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The Spurs might be better than their record suggests

The Spurs have the record of a bottom-dweller but the point differential of a decent team. Which number should fans trust?

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Orlando Magic Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

After 10 games, the Spurs have the 26th best win percentage in the league, but the 15th best net rating. Which mark is more indicative of the team’s quality?

Marilyn Dubinski: On one hand, for 40 out of 48 minutes per game they look much more like the decent, middle-of-the-league team the advanced stats say they are. They have a good enough defense to back up their passable offense and keep them either in games against superior opponents or out ahead of inferior ones. But on the other, those key minutes when they look more like the 26th best team in the league is when it matters the most: the fourth quarter and crunch time. If they can’t figure out how to close games as a team (since they don’t have a true closer), the standings won’t catch up to the ratings.

Mark Barrington: This is kind of a cop out, but I think they’re somewhere in the middle of those two measures. Their net rating is skewed by a few blowouts which makes them look better than they are, but they’ve also had some bad variance on close games, and they should end up winning close to half of them instead of always coming up short as they have been lately.

Bruno Passos: They’re much closer to their record than a .500 team right now. When things are clicking, their defense stifles and they play like something greater than the sum of their parts on offense, but those struggles at the end of games are legitimate, and it feels like playing in the half court sort of reveals their true colors. It’s of course early and young guys are meant to get better, but for now they look like a scrappy but flawed lottery team.

Jesus Gomez: Right now, their record. If you take away the blowout against the Magic in their season debut, they fall to 20th in net rating. They’ve played opponents close, but most of them had been missing key players, including multiple starters in some cases. Now, the Spurs have been dealing with injuries of their own and if we are taking away outlier games, we should probably discard the loss to the Pacers, but that one had fewer absences than the one against Orlando. I feel like the Spurs could be 4-6 instead of 3-7 with a lucky break, but I’m not sure they look like a team with a winning record, which is what it would take to be 15th in the standings.

What will be the biggest factor in the team’s future success this season: health, clutch play or three-point shooting? (you can also go with “other” here if you want)

Dubinski: Right now the clutch play is the difference. Ten games in, they’ve had seven games come down to the clutch (defined as whenever the game is within five points in the final five minutes) and have only gone 1-6 in those games. Win half of those, and it’s an entirely different narrative. Better three-point shooting would definitely help, and Jakob Poeltl’s absence has been huge (especially on the boards), but at least with the evidence we have so far, learning to close games in the clutch is the biggest factor in their wins vs. losses.

Barrington: I think it’s going to be players gaining confidence as they grow more comfortable with the bigger roles this year. Dejounte Murray is unafraid to take the last shot, and I think that’s going to be a contagious attitude as the players become more experienced.

Passos: I change my mind pretty often but in this case my answer remains the same as what I wrote here.

Gomez: I think health is massively important, but three-point shooting might be the biggest factor going forward. The Spurs are terrible at getting to the line, so they have to actually play possessions out and take shots to get points. Any time opponents manage to limit them even slightly in terms of points in the paint, they end up taking a lot of mid-range jumpers. Even if they make them, they sometimes end up trading twos against threes, which limits their margin of error tremendously. If they could generate and hit just a few more threes per game, the half court offense would be a lot more dangerous. How to actually do that is hard to determine, of course, but that’s why Pop gets the big bucks.

If you could suggest any tweaks to the rotation going forward, what would it be?

Dubinski: I’ve already seen some changes that I would have suggested made in the last few games, such as Tre Jones has been coming off the bench ahead of Bryn Forbes, who Pop appears to be only inserting when an infusion of shooting is needed, and he seems to be making a concerted effort to always have either Murray or White on the floor. Beyond that, I think Pop shouldn’t be afraid to shake up the backup center positions (once Poeltl is back), depending on matchups. For example, against the Mavericks, Drew Eubanks and Thaddeus Young stood no chance against Boban Marjanovic and his size, so why not give the larger Jock Landale a try in such a situation? These are all fringe changes but still could be useful.

Barrington: Drew Eubanks has been starting while Jakob Poeltl has been out, and he’s going back to the bench when the big Austrian comes back, but I don’t think that he should be the backup. Thad Young has proven that he’s the second best big on the team, and he should be the first center off the bench. He makes the team’s offense better with his passing and movement, and he’s a good defender. I really appreciate the hard work Drew has done to make it to the league, but he really should be the third center. I’d also like to see more Jock Landale, but it’s hard to evaluate how good he is when he’s only played 5 minutes all season.

Passos: Devin Vassell’s already getting more minutes than I thought he might (25.9, 5th on the team, despite coming off the bench) and yet I want to see more. I don’t mind how that happens but it’s starting to become clear that he’s among their better players on both sides of the floor, with the unique selling point of potentially raising their low ceiling on offense. Get those minutes up to around 30, run some sets for him (heck, maybe even in end-game situations), and make a move that could improve things in the short term while fostering development of one of your best young pieces, if not the best.

Gomez: I think at some point in the future it might be interesting to discuss if Devin Vassell should start, but we are not there yet. Other than that, the obvious tweak would be to give Thaddeus Young most of the backup center minutes, unless the opponent has someone who can fully overpower him physically. Other tweaks are harder to suggest, because the Spurs have a lot of specialists and fringe guys. Playing Keita Bates-Diop more should help with defense, but at the expense of offense. The opposite would be true with Bryn Forbes. Either move is justifiable depending on matchups, but not permanently. Maybe eventually Tre Jones breaks through and becomes their ninth guy, but for now I’m fine with the top eight being the starters, Vassell, Lonnie Walker IV and Young, with everyone else getting minutes if the matchup calls for it.