-guy that worked as such?

Takeaways

  • Going into the season, most Spurs fans and NBA analysts expected Dejounte Murray to be the Silver & Black’s new go-to guy. I also heard the name Derrick White mentioned, but except for an inevitable spike in assists per game due increased ball-handling duties (through DeMar DeRozan’s departure), Murray and White’s numbers look similar to the ones they put up last season. They more or less score in the mid-teens. I expected more from both. They took over DeRozan’s playmaking, but they haven’t taken over his scoring. Much as I hoped he would be the next go-to guy, I’ll have to eliminate White from consideration. Passing up open shots at age 27 disqualifies him for that role. Murray is much more willing to score, but does he do it efficiently enough? Among the eight players that make up the core rotation, he is worst in terms of True Shooting (.451) and Effective Field Goal Percentage at (.444). Against the Mavs, he shot better than before, and there was a stretch in which he appeared to take over — but then he disappeared before resurfacing in crunch time. In short, he might be miscast as the go-to guy. Both he and White will probably more or less stay who they are at this stage. Neither of them are young anymore, and both have skillsets that won’t age very well. I guess they’ll have to look somewhere else for the future face of the franchise.
  • Surprisingly, Jakob Poeltl has taken a major leap in terms of offensive production from last season to this one. And it’s also he who most consistently performs on the offensive end. He hasn’t had an off game so far, and he’s scoring 15.6 points at a 67.9 percent clip. Watching the Mavs game this morning (after having failed to set the alarm so I could watch it live in the middle of the night), I found myself wishing the offense could run through him even more. Still, as much as I enjoy watching him score, he’s an excellent rim protector who recently found ways to contribute on the offensive end. Let’s just be happy about that.
  • There’s also plenty of reason to be happy with the players still-on-rookie-contracts: Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, and Lonnie Walker. Vassell is only in his second season, which pretty much guarantees a larger role and more production. He’s up and down so far, with last night’s game being a down one, but he looks terrific when he’s on. He’s the sixth or seventh player in the rotation, I guess you could call him Rudy Gay’s successor. Gay’s role was to provide scoring off the bench. Vassell succeeded in that role twice this season already. And he routinely provides what Gay rarely did: defense. I can’t wait to find out how he will look in his fourth or fifth year.
  • As for Johnson, the picture becomes clearer. Matchups always play a role in individual performances, but it looks like his output depends on matchups even more. He’s capable of 20-20 games, but you won’t see him do that against players who may not necessarily be stronger but are definitely longer than him. Last night was a good case in point. With Doug McDermott out, Johnson had to play power forward, and he wasn’t successful against hard-nosed, longer defenders like Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith. I guess Johnson could develop into a Shawn-Marion-type workhorse, or work-Mustang, in his case. A potential go-to-guy I no longer see.
  • That leaves Walker. Anything I heard or read about him with regards to the rookie extension that wasn’t to be featured something like this: None of the young Spurs has a higher ceiling than him, but none a lower floor — it’s make or break for him. This season, his minutes per game have pretty much stayed the same, but his points per game are up significantly, and so is his overall shooting. The bench role he’s in right now seems perfect for him. He often looked shy, guilty even, in his first three seasons. Now he looks sharp and determined. And when you look at his shooting or driving motions, disregarding the outcome, he has always looked more promising than both Murray and White. In short, if the future face of the franchise is already on the roster, it’s most likely going to be Walker. At 23, there is still enough for time him to become the go-to-guy.
  • As for how of last night’s game went, it’s frustrating, but it’s not worrying. Up by double digits in the first quarter, this could have been a start-to-finish victory. And if the most seasoned veterans weren’t three guys on rookie extensions, maybe it would have been. This is a very young roster with no one to turn to when things are not going well. But someone will turn up. We won’t be losing long.